Reforming a Sense of Ecclesiastical Time
In his article in the April 2004 issue of First Things, “The Church as Culture,” Robert Louis Wilken described how the ancient Christian Church posed an alternative to the surrounding prevailing pagan culture by presenting its own unique counterculture–a culture that in addition to creating its own language and its own sacred spaces, also created a new sense of time, revolving around the ecclesiastical calendar. Wilken noted that although this culture persisted to the 20th century, it was rapidly breaking down and greatly in need of renewal. His insight is particularly apt. If we are not to “be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2) then we need to recover a sense of ecclesiastical time.
That said, I have wrestled for some time with the authenticity of the church calendar. Years ago, I attended an Old School Presbyterian church that did not observe Christmas, Easter, or any other holy day apart from the weekly Sabbath. This was completely alien to anything I had ever heard of before, but because this particular church had blessed me in so many other ways, I felt I needed to at least engage their view seriously and not dismiss it out of hand. This began years long research into the origins of the church calendar. Like many people today, I began as one enamored with the idea of a church calendar. The more I researched the matter, however, the more critical I became of it.
During the Reformation, many Reformers were cool to the idea of an ecclesiastical calendar for at least three reasons. First and foremost, there was no real Scriptural warrant for any day to receive particular observance other than the Sabbath, which was commanded in the Fourth Commandment. Second, the ecclesiastical calendar was intertwined with the whole religious system of fasting and feasting, so much so that scrupulousness about keeping the fasts and feasts lent itself easily to a mindset of works righteousness, such as what Jesus condemned the Pharisee for thinking in Luke 18:9-14. To the Reformers, Christians were not obligated to a system of fasts and feasts, nor do we gain righteousness by any other means than Christ alone. Third, almost every day of the medieval church calendar was a holy day dedicated to one or another saint, and if every day is a holy day, then really no day is holy. Indeed, because every day was a holy day of some sort, then one had to pick and choose what would be observed or not observed, since there was no way to observe everything and still do the work necessary for life. Thus, ironically, the Church’s emphasis on “holy days” ended up trivializing the notion of a consecrated day, while distracting from Sabbath observance. In addition, I would add from my own research many of the so-called holy days were not observed consistently or even at all by the historic Christian church for hundreds—and in many cases, over a thousand—years. That begs the question as to why, if the Church did not see the need for such holy days for centuries, then do we need them now? Is that merely a manifestation of our personal desires to “feel” spiritual more than anything required by our faith?
For these reasons and others, the Protestant Reformers—especially, but not exclusively, the English Puritans and the Scottish Presbyterians—were inclined to dispense with an ecclesiastical calendar altogether. In recovering a sense of ecclesiastical time, it would be easy to dismiss the Reformers as having “thrown the baby out with the bath water” in their zeal for reform. The problem with this is that Reformed criticisms of the church calendar are as valid today as they were in the 16th and 17th centuries. The weekly Sabbath should be the focal point for our thinking about holy days because it is commanded in the Decalogue. Despite the current vogue among Protestants for “giving something up for Lent,” no one is seriously talking about re-instituting the whole system of fasting and feasting, around which the pre-Reformation ecclesiastical calendar rotated. Neither is anyone seriously contemplating re-instituting all the saints’ days, the overwhelming majority of which are for saints no one really has ever heard of. At the same time, the subsequent failure of Puritan and Presbyterian efforts to completely abolish the calendar in the practice of church life highlights the fact that if one is to change long-held practices, then it is not enough to simply not observe holidays; one has to cultivate new practices in their stead. There is a rhythm to life–weekly, seasonally, and yearly–that facilitates godly discipleship. Consistent with the Reformers right emphasis on the centrality of Scripture and with the aim of developing new habits, I suggest the calendar be married up with a regular program of reading through the Bible. What follows are my thoughts on the church calendar and how that intersects with how this lectionary has been designed.
