So I have been hosting my quarterly sit-down with the lectionary, to schedule out worship for Advent and Epiphany. Firstly, it is weird to think about Epiphany in October. The colors in the leaves and the Indian Summer taking place about now is quite different from the black, gray and white of January. I am still going through my current preaching sweep and enjoying this swath of Mark with a bit of Hebrews thrown in.
But sitting here, I am once again baffled by the Lectionary. I know; there is a logic to it. I am sure that many who are smarter than me can tell me why the scriptures fall as they do. At the same time, I do have an advanced degree in theology, and yet the rationale for the Lectionary’s current form is beyond my intellectual grasp. I ain’t the smartest cookie, but I ain’t the dumbest either. Furthermore, I know that I “get” the intellectual/theological stuff a bit better than my average parishioner. That is no slight to them, they know why flowers grow and why peppers are both hot and sweet and what to do with screaming babies, etc. But this is my realm and the lectionary regularly leaves me underwhelmed. How, then, must it seem to those in the pews?
I believe in the Lectionary. I love the concept. I love that reading the breadth of scripture is important to the church. I love that churches read and worship around the same text from week to week. I love textweek.com altogether. I loved doing Lectionary Haikus. I understand that covering this much ground necessitates a plan. I even love the notion that folks sat down together and hammered out a plan.
Why must we begin the Christian year with the apocalypse? Why does Advent require a Delorean? Why are all those great parables and prophetic teachings tacked on to the end of Epiphany, where they will be overlooked for 6-15 years on end, depending on how the moon rolls? I am not so naive to think that America’s humiliating biblical illiteracy is due to the lectionary, but it seems to me that the lectionary doesn’t always help regular people get the Bible better. I have long thought about devising a shadow lectionary…one that highlights those passages left out by the RCL–either by politics or chronological irrationality. And isn’t the lectionary supposed to help these matters?
One matter of difficulty, whose blame cannot be put on the RCL, is the Christian calendar’s make-up. The chronology of the Christian year, in terms of Jesus at least, begins with the apocalypse (which hasn’t happened yet [or has it]); shoots over to the year before Jesus’ birth; then, thirdly, gets to the first part–his birth; then sees him baptized, tempted, calling disciples; then gives us a short or medium glimpse of his life, depending on a lunar dictate; always truncated just in time to see him transfigured (which I already talked about this month); then persecutes, tries, and kills the poor guy, who stubbornly raises up on the third day as if to say “I had a life you know”, lest we assume that we crucified him while he was still wrapped in saddling clothes; then walks about just long enough to restore Peter and embarrass Thomas; ascends to heaven, just before the Holy Spirit arrives, even though John says that happened on Easter; then we get to fill in the BIG, BIG blanks called his ministry to figure out why we celebrated his birth and why he died; all ending with Jesus on his way back to Jerusalem for that whole passion thing, which we already celebrated and ending with him crowned king of kings and Lord of lords, which, in a democracy, can hardly be considered significant. Then we eat turkey and start all over again. I’m sure that I butchered this a bit, but is it anymore butchered up here than in the real thing?
So for Advent, year C, emphasis on Luke, we start with signs of Jesus’ second coming, apparently to mimic the signs of his initial arrival–stars and all. Real clever. Then we get to hear the adult John the Baptist yell at all the sinners, apparently a gimmick to get the hell-fire preachers to use the lectionary (what better time to pound the pulpit than when everyone is fat on eggnog). As we near the big day, we hear more from John the Baptist, which I’ve always took as a mimicry of Moses and Aaron, denying being the Messiah. Finally, week four out of four the waiting game begins to subside and there is a pregnancy. All of this means that you’ve got to cram the rest of the story into your Christmas Eve service, which is difficult given the garland and glitter distractions that dominate that particular time of year. How does one get kairos time out of such a convoluted chronos time? Given the narrative nature of the gospels, cutting and slicing and splicing the story like this has to have a detrimental effect on our understanding of scripture. The natural ebbing and flowing that is inherent in the written story is subverted. It seems that Lectionary-based worship cannot benefit from the one of the most significant and compelling aspects of the narrative–the plotline of the gospel. The natural plotline of the story–from the character development to the building of tension to the climax of the story to the various conclusions (i.e. Mark’s unfinished business, Matthew’s Commission)–was thought out carefully 2000 years ago, and has stood the test of time. It seems to me that the Lectionary, as it currently stands, does not capture this.
This year, I am thinking of a more novel approach. Just follow Luke’s lead. Advent 1–The Silencing of Zechariah; Advent 2–Gabriel visits Mary; Advent 3–Mary visits Elizabeth; Advent 4–The Birth of John the Baptist, featuring Zechariah’s song; Christmas Eve–The Birth of Jesus. Why reinvent the wheel when the story that’s been handed down for 2000 years takes us directly and faithfully to the incarnate, living, circumcised, baptized, hopeful, prophetic, enigmatic, resolute, persecuted, crucified and risen savior?
A bright spot–I love the scheduling of the alternative texts. I love how the lectionary creators have offered up thoughtful prophetic readings during Advent. Each year offers up prophetic readings during Advent that add tremendous insight into the nature of the Christ. Actually, how often do people preach on the prophetic readings during Advent? It seems easier in Lent. Also, it has been regularly fruitful for me to follow the Epistle lessons during ordinary time. I have utilized James this fall as children’s sermon material to really nice effect; and I have employed blocks of Pauline letters to address underlying matters in my congregations.
The caveat–I know it is a tool. And the lectionary’s worth to me is measured by its ability to offer insightful scriptural passages at the right time. Perhaps trying to squeeze everything into 3 years is part of the issue. In the end, does this tool aid or obstruct one’s ability to understand, worship and follow Christ? As with all human things, take with a grain of salt.