The Logic of the Lectionary

In Church history, a regular program of Scripture reading was called a lectionary.  A lectionary is simply a list of Scripture readings.  Typically there are two kinds of lectionaries, the lectio continua and the lectio selecta.  The lectio continua is designed to read through all of Scripture; the lectio selecta is simply a compilation of selected passages.  The lectionary on this site contains both types.  This Covenantal Lectionary is set up on a three year cycle, which allows the reader to get through a third of the Old Testament (Old Covenant), the entire New Testament (New Covenant), and the Psalms twice in a year, at roughly three chapters per day.  The goal is not merely to just read through Scripture, but to help the reader gain an overarching sense of the redemptive-historical narrative that the Bible provides, and that shapes how this lectionary has been constructed.

The Old Covenant Readings

The divisions of the Old Covenant are drawn from the threefold division of redemptive history laid out in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1:17: from Abraham to David, from David to the Exile, and from the Exile until Christ. In the experience of the People of God under the Old Covenant, three events formed the major turning points in their history:  the Exodus (which was marked the fulfillment of promises God made to Abraham), the kingship of David (the high point of the Israelite kingship) and the Exile (the banishment of God’s people from the land because of their covenant-breaking).

  • Year A covers the period from the creation of the world in Genesis until the beginning of David’s kingship in 1 Samuel, and encompasses the entire Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), Joshua, Judges, Ruth, and portions of 1 Samuel.
  • Year B goes through the remainder of 1 Samuel through 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, Ecclesiastes, Songs of Solomon, and the pre-exilic prophets (Obadiah, Joel, Jonah, Amos, Hosea, Micah, Isaiah, Nahum, Zephaniah, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and Lamentations).
  • Year C completes the Old Covenant narrative, covering the exilic and post-exilic writings of Ezekiel, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zechariah, Esther and Malachi.  Job is also situated in the readings for this year.

Rather than following a strictly canonical order, the prophetic books have been interwoven with the historical accounts to give the reader a sense of the overarching flow of the redemptive-historical narrative.  One notable exception to this method regards the reading of Deuteronomy.

  • The reading of Deuteronomy is done yearly, because it underpins so much of the Old Testament: most of the historical books (Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings) build directly off of it, and most of the prophetic books refer back to it in their expectations of covenantal curses and blessings.  Moreover, the New Testament makes more references to Deuteronomy than any other Old Testament book, except possibly the Psalms.

The Psalms

The Psalms are handled differently in the two times they are read through the lectionary year.  In the season from Pentecost until mid-November, the Psalms are read through sequentially.  In the other seasons, they are grouped selectively and thematically.

  • In the Advent season (November to January), the selected Psalms are those that are Messianic in nature;
  • In the Wilderness season (February-March), the Psalms are those of David (often laments);
  • In the season between Resurrection Sunday and Pentecost, the selected Psalms are ones extolling God’s Law, preeminently featuring Psalm 119.

The New Covenant Readings

With a few exceptions (namely, the Gospel of Matthew and the letters of James and Jude), most of the New Testament (New Covenant) writings were either written by or closely connected to three Apostles: Peter, John, and Paul. This influences how the New Covenant writings have been arranged in this lectionary.

  • Each season reads through one of the four Gospels. The readings of Passion Week and Resurrection Sunday are a harmony of the Gospel accounts about the events leading up to the trial, death and resurrection of Jesus. They are arranged by each day of Passion Week.
  • In the Advent season, the Gospel of Matthew and the Revelation of John are read. Matthew’s Gospel does more to connect the New Covenant in Christ to the Old Covenant than any of the other Gospel accounts. Matthew, moreover, is one of two Gospels that gives specific attention to the Incarnation and First Advent of Christ. John’s Revelation looks forward to the Second Advent of Christ, His coming in judgment at the end of time.
  • In the season of the Wilderness, the Gospel reading is from the Gospel of Mark, who historically was understood to be a close associate of the Apostle Peter. This is followed by the first and second epistles of Peter. As preparation for understanding the work of Christ on Calvary, the readings of this season conclude with the Epistle to the Hebrews, penned by an unknown writer.
  • The season of the Covenant, between Resurrection Sunday and Pentecost, brings the reader into a deeper understanding of who Jesus is, as described by His beloved disciple, John in his Gospel and three letters. This is followed by the writings of Jesus’ half brothers, James and Jude.
  • Lastly, in the season of the Kingdom, the readings revolve around the writings of the Apostle Paul. Paul’s close associate was Luke, who penned the Gospel that bears his name, as well as the Acts of the Apostles. Paul’s letters are interwoven with the historical narrative that Luke provides.

Confessional Readings

The Lord’s Day readings shift away from the lectio continua approach, to focus on selections from the Westminster Standards or, on occasion, special readings approach to the given day on the calendar.  This allows the readers to catch up from having fallen behind in their daily readings, mediate on what they hear of God’s Word preached, and build their understanding of the faith as articulated from a doctrinal perspective. 

Yes, we should read the Bible every day, but there are both theological and practical reasons for why this is set up on a six-day schedule.  Theologically, Sundays are the day that Christians should be hearing God’s Word read, preached, and proclaimed in their local churches.  The schedule thus gives allowance for people to mediate on the Word that they get from the pulpit.  Practically, people may not always keep up their readings on a day-to-day basis, so Sundays are a “catch-up” day.  By building some flexibility into the schedule my hope is that people will be more consistent about being in Scripture, rather than missing several days and then giving up on a Bible reading plan altogether because it would be too much effort to catch up.