The Weekly Sabbath as the Foundation
Almost all Bible reading plans are set up on a daily basis and the reasoning behind this is sound: as Christians, we should be in the Word daily. The popular plan for reading through the Bible in a year developed by 19th century Scottish pastor Robert Murray M’Cheyne, for example, not only was designed on this basis but also divides the readings ones to be read in mornings and evenings, which doubly reinforce this daily pattern. There is nothing wrong with this, but I would also note that the Lord Himself established the weekly Sabbath as the basic unit for ordering time. The Sabbath is both a creational and a covenantal ordinance, with the day reserved for worship and particular communion with God. In that regard, it seems best to work with this pattern of time as well (although the attached At-a-Glance PDF is set up on both a weekly and a daily basis, for those who are interested).
In the Covenantal Lectionary, the readings are listed on a weekly, rather than a daily, basis. This is both theological as well as practical. Theologically, this highlights the Sabbatical pattern. Practically, the readings average about a chapter a day from both the Old and New Testaments and the Psalms. By listing them on a weekly basis, it gives the reader the flexibility in determining how much to go through on any particular day. A reader may read more on one day and less on another, either to mediate more on a particular passage or because circumstances constrain one’s time. The pace is such that within a week the reader should have some flex to “catch up” on readings. Confessional readings from a harmony of the Westminster Standards are provided as well. These could be read on the Lord’s Day, either privately or in the worship setting of the church.
Easter and Pentecost Are Core to the Calendar
Once one excludes the saints’ days, the church calendar starts emptying out pretty quickly. There are a series of days surrounding Easter (Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Resurrection Sunday), Pentecost (Ascension, Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday), and Christmas (Christmas Eve, Christmas, and Epiphany), and two major seasons that were originally understood as fasting seasons (Advent and Lent). A third season, the Christmas season, was a feasting season spanning the 12 days from Christmas to Epiphany. When one looks for Scriptural command or precedent for the observance of such days and seasons, the number gets pared back essentially to just Easter and Pentecost. To make Easter and Pentecost the center point of the church calendar, however, contrasts with Western sensibilities which elevates Christmas over Easter and does not really know what to do with Pentecost. Nevertheless, the centrality of Easter and Pentecost not only makes sense theologically, it reflects the historical practice of the ancient church.
Some—certainly not all—adherents of the Puritan approach to worship would take Easter and Pentecost off the calendar as well, arguing that all of the holy days of the Old Testament were part of the ceremonial law, which has now been put aside with the death and resurrection of Christ. In addition, they would argue that there is no apostolic precedent or command that we should observe them. It is true that there is no apostolic command for observing these days, but there is apostolic precedent, and as such, then the argument that they were only part of the ceremonial law does not hold. Luke, an associate of Paul and the writer of the Gospel bearing his name and the book of Acts, recorded that at the end of Paul’s Third Missionary Journey, Paul did not leave Philippi for Troas until after “the Days of Unleavened Bread” (Acts 20:6), and he intended to bypass stopping at Ephesus because he was in a hurry to get to Jerusalem by the Day of Pentecost (Acts 20:16). Given the criticism that Paul’s critics lodged against him for not observing the Law, Luke’s scrupulousness in recording these particular dates probably has more than an incidental significance. That Paul desired to be in Jerusalem in time for Pentecost is more than just a time marker associated with his travel. It almost certainly shows that he was looking to observe Pentecost. It would be the equivalent today of someone arranging their travel to be in New York City on New Year’s Eve; one would not be doing that if one did not have the intention of actually observing the celebration. That said, Paul did not make it a requirement that others, especially the Gentiles must follow. In his letter to the Romans, he writes, “One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it” (Rom. 14:5-6a NKJV).
