‘Churchy’ Words

Does this sound like a category on TV’s Jeopardy quiz game?   These are all words that you might hear your pastor use, particularly in conversation with another pastor.   They’re part of a kind of ‘technical language’ which they learn in seminary and speak among themselves.  (But they don’t mind if you know it too!)

Pericope – The natural reaction when people (or spell checkers) see this word  is to think that someone misspelled ‘periscope’ and that’s also the way most people will try to pronounce it.  It’s actually an ancient Greek word pronounced purr-RICK-ah-pea that originally referred to any kind of excerpt from a longer piece of writing.  However, within the church it came to refer to the prescribed selections of scripture that are read as part of a worship service – what we usually call the ‘readings’ or the ‘lessons.’  Because the normal practice in liturgical churches is for the sermon to be based on the pericopes, there are books of sermon helps based on them, and pastors will frequently organize groups that meet regularly to study and discuss the upcoming ones.  So, sometimes the word pericope is also used informally to refer to such books and groups.

Lectionary – This is the standard calendar of pericopes to be used on each given Sunday or Church Festival.  Lectionaries are usually organized as a three-year cycle which covers all of the Gospels, most of the New Testament Epistles, and a representative sampling of the Old Testament (see also The Readings).  You can download a free copy of the lectionary that many NALC churches use at the Sola Publishing website.   Another one commonly used by many denominations is the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) which can also be found at sites on the internet.

Missal –  This is the traditional name for a book which gives the detailed texts and instructions for celebrating the Catholic mass throughout the church year (i.e.: a “mass-al”).  We don’t usually use the word ‘mass’ in Lutheran churches, but we still use a missal (though we may call it a ‘Service Book’).  It is the large book that sits in the middle of the altar on a brass stand (aptly called the missal stand) which the Pastor reads from while presiding over the worship service.  A shortened version is found in the front of our hymnals.

Rubric – This word comes from a medieval custom of using red (ruby colored) ink to highlight special instructions in the missal so that the presiding priest could easily distinguish them from the black text to be read out loud.  If you look at the orders of service (worship settings) found near the front of our hymnal, you’ll see that we still use that traditional custom of red instructions.  You may also hear the term used in secular contexts to refer to any kind of ‘standard’ that is supposed to be adhered to.

Propers – This is the word used to describe the part of the liturgy that is supposed to vary with the season of the church year.  If you look at the front ‘service book’ part of our hymnal you’ll see that there are special things that are said or sung at different times.  These are the propers, in contrast to the parts that are reasonably constant, which are called the ordinaries.

Homily – This is commonly used as a synonym for ‘sermon.’  However, it is more narrowly defined as a “commentary on a reading from scripture.”  So most of the time, the sermons you’ll hear in Lutheran churches are homilies based on the pericopes for that Sunday.

Ecclesial – This is again a Greek-derived word and it refers broadly to things that relate to the ‘churchly’ realm, as opposed to the personal or political, for example.  Pastors also use the word to refer to that part of their duties which are specifically related to the ‘spiritual’ as opposed to administrative aspects of the job.   So our title could as easily have been stated as “Ecclesial Words” (but would you have read it then?)

Is there any compelling reason to learn these obscure words?  Not really, except that it eliminates some of the puzzlement you might feel when you encounter them – they’re just traditional jargon that has a long history in the church.  But if you want to have some fun, compose a coherent sentence that uses all of these words and casually drop it into a conversation with your pastor – and watch the reaction!

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