The Lectionary

This week, I returned to a Scripture reading practice. What sets this practice apart from the other Scripture-related practices I’ve explored in this space is that the primary focus is on the reading of the text, rather than on interpreting it or experiencing it. This week, I read from the lectionary, a set list of daily Scripture readings.

Background

The practice of reading appointed portions of the Scriptures (‘readings,’ ‘lections,’ or ‘lessons’) in public worship is very ancient. In the Jewish tradition, it likely began with the readings appointed for the major festivals, and it is very likely that a more or less common tradition of reading the Law and the Prophets sequentially in the temple and synagogue had developed by the Second Temple period (the period between the Exile and the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE). Christian references to lectionaries, with the now common pattern of Old Testament, Psalm, New Testament, and Gospel readings, proliferate in and around the fourth century, and it is widely believed that it was around this time that longstanding practices were codified. While the length and apportionment of the lectionary cycles changed in different times and traditions, the goal of all of them is for all of the Scriptures to be read — and heard — regularly.

This discussion has thus far focused on the use of lectionaries in public worship rather than private study or devotion. Until the Modern period’s educational reforms, few people were literate, so public worship was the primary way the faithful encountered the Scriptures. As literacy rose and services of the Hours were adapted for wide private use, lectionaries naturally came to to be used in private devotion as well. There are a huge number of lectionaries in existence today, each with its specific focus. Some, for example, aim for the entire Psalter to be read in a month; others are designed to read the Bible in a year, or two years or three years.

What is it?

Follow a lectionary of your choice every day. Because I already encounter it when I pray the daily offices, I used the readings for Morning Prayer in the Daily Prayer app, produced by the Church of England. It uses a similar, though not identical, lectionary to the one used by my denomination, the Anglican Church of Canada.

My Week

This week was far less fraught than the week when I explored Morning Prayer, when I found the difficulties with some of the biblical texts distracting and hard to deal with. This difference wasn’t because the texts were easier. In fact, the New Testament readings largely focused on the stoning of St Stephen, which is one of my least favorite stories, recounted in what is probably my least favorite New Testament book. For their part, the readings from the Hebrew Scriptures told the story of the Israelite civil war in which King David consolidated his power over all twelve tribes of Israel. Hardly ‘easy’ or inspiring readings to encounter first thing in the morning! I think the difference between my experience in January and this week was in how I was orienting myself to the text. Since in the Morning Prayer week, my focus had been on prayer, the readings felt like distractions that were breaking up my prayer. But this week, even though I was still reading them in the context of my Morning Prayer, the readings themselves were my main focus and so they didn’t feel as distracting.

Reflection

When I wrote about the lectionary readings as part of my Morning Prayer week, one of my lingering reflections was that the messiness of some parts of the Bible really bothered me, particularly in a context in which I was reading through several texts back to back without much space to process them in the moment. While it wasn’t as troublesome to me in my experience this week, there was still a lot of brokenness in the readings: Saul and David’s broken relationship, the Israelite civil war, David’s sack of the Jebusite capital, and, in the New Testament, Stephen’s sermon that to today’s ears sounds far more incendiary than inspirational. Yet, in the space I was in this week, I was also able to see the light that shines through this brokenness: the solidification of David’s house and the prophecy that would become so meaningful in the Jewish imagination during the bad times when they needed hope; David’s generosity towards his beloved Jonathan’s son; the presence of God even in the most broken of human experiences; and the energy and enthusiasm that drove the nascent Church. And where the texts weren’t inspiring, they were often at least instructive about human nature and sin; for example, the dynamic between Stephen and the mob — while definitely a lesson in how not to preach to an unsympathetic crowd — is a great example of the scapegoat mechanism and the powerful reach of shadow in the life not only of individuals, but of entire communities. And so, while the readings were difficult for me this week, they were still able to speak to me in beneficial ways, even though time didn’t permit me to engage with them more thoroughly through practices such as  lectio divina or integral Scripture study.

This connects to another comment I had in the Morning prayer week, that I didn’t like the fact that the lectionary focuses on quantity of reading over quality of reading. While my personal preference is still to go deep into one reading rather than skim the surface of several, there are certainly benefits of being encouraged to read a quantity of texts quickly. The first that comes to mind is that the stories just wash over you, and become in time second nature. Another is simply that, while close textual analysis is a powerful tool, there is always something to be said for simply reading a good story.  

In my January reflections, I also noted the element of being addressed by the tradition rather than focusing on my own needs or desires of the moment. This is also relevant for something like the lectionary, since it insists that we encounter all of the Scriptures and not just our favorite parts. Left to my own devices, I’d probably spend very little time in 2 Samuel or Acts, where the bulk of this week’s readings came from. Yet of course, these are important parts of the story of my faith tradition, and I only do myself injustice by not engaging with them. This doesn’t mean I can’t engage with them critically; I think it’s imperative that we wrestle our Sacred Texts, and wrestle with God through them. But we can only do this when we allow them to rub off on us — even when they rub us the wrong way. This is, I think, the biggest benefit of using a lectionary for Scripture reading.

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