There is theological—indeed, covenantal—significance to these holy days. The Day of Unleavened Bread (i.e., the Passover) and the Feast of Weeks are Old Covenant types foreshadowing the New Covenant realities marked by Easter and Pentecost. Both sets of holy days are the bookends to the primary salvific events of the Old and New Testaments respectively. In the Old Testament, God’s preeminent work of salvation is the Exodus, which began with the Passover (i.e., the protective passing over of God’s people in the Plague on the Firstborn in Egypt) and culminates with God making the covenant with His people at Sinai and giving them His Law (Exod. chs. 20-24). Coming as it did after they had been saved, the Law was never intended to be a means of salvation, nor was it intended solely to convict God’s people of their sins. The Apostle Paul notes as much in his letter to the Galatians (Gal. 3:15-4:11). Rather, the Law was intended to guide God’s people in reflecting the image and character of the God with whom they were in covenant. Within the Law, God specified the observance of three annual feasts: the Feast of Unleavened Bread (i.e., Passover, Exod. 23:14-15; Lev. 23:4-8; Num. 9:1-14; Deut. 16:1-9); the Feast of Weeks or Firstfruits (i.e., Pentecost, Exod. 23:16; Lev. 23:9-22; Deut. 16:9-12); and the Feast of Tabernacles (or Ingathering, Exod. 23:16; Lev. 23:33-44; Deut. 16:13-15). Jewish tradition held that God gave the Law fifty days after the Exodus, on what subsequently would be the Feast of Weeks. In the New Testament, the Feast of Weeks was called Pentecost.
This parallelism is significant. The great salvation event of the New Testament is complex of events that begins with the crucifixion of Jesus, leads to His resurrection, and culminates with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on His people at Pentecost. In the New Testament, salvation is not the deliverance of God’s people from the bondage of a particular nation but their deliverance from the bondage of the curse of sin, the root problem affecting all mankind. This is also a new and greater Passover in that Christ’s atoning work will enable a passing over of God’s people in the Final Judgment that is to come. Just as some Egyptians joined with God’s people in coming out in the Exodus, so too the nations are being brought into the fullness of God’s people in this time between the First and Second comings of the Lord. Where under the Old Covenant the Feast of Weeks commemorated the Lord’s giving the Law to His people at Sinai, at Pentecost, God poured out the fullness of the Holy Spirit upon His people. This is a fulfillment of the prophecy given to Jeremiah (Jer. 31:34) where the LORD promises that “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” The Apostle Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, “For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God NKJV” (1 Cor. 2:11-12). How is it that God’s law is written on the hearts of His people? It is through the fullness of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit—and this came at Pentecost. In this regard, Pentecost is the new Feast of Weeks, the New Covenant analog to the giving of the Old Covenant at Sinai.
As an aside, a word must be said about the Feast of Tabernacles. Of the Feasts prescribed by the Lord in the Old Testament, Christians have never celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles, and this raises the question as to why. I think it is because of the Feast’s eschatological connotations. In the Old Testament, the Feast was only to be celebrated once the people were in the Promised Land, as a remembrance for God’s provision for them when they were in the Wilderness. From a Christian perspective, with the New Exodus that we have with Christ, the current time between the First and Second Advents of the Lord is a time of the New Wilderness. We will only come into the New Heavens and New Earth with Christ’s return.
Translating This to the Seasons of the Lectionary
Traditionally the season between Easter and Pentecost has been called Eastertide and was a time for reflecting on the resurrection of the Christ but given the parallelism between the Old and New Covenants suggested by the correlation of Easter/Passover and Pentecost/Feast of Weeks it probably is more accurate to focus on God’s covenants with His people (hence my term, “Covenantide”). The readings for this period reflect this focus.
In the Old Testament readings, Year A goes from Exodus 19 through the entire book of Leviticus, which covers God’s giving of the Law at Sinai. Years B and C recapitulate the covenants God made with His people in Genesis and Exodus (Sinai), and then does a full reading of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy was the covenant God made with His people at the end of the wilderness wandering, just before the death of Moses and the nation’s entrance into the Promise Land. The book is underappreciated among Christians today, but it is tremendously significant in terms of the biblical narrative. Deuteronomy and the Psalms are the most frequently quoted or alluded to Old Testament books in the New Testament. Deuteronomy is the climax of the Pentateuchal narrative (Genesis thru Numbers), and the foundation for the pre-Exilic historical books (Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings), as well as the indictments in the prophetic books. Deuteronomy, therefore, ties together much of the Old Testament, which is why Christ and New Testament writers draw on it so heavily. I would even go so far as argue that Deuteronomy was the “Book of the Law” (or “Book of the Covenant”) that the High Priest Hilkiah finds in Josiah’s time and which spurred Josiah’s reforms (2 Kings 22:8). Given this centrality, reading Deuteronomy on a yearly basis will assist the reader in seeing the covenantal connections throughout Scripture.
