On the Christian Year and the Use of the Lectionary


Observation of the Christian year and the use of a corresponding lectionary are two aspects of liturgy which many Protestant denominations have removed from their worship order. Their removal occurred during or immediately following the reformation, when many sought to distance themselves as far as possible from the Roman Church. But where some opted for complete removal, others sought reformation. This latter effort included the work of John Calvin, Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli, all of whom proposed their own versions of the lectionary and interpretations of the Christian calendar.

As one growing up within the Plymouth Brethren church which is traditionally founded upon nonconformity to established denominations, I had real experience with neither the Christian year or lectionary. I believe many Protestants growing up within non-liturgical denominations share this same situation. It was not until an internship at a Methodist church that I was forced to consider the role and importance of the calendar and lectionary as they pertain to the order of worship and the holistic education of the congregation. My positive experiences arising out of this contemplation are the cause of this paper.

This paper will begin with a brief survey of the development of the Christian Calendar, followed by an introduction to the lectionary, emphasizing its purpose, role and structure. It is important to point out that over the years, many denominations or traditions have made revisions or reforms of both the calendar and lectionary, and for that reason, one could focus on any one of a number of versions, each containing its own traits and uniquenesses. But a general commonality does exist among these different versions, and it will be to this common structure that this paper refers. Where significant differences exist, qualifications will be made.

The Christian Year

The Christian Year or Calendar finds its origin in the early Church. By as early as the first and second century, the Early Church had already arrived at some degree of local agreement regarding the importance of certain aspects of the Gospel narrative as regards the Church's worship and remembrance of the Lord Jesus Christ. The pre-Nicene calendar consisted of two annual feasts, Pascha (i.e., Easter) and Pentecost. These special feasts were celebrated in addition to a weekly celebration of the Lord's Supper. Both of the feasts had been derived from the Jewish feasts of Passover and Pentecost, with the exception that their observance was moved to the nearest Sunday. Pascha was a time in which the redemptive nature of Christ's works and death was remembered. This corresponded to the original Jewish observance of Passover as a time in which the Lord had redeemed the Israelite nation from the Egyptian peoples. Pentecost became in the early Church the time to celebrate the Holy Spirit's outpouring upon the church. This also became a feast through which the Church reinforced her identity as the people of the New Covenant. This observance likewise corresponded to the Jewish Pentecost tradition remembering the implementation of the Mosaic Covenant, as embodied in the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai. The early Church calendar, therefore, consisted of two major observances (Pascha and Pentecost) in addition to a weekly celebration of the Lord's Supper.

By the middle of the fourth century (354 B.C.), the church in Rome had instituted a yearly feast celebrating the birth of the Lord. By 430 B.C., this observance had been adopted by the Constantinople, Antiochan, Alexandrian and Jerusalem churches. The Eastern churches referred to this celebration as the "Epiphany", meaning the Feast of His Manifestation. The Epiphany, originally celebrated by the Eastern churches on January 6th, soon expanded to include other "manifestations" of Christ, namely, to the Magi, His baptism, and at the Cana wedding.

The fourth century saw other additions to the original calendar. The Pascha feast was expanded to include Passion Sunday, Holy Saturday and Good Friday as important elements of Christ's death. Another significant development took place regarding the period prior to Pascha during which catuchumens (new believers) prepared themselves for baptism. The fast during Holy Week was a special discipline which would be accepted by every catechumen as they looked forward to their baptism during the Pascha feast. During the fourth century, the general congregation was encouraged to participate in both the fast and instruction of the catechumens as an opportunity to prepare themselves anew for the celebration of Pascha. As this custom became more accepted, the period of instruction and fast was expanded to 40 days in order to facilitate greater participation. This 40 day period became the basis of the season of Lent. By the sixth century, this period of preparation had become identified with Christ's preparation for the cross, centering on His 40 day fast and temptation in the wilderness. The observance of Ash Wednesday as the beginning of Lent began in Gaul during the sixth century, during which ashes were placed on the forehead in the shape of a cross as a sign of repentance. Although this initially included only those individuals whom the local clergy deemed grievious sinners, the practice quickly spread from England to Rome, and came to include the general congregation

A development took place among the Western churches which is believed to parallel the development of Lent as a 40 prepatory period prior to Easter. Advent seems to have been developed within either the Spanish or Gallican church as a 40 day period of fasting and preparation prior to the Epiphany or Christmas feast. This observance became customary throughout the Western churches, but was never observed in an equal manner within the Eastern churches, although many practiced some form of fast of varying lengths prior to the Epiphany celebration.

