The other day a person asked us here at Concordia Publishing House where, exactly, did the lectionary systems Lutherans use today come from. Great question! My colleague, Rev. Scot Kinnaman, prepared a very helpful summary history that I thought I would pass along here. I added just a bit to it here and there. As Scot notes elsewhere when he first posted these materials, "It should be noted. Much of this article was first put together several years ago when several of us pastors in the circuit were keenly interested in the historic lectionary, and there was not talk yet of a new hymnal (probably 1997—1998)." I've since learned that Rev. Alexander Ring prepared papers on this topic and some of his materials were incorporated in the material below as well. In fact, Rev. Ring gracious sent me copies of the papers he did on this subject back in the late 1990s and I'm making them available to you here, for even more detail. Thanks, Alex! Pastor Ring's papers provide much more detail and I'm sure you will find them very useful. The following are PDF files.
Path of Understanding by Rev. Alexander Ring: Path of Understanding – Ring
The Organization of the Historic Lectionary by Rev. Alexander Ring: Organization of the Historic Lectionary
ILCW/RCL Omissions and Edits by Rev. Alexander Ring: ILCW:RCL Omissions and Edits
Bibliography on the Lectionary, for further study, by Rev. Alexander Ring: Lectionary Bibliography for Further Study
First, let me explain what a "lectionary" is. It is a series of readings from the Bible used every Sunday in congregational worship. In addition, there are readings appointed to be read on every major feast and festival day in the Church year, which often do not fall on a Sunday.
A lectionary, when used properly and consistently, permits the preacher to preach through the whole counsel of God in an orderly manner, in a way that is both memorable and thematic. The entire thematic structure of the Church Year itself is reflected in the lectionary reading choices as well. Honestly, liturgical churches that use a lectionary take it totally for granted, but it comes as quite a revelation (no pun intended) for those who know nothing about it and learn of it for the first time.
Today the lectionaries used in Lutheran and other liturgical churches include a reading from one of the four Gospels, a reading from some other book in the New Testament, generally the Epistles, and a reading from the Old Testament. The Gospel reading is considered the main reading and the other readings are intended to support the preaching on, and explanation of, the content of the Gospel reading. In Lutheran and other liturgical churches, we stand for the reading of the Gospel, in honor of Christ who is often the one speaking in the Gospel reading, or being spoken about directly.
It is generally accepted that what we know today as the "historic lectionary" was first established by Jerome (c. A.D. 342-420). Having the name of Jerome attached to the lectionary made it influential on its own, but when it was later included in the Leonine Sacramentary it became a standard text for the Western Church. The oldest extant copy of this Sacramentary dates from seventh century. A "sacramentary" is a book that contained everything the priest would say during the worship service. At this time, the lectionary provided assigned readings only for the Church Year seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter, with the rest of the year covered by optional readings, as chosen either by the local pastor or local bishop.
When Charlemagne decided to standardize liturgical practices in his domain, which included basically what we know as Western and Central Europe, his religious advisor, Alcuin (c. 735-804), prepared a revision of Jerome's work. This standardized worship in the Western Church and put everyone, quite literally, on the same page, at least for the festival part of the year, the first half of the Church Year.
The next major change to the lectionary would not come until the 13th century with the establishment of Holy Trinity as a major festival in the Church. Holy Trinity soon came to dominate the second half of the church year, and with that came the establishment of assigned "propers" for the entire year so that by the end of the 13th century the liturgical practice of the Western Church, year round, was governed by the Historic lectionary, though it wouldn't be until the Council of Trent that the Roman Church actually enforced and stabilized its use. The "propers" are those readings during the worship service that change from Sunday to Sunday, and from festival to festival. They include in addition to the Scripture readings: readings from the Psalms, shorter biblical texts for transitioning from reading to reading, and a prayer for each Sunday and festival, known as a collect. Together these readings are known as "propers" as distinct from the "ordinaries," which are those portions of the liturgy that remain the same, Sunday to Sunday. A good way to remember the differences is simply to say, "It is proper to change the propers, but ordinaries ordinarily do not change."