The New Testament readings come from Matthew, which is more focused than the other Gospels on showing Christ as the fulfillment of the Old Covenant promises, and Hebrews, which in many ways is a New Testament commentary on the Old Covenant, highlighting how Christ fulfills and surpasses in the Old Covenant. The Psalm readings revolve around praising God’s Law, preeminently Psalm 119.
Easter is a moveable day on the calendar and will vary within a five-week range from year to year. This is because Easter is tied to the Passover. A controversy arose in the ancient church over the relationship between the historic Passover and the events surrounding the crucifixion of Christ. The Gospels tie Resurrection Sunday to the events surrounding Passover, when God passed over the Israelites in executing judgment on Egypt, just before the Exodus. In the Gospel narratives, Jesus was crucified on a Friday, on or the day before the Passover (depending on the Gospel narrative) and was resurrected on a Sunday. Sunday subsequently became the Christian Sabbath. The Jewish Passover is always on 14th of Nisan, the first month of the Jewish ecclesiastical year, and the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, meaning that each month begins with the New Moon. Because of this, the day moves around on our solar calendars. Some in the ancient church, mostly in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, preferred to keep Easter on the same day as the Passover, regardless of when that happened to occur in the week, whereas in the western part of the Empire, the preference was to keep it always on a Sunday, which would be consistent with a Sabbath observance. The difference in views meant that when some Christians in the Empire were celebrating Christ’s resurrection, others were still mourning his crucifixion. The friction this discrepancy created within the church was exacerbated by the persecutions Christians faced at the time. Many Christians identified the Jews with their persecutors, either because of local situations or out of historical identification with the Scriptural texts. This created an incentive for separating out the observance of Easter from that of Passover. The disagreements became quite strong and were only resolved at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, with the formula that Easter would be observed on the first Sunday after the first New Moon after the Spring Equinox. This means that Easter varies between 22 March and 25 April in any given year.
To accommodate this flotation while maintaining consistency in the lectionary five weeks of selected readings are inserted into the lectionary. One week, Passion Week, is placed before Resurrection Sunday. The other four weeks contain readings on God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, and God’s People, and are distributed at the beginning and end of the calendar year.
Passion Week. Evangelicals often undervalue tradition, but when it comes to understanding Holy Week they embrace it in a most unreflective way. Nothing typifies the inertia of tradition better than the names Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday.
The name for Palm Sunday is evident from John 12:13, which notes that the people of Jerusalem cut down palm branches and laid them before Jesus, marking his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Interestingly, the Synoptic accounts focus on the people laying their coats down before Jesus. Matthew (21:8) and Mark (11:8) mention the people cutting down branches but do not specify what type. Luke mentions nothing about branches being cut down and laid before Christ. In any case, the act of cutting down the branches and laying them before Jesus had explicitly political import—this was something done typically to honor a victorious conquering king returning through the city gates. The Jews were expressly looking for a political Messiah like David or the Maccabees and were honoring Jesus in this capacity. In light of this, there is something ironic in Christians commemorating the day of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem with the name “Palm Sunday.” Christ is indeed a conquering king, but His victory was not won at that point—it would not be won until the crucifixion and resurrection in the following week. A better name for that day, then, would be Entry Sunday.
As for Maundy Thursday, the name is shrouded in some controversy. Typically, it has been understood as coming (via Middle English and Old French) from the Latin word, mandatum, which means “commandment.” Use of this term probably refers to the “New Commandment” that Jesus gave His disciples at the Last Supper to “love one another” (John 13:34). If this were the case, though, then the abbreviated form of the term should be “Mandy Thursday.” An alternative explanation is that the term comes from the Latin, mendicare, which was translated into Old English as maund and which referred to the alms baskets given to the poor before going to Mass. Linguistically, this is probably a more accurate etymology but if true then the term has only a tenuous connection with the actual events being commemorated on that evening. A better name would be one more befitting what happened on that evening, and since the culminating event that Thursday was Judas’s betrayal of Jesus, which set into motion the climatic events of the Passion, I think it would be better to call it “Betrayal Evening.”
