“Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them . . . ” These words from the Collect for Proper 28 in the Book of Common Prayer provide us with an outline for the study of Scripture.
What is the Lectionary?
A lectionary is simply a table of readings. The word itself comes from the Latin legere that means “to read.” With origins in synagogue worship, lectionaries were developed as early as the 4th century. As the Church Year began to take shape in the early centuries of Christianity, appropriate readings became fixed for the major celebrations with the remainder of the year filled in with continuous readings from the various books of the Bible. Some of these readings were quite long—often two or three chapters in length. The Revised Common Lectionary was introduced in 1992 and is used by most Protestant churches.
The Sunday Lectionary
The Sunday lectionary consists of a three-year cycle of readings that are appointed for public worship on Sunday and other major feast days. The lectionary cycles are designated as years A, B, and C with a new lectionary year beginning the first Sunday of Advent—we are currently in Year B. During the three-year cycle, a major portion of the New Testament is read, with the Gospel passages for Year A focusing on Matthew, Year B on Mark, and Year C on Luke. The Gospel of John is used on major feast days and during Lent, Holy Week and Easter throughout all three years.
Four readings are appointed for each Sunday:
- a passage from the Hebrew Scriptures
- a Psalm
- an Epistle
- a Gospel Lesson
The theme of the Lesson from the Hebrew Bible may relate to the Gospel or to the liturgical season. The Psalm is a response or meditation on the Hebrew Bible passage. The Epistle usually does not relate to the other readings except on major feast days. During the Easter season, readings from the book of Acts are read in place of the passage from the Hebrew Bible. Hearing the story of the first-century church helps us understand the mission of the church today.
During the long season after the day of Pentecost or Ordinary Time, there are two tracks for the Hebrew Bible readings. One set of Lessons relates the passage to the Gospel; or there is a choice of semi-continuous readings. Year A focuses on Genesis, the covenant with Moses and the establishment of Israel in the Promised Land. Year B includes the stories of David and Wisdom literature; and Year C explores the prophets with an emphasis on Jeremiah. The Epistles for this season offer semi-continuous readings including passages from Romans, Philippians and 1 Thessalonians in Year A; 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, James and Hebrews in Year B; and Galatians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Timothy and 2 Thessalonians in Year C.
Using the Lectionary in Formation
The lectionary cycle reflects the themes of the seasons of the Church Year and follows major events of the Hebrew Bible as well as the life and ministry of Jesus. Thus using the lectionary in formation not only enhances Sunday worship but also provides further opportunities to “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” the words of Scripture. These examples of lectionary resources provide opportunities for teaching and learning:
- Lesson Plans That Work provides weekly lesson plans for younger children, older children and adults. Reflection questions and activities on the Old Testament and Gospel readings can be downloaded from the website.
- Faith at Home has an intergenerational approach. A weekly email provides “lectionary-based readings and reflections for families and friends to explore together around the table or on the go.” This is a joint venture of Forward Movement and FORMA that focuses on one of the lectionary readings for each age group following a pattern of read, reflect, respond.
- Circle of Days: A Church Year Primer – Year B by Paula Franck and Isabel Anders provides accessible, theologically based summaries of all the readings for the Sundays and major Holy Days of the lectionary cycle, along with reflection questions, and introductions to the seasons of the Church Year. Circle of Days is designed for individuals and groups who desire a deeper understanding of Scripture and its meaning in their lives. This is the first in a set of books covering all three years of the Revised Common Lectionary and is available in print and ebook formats.
An advantage of using the lectionary in formation is that it provides opportunities to reinforce connections to Sunday worship. Here are some suggestions for using lectionary resources:
- Weekly Bible study groups meet to discuss the lectionary readings either as preparation for upcoming Sunday worship or as an opportunity for continued reflection after the Sunday service. This may be a formal group with designated leadership or perhaps coffee with a friend for conversation. Such a study may focus on one or all of the readings.
- Since the lectionary is built around the Church Year, presentations at the beginning of each liturgical cycle to introduce the themes of the season and provide an overview of the Scripture readings can further enhance Sunday worship. This could be a forum or a newsletter article. Hymns, seasonal colors, and what to expect in worship may also be included. For example, an explanation of why there are no “alleluias” during Lent and the use of different Eucharistic prayers.
- Reflection questions on the Scripture readings included in the above resources can provide suggestions for group discussion as well as for personal journaling. As a spiritual practice, journaling helps us become more aware of the ways Scripture connects with daily life and can include a variety of expressions depending upon the individual. Writing itself may take many forms including prayers, poetry or even a single word. Art and music are also ways to respond to a Scripture passage.
- The lectionary can also provide opportunities for intergenerational activities both at church and in the home. Sharing the stories of Scripture among children, youth and adults can contribute to wider understanding and creative ways of expression.