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Explaining The Lectionary for Readers

Author(s): Thomas OLoughlin

ISBN13: 9781856076036

ISBN10: 1856076032


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  • Thomas OLoughlins book is aimed at those who regularly read the word of God during the liturgy. It explains in simple terms why we use certain readings, and why the readings come up when they do - in the belief that a deeper appreciation of the scriptures can be gained from a better understanding of them.

  • Thomas OLoughlin

    Thomas O'Loughlin is professor of Historical Theology at the University of Wales, Lampeter. He has published extensively on how ancient texts can reveal the lives of Christians. His books include Discovering Saint Patrick; Celtic Theology: Humanity, World and God in Early lrish Writings; and Saint Patrick: The Man and His Works.

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    Dear Reader,

    One of the incidental duties of most theologians is responding to requests from time to time to go and address a parish group on some aspect of Christian faith. What one is asked to speak about is often focused on helping the community explore some part of the Bible, and when one gets there the actual group who have gathered is made up of people who are already engaged in various ways with the Scriptures: they are members of a Bible Study group, a group that meets for reflection and uses Scripture as its basic resource, or they play an active part in the communitys liturgy. If the community inviting one to speak is Catholic, then one can bet on two things: (1) that many in the group are readers at the Eucharist; and (2) there will be a warm welcome for anything one does in explaining the purpose and structure of the eucharistic lectionary. In those invitations lie the origins of this book.

    Over the years I have noticed that the same questions come Lip repeatedly from groups of readers, and that there is interest around two central themes: (1) why do we bother with some or all of the readings? and (2) why do readings come up when they do? I hope those questions and, in particular, those two themes are addressed in this book. I have also found that simply explaining how the lectionary is structured (such items as the three-year cycle) gave the readers a sense of having a map that allowed them to know where their particular task or the reading of a certain text fitted into larger landscape of the liturgy. So providing a map of the Liturgy of the Word is this books aim.

    Once we have a sense of the overall structure and direction of the Liturgy of the Word, then we are in a better position to appreciate its deeper spiritual significance for us as individuals and as members of the church. The General Instruction on the Lectionary expressed that in these words:

    That word constantly proclaimed in the liturgy is always a living, active word (see Hebrews 4:2) through the power of the Holy Spirit. It expresses the Fathers love that never fails in its effectiveness towards us (n. 4).

    And it is my hope that this book will help readers to see what they do as collaborating in this work of the Spirit.

    By the way, there is an added, incidental value to this book: readers can use it to look up in their own Bibles the texts they are due to read at the liturgy and make themselves familiar with the text in plenty of time. Even if the translation in your Bible at home is different from the lectionary, it is of no importance because one of the best ways to appreciate the nuances of any text written in a foreign language - even if one has a command of Greek - is to read it in several translations, noting how the force of the words you read shifts slightly from translation to translation.

    So, reader, I hope this book will help you understand a little more the task you have volunteered to perform, and to appreciate a little more the ministry in which you have been called to serve.

    1 September 2007
    Feast of St Verena


    Some basics
    This chapters purpose is to address a few basic questions:
    - Who is this book aimed at?
    - Why do we have readings at the Eucharist?
    - What do we mean by terms like Scripture, the Bible, and the Word of God?
    - What is a lectionary?

    Who is this book aimed at?

    Those who regularly read the Word of God during the liturgy
    It is the experience of most people who take part in the liturgy to have at some stage been asked to read something. This may have been as short an item as a bidding prayer such as That the Lord will grant healing to the sick; Lord hear us, or it may have been a long reading from the Book of Genesis with plenty of difficult sounding names. It may have been at a celebration for a special group, such as a class in school or in a ward in a hospital, or it may have been at some special occasion such as the wedding or funeral of a relative. It may also have been at the regular celebration of the Eucharist in a parish on a weekday or a Sunday, when people are called upon to take a lead in the worship and prayer of their own community by reading from the Word. These people who are regularly called upon to read as part of the liturgy , often referred to as the readers , form an important group in every Christian community for they have volunteered their energy and talents to serve their sisters and brothers in celebrating the weekly event that is the centre and summit of the Christian life and which transforms us from being a collection of individuals into the Body of Christ. If this service is well done, it will build up the faith of the whole community; if it is badly done, then the experience of the liturgy is impoverished for all concerned. Good celebrations foster and nourish faith; poor celebrations weaken and destroy faith (1).