Lastly, there is “Good Friday,” which is definitely a misnomer. Although Christ’s bore God’s full wrath against mankind on the Cross that Friday (which was indeed good for us), the fact that our Lord was tried by two kangaroo courts, convicted, tortured, and executed on that day creates no small amount of cognitive dissonance in being described as “good.” Other Christian traditions call the day “Holy Friday,” “Great Friday,” or “Black Friday” and I think any of these are more apt. For my part, I think a better name would be “Crucifixion Friday” or “Cross Friday” to describe the central event of that day.
The readings for this week are a harmony of the Gospel accounts of Christ’s passion, arranged by each day of Passion Week.
Desertide. With Covenantide forming the center of the lectionary calendar, definition must be given to the seasons preceding and following Covenantide. For simplicity’s sake, the lectionary begins annually at the beginning of January. Historically, the beginning of January is in the middle of the Twelve Days of Christmas. In the ancient Church, the Western Church observed the Nativity (Christmas) on December 25, while the Eastern Church (Asia Minor, the Levant, and Egypt) observed the Epiphany (Holy Theophany) on January 6. Substantively, both celebrated Christ’s Incarnation and manifestation among His people, and the difference in dates probably was due in part to the Eastern Church’s continued use of the Julian Calendar after the Western Church moved to adopt the Gregorian calendar. It is because of these two dates that we have the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” As the Eastern Church adopted Christmas, it began to distinguish the commemoration of Christ’s birth from the commemoration of His baptism (the Presentation of the Lord, celebrated on February 2). There is no apparent theological justification for Christmastide, but simply pragmatic accommodation between the ancient Western and Eastern churches.
Traditionally, Christmastide would then be followed by a period of “Ordinary Time,” going through the rest of January and into February. This terminology is of recent vintage, coming into being only with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s; prior to this, the Sundays were marked in reference to their distance from Epiphany or Pentecost. As the purpose of this lectionary is to redeem the calendar through the reading of God’s Word, I have a problem with the concept of “ordinary time.” “Ordinary Time” subtly implies that there is nothing special about these particular periods without a Church-ordained feast to mark them. Ironically, this runs contrary to the notion of redeeming the time which has attracted people to the notion of a church calendar in the first place. In truth, all time is to be redeemed to the Lord because, by living in a period between the first and second Advents of Christ, we are living in eschatological time. For the purposes of the lectionary, I therefore reject the idea of “Ordinary Time.”
Ordinary Time transitions into the season of Lent. This was a season of sober reflection, penance, and preparation, looking forward to the climatic event in the history of salvation, the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. “Lent” is the historic English name for this season, but it is completely non-descriptive and simply means “spring season.” In languages other than English, the season is typically described either by its length (e.g., Latin, “Quadragesima” or Greek, “Sarakosti” which both come from the word for “fortieth,” referring to a period of 40 days) or by the practice of fasting associated with it (e.g., “The Great Fast” as in Arabic and Russian). The modern practice of “giving something up for Lent” is but a faint—and in many ways, unserious—reflection of what historically has been a much more rigorous period of material abstinence and spiritual exercise. Although there is no real antecedent for such a season in Scripture, the idea of a preparatory period before Resurrection Sunday came into being in the early church because, unlike today, baptisms into the church and the Christian faith were not done whenever was convenient for the individual or for the parents (with regard to children) but were done only at a handful of times in the year, Resurrection Sunday being chief among these. The preparation, therefore, was preparatory to baptism, and the reflection was a matter of coming to reckon with who God is, one’s own sinfulness, and one’s need for salvation. Such reflection need not be limited to only one season in a year but having such a such period that is consistent from year to year does has utility as a spiritual discipline.