2. How was the length of the seasons determined?

One mistaken assumption that people have in understanding the ecclesiastical calendar is that the seasons and holidays have been locked down by tradition over time.  One of the surprising things I have found in my own research into the church calendar is how subjectively determined a lot of it really is.  Changes in the calendar often are not the result of formal church decisions, but are often administrative decisions made for prudential reasons.  For example, the length of Advent varied over the course of centuries from as few as a couple of weeks to as many as eight weeks.  The variance was shaped by whether or not the period was being used as a preparatory time for baptisms done on the Feasts of Epiphany or Nativity.  Lent historically is forty days before Easter exclusive of Sundays because Sundays were not considered to be fasting days in the pre-Reformation Catholic Church.  This is why the Lenten season typically starts in the middle of a week with Ash Wednesday.  Kingdomtide has varied widely both over time and between Christian denominations.  Because I am using the seasons as a means of organizing the lectionary readings, I have elongated them to cover as much of the calendar as possible, and am simplifying things for conceptual purposes.  So, for example, I have made Advent eight weeks long, rather than having four weeks for Advent, two weeks for Christmastide, and varied weeks of “Ordinary Time.”  Kingdomtide goes from Pentecost until just before Advent, rather than just from August until October or November.

3. Why have the names of certain seasons and holidays been changed?

The traditional names are often obscure in their meaning or non-descriptive.  The name “Lent,” for example, comes from and Old English word for “spring season.”  The etymology of “Easter” is even more complicated; it appears to come from an Old English word meaning “dawn,” but the eighth-century Christian monk, Bede, associated the word with an Old English pagan goddess, Eostre, who had a month named after her.  Those meanings are utterly non-descriptive or have unintended non-Christian connotations.  Eastern Orthodox churches, by contrast, call the day Pascha, which is a derivative of the Aramaic term, Peshach, from which we get the term Passover.  In light of all this, a name change is useful for purposes of accuracy and clarity.  Resurrection Sunday is far more descriptive and understandable than Easter.  As a preparatory period before Resurrection Sunday, the Wilderness (or Desertide) better carries the connotations of sobriety and reflection that should mark that season.  As for the period between Resurrection Sunday and Pentecost, biblically speaking Pentecost was the Old Testament holiday of the Feast of Weeks.  According to Jewish tradition, that is when God gave the Law at Sinai.  There is thus a parallel between the inauguration of the Old Covenant at the Feast of Weeks and of the New Covenant in Pentecost.  Hence, the period between Resurrection Sunday and Pentecost is a period to reflect on God’s covenants, thus my term Covenantide.

4. How come there are “selected” readings at the end of some books?

For the most part, in constructing the lectionary I have tried balance two things: first, keeping the readings to integral chapters and, second, starting books at the beginning of a week to the extent possible.  This makes it easier to remember off the top of one’s head as to where one as at in the readings, and therefore help build consistency in being in the Scripture.  Because of this design choice, however, there are some readings (especially, but not exclusively with the New Testament epistles) that are shorter than a week.  By not having an assigned reading on those particular days, it also builds some flexibility into the reading schedule for catching up on readings and therefore developing the discipline of consistency in the Word.

5. What are “Interlude Weeks?”

This is a function of tying the lectionary to the seasons of the church calendar.  Resurrection Sunday (i.e., Easter) is a moveable holiday, and Desertide, Passion Week, Covenantide, and Kingdomtide can all be fixed relative to the dating of Resurrection Sunday.  Resurrection Sunday is calculated as the Sunday after the first new moon after the Spring Equinox (March 21), and can vary anywhere from March 22 until April 25.  The beginning of Advent, however, is fixed and will always be four weeks before the commemoration of the Nativity.  What this means is the end of Kingdomtide and the start of Desertide can vary up to five weeks on either end in a given year.  In order to accommodate this variability from year to year, Proverbs is used as the Old Testament readings in the interlude weeks.

6. Why is Deuteronomy repeated in all three years of the lectionary?  And similarly, why is Exodus chs. 19-24 repeated in Years B and C?

Deuteronomy functions as the “constitution” of the Old Testament, and along with the Psalms, is the Old Testament book most often quoted in the New Testament.  Moreover, Deuteronomy is very much the foundation for the Old Testament histories of Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings, as well as much of the Prophetic writings.  Because of this, becoming familiar with Deuteronomy is tremendously helpful in seeing the overarching unity of Scripture, and for this reason is repeated in each of the three years.  As for Exodus chs. 19-24, these chapters used as a reminder and introduction to the reading of Deuteronomy.  What we call the “Mosaic Covenant” is really the combination of two covenant-making periods, separated by about forty years.  The first period was God giving the Law at Sinai, immediately after the Exodus from Egypt; the second was renewal and extension of the Law as God’s People were poised to enter the Promised Land at the end of the forty years in the Wilderness.  Putting these together consolidates the reading of the Law.

7. Does this lectionary relate at all to the Revised Common Lectionary?

The short answer is no, there is no relation between this Covenantal Lectionary and the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).  If you Google “lectionary” the RCL will be at or near the top of the list, and is used by a number of mainline denominations. There are a few underlying differences between the Revised Common Lectionary and this lectionary. First of all, a lectionary is collection of Bible readings. Historically, lectionaries have been used in a liturgical context, rather than for private Scripture reading. The RCL follows that approach, and the readings are intended for use in Sunday worship services; this lectionary, on the other hand, is intended for private use. Second, there is a difference between a lectio continua and a lectio selecta.  A lectio continua is a lectionary that provides a continuous reading through Scripture, whereas a lectio selecta are selected, not necessarily continuous, Scripture readings.  This lectionary is a lectio continua designed to read through all of the Old and New Testament, whereas the RCL is a lectio selecta and is not intended to be a plan for reading through the whole Bible. And, honestly, I have yet to discern the underlying logic of how the RCL is organized.