Whenever I plan a Maundy Thursday service, I get annoyed with the lectionary. Still, the day is named for the New Commandment. Jesus, gearing up for the most terrifying experience he and his disciples will ever know, commands them to love one another.
This fairly arbitrary objection may be mine alone. But lots of us worship planners have pet frustrations with the Revised Common Lectionary My Facebook newsfeed—a place much like the wider world, if half the population went to seminary—attests to these regularly. Why pair these readings? Why skip those verses?
How will we survive an entire month on Jesus the long-winded bread of life? Most of all: how could the RCL leave x out altogether? Lectionary Jesus goes easy on the religious authorities in Matthew; come John, they remember his kindness by not once trying to stone him. Lectionary James praises good works but demurs from overmuch denunciation of the rich.
Even Paul suffers some notable omissions. Take his teaching in 1 Corinthians 11 on the ethics of receiving communion, a relevant word at a time of little consensus on the subject. In the lectionary, all that remains is the aforementioned institutional narrative, extracted to plug a hole on Maundy Thursday.
Anyone in the pews who actually knows what maundy means, and why this Thursday is maundier than any other, has the RCL revisions to thank. Decades ago, Catholics used a one-year lectionary, and those Protestants who used a lectionary at all typically employed variations on the Catholic one. Many churches rarely cracked open the Old Testament. This Roman lectionary established the now familiar pattern: three weekly readings plus a psalm, with a different synoptic Gospel the main focus in each of three years.
Protestant churches took notice and soon adapted the OLM to their own needs, resulting in several lectionaries with minor differences. In , the Consultation on Common Texts—formed after Vatican II to develop English liturgical texts for ecumenical use—turned to the task of harmonizing these into one. It accomplished this by treating the first readings in Ordinary Time much as the OLM already treated the second: as an independent, semicontinuous stream.
Among other things, the RCL added a lot of important texts: the wages of sin, the day of salvation, the tree of life, the nontaming of the tongue.
The lectionary Herods—once practically nonviolent—now slaughter the Holy Innocents and execute John. And there are many more women mentioned, especially in the OT selections.
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The 20th anniversary edition of the RCL , which details the above history, also explains some omissions. Local control over worship is the Protestant norm. And in recent years, several people have offered alternatives. In his book Year D , he offers an impressive start: a cohesive and expansive fourth year of lections.
Year D encourages local picking and choosing by assigning up to nine readings for a given day. Here Slemmons is motivated partly by the constitution of the Presbyterian Church U. In any case, Slemmons wants more balance. Year D does offer compelling arguments for some of these choices. But it still feels like the preacher is being handed a stacked theological deck, a particular take on a central story in place of the story itself.
Slemmons argues that a lectionary is always doing theology when it matches text to occasion. He allows that this is a fair criticism—of his OT selections. But Year D uses all remaining psalms, epistle texts and unparalleled Gospel material. Slemmons hopes for an eventual seven-year lectionary. This could greatly increase the amount of scripture proclaimed in worship. But how much would be heard? What would? The RCL spreads these across three different seasons. Koester highlights the apocalyptic material in Mark But the story of Jesus belongs within a much larger story that stretches from the creation.
But if so it does this via multiple, simultaneous tracks—not the most accessible pattern for the biblically illiterate. Yet the burden is often simply dropped. So the NL starts over from scratch, taking narrative sequence as its norm.
Each week it focuses on a single text, so churchgoers are asked to follow just one ongoing story. Koester and Jacobson initially conceived of the NL as a nine-month experiment. They now offer a four-year cycle—a year per Gospel—with discrete series options for the summer. Another objection is that one risks missing the OT trees for the forest. Each fall the NL leaps from highlight to highlight, covering the same characters each year but via a different reading. The RCL gives him ten consecutive weeks.
Of course, RCL preachers are liable to ignore this. By assigning a single text, the NL overthrows the homiletical tyranny of the Gospels.
Advent, then, focuses on the prophets. It schedules the Magi on or right after Christmas Day. But 12 days of Christmas is a valuable tradition, and not just for the opportunity to explain the song. And something is surely lost—homiletically as well as liturgically—by having only one reading. Actually, the NL does assign two readings: shorter Gospel lections were added last year to complement the OT and epistle readings. The addition was well received, and this year the NL made a similar move with the Gospel preaching texts, adding accompanying readings from the psalms.
Such feedback has shaped the NL throughout its short life. The summer series came about this way, too. Help Centre. Track My Order. My Wishlist Sign In Join. Aspects of Religion for Non-Christians.
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