Early Christians settled on a period of 40 days for the period before Easter, because the number 40 is Scripturally tied to the major acts of salvation. The rains of Flood in Noah’s time lasted 40 days (Gen. 7:17), Moses was on Mount Sinai with God for 40 days (Exod. 24:18, 34:28), the spies explored the land of Canaan for that period of time (Num. 13:25), and Elijah travelled to Sinai for that time before his confrontation with the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 19:8). Christ Himself was in the wilderness experiencing temptation for 40 days (Matt. 4:2), and after His resurrection, made appearances for that length of time until His ascension to the Father (Acts 1:3). Because Sundays were considered feast days and not fast days, they were exempted from the count of forty days for the season before Easter, which is why in the Roman Catholic Church the season begins on a Wednesday. In the Eastern Church, the Paschal sequence begins an even seven weeks before Easter. Before Vatican II, even the Roman church observed Quinquagesima (49 days before Easter, Sundays included).
Reformed Protestants, however, do not observe days of liturgical fasting or feasting because of their understanding of the Regulative Principle of Scripture. To simplify, consolidate, and rationalize the season stretching from January to the beginning of Covenantide, I have chosen to call it “Desertide.” Throughout Scripture, the desert (really, the Wilderness) has always been a place of testing and meeting God. It was there where God commissioned Moses (Exod. 3:1-4:17), where He brought Israel to after the Exodus and where they wandered for forty years before entering the Promised Land (Exod. 14 through Deut. 34). It was to the wilderness that David fled in his confrontation with Saul (1 Sam. 21-26) and, similarly, where Elijah fled after his confrontation with the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 19:1-18). Israel’s later Exile to Babylon was tantamount to a second wilderness wandering (Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel). From the wilderness John the Baptist called the nation to repentance (Matt. 3:1-12 || Mark 1:2-6 || Luke 3:3-6). Most importantly, our Lord stayed in the wilderness for forty days resisting the Devil’s temptations (Matt. 4:1-11 || Mark 1:12-13 || Luke 4:1-8). And subsequently, it was the area to which the Apostle Paul went for three years after he accepted Christ as Lord on the road to Damascus (Gal. 1:17-18). In this lectionary, Desertide covers the period from the beginning of January to mid-March (weeks 1-11).
Kingdomtide. Historically in the Christian church, the period between Pentecost and Advent has not been marked by a season in the same way that Advent, Lent, and Eastertide have been. Most mainline Protestant Churches, following the Revised Common Lectionary, simply call the period, “Ordinary Time.” My objections to that have been noted above.
The term “Kingdomtide” first came into use in 1937 in a proposal by Boston University Professor Fred Winslow Adams to the Federal Council of Churches, the predecessor to the current National Council of Churches. The idea was promoted by the mainline Methodist and Presbyterian Churches until the 1960s, when an ecumenical effort got underway to develop the Revised Common Lectionary. The Presbyterians abandoned the effort to promote Kingdomtide in 1960; the Methodists retained it in their liturgical materials until the early 1990s but have abandoned it as well. My use of the term has no connection with these earlier liturgical efforts. In this lectionary, the season goes from Pentecost until the end of the calendar year.