The calendar which emerged from the fourth century has been the basis of all contemporary observations of the Christian year. The only changes or additions which have taken place have been "details and decorations" (Dix, 358). The calendar has traditionally consisted of two "cycles" or groups of commemorations: One pertaining to the Lord's Birth (Advent-Christmas-Epiphany), and the other pertaining to the Lord's death (Lent-Easter-Pentecost). These are also referred to as the Christmas and Easter Cycles respectively. The entire year concludes, therefore, with the two original feasts of the pre-Nicene calendar, Pascha (Easter and Ascension) and Pentecost. Although various traditions have opted to start the Christian year at different points, such as Easter or Epiphany, the most logic and therefore most common starting point is the commencement of Advent since this corresponds to the beginning of the Gospel narrative. This places the beginning of the Christian year at the end of November (i.e., four Sundays prior to Christmas).

The Lectionary

The Christian lectionary is an ordered collection of Scripture Readings which are to be used as the basis for the weekly (sometimes daily) service's focus. Very little has been discovered regarding the precise beginnings of the Christian use of lectionaries. Some have proposed that the early Church simply carried over the Jewish tradition of reading ordered portions of the Torah within the synagogue (cf. Luke 4:17). There is evidence for the later development of a Jewish lectionary which presented two readings for every Sabbath, one from the Torah (Pentateuch) and one from the Prophets. It is possible that Luke assumed that his audience would have understood that Jesus was reading that week's portion of the Prophets when he gives the account of Jesus in the Nazareth synagogue. The Jewish lectionary also included Psalmody, the reading of Psalms, which generally took place between the two major Readings. In this way, the order of the Jewish Readings was from that of greatest importance (Moses' writings) to those deemed the lesser of Moses.

By the end of the fourth century, the early Church had also developed its own lectionary. Their's, however, did not follow the Jewish movement from great to lesser (i.e., descending). Instead, the Christian lectionary employed an ascending order which likewise seemed to follow roughly the chronological order of the writings. Although some variances existed regarding the number of Readings for each service, these early lectionaries show a general practice limiting themselves to three, from the Old Testament, the Epistles and as a rule, from the Gospels.

The lectionaries followed the general principle of lectio continua for ordinary Sundays. Books would be chosen (one OT, one Epistle, and one Gospel), and each read in generally consecutive order over a period of time, so that the congregation would eventually be exposed to each book in its entirety. Where shorter books were chosen, such as would be the case for some of the Epistles, a series of Epistles would gradually be read in consecutive order. This practice ensured that the body of believers would be exposed to the greatest amount of Scripture possible. This also protected the congregation from partial or inadequate exposure due to a particular leader's favoritism of one or more books over others, or similar situations. In this fashion then, the early Church developed one year lectionaries which served as the general order of service throughout the year.

But this concern for the wholistic education of the body of believers led to the conviction that the one year lectionary still failed to bring the whole Bible to the people. Therefore, the one year lectionary was expanded in some traditions to a two or three year lectionary, allowing for a greater body of Scripture to be included. The contemporary lectionaries based on these revisions employ the terms "Years A, B, C" as a means of distinguishing which year of the three year cycle is currently being observed.

In addition to the lectio continua principle, we find that by the fifth century, the church had begun to associate specific Scripture passages with special church festivals or feasts. These special texts were initially selected only for the original calendar feasts of Pascha and Pentecost. But other special Readings were soon added to Lent, Easter, Advent, Christmas, etc.. This combination of feast observation and lectio continua slowly developed into the predecessors of the contemporary lectionaries.

Alcuin played a key role in the standardization of the Western churches' use of the lectionary. It was his standardized lectionaries which became the basis for the later Book of Common Prayer, Lutheran, Roman catholic, and Anglican lectionaries. The Reformers elevation of the preaching of the Word made use of the lectionary, though each reformer sought to revise it in his own fashion. One notable instance of this was Martin Luther's conviction that the entire Epistle sequence needed rewriting.

The Roman Catholic church's Missale Romanum, became the standardized Western lectionary which served as the basis for later protestant lectionaries. The Missale was used by the Roman church up until 1969. At Vatican II, the Ordo Lectionum Missae was implemented which presented a three year cycle of readings. The Ordo serves as the basis upon which the current lectionaries of the Presbyterian (1970), Episcopal (1970, 1976), Lutheran (1973, 1978), and Methodist (1979, 1992) were constructed. (Note: Current efforts are underway by the Consultation on Common Texts to compile a lectionary which is acceptable to all churches.)