During the Reformation the question wasn't, "Should the lectionary be changed?" only whether it should be used at all. While Zwingli and others Refomers liked him abolished the use of lectionaries, along with the observation of the church year all together, Calvin substituted a continuous reading through the Bible, called a lectio continuo, in place of the historic lectionary, since he saw homiletical value in having some sort of assigned reading, even while he too wanted to do away with the liturgical practices of the Western Church.
The Lutherans, on the other hand, believed that the lectionary did not promote false doctrine and so they retained the historic lectionary with only slight revisions—the most notable being they added propers for Trinity 25 and 26, and most Lutherans moved Transfiguration from August 6 to the last Sunday after Epiphany, though the date to observe Transfiguration was retained by some Lutherans, most notably, the Church of Sweden.
Luther directed that the historic lectionary should be used in both of his revisions to the Roman Catholic Mass and published them in his Formula Missae [Form of the Mass] and Deutsche Messe [German Mass] (these documents are found in the American Edition of Luther's Works, Vol. 25). All Lutheran altar books continued to use the historic lectionary. Even the Augsburg Confession and the Apology testify to its official use in Lutheran congregations (Article XXVI and Apology, XXIV.1). For the next 400 years, Lutheran retained this common historic lectionary, along with Roman Catholics and Anglicans. It served as the basis for preaching and devotional books, hymnody and church music, and even until the mid 20th century was included in every Lutheran hymnal.
There certainly is a history of other lectionaries being prepared. Even in Luther's day, it is recorded that among the Lutheran there were different lectionaries begin used. It is important and useful to note that these were not individualistic undertakings, but that all the churches in a district or area would be using the same 'variation'. In 1896, the Eisenach Conference churches of the Prussian Union produced a lectionary, popularized in the United States by a Lutheran professor, Richard Lenski, when he published his notes on the series. The Synodical Conference (a group of conservative American Lutheran churches) produced a one year lectionary series which was adopted in 1912 and included by the framers of The Lutheran Hymnal as a "Second Series" available for use on Sundays (TLH, p. 159ff). In 1868, the Scandinavian Lutheran Church produced a three-year lectionary for their use. Yet often these alternate lectionaries were produced not to supplant the Historic lectionary but to supplement it, often adding Old Testament readings or offering alternate texts for preaching. The patterns and themes of the Historic lectionary were maintained.
Fifteen years after the release of The Lutheran Hymnal in 1941, American Lutheran church bodies were seeking a revision. In 1965 the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod resolved to appoint a commission that would work with other Lutheran church bodies to produce a new common hymnal. On February 10, 1966 representatives of the LCMS, the American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America met in Chicago and formed what would become the Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship (ILCW). Later, representatives of the Slovak Synod and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Canada (ELCIC) joined the Commission. Among other issues, the ILCW dealt with the church year calendar and proposed a multi-year lectionary, citing a "widespread restiveness with the appointed readings, a great deal of experimentation, and a desire for either reform of the pericopes or a completely new lectionary," resulting from "a variety of influences in current theology, social-ethical involvements, developments in worship practice, and especially the influential biblical theology movement of recent decades" (Contemporary Worship 6: The Church Year Calendar and Lectionary. Prepared by the Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House; Philadelphia: Board of Publications of the Lutheran Church in America; St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1973. p. 13).
These sentiments were obviously heavily influenced by the same changes going on in the Roman Catholic Church, leading to the decision by Vatican II to publish a new lectionary system, the Ordo Lectionum Missae , released in 1969. This new three-year series that supplanted the Historic Lectionary throughout much of the Roman Catholic Church. The next year the Protestant Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church and United Church of Christ adopted the Ordo as a basis for their new lectionaries. Having already set aside concern for loyalty to the received heritage and reverence for Western tradition, the ILCW simply followed suit when in 1973 the ILCW published its version of the three-year Roman Ordo. The ILCW three-year series established a lectio continua of synoptic gospel assigned to each year: "Year A" focuses on Matthew, "Year B" on Mark and "Year C" on Luke. John is featured in all three series during the Sundays after Easter, and appears extensively along with Mark in Year B especially in Advent, Christmas and Lent. The Three-Year series assigned a First Lesson, usually the Old Testament, to coordinate with the Gospel reading. A lectio continua, reading of the Epistles was assigned to each year with no special effort to coordinate the Epistle with the Gospel selection.
