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Volume 14, Issue 3: Musica

Lectionary and the Church Calendar

Duck Schuler

When all of God's people participate in the reading of His word in a systematic way, i.e., the lectionary,1 and the church provides a calendar2 ordered around the concept of a liturgical year, the people of God are able to draw nearer to Him in a type of unity that can be done in no other way. God uses these means to help us focus our attention on Him rather than on the cares and worries of the world which can so easily draw us away from Him. Moreover, the lectionary and church calendar work together in order to achieve this effect.

Luke 4:14_21 provides an account of Jesus' participation in a synagogue service on a Sabbath in his hometown of Nazareth. There were two readings given during the service: the first was a continuous lectionary of the Pentateuch, the second, called the Haftara, was taken from the prophetical books. The reading of the Pentateuch was equally divided over a year of Sabbaths so that it would be read in its entirety throughout the course of the year (or as in some lectionaries, over a three or three-and-a-half year period). The prophetic cycle of the Haftara as found in this passage from Luke was probably in its early developmental stages and was not yet fully fixed. The Haftara was to be thematically connected to the reading of the Pentateuch or to the particular festal season that was being celebrated. Thus the Haftara became a seasonal lectionary. The lectionary of the synagogue continued in the Christian synagogues. Justinian writes, "The memoirs of the apostles or of the prophets are read as long as time permits." It appears that in the early centuries a continuous lectionary was generally used except for the fixed feast days. On those days a text fitting to the occasion was read.
My desire here is not to promote any particular lectional or calendric system. Nor is this necessarily an apology for the current lectionary and church calendar used by so-called liturgical churches. Generally, I would have to agree that they are good and have years of tradition and wisdom behind them. But I think Paul made it clear in Colossians 2:16_17 that, however we organize our lives, Christ must be at the center; that all things point to Him; that He is the substance, not the lectionary or calendar. We use these tools to see through them to Him.
They act as lenses to bring our myopic and astigmatic vision into clearer focus. We are myopic and astigmatic because of our fallen nature. We need tools such as the Scripture and scriptural principles to act as our lenses. It is nearly impossible to not use some lens. We may either choose those that work or those that don't. But we look through them in order to see what we must see. The lens is not the substance of our study, Christ is.
So we must choose our lenses carefully and with wisdom. Then we must use them properly. Most Protestants will say, "But I already read the Bible everyday. Why should I follow the church's lectionary. I should be able to read from the Bible what I want, when I want." To which I would say, "It is better to do that than not read the Bible at all." However, when the church as a whole is reading the same passages of Scripture at the same time, there is an effect on the community of saints that is more corporate, more unifying, than our individualistic approach. We are being fed and nourished together even though we may live miles apart or may not even have ever met a particular brother. Yet our thoughts are directed by the church for the common good of the saints. On a practical note, the lectionary provides common ground for theological discussion among believers. If you don't have a clear understanding of the day's text, you can go to a more learned brother and ask him for his help. The reading would be fresh in his mind and allow for a more fruitful answer to your questions.
When the whole church is reading together, especially with a lectionary that is seasonal rather than continuous and is repeated year after year, the whole church begins to think and act according to the season. The repetition of the stories centering on the life of Christ begin to direct one's actions in such a way that Christ naturally becomes the center of their thinking. A church calendar is a natural outworking of a good seasonal lectionary. We all follow some kind of order to our calendar. It may be the baseball_football_basketball calendar; it may be the school calendar in which one lives for spring break and summer vacation; it may be a civic calendar in which one looks forward to New Year's Day, the 4th of July, Memorial Day, and any other civic holiday. These are not bad in themselves, but they don't point us to Christ the substance. If we don't have a church calendar, we will substitute it with something else. And the "something else" will become the lens that focuses our lives.
Granted, like the Pharisees, we can study these things for their own sake, and lose sight of the fact that they exist to point us to Christ. But our sinful attitudes don't make those helpful things bad. The problems are not with the lectionary or the calendar, but with the way we use them. We can also abuse them by adding things which don't direct or focus our eyes on Christ.

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