Sample Lection

The lectionary, as stated above, follows a three year cycle, with the calendar year beginning with Advent. The following lectionary outlines the sequence of readings for the third year, Year C.

Acts of Praise Old Testament Epistle Gospel
Advent: Year C
1st Sunday Ps 25:1-10 Jer 33:14-16 1 Thess 3:9-13 Luke 21:25-36
2nd Sunday Luke 1:68-79 Mal 3:1-4 Phil 1:3-11 Luke 3:1-6
3rd Sunday Isa 12:2-6 Zeph 3:14-20 Phil 4:4-7 Luke 3:7-18
4th Sunday Luke 1:47-55 Mic 5:2-5a Heb 10:5-10 Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)
Christmas Season: Year C
Christmas Eve/Day Ps 96 Isa 9:2-7 Titus 2:11-14 Luke 2:1-20
Addt'l Lessons
for Christmas Day
Ps 98 Isa 52:7-10 Heb 1:1-4, (5-12) John 1:1-14
Epiphany Season: Year C
Epiphany Ps 72:1-7,10-14 Isa 60:1-6 Eph 3:1-12 Matt 2:1-12
1st Sunday Ps 29 Isa 43:1-7 Acts 8:14-17 Luke 3:15-17,21-22
2nd Sunday Ps 36:5-10 Isa 62:1-5 1 Cor 12:1-11 John 2:1-11
3rd Sunday Ps 19 Neh 8:1-3,5-6,8-10 1 Cor 12:12-31a Luke 4:14-21
4th Sunday Ps 71:1-6 Jer 1:4-10 1 Cor 13:1-13 Luke 4:21-30
5th Sunday Ps 138 Isa 6:1-8,(9-13) 1 Cor 15:1-11 Luke 5:1-11
6th Sunday Ps 1 Jer 17:5-10 1 Cor 15:12-20 Luke 6:17-26
7th Sunday Ps 37:1-11,39-40 Gen 45:3-11,15 1 Cor 15:35-38,42-50 Luke 6:27-38
8th Sunday Ps 92:1-4,12-15 Isa 55:10-13 1 Cor 15:51-58 Luke 6:39-49
Last Sunday Ps 99 Exod 34:29-35 2 Cor 3:12-4:2 Luke 9:28-36,(37-43)
Lent: Year C
Ash Wednesday Ps 51:1-17 Joel 2:1-2,12-17 2 Cor 5:20b-6:10 Matt 6:1-6,16-21
1st Sunday Ps 91:1-2,9-16 Deut 26:1-11 Rom 10:8b-13 Luke 4:1-13
2nd Sunday Ps 27 Gen 15:1-12,17-18 Phil 3:17-4:1 Luke 13:31-35
3rd Sunday Ps 63:1-8 Isa 55:1-9 1 Cor 10:1-13 Luke 13:1-9
4th Sunday Ps 32 Josh 5:9-12 2 Cor 5:16-21 Luke 15:1-3,11b-32
5th Sunday Ps 126 Isa 43:16-21 Phil 3:4b-14 John 12:1-8
Ps 118:1-2,19-29
Ps 31:9-16
Isa 50:4-9a Phil 2:5-11 Luke 19:28-40; 22:14-23:56
or 23:1-49
Holy Week
Monday Ps 36:5-11 Isa 42:1-9 Heb 9:11-15 John 12:1-11
Tuesday Ps 71:1-14 Isa 49:1-7 1 Cor 1:18-31 John 12:20-36
Wednesday Ps 70 Isa 50:4-9a Heb 12:1-3 John 13:21-32
Holy Thursday Ps 116:1-2,12-19 Exod 12:1-4,(5-10),11-14 1 Cor 11:23-26 John 13:1-17,31b-35
Good Friday Ps 22 Isa 52:13-53:12 Heb 10:16-25 John 18:1-19:42
Easter Season: Year C
Easter Eve Gen 1:1-2:4a; Ps 136:1-9,23-26; Gen 7:1-5,11-18; 8:6-18; Ps 46; Gen 22:1-18; Ps 16; Exod 14:10-31; 15:20-21; 15:1b-13,17-18; Isa 55:1-11; 12:2-6; Ezek 36:24-28; Ps 42; Ezek 37:1-14; Ps 143; Zeph 3:14-20; Rom 6:3-11; Ps 114; Luke 24:1-12
Easter Day Ps 118:1-2,14-24 Acts 10:34-43 1 Cor 15:19-26 John 20:1-18 or
Luke 24:1-12
2nd Sunday Ps 150 Acts 5:27-32 Rev 1:4-8 John 20:19-31
