What is the Lectionary?

In the wake of the Protestant Reformation, the Council of Trent (1563) instituted, among other Catholic Church reforms, an annual cycle of scripture readings to complement the Christian Year, which hinges around the primary celebrations of Christmas and Easter. For each of the seasons, Advent-Christmas, Epiphany, Lent-Easter, and Pentecost, the lectionary included a Gospel reading (Matthew, Mark, Luke or John), an epistle reading (the New Testament letters) and a Psalm (to be sung). The Roman Catholic Church used this annual cycle of readings, which, except for the Psalms and an occasional substitution, did not include the Old Testament, for 500 years.

The Second Vatican Council instituted a new Lectionary for Mass, beginning in Advent, 1969, which moved to a three year cycle, focusing on each of the synoptic – Greek for “seen together” or “look-alike” – Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke – John was used each year during Lent-Easter), and included a fourth reading from the Old Testament (closely associated with the Psalm reading). During the liturgical seasons (Advent-Christmas and Lent-Easter), all four readings are linked thematically. During “ordinary” time (Epiphany and Pentecost seasons), the Gospel, Epistle, and Old Testament readings follow a near continuous path through particular books.

Year A focuses on the Gospel of Matthew and, during ordinary time, the book of Genesis. Year B focuses on the Gospel of Mark and the great monarchy narratives. Year C focuses on the Gospel of Luke and the later prophets. During Ordinary time (the season after Pentecost lasts half the year), a second track links the Old Testament reading with the Gospel account of Jesus’ life and ministry. Since the Christian year always begin with Advent, the readings for Year C will begin this year on November 29, 2015, the first Sunday of Advent.

The Lectionary for Mass began attracting the attention of Protestant churches almost immediately, and for good reason. Here was a communal/ecumenical plan to journey together with Christ from Christmas to Easter, and then to Pentecost, following the Gospel accounts, but also connected to the whole testimony of scripture, in much of its rich variety. In 1978, an ecumenical Protestant group, the Consultation on Common Texts, began work on a Common Lectionary for non-Catholics, which was first published in 1983, and widely tested for two cycles (six years). After incorporating feedback from congregations and denominations, the Revised Common Lectionary was published in 1992.

I’m excited about this coming year in worship at Whatcoat! I am particularly grateful, during this planning season, for a resource by O. Wesley Allen, Jr., Preaching and Reading the Lectionary: A Three-Dimensional Approach to the Liturgical Year. It really helped me bear in mind the overall context of the lectionary patterns for the different seasons, and prepare for writing this article.