This lectionary does not have a separate season for Advent, although a series of additional lectio selecta readings on Anticipations of the Messiah in the Pentateuch, from the Conquest to the Kingship period, in the prophetic period in the Exile and afterwards have been provided that one could use during the four Sundays of Advent. Advent as a season did not come into being until the Church began regularly observing the Feasts of the Nativity (i.e., Christmas, December 25) and Epiphany (January 6), and there is little evidence that either of those feasts were observed before AD 380. The first clear observance of a Feast of the Nativity was in 380, when Gregory Nazianzus (329-390), a prominent theologian and defender of the Nicene Creed, presided over a feast so named in Constantinople. Shortly thereafter, an all-Church council in Constantinople definitively reaffirmed the truth of the Nicene Creed, officially ending the Arian conflict which for 55 years had brought strife to the Church by questioning Jesus’s full divinity and full humanity. A few years later, another defender of Nicene orthodoxy, John Chrysostom (349-407), made reference to the existence of a Feast of the Nativity in 386. Still, it does not appear that either the Feast of the Nativity or the Feast of the Epiphany were regularly observed across the Roman Empire for quite some time. For example, in Alexandria, Egypt, a major center for the ancient Church, the Feast of the Nativity was not adopted until about 430. What may have boosted observance of Christmas in the West was a series of sermons in the 440s and 450s that Pope Leo the Great (400-461) on the occasion of the Feast of the Nativity to defend the orthodox understanding of the Nicene Creed, as well as the orthodox position on debates at that time in which the Church grappled with how to define the relationship between Christ’s human and divine natures. The exact origins of Advent as a season on the church calendar are obscure, but it probably began as a preparatory period since the Church would welcome new communicants into fellowship on Christmas or Epiphany. The length of Adventide varied, from as short as three weeks to as long as eight. It was only during the pontificate of Gregory the Great (r. 590-604) that the Advent was set at the four Sundays prior to Christmas.
The Organization of the Readings
With the seasons thus defined, it is now worth describing the logic of how the readings have been organized. Each year one will read through a third of the Old Covenant (Old Testament), the entire New Covenant (New Testament) once, and the Psalms twice. Within the framework of the revised seasons noted above, there is a logic to how the lectionary has been arranged.
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: to whit, (1) from Abraham to David, (2) from David to the Exile, and (3) 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—Genesis through the journey to Sinai are in the Desertide readings. The giving the Law (Exodus 20), the reminder of the Exodus account, and the ceremonial laws comprise the Covenantide readings. The rest of the Wilderness wanderings (Numbers), the second covenant (Deuteronomy), the Conquest (Joshua), and the Judges period (Judges, Ruth and 1 Samuel chs. 1-12) form the Kingdomtide readings. Job is included in this year’s readings, although its dating is uncertain.
- Year B—The Desertide readings go from the kingship of Saul (1 Samuel 13) to its heights under Solomon (1 Kings 11, Ecclesiastes). The Kingdomtide readings begins with Proverbs, traditionally associated with Solomon, and goes through the decline of the kingship until the Babylonian captivity (1 Kings 12 thru the end 2 Kings 25). Interwoven throughout the historical narrative are several prophetic books (Obadiah, Joel, Jonah, Amos, Hosea, Micah, Isaiah, Nahum, Zephaniah) to give the reader a sense of the overarching flow of the redemptive-historical narrative.
- Year C completes the Old Covenant narrative, covering the fall of Judah (Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Habakkuk) in the Desertide readings, and going through the exilic and post-exilic writings of Daniel, Ezekiel, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi in Kingdomtide.
The Psalms. The Psalms are handled differently in the two times they are read through the lectionary year. In Desertide, the lectionary goes through the Psalms of David. In Kingdomtide, the lectionary goes through the Psalms of the sons of Korea and of Asaph, before reading through the Psalms are sequentially.
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.
- In Desertide, the New Testament readings cover John’s Gospel, letters and the Book of Revelation. This is followed by the Gospel of Mark, which has been traditionally associated with the ministry of the Apostle Peter.
- 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, as well as those of James, Peter, and Jude, are interwoven with the historical narrative that Luke provides.
Confessional Readings. Unlike the Heidelberg Catechism, the Westminster Standards were not originally set up to be read through as part of liturgical readings in the church. This lectionary, however, has arranged them in a Sabbatical manner, harmonizing them as well, so that one can read the Confession of Faith along with the parallel passages in the Larger and Shorter Catechisms.
Developing this Covenantal Lectionary has been a labor of love for many years, and while I recognize that it is more complicated than the standard, “Bible-in-a-Year” reading plans, it is both my hope and my conviction that this lectionary will facilitate giving those who use it greater familiarity with the Bible and cultivate a deeper love for the Lord who has revealed Himself in Scripture.
Summary of the Lectionary
To God be the Glory!
S. J. Hatch