which narrative structure of Scripture to privilege–lectionary or canonical?

So I’ve been thinking about something that bugged me a little while back. I realized while picking preaching texts another reason the revised common lectionary bothers me. Now, let me say up front that the Christian Year with days and seasons in a basic sort of form like we have in United Methodism is something I appreciate greatly. The Christian Year narrates time for the Church in a way that helps us grow in discipleship to Jesus in the way we live the year in worship theologically.

My issue came when I noticed that the reading for the Sunday after Christmas is the second half of Matthew 2 about the slaughter of the innocents and the flight of Jesus’ family to Egypt. On the Sunday following, the text is just prior to the previous Sunday’s, the first half of Matthew 2 about the adoration of the Magi. Take this example and, if you’re familiar enough with the lectionary, think about the other times through the year in which the texts seem oddly put together on a week-to-week basis. Not to mention the frequent omission of uncomfortable passages from the readings.

We are not lacking an overarching narrative. We have the canon of the Old and New Testaments. My contention is that we should be sticking with the canonical narrative structure of Scripture and not the lectionary narrative structure of Scripture. We are supplying an alternative narrative to the one that was canonized way back when by the early Church (first 300-400 years).

The fact that certain readings are well selected as appropriate for certain days and even seasons is a good thing. Again, I’m not knocking the Christian Year. And in that vein, I’m not knocking selecting passages suitable for those days. And I recognize the challenges of preaching without the lectionary as a week-to-week reference (what it takes is planning one’s texts in the big picture several months or a year at a time). But I still find this issue of substituting a functional narrative structure for the life of the community for the one that we have an important objection to raise–even if it simply means carefully watching one’s lectionary preaching to insure that one doesn’t fall into the traps implicit in my critique.

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3 thoughts on “which narrative structure of Scripture to privilege–lectionary or canonical?

  1. I agree with your criticism of the Methodist lectionary. I too have noted that several times the weekly reading progression is a bit unnatural, including a couple times that my wife and I have noted that the readings don’t even match the Christian calendar cycle well.

    I do understand that the process of selecting readings is a difficult one. The Catholic tradition has reduced the issue by selecting a three-year cycle of readings (both daily and Sundays) that is followed throughout the Catholic Church. Imagine trying to reconcile over 3000 readings (OT, Psalm, and NT each day)into a three-year church cycle – quite a chore, but once completed, it has lasted, and appears to work well.

    Is there a great solution? Certainly not an easy one.

  2. Thanks, Jay. There is certainly something of a tradition and a usefulness to the lectionary in both its weekly and daily incarnations.

    The lectionary the UMC uses is the “revised common lectionary.” We share it, to my knowledge, with other mainline protestant churches and it is also on a 3-year cycle. I want to say it ends up covering somewhere around 80%-ish of the Bible. For that, it is helpful. But the fact that it resituates individual passages in a different narrative flow via the community’s experience of the text in worship that that of the canon is curious and worthy of consideration from my point of view.

  3. As one of the “stewards” of the Revised Common Lectionary in my role at GBOD and consequently on the Consultation of Common Texts that created it, just a few words here…

    1) Yes, there are weird enjambments in narrative flow from time to time. This is partly due to the shape of the Christian Year itself as it has developed (the one in particular you mention here being a sharp case in point for Year A), and partly due to the calendar for particular years (like, how many Sundays after Christmas there are before Epiphany, or how early Easter may be).

    The shape of the Christian Year piece in this case is that Christmastide has had, for over a millennium– three major commemorations in addition ot the Feast of the Incarnation itself (Christmas Eve and Day)– St. Stephen’s Day (Dec. 26), The Slaughter of the Innocents (Dec. 27 or other dates depending where you are) and the Feast of the Epiphany as its culmination (January 6 or the Sunday nearest). The point– the hard enjambment here occurred precisely because we were attending to the larger Calendar in this particular way for Year A.

    The number of Sundays piece is also a function of the Christian Year to a degree– as the date of Easter varies depending on the cycles of the moon relative to the beginning of Spring. This year is about the earliest Easter possible– which means we had a very abbreviated Ordinary Time prior to Lent, and an elongated Ordinary Time after Pentecost. So we barely get started on any sort of trajectory in the earlier Ordinary Time, and we end up having to “add in” a week’s worth of texts from the end of the earlier Ordinary Time to the Second Sunday after Pentecost (the Sunday after Trinity Sunday) to make all the readings come out right. It’ll be, admittedly, a bumpy ride. But this is a rare exception– it won’t happen again, most likely, during our lifetimes.

    Meanwhile, what we know about very early lectionaries is just how varied they were. Books were not necessarily preached through from place to place and from time to time. The Canonical Shape of scripture is not, in fact, that which emerges in those days– in large part, of course, because the exact form of that canon was not entirely set in place until literally well over a millennium later.

    The development of the Revised Common Lectionary has been an ecumenical effort in every way, with longterm participation by both Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Polish National Catholic (Old Catholic) leaders that has continued from day 1. If you compare our lectionaries, you would find them more convergent than divergent. They represent a deep consensus which we have hoped represents a reasonable (though by not means the only possible) balance of the shape of the scriptures themselves (especially in the semi-continuous readings from OT and Epistles during Ordinary Time, and of the Gospels throughout the year) AND the life of the Church in light of the gospel we proclaim (reflected in the shape of the Christian Calendar). If both of those values are important to you, as the official statements of nearly every Western Church that attends to the Calendar to any degree have indicated (including the UMC), at this point there is not a better single resource. Perfect– not by any means. But generally, I think, pretty faithful.

    Are there reasons to diverge from the RCL from time to time? Certainly. And Ordinary Time may offer the best opportunities to do that. But when it comes to the Great Cycles of the Christian Year (Advent-Christmastide, and Lent-Eastertide), the RCL as we have it remains, I think, one of the most faithful ways to live into the great truths these seasons of our lives seek to help us incarnate in our worship.

    Peace in Christ,

    Taylor Burton-Edwards
    Director of Worship Resources
    GBOD

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