    It is at this group, the readers, namely those who are called upon regularly to read the Word of God at the Eucharist in their communities, that this book is aimed. I hope also that it will be of use in two other ways: first, it will give all who are involved in planning the liturgy for a community an overview of the plan and design of the Liturgy of the Word over the various cycles found in the lectionary; second, in more elaborate courses on the nature of the liturgy, or in special training courses for readers, that it might serve as a handy guide for looking over the patterns that can be found in the lectionary but which can be all too easy to miss when one looks through the lectionary and has to turn pages and pages and pages.

    What this book is not
    Anyone who takes on the service of helping to unfold the mystery of Christ to her/his sisters and brothers should recognise that this requires both talents and training. The General Instruction on the Lectionary indeed presents this need in lofty terms:

    The preparation of readers must above all be spiritual, but what may be called technical preparation is also needed. The spiritual preparation presupposes at least a biblical and liturgical formation. The purpose of their biblical formation is to give readers the ability to understand the readings in context and to perceive by the light of faith the central point of the revealed message. The liturgical formation ought to equip the readers to have some grasp of the meaning and structure of the liturgy of the word and of the significance of its connection with the liturgy of the eucharist. The technical preparation should make the readers more skilled in the art of reading publicly, either with the power of their own voice or with the help of sound equipment (2).

    This little book is not a substitute for either a proper course of study of the content of the Scriptures, nor does it aim to explain the nature of the liturgy and the place of Scripture within it. Its aim is to provide a basic overview of how the readings are arranged in the lectionary over the three-year cycle. The hope is that once a reader recognises the elaborate structure of what is set before the People of God in the lectionary, that reader will want to engage further with her/his ministry and seek out the training and formation that is appropriate to his/her task in the Sunday assembly.

    What this book can do
    Someone who reads at the Eucharist every second or third Sunday can easily think that the whole business of the readings is a big jumble! One week it is a reading from the First Book of the Kings, the next week it is from the Book of the Apocalypse, and the next week it is from the Book of Leviticus. And, on the Sundays that the reader is not herself or himself reading it is hard to remember what the previous weeks reading was, and the current weeks reading seems to be from some even more obscure place such as the Book of Ecclesiasticus , and one wonders if that is the same as the Book of Wisdom or the Book of Sirach! Meeting the Liturgy of the Word one day at a time and with those occasions separated by a week means that getting any sense of there being a structure in the whole business is well nigh impossible.

    Yet there is a structure. Indeed, the lectionary produced by the Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council (1962-5) is the most formally organised and structured lectionary that has ever been produced by any church. So well thought out is that structure , as we shall see as we go through this book , that it has been adopted either wholly or with some adaptations by any number of western churches whose origins lie in the sixteenth-century Reformation.

    Psychologists have found that any activity that can be broken into little bits will be done much better, in each little bit, if those engaged in the activity do not simply know the little bit they are working on, but have a grasp of the larger scene within which their little bits fit. Imagine there are three people painting plastic pipes of differing shapes in different colours. None knows what these pipes are to be used for or whether or not the work of the three painters fits together: the result is a sense of being disempowered, mere drudges, and the quality of the work will be indifferent. Now, show the three painters how the pipes fit together to make something beautiful and useful. The glimpse of the overall pattern is sufficient to transform their work. It can now be done both with greater satisfaction and efficiency: each little bit will be done better because it is seen as just one brick in a great edifice.

