The word lectionary comes from a Latin word “lectio” meaning a reading or lesson. It is nothing more than a systematized arrangement of the Old and New Testament scriptures into related lessons that are centered on a reading from the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark or Luke), draw in related Old Testament and New Testament passages, and are keyed to the major works of God celebrated in the Church’s liturgical year. It is not so much a preaching style as it is a method for choosing the lesson to be expounded or proclaimed. So where did it come from?
Briefly, we can point to these key milestones in its development:
- The Jewish synagogues used a multi-year series of readings to allow the Torah and selections from the prophets to be worked through in the first or second century before Jesus. It is likely these practices moved from the synagogues into the first home churches.
- There is a writing called Comes Hieronymi, attributed to St. Jerome (4th century A.D.) in which Jerome is reported to have prepared, at the request of the Roman bishop, guidance for the public reading of the scripture. This document appears to have been the precursor of our modern lectionary.
- An ordered, cyclical list for the reading of scriptures (only a gospel and epistle reading) during public worship was formalized by Pope Pius V in 1570 after the Council of Trent. During the Reformation the legitimacy or structure of the lectionary was never disputed; the only question was how to use it in the reformed congregations.
- This lectionary was expanded to include selections from the Old Testament and Psalms by the Vatican II Council, and was published for use in 1969.
- Finally, a Revised Common Lectionary was compiled by 20 denominational affiliations (including Roman Catholic and Protestant) and published in 1992 for use by the Church at large.
So much for history. The real question is not what the lectionary is, or where it came from, but what use does it have in the Church? To answer that let me give you just a few of many reasons why I have always been a lectionary preacher.
- Having a common set of readings used for public worship adds a very practical and visible aspect to the unity of the Church in the world. Knowing that throughout the world other brothers and sisters are hearing the same words proclaimed can make us aware that we are part of something bigger than our small congregation.
- The lectionary is keyed to the work of salvation that God has done for us and that we celebrate throughout the year (from Christmas to Resurrection, through the Ascension and Pentecost, and on to Thanksgiving). This is the “old, old story of Jesus and His love”, and we need to hear it repeated often, completely, and with passion.
- The lectionary forces a minister to focus on preaching the word, not teaching the word. To do this he must first make the word his in a very real way, not just seek to understand its meaning or context. The best definition of the difference between the two that I have come across goes like this “Preaching is trying to affect a person’s thinking by appealing to a person’s heart; teaching is trying to affect a person’s heart by appealing to their thinking.” Although both can be done on any Sunday, it is preaching that is most effective for a general mixed congregation in need of hearing the “good news”.
- Related to this, the use of a standard lectionary lets the whole church from the music ministry to the prayer leader to the children’s church helper know what the theme for Sunday will be. This unifies the entire Sunday experience of the congregation. As one commentator puts it, in this way the scriptures belong to the church, not the preacher alone. The lectionary strengthens the coming together of the church in one common vision and direction.
- But most importantly, the lectionary revolves around Jesus; as Luke said it, it contains “All that Jesus began to do and teach…” (Acts 1:1). It is ultimately coming to know the Son of God and receiving that which He has done on our behalf that saves us, not having a full and accurate understanding of the ins and outs of a scriptural passage.
In closing, one of the best examples of lectionary preaching is found in Luke 4:16-21, when Jesus stood up in the synagogue of Nazareth, was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, read the passage and then simply expounded it in a clear and contemporary manner. The words on the scroll were made relevant, pertinent, and timely in the hearing of the congregation.