3rd Sunday Ps 30 Acts 9:1-6,(7-20) Rev 5:11-14 John 21:1-19
4th Sunday Ps 23 Acts 9:36-43 Rev 7:9-17 John 10:22-30
5th Sunday Ps 148 Acts 11:1-18 Rev 21:1-6 John 13:31-35
6th Sunday Ps 67 Acts 16:9-15 Rev 21:10,22-22:5 John 14:23-29
Ascension Day Ps 47 Acts 1:1-11 Eph 1:15-23 Luke 24:44-53
7th Sunday Ps 97 Acts 16:16-34 Rev 22:12,14,16-17,20-21 John 17:20-26
Pentecost Ps 104:24-35b Acts 2:1-21 Rom 8:14-17 John 14:8-17,(25-27)
The Season After Pentecost: Year C
1st Sunday
(Trinity Sunday)
Ps 8 Prov 8:1-4,22-31 Rom 5:1-5 John 16:12-15
2nd Sunday Ps 5:1-8 1 K 21:1-21a Gal 2:15-21 Luke 7:36-8:3
3rd Sunday Ps 42 1 K 19:1-15a Gal 3:23-29 Luke 8:26-39
4th Sunday Ps 77:1-2,11-20 2 K 2:1-2,6-14 Gal 5:1,13-25 Luke 9:51-62
5th Sunday Ps 30 2 K 5:1-14 Gal 6:(1-6),7-16 Luke 10:1-11,16-20
6th Sunday Ps 82 Amos 7:7-17 Col 1:1-14 Luke 10:25-37
7th Sunday Ps 52 Amos 8:1-12 Col 1:15-28 Luke 10:38-42
8th Sunday Ps 85 Hos 1:2-10 Col 2:6-15,(16-19) Luke 11:1-13
9th Sunday Ps 107:1-9,43 Hos 11:1-11 Col 3:1-11 Luke 12:13-21
10th Sunday Ps 50:1-8,22-23 Isa 1:1,10-20 Heb 11:1-3,8-16 Luke 12:32-40
11th Sunday Ps 80:1-2,8-19 Isa 5:1-7 Heb 11:29-12:2 Luke 12:49-56
12th Sunday Ps 71:1-6 Jer 1:4-10 Heb 12:18-29 Luke 13:10-17
13th Sunday Ps 81:1,10-16 Jer 2:4-13 Heb 13:1-8,15-16 Luke 14:1,7-14
14th Sunday Ps 139:1-6,13-18 Jer 18:1-11 Philemon 1-21 Luke 14:25-33
15th Sunday Ps 14 Jer 4:11-12,22-28 1 Tim 1:12-17 Luke 15:1-10
16th Sunday Ps 79:1-9 Jer 8:18-9:1 1 Tim 2:1-7 Luke 16:1-13
17th Sunday Ps 91:1-6,14-16 Jer 32:1-3a,6-15 1 Tim 6:6-19 Luke 16:19-31
18th Sunday Ps 137 Lam 1:1-6 2 Tim 1:1-14 Luke 17:5-10
19th Sunday Ps 66:1-12 Jer 29:1,4-7 2 Tim 2:8-15 Luke 17:11-19
20th Sunday Ps 119:97-104 Jer 31:27-34 2 Tim 3:14-4:5 Luke 18:1-8
21st Sunday Ps 65 Joel 2:23-32 2 Tim 4:6-8,16-18 Luke 18:9-14
All Saints Day Ps 149 Dan 7:1-3,15-18 Eph 1:11-23 Luke 6:20-31
22nd Sunday Ps 119:137-144 Hab 1:1-4; 2:1-4 2 Thess 1:1-4,11-12 Luke 19:1-10
23rd Sunday Ps 145:1-5,17-21 Hag 1:15b-2:9 2 Thess 2:1-5,13-17 Luke 20:27-38
24th Sunday Isa 12 or
Ps 118
Isa 65:17-25 2 Thess 3:6-13 Luke 21:5-19
Last Sunday
(Christ the King)
Luke 1:68-79 Jer 23:1-6 Col 1:11-20 Luke 23:33-43
Thanksgiving Day Ps 100 Deut 26:1-11 Phil 4:4-9 John 6:25-35


Dix, Gregory. The Shape of the Liturgy. (London: Dacre Press; 1968)

Johnson, Sherman E. The Year of the Lord's Favor: Preaching the three-year lectionary. (New York: Seabury Press; 1983)

McArthur, A. Allan. The Christian Year and Lectionary Reform. (London: SCM Press; 1958)

The United Methodist Book of Worship. (Nashville: UMC Publ.; 1992)

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