The Lectionary Why Not the Bible?

Why the Lectionary in the Pulpit Instead of the Bible?

On Sunday mornings while channel jumping on TV, is not hard to find a televangelist with Bible in hand proclaiming his version of the pathway to heaven. He usually has the supporting cast of a magnificent talented choir who, when performing, will have the camera zeroing in periodically on the most photogenic members. While he is preaching the camera will occasionally stray from his impressive presence to someone in the pews who obviously in rapt attention, frequently with a Bible in hand.

In presenting his message he will jump from passage to passage at different places in the Bible, regardless of context, violating every rule of exegesis. He will subtly bend the meaning of these verses to make his point with total disregard to the circumstances under which the author wrote. The average listener, dazzled by the speaker’s oratorical abilities and apparent knowledge, concludes it must be true because it came from the Bible! This method of using the Scripture is completely contrary to Judaic and Christian traditions.

Jewish Use of the Scripture

The Scripture has always been part of worship dating back to the ancient Jewish temple where they read from the law, the Psalms, the prophets and offered up sacrifice. The Jews of the diaspora away from Palestine centered their worship entirely around prayer and reading the Scripture.

In the sixth century AD the highlight of their service was their reading from the Torah (Pentateuch). In the Palestinian tradition they read from the Torah in 154 segments over three years of Sabbaths. The Babylonian tradition which prevailed and is used in the synagogues today was divided into 54 sequential Sabbaths.

Each Sabbath service also included a second reading from the prophets. When the feasts of the liturgical calendar occurred (Passover, Pentecost, Tabernacles) even if they fell on a weekday, the regular readings were interrupted and the feast day celebration prevailed.

Bible in the Early Church

When the first Christians met to break bread, they too, remembered how Jesus “broke open the word” in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 04:16-30) and how on the road to Emmaus “he opened their minds to an understanding of the Scripture” (Luke 24:45). We must never forget that the Scripture of the emerging Church was the Old Testament where they used especially the Psalms (Ephesians 05:18-20; Colossians 03:16; cf. Why Are the Catholic Bibles Different?). In the pastoral letters there is a special emphasis on the value of the Scripture for instruction and guidance (1 Timothy 04:13; 2 Timothy 03:16-17). Before the Gospels were written, at the request of Paul they shared in their worship his letters written to them (Colossians 04:16; 1 Thessalonians 05:27; 2 Peter 03:15-16).

The New Testament Formation

Paul’s letters were in one collection by the first quarter of the second century and were being read in many churches. The synoptic Gospels were accepted and referred to by the end of the second century. John’s Gospel came from a schismatic community and experienced some delay in acceptance. In 220 AD Hypolytus and Gaius of Rome were arguing whether John’s Gospel should be accepted in the canon.

Eusebius (325 AD) writes that the disputed books were James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 John and 3 John, and Revelation. When Athanasius published his famous Easter letter (367 AD) listing the 27 books of the New Testament, he added the Didache and Shepherd of Hermas for instructing catechumens. There continued to be discussions on the composition of the canon well on into the sixth century (cf. What Are the Gospels?).

The Early Lectionaries

The earliest arrangements of the liturgical readings date back to the sixth century. In the early middle ages the prayers of the priest were in one book and the Scripture readings were in another book. The Council of Trent produced a missal with a one year cycle of readings. Each Sunday and feast days had two readings, the epistle and the Gospel.

The Vatican II Reform

Paul VI in 1971 introduced the new lectionary as per the directives of the Vatican II Council to be based on a three year cycle. The purpose was to give the faithful a broader exposure to the Scripture. Year A proclaims the Gospel of Matthew.  Year B proclaims the Gospel of Mark. Year C proclaims the Gospel of Luke. Since the Gospel of John focuses on the risen life of Christ, it is read each year during the Lent/Easter season and secondary during the Advent/Christmas season.

