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The Word in worship

What is the lectionary? How do we use it?

A lectionary (from the Latin lectio for “selection” or “reading”) is a set of scripture readings chosen for use in worship. Since at least the fourth century, churches have arranged selections of scripture to accompany the church year and/or to allow for continuous readings of books of the Bible from one Sunday to the next. The word “lectionary” can either refer to a simple table of readings or a book that includes the full texts of the scriptures for each day.

The Revised Common Lectionary, prepared in 1992 by the ecumenical Consultation on Common Texts, is modeled on its precursors, the Common Lectionary (1983) and the Roman Catholic Lectionary for Mass (1969). The Revised Common Lectionary is now used by many of the major denominations in North America. This lectionary provides for a broadly representative sample of Old and New Testament texts and themes, while taking into account the seasons and festivals of the Christian year.

For each Sunday and festival, The Revised Common Lectionary includes a selection from the Hebrew Scriptures, a psalm that serves as a response to that reading, a New Testament epistle, and a reading from one of the four gospels. From Advent through Trinity Sunday, the Old Testament lesson is related to the gospel reading (as a parallel or a contrast); from the Sunday following Trinity Sunday through Christ the King, the lectionary features semi-continuous readings of selected Hebrew Scriptures. During the season of Easter, the Old Testament reading is replaced by a reading from the Acts of the Apostles.

Following the pattern established by the 1969 Lectionary for Mass, The Revised Common Lectionary is arranged in a three-year cycle. Year A prominently features the gospel of Matthew, as well as a series of readings from the Pentateuch and Romans (after Pentecost). Year B features Mark, along with 1 and 2 Samuel, Job, 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, and James (among others). Year C features Luke, with semi-continuous readings from the prophets (particularly Jeremiah), Colossians, Hebrews, and 1 and 2 Timothy. Readings from the gospel of John are interspersed throughout the three-year cycle, especially during Christmas, Lent and Easter.

The primary intent of the lectionary is to encourage a disciplined reading of the whole range of the biblical witness in worship. The lectionary can also be an invaluable tool in the coordination of preaching, worship planning, liturgical art, music leadership and Christian education throughout a congregation or denomination. Furthermore, the widespread use of the lectionary allows for ecumenical conversation about the texts for the week (as at a gathering of local clergy) and a resource for personal reflection on scripture.

In addition to the lectionary for Sundays and festivals, the daily lectionary provides for continuous reading of the Old Testament (once) and New Testament (twice) over a two-year period. (Source: Consultation on Common Texts, The Revised Common Lectionary. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992.)

Do we need to include all the readings?

According to the Directory for Worship: “The minister of Word and Sacrament is responsible for the selection of Scripture to be read in all services of public worship and should exercise care so that over a period of time the people will hear the full message of Scripture. It is appropriate that in the Service for the Lord’s Day there be readings from the Old Testament and the Epistles and Gospels of the New Testament. The full range of the psalms should also be used in worship.

“Selections for reading in public worship should be guided by the seasons of the church year, pastoral concerns for a local congregation, events and conditions in the world and specific program emphases of the church. Lectionaries offered by the church ensure a broad range of readings as well as consistency and connection with the universal Church.

“The people of God should exercise this same principle in their choice of Scripture reading in family and personal worship. Those responsible for teaching and preaching the Word have a special responsibility to ensure that in their personal worship they observe a disciplined reading from the fullness of Scripture” (W-2.2002 – W-2.2004).

Should there be a children’s sermon or other special worship activities for children?

The Directory for Worship reminds us, “Children bring special gifts to worship and grow in the faith through their regular inclusion and participation in the worship of the congregation. Those responsible for planning and leading the participation of children in worship should consider the children’s level of understanding and ability to respond, and should avoid both excessive formality and condescension. The session should ensure that regular programs of the church do not prevent children’s full participation with the whole congregation in worship, in Word and Sacrament, on the Lord’s Day” (W-3.1004).

In the Companion to the Book of Common Worship, Ron Byars writes, “In a number of Presbyterian congregations, a custom has evolved over recent decades of inviting children to hear a children’s sermon’ or ‘words for children’ or ‘children’s time.’ Perhaps congregations would feel less pressured to resort to this practice if the whole service were more inviting to children and others who need to engage all the senses in worship rather than only the sense of hearing. Conversely, and more boldly, some reject children’s sermons as liturgically unnecessary and pedagogically inappropriate. ‘Children learn much by vigorous ritual engagement, as Eric Erikson has pointed out. They learn perhaps even more by observing what ritual and liturgy do or do not do to adults, especially their parents, and to their peers and siblings’ [quoting Aidan Kavanagh, Elements of Rite: A Handbook of Liturgical Style. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1990, 68].

“In situations where the children’s sermon is firmly rooted, there are ways to reduce the likelihood that the children will be exploited for the entertainment of adults in the congregation. It is possible, for example, to give a children’s sermon without asking the children to leave their places. This protects those children who are reluctant to be exposed to the whole assembly, while also protecting children from exposure to the laughter of the congregation, and it minimizes the danger of tempting children to show off. The children’s sermon is not to be used as a means to communicate with adults, nor is it a time to entertain adults with the humorous things children may say. Children’s sermons that resort to object lessons and abstractions are almost always developmentally inappropriate to the ages of the children. It is better simply to tell or retell a biblical story appropriate to the day, leaving it open-ended, without providing a moral at the end. Children can relate especially to the people in the stories, and work on their own interpretations without having them prematurely interpreted by an adult. Whatever congregations opt for with children, it is wisest to keep them present with the worshiping assembly so they may fully experience the whole liturgy. Children can participate and enter into the worship. A Word and Sacrament service, for example, can offer much more accessibility to children and others who feel excluded by an excessively intellectual and verbal form of worship” (Ron Byars, “The Service for the Lord’s Day,” in The Companion to the Book of Common Worship, Peter C. Bower, ed. Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 2003, 32-33).