    This need for an understanding of the overall structure of the lectionary was recognised from the outset by those who created it:

    The first requirement for one who is to preside over the celebration is a thorough knowledge of the structure of the Order of Readings so that he will know how to inspire good effects in the hearts of the faithful. Through study and prayer he must also develop a full understanding of the coordination and connection of the various texts of the Liturgy of the Word, so that the Order of Readings will become the source of a sound understanding of the mystery of Christ and his saving work (3).

    However, while the compilers of the lectionary thought that only priests needed to have an understanding of the structure of the choice of readings over the liturgical year, experience has shown that every reader is able to perform her/his ministry with greater skill, effect, and satisfaction if he/she can see the overall pattern of which the reading she/he is doing on a particular day is just one element.

    So the purpose of this book is to provide everyone who ministers in the Liturgy of the Word with an overview of the structure of the whole three-year lectionary.

    Why do we have readings at the eucharist?

    A reading from a gospel
    From the very beginning, Christians have gathered to celebrate the Lords meal which united them to one another in Christ, and so made them a people offering prayer and thanksgiving to the Father. At these meals the memory of Jesus was recalled for it was his presence, his words, his teaching about the Father that constituted them as a community: they recalled his words and deeds and this process of recollection at these gatherings became what we call the gospels. Committed to writing, these retellings of the deeds and words of Jesus became the formative identity of the communities as they handed on to one another the good news. To belong to the community was to become part of the tradition of the community that reached back to the very first gatherings around Jesus while he was living with us. The tradition now reaches down to the community we become on Sunday morning and reaches outwards to every other such gathering. In these gatherings, by the early second century, the retelling of the good news by four early preachers , Mark, Matthew, John and Luke , gradually became the norm. To hear again those four accounts was to encounter the memory of the whole church. Therefore, nowas then, whenever his People gather we recall the good news, and we do this (in the manner established by the second century (4) ) by hearing again parts of the gospels of John, Mark, Matthew and Luke. They, then as now, help unfold the mystery of Christ. Therefore, at every celebration of the Eucharist we have a reading from one of the four gospels.

    A reading from the Old Testament
    When the first Christians proclaimed their faith in Jesus as the Lord they did so by showing how what had happened in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus happened according to the Scriptures. In this action they adopted the notion of the Scriptures from their fellow Jews and give it a new significance among the followers of Jesus. Jesus and his deeds and words constituted the new relationship with God (and for the word relationship one can read covenant or testament), and it was prepared for, anticipated, promised during the time of the former relationship (and for former one can read older or old). So they continued to read the books that Jews at the time referred to as the law and the prophets or as the scriptures. We see this in accounts of early preaching and in the memories of the deeds of Jesus. Paul expressed this elegantly at the beginning of the Letter to the Romans: Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom 1:1-4). To preach the gospel of Jesus one needs to be aware of what was promised in the holy scriptures , meaning those books (e.g. Isaiah or Jeremiah) that we refer to colloquially as the Old Testament. And these scriptures became something that the church valued as containing the Word of God and as indispensable if any community or individual were to appreciate Jesus as the one who fulfils the law and the prophets. So we recall Jesuss action: And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the Sabbath day. And he stood up to read, and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord." And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down, and the eves of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" (Lk 4:16-21). Peter, preaching the coming of Jesus among the people, appeals both to the prophet Joel and the psalms of David (Acts 2:14-37): their words allow us to understand what happened in the life and death of Jesus. And in recognising the risen Christ at Emmaus the disciples discovered from Jesus the full meaning of the scriptures: And Jesus said to them, "0 foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?" And begin ning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself (Lk 24:25-7). Hence there has been a conviction among Christians down the centuries , expressed in the Creed in the phrase On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures , that the Old Testament must be valued as the Word of God and as helping us unfold the mystery of Christ. Therefore, at our gatherings for the Eucharist , and virtually always at our Sunday gatherings , we read passages from the older testament, which we refer to as thefirst reading and the psalm.