On weekdays every mass has two readings. The first is from the Old Testament.  During the Easter season the reading is from the Book of Acts or Revelation. This has a two year cycle based on year one to be read on odd years and year two to be read on even years. The second is the Gospel to be read on a one year cycle.

The Council directed that at the mass “the treasures of the Bible should be opened up more lavishly so that richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God’s word. In this way a more representative portion of sacred scripture will be read to the people.”

The Seasons of the Church Year

The seasons are based on the principal events of Christ’s life. The story of salvation
is recalled giving us the opportunity to journey with him in our lives.
     I. The Christmas Cycle
          A. The four Sunday of Advent. The new cycle of readings begin on the first Sunday of Advent.
           B. Christmas, Epiphany, and Jesus’ Baptism
     II. Ordinary time refers to those few Sundays here that are outside Lent/Easter, Advent/Christmas.
     III. Easter cycle.
          A. Lent: Beginning with Ash Wednesday and continuing for six weeks. A parallel to the forty days Jesus spent in prayer and fasting. 
          B. Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost.. Easter is the high point of the year. Every Sunday is a “little Easter.”
     IV. Sundays of ordinary time.

Protestants Use Our Lectionary

Our lectionary has the readings arranged so that they match the above outline. Other churches have adopted the Sunday portion of our lectionary with some variations because of its excellent format and balanced use of the Scripture. The Episcopalian, United Methodist, Lutheran, and Presbyterian churches have used our three year cycle since the 1970s.  The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) is also used on a world-wide basis by the above churches, plus the American Baptists and the United Churches of Christ (1992).

The Purpose of the Lectionary

First of all the four readings from different parts of the Old and New Testaments are placed together in one unit for convenient reading. Next the readings are chosen for thematic purposes.  The Old Testament reading and responsorial Psalm were chosen for their relationship to each Gospel reading. However the homilist has the option of using the second reading from an apostolic letter which, in most cases, has a different theme.

However the most important reason for the lectionary is that the churches using the lectionary are restricting in what can be read from the pulpit. There are portions of the Bible that are not appropriate for pulpit reading because they have no edifying qualities. Some of the material would scandalize the faithful. The readings we use have as their purpose to instruct, encourage, and strengthen our faith.

The Homily

Vatican II decreed: “Since the sermon is part of the liturgical service the ministry of preaching is to be fulfilled with exactitude and fidelity. It should draw its content mainly from Scripture and liturgical sources. Its character should be that of a proclamation of God’s wonderful works in the history of salvation, that is the mystery of Christ which is ever made present and active within us, especially in the celebration of the liturgy.

By means of the homily the mysteries of the faith and the guiding principles of the Christian life are expounded from the sacred text during the liturgical year. The homily therefore is to be esteemed as part of the liturgy itself; in fact, at those masses which are celebrated with the assistance of the people Sundays and feasts of obligation, this should not be omitted except for a serious reasons” (Liturgy III: 35, 52, 53).

"The Lectionary Why Not the Bible?"  is one of the pamphlets on the biblical foundations of the Catholic Church written May 2008 to Nov 2010 by Deacon Paul Carlson of Minneapolis, Minnesota's St Lawrence Catholic Church / Newman Center, a Paulist Foundation. (St Lawrence is the Catholic Church of Southeast Minneapolis and is right in the heart of "Dinkytown USA".)

This blog post is a memorial serialization of those pamphlets written by Deacon Paul Carlson at the request of than Pastor/Director Fr John J. Behnke, who asked Deacon Paul to write brief answers to questions University students often encountered as Catholics.

At couple of weeks before Deacon Paul's death, he said: "If there are any financial gains made from the blog serialization of my pamphlets, please have the money given to St. Lawrence Parish and Newman Center or Paulist Fathers, because what they do is so important." If you can, send memorials to St. Lawrence Parish and Newman Center or Paulist Fathers at 1203 Fifth Street, S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55414. 

Remember Deacon Paul Carlson in your prayers, as well as all the other souls of the faithful departed, who have died in the grace of Jesus Christ.

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