A Lament for the Lectionary

I love the historic lectionary. The rhythm of the readings, the Psalms and Introits, the use of traditional hymnody that speaks references it directly, it flows in a way that is beautiful, reverent and stirring. It stirs up the faith, just as the historic collects remind us as we prepare for Adventtide.

That is why I am so utterly mystified by confessional Lutheranism today.

As Rev. McCain pointed out to us in a recent survey his offered in connection with Cyberbrethren, there is little uniformity amongst practitioners of the historic lectionary. This is no surprise. Since no major publishing house has really supported it in a couple generations, those of us who use it are left to our own devices to come up with translations and practices that fit our given parishes. I can understand that, but it doesn’t make me happy.

But that’s not the real problem. The real problem as I see it is this:

1. While it is in the hymnal, it isn’t really supported or “resourced” by Concordia Publishing House, beyond the production of the lectionary book for LSB.

2. It isn’t taught or supported in any meaningful way to my knowledge at either seminary. I am very happy to be proven wrong on this.

3. It’s been dropped from the Thrivent Calendar, and I don’t believe it is in the more recent CPH pastor’s calendar either.

4. It is not only not taught or “resourced”, I hear pretty consistent anecdotal evidence that it is specifically disdained by liturgical scholars throughout the synod.

Please don’t get me wrong here. I’m not pointing fingers, trying to start a fight, incite liturgical or lectionary rebellion, or in any other way be difficult. It’s really this simple:


Why? Is it marketing? Is it money? Is it ecumenism with other churches today? Why is there not only a lack of interest, but a near irrational hostility to this lectionary? What is the deal?

Please. Help me out here. This is truly a mystery to me.


7 thoughts on “A Lament for the Lectionary

  1. I can’t really help you. I like the 3 year series. I lthink it is great having more texts preached on. I like the cycle that it goes through (even the occasional spending a long time in one chapter….even if it tires out the preacher. The one year series seems to tire out many preachers as well). I know it is modern, born in the 60’s and of Vatican II. But maybe it was the one okay thing that came out of that.

    I understand the idea that the Church has followed the same pericopal system over the ages, but I don’t think there is anything wrong with trying to improve on it, trying to bring in more texts. I have a hard time believing that Luther would condemn it.

    I know sentimentally, it amazes me that the Raising of Lazarus isn’t in the One Year Series. That reading occurred not long after my son Noah died. It brought me amazing comfort to know that Jesus wept, even though he knew that he was going to raise Lazarus in a few minutes. It reminded me that there is a purpose for even those things, when he didn’t go when he first heard that Lazarus was sick. Martha’s confession brought me strength, and I related to Mary’s grief and despair all to well. It told me so very clearly that death was never supposed to be a part of the picture. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t what God wanted. If my husband used the one year series, I am sure I still would’ve been comforted by God’s Word from some other text…but I know that hit right where it hurt, and the words from the pulpit on that text was exactly the right text.

    Every three years, I hear that same reading again, and I am reminded of the same comfort, and also of the passage of time. For me, every year probably would’ve been too much at the beginning. Now that it is an occasional dull ache, it is a blessing and a reminder that I will one day see my son as he was always meant to be.

    There are other places where this is the case as well with other things.

    I do think it is a shame that there are not as many resources put out by CPH on it…however, you have all of the Ancients and the Reformers. I know..I know, that is the argument for it right there…oh well.

    I do however understand McCain’s argument on that one. One Year pastors tend to also have a non-CPH preference on Bible translations (I’m an NASB girl myself), tend to like woodcuts, icons, and church symbols on their bulletins (so does my husband)– not 3 year olds sniffing daffodils, etc. That’s neither good nor bad, as far as I know….it just is.

  2. You know, as I look at the preaching of Luther and especially Johann Gerhard, I actually think that this is an argument in favor of the one year lectionary. If you look at the unbelievably rich biblical imagery of Lutheran preachers of years past, it is staggering how biblically illiterate we are in our preaching! And this is after nearly forty years of preaching the three year series. Rather than exposing our hearers to more of the Scriptures, functionally I think that we have far less of the Scriptures in preaching today.

    Our time would be far better spent in mining the sixty or so texts of the one year lectionary, and understand how to preach them Christologically and sacramentally. The three year lectionary hasn’t really contributed to our knowledge and understanding of the Sacred Scriptures. I would suggest that it serves as an excuse for us as a church body to delve into God’s Word less.

  3. I would agree with you that the fact that Luther and Gerhardt and the church fathers used the one year lectionary is probably the strongest reason that I can find.