    A reading from an early church letter
    From the very beginning the communities that had sprung up from the preaching of the apostles recognised that they were not just local churches, but were parts of a whole new people that reached from one end of the earth to the other. This larger sense of belonging to the whole church was fostered by visiting one another and by exchanging letters which were read in community after community. These communications helped form the individual communities in The Way of Jesus and gave them a common sense of belonging. We glimpse this sending and receiving and exchanging of letters in this line in the letter to the church at Colossae: And when this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you read also the letter from Laodicea (Col 4:16). Among all the letters that circulated - and only a fraction has survived -those linked with the names of Paul, Peter, James, John, and Jude came to be seen as having an authority as coming from the first generation of preachers, and these continued to be treasured and heard again at assemblies of the churches. Therefore, at virtually every Eucharistic gathering today we read a passage from these early Christian teachers, and often refer to it as the epistle or the second reading.

    Concentric circles
    So we can think of the readings at the Eucharist as a series of concentric circles:

    - at the centre is the gospel which is a recollection and celebration of the mystery of Jesus, the Anointed One;
    - this recollection is given added dimensions by readings from the Old Testament: the Law (such as Genesis or Exodus), the prophets (such as Amos or Joel), the Psalms, and the Writings (such as the Book of Wisdom or the Books of the Maccabees);
    - then there are the readings of the great early Christian teachers letters to churches, such as those of Paul.

    The purpose of the readings is that, in the words of the General Instruction on the Lectionary, in accordance with ancient practice there should be a re-establishing [of] the use of Scripture in every celebration of the liturgy and that this should be seen as the unfolding mystery of Christ being recalled during the course of the liturgical year (5).

    Old Testament and Gospel
    It should now have become clear that there is a special link between the first reading from the Old Testament and the gospel each Sunday. The General Instruction describes the place of the gospel thus:

    The reading of the gospel is the high point of the Liturgy of the Word. For this the other readings, in their established sequence from the Old and New Testament, prepare the assembly (6).

    However, for most Sundays each year (whether during the seasons such as Lent, and always in Ordinary Time) the reading that is related to the gospel is that from the Old Testament.

    This immediately raises the question about how we approach these readings. In the liturgy we use an approach that can already be found in the earliest Christian preaching - as we have already seen above looking at the opening of Pauls letter to the Romans - whereby the Old Testament is seen to prepare for the coming of Jesus among his people to inaugurate the New Covenant. This approach among the first churches was summed up in one sentence by the man who wrote the letter to the Hebrews: In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world (Heb 1:1-2). This perspective for reading the books of the Old Testament is expressed by the General Instruction thus:

    When in celebrating the liturgy the Church proclaims both the Old and New Testament, it is proclaiming the one and the same mystery of Christ.

    The New Testament lies hidden in the Old; the Old Testament comes fully to life in the New. Christ himself is the centre and fullness of all of Scripture, as he is of the entire
    liturgy (7).

    It is important to note that this perspective on the Old Testament is one that is related directly to faith in Jesus as the Christ and in the relationship of the church to him. It is not the same perspective on those ancient texts that is used in most studies of those texts in biblical and theological courses, where the primary focus of investigation is on the meaning of a text in its original context rather than in any later use of that text. It is useful to keep these distinct perspective in mind: what we do in a Scripture Studies Group or a Biblical Studies Course is not what we are doing when read recall these texts in the liturgy. Both approaches are important and can be complementary, but if they are confused the result can lead to muddle. The classic muddle is when someone explains an Old Testament reading at the Eucharist in terms of what it meant in an agrarian temple-treasury culture in the Ancient Near East and many people wonder why we bother with such stuff to try to make sense of believing in the good news today. Alternatively, someone hears a reading from Isaiah during Advent, and the homily explores this in terms of the coming of Jesus two thousand years ago, now in the community celebrating, and at the End of time, and thinks that this is just dodgy exegesis because it is so different from the approach in a scripture class. In the one case we are trying to make sense of a text in its historical context; in the other, the mystery of Gods self-revelation to humanity. These endeavours are not in conflict, and should be complementary.