With the inclusion of the ILCW three-year series in the LCMS' hymnal Lutheran Worship (1982), the ELCA's Lutheran Book of Worship (1978), WELS' Christian Worship (1993), and the ELS' Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary (1996), this series quickly became popular in Lutheran circles. Even though the ILCW had offered a revision of the historic (one-year) lectionary to be included with the three-year series, within fifteen years its use had sharply fallen.
However common and widely used it was among Lutherans, the ILCW three-year series become one of the most short-lived lectionary series. Two years after the formation of the ILCW, representatives of the ELCA, ELCIC and LCMS had joined an ecumenical group called the Consultation on Common Texts (CCT). Composed of biblical, linguistic and liturgical scholars from various Christian denominations, their purpose was to prepare worship texts and materials for use in North America, including lectionaries. In 1978 they sponsored a meeting in Washington DC whose purpose was to form a committee which would reconcile the differences between the various denominational uses of the three-year series. Ultimately the LCMS withdrew from this group. In 1983 the remaining members published the Common Lectionary.
The biggest change in the Common Lectionary over its ILCW predecessor was the revision of Old Testament Lessons. The framers of the ILCW lectionaries had selected texts with reference to their New Testament fulfillment (typological approach). The CCT questioned the validity of imposed typology on the Old Testament scriptures. Instead, the Common Lectionary used a pattern of semicontinuous readings, which were essentially independent from the Gospel. The CCT also included an appointed Psalm in the Sunday readings. Another notable change was the adoption of the Episcopal Church's practice of replacing the "Sundays after Pentecost" with "Propers" keyed to the civil calendar. Simply put, the Common Lectionary very much reflects the liberal view of the Scriptures and purposely moves away from the belief that the Old Testament is directly predictive of the events in the life of Christ, etc.
The Common Lectionary was first used on a trial basis by a number of Lutheran and Episcopal congregations. The first church officially to adopt it for use in their congregations was the Anglican Church of Canada in 1985. Early on the Common Lectionary received a number of criticisms, These were directed especially from Lutheran, Episcopal and Roman Catholic sources. Ultimately, and in response to those criticisms, the CCT published the Revised Common Lectionary in 1992. In addition three versions of the RLC were framed to taken into account criticism of the earlier Old Testament selections: There is a Roman Catholic version which at times uses readings from the Apocrypha for the Old Testament Lesson. And then there are two Protestant versions, one in which the typological approach to assigning the Old Testament lesson matched to the Gospel is used, and the other with the semicontinuous Old Testament readings. The increasing influence of social issues on the selection of texts is seen in the revisions of the RCL as added are more stories of women of faith, and the elimination of texts deemed to appear anti-Semitic when taken out of their cultural and religious context of the Ancient Near East.
The RCL has become the lectionary of the Episcopal Church, the ELCA and ELCIC. It is the official lectionary of the United Methodist Church, Presbyterians, United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ. The LCMS never adopted the RCL. The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod published a new hymnal, Lutheran Service Book, in 2006. The three year lectionary was carefully reviewed and slightly revised, so that at this point, the three year lectionary in use by The LCMS and the Lutheran Church—Canada is unique and distinct, in various ways, from the three-year series used in the Roman Catholic Church and other liturgical church bodies. But, overall, the same general structure and approach is used.
At the time the Lutheran Service Book hymnal was published, due to increasing interest in the older historic lectionary, for the first time since The Lutheran Hymnal, there was now again support for the one-year historic lectionary, with a separate lectionary book published. At this time it is estimated that as many as 800 LCMS congregations have chosen to use the one year lectionary, or keep using it. The Missouri Synod's publishing company, Concordia Publishing House, will be releasing an every Sunday bulletin line for the historic lectionary, for the first time in over thirty years. The following offers more insight into the work of the Lutheran Service Book committees:
From the beginning of the development of LSB, the Lectionary Committee determined that both the three and one-year lectionaries would be included in LSB. Since the introduction of the three-year lectionary in the Lutheran Church in the early 1970s, the great majority of congregations have made use of it. Though the number of congregations currently using the one-year lectionary is relatively small, the committee believed it essential to retain this historic lectionary, though with some modifications.
