The Revd Johnold Strey is a pastor in the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS).
In September 2009, he posted his insights in ‘Love of the Lectionary’. Readers offered excellent points as well. As we have just started Year A — ‘Matthew’s year’ (as his Gospel is featured) — it seemed apposite to see how Pastor Strey and his readers view the Lectionary. If you missed my post yesterday on the subject, you might want to read it before continuing below.
For centuries, the Church — including the churches of the Reformation — used a one-year Lectionary. Many of us preferred it as we were familiar with the readings and knew what Sunday a certain Gospel passage would be read.
However, as Strey notes (emphases mine):
As a part of Vatican II’s worship reforms, a new three-year lectionary was produced, with the goal of opening up a larger portion of God’s Word to worshippers over the three years of the cycle. The Vatican II lectionary was obviously designed for Roman Catholic parishes, but the liturgical tsunami that shook Vatican II swept over other liturgical churches, including Lutherans. Eventually the Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship (ILCW) tweaked the Vatican II lectionary, which was further tweaked by the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod in its 1982 hymnal, Lutheran Worship, and was still further tweaked by the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod in its 1993 hymnal, Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal. (As an aside, the WELS Commission on Worship gave our previous lectionary a major overhaul and included the revisions in the new “Supplemental Lectionary” found in Christian Worship: Supplement).
The Vatican II lectionary, and all the ones that followed it, added an Old Testament Lesson (the “First Lesson,” which reverts to Acts during the Easter season but is otherwise from the Old Testament), and expanded the cycle to cover three years instead of one year. Each of the three years focuses on one of the synoptic Gospels (Year A is Matthew, B is Mark, C is Luke), with John scattered throughout all three years (especially Year B). First Lessons were generally chosen to match the emphasis of the Gospel for the day, i.e. to demonstrate the connection between Old and New Testament. Sometimes Second Lessons were also chosen to match the Gospel’s focus, but in other seasons the Second Lesson is a running series of readings from the same book. This was designed to help people get an understanding of the overall flow and content of these New Testament letters.
What does the Bible say?
There are no scriptural prescriptives about what or how much of the Bible to read in worship. The Lectionary does help us to see the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. It also gives us relevant readings which match the Church year, so we’re not hearing a reading about Jesus’s baptism on Easter Sunday, for example.
Therefore, in principle, the greater the variety of Scripture we hear, the better nourished we are. Hence, the three-year cycle.
Drawbacks to the Lectionary
I still maintain that we are missing out on vital Bible passages, ones which clergy avoid because they might be too difficult to tackle in a sermon.
Some of Pastor Strey’s readers agree:
Captain Thin: … I was just reviewing the LSB-LW Lectionary Comparison and was grieving just how much Scripture is never read from the lectern in these lectionaries. For example, the books of Ezra, Esther, Song of Solomon, Obadiah, Nahum, Haggai, 2nd John, 3rd John are never read in either lectionary. And many of the other books are read from just once or twice every three years. The result? There are large gaps in the public proclamation of Scripture – to the detriment of the Church.
Pastor Strey: … A good, solid adult Bible class might be the way to address additional sections.
Jeff Samelson: … while a good, solid adult Bible class might be a way to address additional sections, when I consider only maybe a quarter to a third of my adults who attend church are in Bible Class – and recently most of my confirmands haven’t been regular in Sunday School – I can’t help but think that Scripture I don’t read and preach on in the service may otherwise never be learned.
The advantages of a three-year cycle
To the Catholics now to see statistically how much more of the Bible we’re hearing every three years. The Revd Felix Just, a Jesuit, has compiled a comparison table of the increase of Scripture that churchgoers receive every Sunday.
However, even he concedes:
since many parts of the Bible (esp. the Old Testament) are still not included in the Lectionary, one must go beyond the readings used at Mass to cover the entire Bible.
And, let’s face it, how many people will do that? Which is one of the reasons for my having started Forbidden Bible Verses — I’ve learned much from the series.
Pastor Strey points out:
Lectionaries are not designed to allow the preacher to get on his soap box each week and preach about the particular topic that he wants to preach about; rather, they are (hopefully) designed to cover what God wants us to talk about, namely, the content and doctrines of Scripture.
The pastor who doesn’t follow the lectionary often picks his own readings each week. In other words, the individual pastor decides what the “topic” is going to be, then he find a reading to match the chosen subject. This may (notice I said “may,” not “does”) keep a church from hearing all the major doctrines of the Bible in worship, or listening through important sections of Scripture over an extended period of time, or walking through Jesus’ life and ministry annually.
I do not want to suggest that one may not set aside the lectionary from time to time for special occasions. I also want to clarify that one will not go to liturgical hell if one fails to use a lectionary. This is not a mortal sin! But if this is the direction a pastor or congregation takes, it would be reasonable to politely ask, “Why?” There are so many benefits from using the lectionary that, in this pastor’s opinion, it just doesn’t seem wise to limit worship to one reading, to jump around from one lesson to another each week, or to have the pastor pick his own readings from week to week. But whatever system we use in the end, let’s be sure to preach the whole counsel of God and the entire story of salvation to our people on a regular and repeating basis!
And, when someone puts it like that, indeed, the Lectionary does appear as a good thing.