    After having spent a time in other Protestant circles, I think a part of it also is that we have taken people away from using their Bibles by printing the text in their bulletin, pew Bibles, and even encouraging use of church Bibles in Bible studies. We take away the opportunities for people to read, mark, and inwardly digest and get familiar with the Bible..in THEIR Bibles. I remember the first time I went to a non-denomination church, I felt awkward because after being raised Lutheran, that I hadn’t THOUGHT to bring a Bible. When I returned to Lutheran churches, I often was the only one that brought my own, and I was asked “why do you bother with that? ” But doing so helped me to learn to use it, to become familiar with it, and to make it mine.

    I grieve for the Biblical illiteracy of Luther’s church, too. And I have seen, as a standard, a higher degree of Biblical literacy (though not good interpretation) in other circles where use of one’s own was expected even where no pericopal system was in place, and the pastor hopped around to this and that (but really dug into the text and could expound upon it for an hour or more). I like our emphasis on Law and Gospel more, but the respect for The Word and the preaching of it was also more observable there as well (people didn’t complain when it hit 12 minutes…they got tape copies of the sermons that took both sides of a cassette tape and listened over and over again to get more out of it).

    We were discussing both lectionaries last night, and I think my husband would somewhat disagree with you on having the fewer texts to focus on learning to preach. He said that the 3 year series has helped him understand the readings within the context of each gospel, and that has helped him to preach them better. But after almost 11 years of using the three year, he is curious to work with the one year lectionary for a few years to be able to utilize the vast resources and to compare.

  4. The notion that there is more of the Bible in the Vatican II lectionary has been disproved. Over the course of the three-years, there is only marginally more of Holy Scripture being read. Over the course of one year, the Historic Lectionary has far more Bible than a year of the Vatican II lectionary. And of course, there is a bias against texts on judgment, sexual immorality, etc. in the 1960’s Roman Catholic Higher Critical lectionary.

    But in the end, it doesn’t surprise me that there is an irrational hostility to the traditional lectionary. There is also an irrational hostility to the traditional liturgy, and the traditional text of the Bible (the Byzantine textform). (In my mind, it’s not the traditional liturgy without the traditional lectionary.) All this is man’s desire to create, innovate, “improve” on the liturgy, while thumbing his nose at tradition (and pretending AP XXIV doesn’t say what it plainly says). And now, with four decades of data, we can see it has only made things worse.

    We’ve already gone through several incarnations of the Vatican II lectionary, and what it has established is this: I/my parish/our worship committees can change the liturgy at will. We decide, and in our hubris are free to jettison the things that have been handed down to us. And so: The Kyrie is optional. The Gloria is optional, but in virtually every place, is displaced by “This is the feast of victory FOR our God.” The salutation? Altered to destroy the doctrine of the ministry. The collects? Changed. The readings? Changed. The season of pre-Lent? Gone. The Communion liturgy? In a great many places, condensed down to the Verba, spoken by an auctioneer on steroids. The Sacrament? Distributed by laymen and -women. The Nunc Dimmittis? Replaced by a Coca-Cola ditty. And so, in a generation, the memory of the past is almost erased. A new, Ablazing Mauve empire shall arise from the ashes of the traditional liturgy.

    And in this time, the preaching has become so vapid that laypeople know almost nothing of the faith. I am astonished at the ignorance of people who come from other LCMS churches. They have not been taught the Catechism, and the language of the liturgy is unrecognizable to them. They are proudly, arrogantly illiterate of our doctrine and practice.

    Changing the readings is part of this whole structure that demands man be in charge and that we jettison the tradition. It is a radical break from the past, and so as long as there are Historic Lectionary advocates around, they must be mocked and derided because they are a reminder that the emperor has no clothes. Meanwhile, the liturgical “experts” declare that despite years of declining membership, increased Biblical illiteracy, and rampant immorality among clergy and laity, somehow more innovation will improve matters.

    Where this is leading, ultimately, is to complete chaos, where everyone does what is right in his own eyes. Do we not already see this circling about us? Like you, Todd, I am utterly astonished that otherwise confessional pastors in our midst cannot see how destructive this is to the unity of the church and the confession of the faith. But then, the entire structure is now against them. It takes some testicular fortitude to thumb your nose at what the “experts” say we must do, and what CPH and the seminaries demand we use, on pain of being “taunted a second time.”

    Happy Thanksgiving.

  5. First I want to say that anything said after this is not without a sincere appreciation for the efforts that both of you are making in preserving our heritage and improving catechesis for all of us in the LCMS…

    Personally, I have no hostility toward either lectionary, and I am more than willing to grant that it would be BEST for us to use the historical lectionary, the historical liturgy, the historical liturgical calendar, etc. It would also be great if we used the same Biblical translation, the same hymnal, the same language (provided we could all understand it), and it would be completely awesome to have the festival days determine our holidays, so that the life of the church ran through our days and our nights, our family lives, etc. It would be best, but I guess the question is, is it IMPERATIVE.