Three-Year Lectionary (LSB pp. xiv–xix)
The committee's work concerning the three-year lectionary centered on the extent to which it would make use of the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), which was published in 1992. The committee studied the issue carefully and, at the direction of the Commission on Worship, endeavored to bring considerable commonality with the RCL, especially during the Sundays after Pentecost. During festivals such as Christmas, Holy Week, and Easter, however, the lectionary reflects greater commonality with the one-year lectionary.
Among some of the features of the revised three-year lectionary are the following:
• Some Old Testament readings have been changed so that they are more closely connected to the Gospel for the day.
• Most of Acts 1–2 is read consecutively every year according to the following schedule:
Ascension Day Acts 1:1–11 (First Reading)
Easter 7 Acts 1:12–26 (First Reading)
Day of Pentecost Acts 2:1–21 (Second Reading)
Holy Trinity Acts 2:14a, 22–36 (Second Reading)
• Following the original intentions of the three-year lectionary, the Psalm of the Day is not understood to be a separate reading but rather a response to the Old Testament/First Reading. With the inclusion of 107 psalms in the Pew Edition, the selections for Psalm of the Day have been completely revised. Every effort has been made to use whole psalms. When a portion of a longer psalm is appointed, the committee endeavored to make the selection of verses as straightforward as possible to avoid causing confusion for the worshiper.
As explained above, the Sundays after Pentecost follow the system that is used in the RCL. In this system, specific propers are assigned to a period of seven consecutive days, each being given the designation "Proper" with a number following. Unlike the current system in Lutheran Worship, where Sundays are skipped at the end of the church year, the new calendar places the "skip" at the beginning, right after the Sunday of the Holy Trinity. The designation "__________ Sunday after Pentecost" is retained as a more churchly way of identifying the Sunday, rather than by the "Proper" number. Though a bit different than our current practice, this new calendar is quite easy to use, partly because it is so logically conceived.
One-Year Lectionary (LSB pp. xx–xxi)
The committee quickly determined that the historic one-year lectionary, together with its calendar, would be retained. Benefits of using this lectionary include an annual repetition of key biblical texts and the ability to consult historic resources, such as Martin Luther's various series of sermons on the Gospels and Epistles. Among the features of the LSB one-year lectionary are the following:
• The traditional Gospels and Epistles are retained. In a few cases an alternate Gospel is provided. More frequently, an alternate Epistle is also included.
• The Old Testament readings were completely revised with the goal of providing readings that are closely related to the Holy Gospel for each day.
• The pre-Lent season, also known as the "gesima" Sundays, is retained.
• A minor adjustment from the historic calendar occurs in the weeks following Easter. Whereas the earlier calendar referred to these as the Sundays "after" Easter, the revised calendar mirrors the three-year lectionary in designating them as the Sundays "of Easter. The traditional Latin names for the Sundays have been retained, as have the appointed readings.
Some concluding thoughts and cautions when discussing the issue of the lectionary.
There never has been, nor ever will be, "a perfect lectionary." Frankly, even the worst of them is probably better than nothing at all. What is hugely obvious is that just as there is no such thing as a theologically neutral translation of the Scriptures, so too there is no such thing as a theologically neutral lectionary. The Revised Common Lectionary readings clearly display an agenda which at many points finds itself at cross-purpose, ironically, with historic, orthodox Christianity! While the question of which lectionary we use (or whether we use a lectionary at all, for that matter) is certainly a matter of Christian freedom, this does not make it an unimportant matter. In choosing a lectionary for use in congregation worship, we should remember we are choosing a teaching, or a "catechetical" tool. A lectionary is to be more than a means to dole out little parcels of Scripture, it provides a framework for most important task the Church has been given by her Lord: proclaiming and teaching the Gospel, so as to make disciples. It is a path toward understanding the purpose and meaning of Holy Scripture and a guide for both pastor and congregation through the whole counsel of God.
Understanding the general history behind the lectionaries is important, especially for pastors called to these tasks of preaching and teaching God's people.