The Lectionary: What is it and why do we use it?

|By Blake Adams|

A lectionary, from the Latin for “a reading,” is a liturgical handbook which prescribes certain biblical passages to be read (and preached from) on certain days. You can think of it as a Bible reading plan for worship services. Most of us who grew up in Evangelical churches are more accustomed to our pastors selecting a topic for a sermon series or preaching through a book of the Bible, chapter by chapter.

The ACNA Lectionary (2019) prescribes readings for every Sunday of the year, up to four readings every Sunday: a reading from the Old Testament, a psalm, a passage from the New Testament that isn’t a Gospel, and finally a passage from a Gospel. That’s a lot of Bible. Church of the Resurrection does only three readings. 

The ACNA Lectionary operates on a three-year cycle, designated Years A, B, and C. (We are in Year B at the time of this writing.) The Gospels are divided up between these. Matthew is primarily read during Year A; Mark during Year B; and Luke during Year C. John’s Gospel is read piecemeal across all three years. Over the course of the cycle, churchgoers will hear most of the Bible read aloud (but not all of it).

The Church has not always had a lectionary, but from an early point the appropriateness of certain passages to particular days was always apparent. One of the earliest (surviving) Christian homilies (i.e., Melito of Sardis, On Pascha) was based on prescribed readings. As more holy days were gradually fixed to the liturgical calendar, the lectionary developed alongside it. 

I did not always endorse the lectionary. Like many at Church of the Resurrection, I was raised on the preacher choosing his own texts. But I’ve discovered the following three advantages of the lectionary:

1. The lectionary cultivates catholicity.

Every Sunday, the Scriptures you hear from the lectionary are the same being heard in hundreds of other assemblies that very moment—and not all of them Anglican! It means a great portion of Christianity, though countries apart, is harmonized every week by attending to the same biblical words. A lectionary means the biblical formation of the church is a catholic (i.e., “universal”) enterprise.

2. The lectionary retrieves the ancient experience of the Bible in worship.

For most Christians who have ever lived, the Bible was not something read, but heard, and hearing the Scriptures being read aloud was a main incentive for attending church. The lectionary reminds us that literally hearing the Bible read aloud is not merely a prelude to preaching, but an act of worship in its own right. Preaching is the postlude to reading.

3. The lectionary has a pastoral focus on what’s essential.

While all books of the Bible are authoritative, useful, and inspired, some books are more significant to faith and Christian identity than others. The lectionary pastorally draws our attention to the Scriptures most essential texts, an approach which gives pride of place to the Gospels. More than this, it repeats them in a liturgical cycle. By repetition, we are forced to revisit these mysteries, to patiently “hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them,” until they sink into our innermost heart.

Blake Adams (M.A., Wheaton) is a copy editor at Logos Bible and a trained historian. He serves as Lead Sacristan at Church of the Resurrection and is enrolled in St. Paul’s House of Formation. You can find Blake on Substack.

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