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How should readings be linked? Preaching from May to July 2019

01 April 2019

The Old Testament in the Lectionary

In this issue, two of the articles on preaching from the Old, or the First Testament[i], are concerned with ‘dark passages’ or ‘toxic texts.’ For those who preach from lectionaries, this problem is lessened, although not entirely removed, by the fact that many of the most difficult texts are simply omitted. Although lectionaries provide a more comprehensive treatment of the Scriptures than the purely ad libitum selection process used in some Evangelical worship, they nevertheless provide a canon within the canon. Although this may make sense for pastoral reasons, it could be argued that it gives a false view of what is meant by biblical inspiration, encouraging a spurious authority to what remains.

Traditionally, the Old Testament found its place in Christian Worship either as a continuous reading, moving from chapter to chapter each Sunday or, as is more common, with First Testament readings, chosen for their thematic links with the Gospel Reading.

In the early centuries Lectio Continua, or continuous reading, was the norm, but in time both Eastern and Western lectionaries developed according to the model of Lectio Selecta, with readings chosen for their linkage with the seasons, with the cycles of Easter and Christmas or for their association with the commemoration of particular saints.

At the Reformation the Reformers, with their renewed emphasis on the authority of Scripture, adopted lectionary systems that moved systematically through the Bible. Typically, as in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, worshippers were able to hear the whole of the Old Testament and parts of the Deutero-Canonical Books (Apocrypha) read once and the New Testament twice a year. However, the Prayer Book operated this system only for the daily services of Morning and Evening Prayer, alongside a lectio selecta system for the Holy Communion Service. Today a strict system of continuous Scripture reading operates only among a minority of Church traditions. However, many Reformed congregations now use the Common Lectionary or one of the other available lectionary systems.

In the Roman Catholic Church, the 1969 revision and expansion of the existing lectionary was ordered ‘fare for the faithful at the table of God’s Word’ with a more representative portion of Scripture read over a set cycle of years. This provide for three readings on Sundays and solemnities. The first reading is usually from the Old Testament, the second from the epistles and the third from the Gospels. On ordinary weekdays, the first reading, sometimes drawn from the First Testament and the Gospel are loosely continuous and are not intended to offer any linkage with each other.

The revised Roman Lectionary for Mass was widely praised and many Anglican and Protestant churches in North American undertook adaptations and revisions of it for their own use during the 1970s. Based on these versions the Revised Common Lectionary published in 1992 largely followed the Roman Lectionary but, the Old Testament readings were not chosen as source texts for preaching, but as loosely continuous so as to acquaint the congregation with them in their integrity. More recent editions of the Common Lectionary have followed the Roman Lectionary by providing an optional alternative of First Testament passages chosen for their linkage with the Gospel.


In this Issue: Finding Linkage

In the period after Easter, the Lectionary uses texts from Acts and the Apocalypse for the first reading, so the examples of how the Old Testament is preached are in short supply in this issue. However, those we have are instructive in the way that they reinforce and inform the message of the Gospel reading, and I refer you to three of them by way of example.

Claire Hargreaves, preaching for World Refugee Day on Thursday 20 June, links Psalm 137 with the Magnificat of Mary in Luke 1:46-55. The cry of the exiles in Babylon is heard again in the grief of a Syrian refugee woman in Jordan. But whereas the exiles in Babylon were unable to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land, ‘Mary’s song shows how it is possible to sing for joy in the midst of trouble. Her cousin helped to lift her beyond her worldly anxieties to the promise and blessing of a faithful and compassionate God.’

Angela Watts, preaching on prayer for 28 July, leads her hearers into a richer understanding of Christ’s teaching on persistence in prayer as found in Luke 11:1-13 by interpreting the significance of Abraham’s bargaining with God over the fate of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18. Instead of dwelling on the crude caricature of God that we find in this passage, Angela urges an image of prayer as a dialogue based on ‘friendship with God and knowledge of His character.’

Mary Cotes, finds a linkage based on hospitality and calling between ‘the deeply mysterious story of Abraham welcoming of the three travellers at the oaks of Mamre’ (Genesis 18:1-10) and the Gospel story of Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42), urging that ‘both these stories challenge us to identify the preoccupations that so often distract us, as churches and as individuals, from fulfilling our true calling as God’s people.’

Imaginative preaching on the darker, more toxic texts of the First Testament will be found where preachers use texts taken from outside of the lectionary framework.


Duncan Macpherson, Features Editor, Permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Westminster, Retired Principal Lecturer in Theology at Mary’s University, Twickenham


[i] I have decided to use the Londonderry/Derry alternating technique employed by the BBC.

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