One of the fundamental features of Jewish and Christian worship, since the very beginning, is the public reading of the scriptures. Why? Because until the nineteenth century, books were too expensive. The only exposure ordinary people had to God’s Word was hearing it read aloud in public.
Even though times have changed, many churches still obey 1 Timothy 4:13 and read the scriptures aloud in church.
But how to go about doing it? Obviously, just starting at one end of the Bible and reading sequentially won’t do. You might end up reading about the Crucifixion on Christmas Day! So someone has to think out a plan to make sure that passages are read at appropriate times, that the entire Bible gets read, and that nothing is neglected. The result is called a “lectionary,” a word that means “schedule of readings.”
The lectionary is also a great preaching aid. I once talked to a fundamentalist pastor who confided to me that he was having trouble coming up with passages to preach from. He didn’t want to fall into the rut of using his favorite ones over and over. When I recommended the lectionary, he thought it was a great idea.
Most modern lectionaries contain only the scripture citations, but ancient lectionaries contained the complete text of the readings. Ancient lectionaries are a major source of information for the scholars who reconstruct the original text of the New Testament. Today, most denominations that use a lectionary have agreed on the same one, which goes through the entire span of the Bible in three years, which are called Year A, B, and C just so we can tell them apart. The lectionary year begins on the First Sunday of Advent.
For the gospel readings, Year A uses Matthew, Year B uses Mark, and Year C uses Luke. Readings from John fill in the gaps, particularly during Year B, because Mark’s gospel is so short.
The lectionary omits duplicate stories in the Old Testament, most of Leviticus and Chronicles, and all the genealogies. The purpose is not to cover every verse, but to cover the entire message. It’s primarily a preacher’s tool, so it covers the preachable texts.
The concept of the lectionary was inherited by Christianity from Judaism. The Jewish lectionary calls for the Torah to be read aloud in its entirety once each year. The end of the lectionary is marked by the holiday called Simchat Torah.
The Consultation on Common Texts issued the Common Lectionary in 1983 and the Revised Common Lectionary in 1992. The members of the Consultation on Common Texts are as follows:
The Anglican Church of Canada
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
The Christian Reformed Church in North America
The Episcopal Church
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada
The Free Methodist Church in Canada
The International Commission on English in the Liturgy
The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod
The Polish National Catholic Church
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
The Presbyterian Church in Canada
The Reformed Church in America
The Roman Catholic Church in the United States
The Roman Catholic Church in Canada
The Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship
The United Church of Canada
The United Church of Christ
The United Methodist Church
Isn’t it amazing—and reassuring—that all those guys can work together so well?
Accordingly, you can find variations on the lectionary in service books, such as the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, the United Methodist Book of Worship, the Lutheran Book of Worship, the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship and others.
For more information on the Revised Common Lectionary that forms the basis for all of these, see The Revised Common Lectionary, Consultation on Common Texts, Abingdon Press, 1992. This publication contains information on how to customize the lectionary for local needs. You can write to this address:
Consultation on Common Texts
PO Box 340003, Room 381
Nashville, TN 37203-0003