    It may well be that the destruction of our unity in practice has been damaged by the change in lectionaries…but looking at the 20th century history of the LCMS, it looks like that damage was happening well before Vatican II offered another lectionary and our Synod revised and embraced it.

    I also have faith in God’s promise in 1 Timothy 3:16 “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” It doesn’t have to be the same in every congregation for the Holy Spirit to use it to build up His Church.

    Not every confessional pastor or layman recognizes that the lectionary is important because they are struggling with just getting any lectionary used, or any good hymnal used, or closing the Table to those who do not believe or who are not catechized, getting their flock to learn more of their heritage or learn to appreciate the Common Cup, even as an option. There has to be a starting point.

    When Concensus had their conference a few years ago in order to try to establish unity, the problem of getting confessionals to agree on where the problems are was as much of a challenge. In my humble opinion, Concensus did a good job at isolating the key issues, yet there were some pastors who walked away because they could not find unity on every little point. I’ve also seen situations where sight unseen, pastors were expressing frustration with LSB and preparing to write their own hymnals. Pastors have left and started their own church bodies because they wanted to agree on the perpetual virginity of Mary and infant communion. Pastors have left and gone East or West or on their own because they didn’t believe that we really had a church because we don’t have bishops. There are so many issues, whether it be the translation used, the hymnal used, high church vs. low church, and I could go on and on all night.

    I would love unity with the practice of the historic church, but right now, I’d love to find some common ground within the Synod and start from there –, and that is more likely to be found with the 3 Year and LSB, such as it is. While issues like Pre-Lent and Byzantine textform might be important (and I admittedly am not educated enough in these things to form an educated opinion), I think that the battle right now is to be able to lovingly and firmly discuss the basics, such as we have them, for those who have left even those and try to get them to return to their liturgical heritage and hope and pray that these issues are determined by future generations. Getting the discussion started on the very necessity of Divine Service opens the way to discuss the merits and perils of “This is the Feast.”

    And my personal question — having read some of the Fathers and some ancient liturgies, it is clear that the practices of the Historical Church have grown over time, even though they were established very early. But aside from the Reformation, is there a time when we do purify and simplify our practices because the Church is in a place where the very basics are what is needed?

    You mentioned AP XXIV. I am assuming that is Apology. My apology only goes up to XXIII. Is that a typo or are you referring to something else?

    In the end, the problem lies in catechesis, even catechesis of pastors. We are in an era that seems to be so similar to the Early Reformation in the fight for God’s Word and for our traditions. Pastors have lost the knowledge of why we do what we do. Laity surely has. There have been times like that in our history, but as you know, it needs to be rectified. On vicarage, Pastor and my husband did a Bible Study on the liturgy. They had several people saying “I’ve been saying these things for 70 years and never really thought about what they meant before.”

    The preaching is vapid. I agree. But I have heard vapid preaching from those who cling to the One Year Lectionary as well as the Three, and of course from those who aren’t using one at all. The “Law Gospel in ten minutes formula” works well with men who know how to preach, but for those who do not know how (or were taught this way), they compose a generic law, a generic gospel, get it done in the right amount of time, but never touch upon the actual text (I’ve read both of your sermons, I know that is not the case here). If that is what is happening in the pulpit, the people are not getting fed how they should.

    There were a lot of things that have caused the problems in our congregations, and you may very well be right that the lectionary is part of it. However, there are lots of things that cause cancer, but when a person is in the throes of it, the best thing to do is to get the cancer out and realize that the person cannot return to his full life without first healing and getting him to the point where even chicken broth or other clear liquids can be tolerated before we worry about the filet mignon of Byzantine subtext and rose chasubles. If the hope is not just to have individual congregations practice the ways of the historic church, and that the hope is to take the LCMS back to the ways of the historic church, too, we need to realize how sick she is in some cases and cut out the evils of baptism pool parties at Jefferson Hills and feed the milk of the church (the best clear liquid of all) and work up to the meat of the rich traditions. Sometimes, (and I am not necessarily saying that this is the case with YOU), our love and reverence for these things have gotten in the way of finding common ground and being able to begin to lift our sister congregations up out of the messes that they’ve gotten themselves into that is in varying degrees depending on the congregation.

    God bless.

  6. And BTW, I want to be clear how thankful that I am for pastors like you and your congregations that preserve the historic practices for us to look to and to serve as examples for us to look to beyond the very basics, that work to retain the beauties of the traditions of the Historic Church.

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