Repeat Offender

I have a problem, I like familiarity, and it seems that the most of Christendom does too. However, this isn’t about being a homebody or always having toast for breakfast. We’re talking liturgy and lectionary.
As St. Paul wrote, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ (Romans 10:17).” God’s Word about our Savior testifies that Jesus came to save us while we were yet poor miserable sinners (Romans 5:8). The truth is that the love of the Only Begotten Son of God is made manifest as he goes to the cross to die. Today this translates into you and I still being sinners, but with a twist. Jesus has bore the guilt and burden of sin so that for those with faith in Christ they have their sin forgiven through the mercy shown by the Lord’s death and resurrection. The bottom line is that Christ’s sending of his disciples in Matthew 28:19-20 is liken to Romans 10:14, the sent disciples, apostles, teachers and ultimately preachers of the faith must be heard for that is how faith comes. So it goes without saying that a lectionary facilitates that heard preaching by being the foundation for what is proclaimed. Why? Lectionaries are simply lists of set scriptural texts for a given day or occasion.
If you haven’t noticed I’m alluding to how we got to where we are today with lectionaries and so much more. We take our ability to hear, read, and learn God’s Word for granted. It wasn’t as easy as deciding which Bible version off your bookcase to choose, or with our technological revolution, which Bible app to download. The early Christian’s hearing, let alone reading, of Holy Writ was a privilege not taken lightly. Consider this eye-opening timeline:
  • 33 AD, Jesus is crucified and rises from the dead. Christianity at various times is considered a hostile, illegal, and even a pagan religion in the Roman world
  • 215 AD, The last of Greek (vernacular) liturgies are used and replaced by ecclesiastical Latin [1]
  • 313 ADConstantine by the Edict of Milan, legalizes Christianity in the Roman world
  • 1517 ADReformation followers (of LutherCalvinZwingli, etc) return to the liturgy and Scripture read in the vernacular
  • 1962(-65) ADVatican II returns to the liturgy and Scripture read in the vernacular
What’s mind blowing about this timeline is the impact hearing and not hearing the liturgy and God’s Word in the vernacular had on the people of the time. Early on Christians would gather on The Lord’s Day, Sunday, to hear long readings of Scripture being read (often for hours), listen to preaching, and received the Eucharist. In the beginning lectionaries in the formal sense were impractical because unlike you and I, early Christians didn’t have access to all 66 books of the Bible. Instead they would read from one book (maybe two), an epistle or Gospel, that they had access to. At this time books of the Bible weren’t widely collected in one place, texts were expensive to produce (and thus buy), and sometimes illegal to have! Here’s how the lectionary came to be, compare this timeline with the one above.
  • 65 AD, A letter (1 Timothy) is written wherein St. Paul encourages St. Timothy to “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching” (1Timothy 4:13), indicating the intimacy between Scripture and the Preaching (a.k.a the Preached Word)
  • ca. 145 AD, The office or vocation of a lector or reader of Scripture is well established by the time of Justin Martyr[2]
  • early 400s (a.k.a 5th Century), With the fall of Rome the specific office of lector diminished [3]
  • 33 AD thru the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, These are rough dates indicating the prominent practice of a lectio continua (continuous reading) of Scripture [4]
  • after 325 AD (Post Nicaea),  Specific sections from whole books of Scripture or pericopes (Greek meaning “cut out”) began to be put together in a coordinated collection or what is called a lectionary
  • 400s to 1500s (5th to 16th century)Middle Ages until the Reformation era was a time where the Bible became more and more inaccessible to laity, in both hearing and reading it in their vernacular
When you mesh the two timelines some things become clear and others more foggy. What is clear is that after the office of lector becomes well established, the vernacular liturgies begin to disappear! Lectors in the early Church were the keepers and readers of the Scripture texts, but what’s not so clear is whether their office was helpful in the long run to the Pastoral Office. For some time I postulate it was a helpful, perhaps even a faithful extension to the Pastoral Office. It isn’t certain, nor am I saying, that the downfall of vernacular liturgies are tied to the lector’s office. What I am saying is that the Reformation and Vatican II were partial attempts to mend the specific vernacular problems occurring in the current liturgical and lectionary practice. As to the origin of this problem, perhaps the explanation for the downfall of vernacular liturgy and public readings of Scripture is an early scholasticism. Coincide this with abusive and abused offices, like a lector’s office but also the pastoral and ecclesiastical administrative authorities. What began as a puddle of a problem became a flooded holy sea (yes, pun intended) of various offices, clerics, and popes too eager for absolute unity and power. The early history and development of lectionaries is convoluted, and still riddled with controversy. Before it was lectionary vs. no lectionary it was lectio continua vs. lectio selecta, and lectio selecta vs. pericopes. The absence of vernacular liturgies, and eventually public readings of Scripture, resulted in a people unable to hear God’s Word.
[2] Timothy Maschke, Gathered Guests: A Guide to Worship in the Lutheran Church. (Saint Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 2003), 402.
[3] Ibid, 403.
[4] Fuller, R. H. “Lectionary” in J. G. Davies (ed.). The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy & Worship. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1986.

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