    If the readings at the Eucharist are there to help unfold the mystery of Jesus Christ, then several important consequences flow from this:

    - We are not reading the Scriptures simply to get a knowledge of the Bible.
    - We are not reading these passages because many Christians consider reading the Bible a valuable activity in itself.
    - This action is not part of a Bible Study, nor should it resemble the classroom atmosphere of a study group.
    - The focus of all our reading is not an abstract understanding of the scriptural text , such as would be carried out by a biblical exegete in a theology course , but to see what each portion of text (whether from the gospel, the Old Testament, the psalm, or the epistle) reveals to us about the Paschal Mystery.
    - Our reading is not book-focused; it is not text-focused; it is focused on Jesus as the Christ.
    - The gospel is the primary focus on the mystery of the Christ in each celebration; the Old Testament and Psalm relate to it as background, example, context, or elaboration; the epistle is a separate attempt to focus on the mystery of the Christ through the help of early Christian teachers.
    - The readings are to help us encounter the person of Jesus Christ in whose presence and name we have gathered.

    The word of God unceasingly calls to mind and extends the plan of salvation, which achieves its fullest expression in the liturgy. The liturgical celebration becomes therefore the continuing, complete, and effective presentation of Gods word (8).

    A Basic Principle of the Lectionary
    We can now state a fundamental principle of the lectionary for Sundays:

    The centre of every Liturgy of the Word will be the mystery of the Christ as exemplified in a gospel passage;
    To this will be linked a reading from the Old Testament , and we read the passage from the perspective of it helping us Christians to understand the aspect of the mystery of Christ found in the gospel passage of the day;
    There will usually be a reading from an epistle, but for most of the year (Ordinary Time) it will have no direct link to that Sundays gospel (and consequently it will not have a link to the preceding Old Testament reading).
    What do we mean by terms like scripture, the bible and the word of God?

    One matter that causes a lot of confusion for readers is the range of terms that are used in referring to material that is read at the Eucharist. The confusion arises from two sources. First, the fact that the different terms have come into use over the centuries in relation to the sacred books of the Christians and each has a particular nuance that means it is favoured by one group more than another or in one situation more than another. Second, all the terms seem to relate to the same stuff than can be found in a book, bound between two covers, that one can buy in a shop with the title The Holy Bible written in big letters on the cover. So, some people ask, whats the problem?

    To try to clear up this matter, and show the nuances of each term, here is a list of terms:

    Scripture: This is a term that was already in use by the very first generation of Christians: for example in Lukes gospel we hear that Jesus began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" (Lk 4:21). But as it is used today it refers to a particular part of the memory of Christians relating to the texts that have been valued by Christians as being foundational for their understanding of their faith. A basic usage of this term can be seen in 2 Tim 3:16: All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.

    The Scriptures: Again this term has been in use since the beginning of Christianity (e.g. Mt 21:42; Lk 24:45; 1 Cor 15:3) when it was used to refer to the collection of writings that were held to be sacred, i.e. Scripture, in many forms of Judaism that existed at the time. Among those groups the extent of what was considered to be the Scriptures varied, as well as the importance that should be attached to them. The Christians took their position from those forms of Judaism that held that category of the Scriptures included a wide range of texts: the pentateuch (the first five books attributed to Moses), the prophets, other books written in Hebrew, along with more recent books written originally in Greek. The Christians also took over an attitude that those texts, the Scriptures, were of great significance in understanding unfolding of Gods purposes in history leading up to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

    This term became the most widely used Christian designation of the collection of holy books. And, by the end of the second century the texts (e.g. the letters of Paul and four gospels) produced by the first generations of Christians, and used in the liturgy, were also being included under the designation the Scriptures.

