There’ve been a few articles sitting in my archives for a while on the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) which might be worth a read, so let’s talk about them. The RCL is, of course, mostly what we use in the ELCA, almost all of the Anglican churches, Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, and churches from other denominations. And it is largely in sync with the Roman Catholic church, worldwide, as well. Yes, there are others, in the ELCA, there is the Narrative Lectionary, the LCMS has a Historic One Year Lectionary, and there are likely others. Still that’s pretty broad swath of Western Christianity, and one reason why Chalcedon’s Gospel lesson’s on Sunday here, work for most of us. It also has the benefit of getting us through most of the Bible in a three-year period.
Its story is interesting. The Benedictine Lutheran tells us:
As noted in my earlier article, the roots of the RCL are based on the three year lectionary developed in the Roman Catholic Church during the years following Vatican II. Following the conclusion of Vatican II, Biblical scholars came together to work on the three year lectionary, which resulted in the publication of Ordo Lectionum Missae in 1969. After over a decade of work by scholars from numerous Christian traditions, the Common Lectionary was published in 1983. Finally, after a trial period of the Common Lectionary, and revisions made by even more scholars, the Revised Common Lectionary was published in 1992. (For more information, go to this website: http://www.commontexts.org/).
So, the RCL is the fruit of the labor of multiple scholars from multiple Christian traditions over the course of several decades. It is not a perfect lectionary. But, it is a truly “catholic” (universal, not just Roman) lectionary.
And so it is one of those ecumenical efforts, across almost all of the mainline churches, to teach the same thing, at the same time, and to do it effectively. How is it effective? Because it is a worship lectionary, not a Bible study guide. Again from the Benedictine Lutheran.
Through the magic of Google, I found an article called “Explaining the lectionary for readers”, which contains a beautiful explanation of how and why the Catholic (and therefore, RCL) lectionary readings are put together. Although it is from a Catholic website, this language strikes me as being very much Lutheran as well, with its primary focus being on the proclamation of Christ:
• this recollection is given added dimensions by readings from the Old Testament: the Law (such as Genesis or Exodus), the prophets (such as Amos or Joel), the Psalms, and the Writings (such as the Book of Wisdom or the Books of the Maccabees);
• then there are the readings of the great early Christian teachers’ letters to churches, such as those of Paul.
• We are not reading these passages because many Christians consider reading the Bible a valuable activity in itself.
• This action is not part of a Bible Study, nor should it resemble the classroom atmosphere of a study group.
•The focus of all our reading is not an abstract understanding of the scriptural text – such as would be carried out by a biblical exegete in a theology course – but to see what each portion of text (whether from the gospel, the Old Testament, the psalm, or the epistle) reveals to us about the Paschal Mystery.
• Our reading is not book-focused; it is not text-focused; it is focused on Jesus as the Christ.
• The gospel is the primary focus on the mystery of the Christ in each celebration; the Old Testament and Psalm relate to it as background, example, context, or elaboration; the epistle is a separate attempt to focus on the mystery of the Christ through the help of early Christian teachers.
• The readings are to help us encounter the person of Jesus Christ in whose presence and name we have gathered.
He also notes that Professor Rolf Jacobson, one of the developers of the Narrative Lectionary, says, “We actually think that we do a better job of aligning the Biblical story with the major festivals of the Church year. In the Revised Common Lectionary, you get the adult John the Baptist in Advent saying ‘Jesus is coming’, but that’s not the Christmas story – it’s not the adult John the Baptist saying the adult Jesus is coming. So, what we have is the prophetic texts – the prophets longing with hope for the fulfillment of God’s kingdom and the coming of the Holy One, and then the Holy One is born at Christmas, and we tell, then, the Biblical story in order….”
But is that why we celebrate Advent, or is it as the linked article says?
Is Advent merely a season where we prepare for the birth of the baby Jesus at Christmas? If so, his claim might have merit. However, Advent is not just about recalling the story of the baby Jesus coming into the world. If it were, I’m not sure why we would even have a separate Advent season – we would just have one six week Christmas season. Instead, Advent is also a season where we prepare for the return of Christ at the eschaton (a word which essentially means, to borrow a phrase from the rock group REM: ‘the end of the world as we know it’). Therefore, contrary to Professor Jacobson’s opinion, the readings where “the adult John Baptist is saying the adult Jesus is coming” make sense given the historical purpose and meaning behind the season of Advent:
“The eschataological orientation that is found in some of these early sources continues to be a significant element in the proclamation of the season of Advent. Indeed, the very name Adventus, ‘coming,’ ‘approach,’ suggests not only the coming of God into the world in Jesus but the approaching return of the risen Lord in all his heavenly splendor. Indeed, the Advent season and its hope should not be regarded purely or even primarily in terms of Christmas. It should not even be seen as an introduction to the Incarnation but rather as the completion of the work of redemption.
Your mileage may vary, I suppose, but I was taught the latter, and still believe so.