Anyone who attends our church services will note that we follow the ancient tradition of weekly readings from the Bible. Because we accompany those readings with a certain amount of ritual (such as sung responses and standing for the Gospel) a casual observer would probably guess that the choice of readings isn’t accidental – and they would be correct! In fact, they follow a very specific schedule called the Lectionary — from the Greek lexis, which implies ‘writings’ (as opposed to Lexus, the car brand). Though there are many variant lectionary versions in use, most conform (loosely at least) to a scheme adopted by the Catholic Church at the Second Vatican Council (1965) and refined by an international ecumenical commission. This is why it is possible that the readings you hear in our church on a given Sunday will be similar to those read in a Catholic cathedral in Manilla or a rural Methodist church in Wyoming.
Though there are some churches that still employ an older one-year lectionary, ours is based on a three-year cycle. The cycles are designated A, B, and C (lots of imagination there!) and begin with the Season of Advent. We’ll be focusing here on the Sunday readings, though the complete lectionary also recommends readings for special ‘festivals’ of the church year (such as Christmas and Thanksgiving). We’ll be talking specifically about the lectionary recommended by our denomination (The North American Lutheran Church – NALC) and several affiliated groups. This differs somewhat from that used in some other Lutheran denominations.
The Gospel Reading: Though the Gospel Reading is the last one read in the worship service, all the other lectionary readings are designed around selections from the Gospels, so that’s the best place to begin:
Year A: The Gospel of Matthew.
Year B: The Gospel of Mark.
Year C: The Gospel of Luke.
The Gospel of John doesn’t have its own year (which irritates some), but it’s used for readings during Easter, Advent, and Lent. Because Mark is the shortest of the four gospels, there are also John readings inserted in Year B. This scheme results in the reading of the four Gospels in a more-or-less complete and sequential fashion over the three year cycle. Because the Gospel reading normally provides the basis for the homily (sermon) that immediately follows, it’s read by the person delivering the sermon.
The First Reading: This is often called the “Old Testament” reading since that’s where most of them are taken from. However, during the Easter season some of the readings are also taken from the New Testament book of Acts. Because this involves so much material, there is no way that all of it can be covered in three years (unless the readings were very long). So there is some selecting and editing, with some books (such as Numbers) barely used and others (such as Genesis and Isaiah) used quite extensively. In our lectionary these readings are chosen to connect thematically with the Gospel reading (in some other lectionaries, they are unrelated). When they come from the Old Testament, these readings typically provide historical precedent for the Gospel.
The Psalm: Following custom which long predates the Christian church, the Psalm is typically sung (or read) responsively. The Psalms, which are ancient Jewish hymns, are selected to complement the Gospel theme.
The Second Reading: This is also called the ‘Epistle’ reading since it is taken from one of the New Testament letters/writings. These readings provide guidance for Christian living and sometimes (but not always) connect to the Gospel theme.
Here’s a hint! To get the most out of the readings, glance ahead to the Gospel before the service begins so that you can see themes that the other readings are selected to complement. Also note the hymn selection. All of these will often work together to provide an overall coherence to the worship service that is lacking if you take each part by itself.