    So when we meet the term the Scriptures in any of the books of the New Testament, it refers to the Old Testament as adopted by the Christians. When we use the term the Scriptures in general conversation today, we mean both the Old Testament and the New Testament.

    The Bible: This term really is best kept to refer to an object, a book that one can buy in a shop. The book is an anthology of texts some of which are designated by Christians as the Old Testament and some as the New Testament. The exact number of texts that make up this book varies between the different Christian groups. Eastern Orthodox Bibles contain a few more texts than Catholic Bibles, and Catholic Bibles contain more texts than the Bibles preferred by many Protestant communities (9).

    As a rule of thumb, groups who use the term the Bible often are interested in the whole book as a collection for private reading and that reading, whether done alone or in a group, is a religious activity in its own right. Such reading of the Bible (collectively or individually) is a distinct activity to using the Scriptures as a part of the liturgy as that is understood by Catholics. One of the difficulties some Protestant churches have with the Catholic lectionary is that their standard weekly act of worship is focused on reading the Bible as a religious end in itself, then trying to understand it, and then using the text as the basis of praise or petition. In the normal Catholic assembly, it is the community meal that is the focus, and reading these ancient texts is done to promote memory and understanding not of the text but of the event of which the text is but a recollection in writing. This can be seen in practice in many Protestant liturgies: the reading is read from a Bible that is suitably marked with the days reading (and hence it is introduced by giving the chapter and verse to set the context), while in Catholic liturgies the reading is done from a special book and the focus is on the particular piece of text being read (hence it is introduced simply as A reading from the Book of Exodus but there is no statement like from the fifth chapter beginning at the first verse). These little shifts in practice and terminology are symptomatic of far more deep-seated differences in how the Scriptures have been received, used, and understood in the different traditions.

    The Word of God: This phrase is used to refer to the whole communication of God to humanity as a life-giving event in the Holy Spirit. This is the dynamic reality of encountering the Fathers communication with us in Jesus, the Christ, who is the Word and who sends the Spirit into human minds, hearts and imaginations to lead us further on the way to the truth. The Father bids us to enter into his rest, the fullness of life, and (as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it): Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, that no one fall by the same sort of disobedience. For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Heb 4:11-2). It is this communication of God that we encounter in the whole of the liturgy, and in one particular way in the Liturgy of the Word, and hence the readings are concluded with the phrase The word of the Lord or This is the word of the Lord. However, when we use this phrase we are referring to a spiritual encounter; we are not using a pious synonym for the scriptures.

    The New Testament.
    The Old Testament.
    The New Covenant.
    The Old Covenant: These four terms have to be understood together. Most of the time we use the related phrases The New Testament and The Old Testament to refer to the major divisions of the Christian Bible. The New Testament refers to the books written by the first followers of Jesus which came to be understood as Scripture by Christians during the first century and half. Then by contrast, all the earlier writings that date from before the time of the church go to make up theOld Testament.

    However, the original meaning of these phrases is quite different, and that original use explains why we refer to these parts as testaments rather than use clearer terms such as the Christian Books and the Pre-Christian Books.

    A testament (from the Latin testamentum translating the word diath?®k?® used by Paul, Luke and the author of Hebrews) is the word for the relationship that is established by the Christ between us his people and the Father. So in accounts of the Eucharist in Paul (1 Cor 11:25) and Luke (22:20) Jesus refers to the new relationship that is established in his blood between those who share in his cup, and the Father. We now tend to us the phrase the new covenant for this relationship. Once the relationship that Jesus had established came to be known as the new testament, then it was almost automatic that the relationship between God and his people that existed before Jesus would be called the old testament. Later, the scriptural books which recall the relationship established by Jesus came to be known as the books of the new testament; and, similarly, the books of the old testament. Then in time this became shorthand as names for collections of books. So today, we use Old Testamen

Explaining The Lectionary for Readers