Friday, September 12, 2008

The Western Lectionary

An Introduction To The Western Lectionary
By Father Edward L. Rix

No man ever prayed alone. Though we might, as a matter of designation, separate our prayers into categories of private and corporate, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us that "we are surrounded by (a) great cloud of witnesses;" the portion of Christ's Church far greater in faith and number than that which our outward eyes behold here in earth. As Charles Wesley puts it: "Let saints on earth in concert sing with those whose work is done; For all the servants of our King in heav'n and earth are one." Prayer thus ought always to be understood by the faithful as 'Common Prayer'; and if our life of prayer be understood thusly, so also ought our weekly and daily meditation on His Word written. In an age where a typical Bible study class consists of folks sharing what a particular passage of Holy Scripture 'means to me,' we do well to recall St. Peter's admonition that "no prophecy of scripture is of any private interpretation." Indeed, because of the preponderance of private interpretation, many of our churches have abandoned their appointed role of guarding the deposit of our faith, teaching the whole counsel of God and 'transmitting the same unimpaired to their posterity.'

Some would argue the Church's 'Tradition' is so organic an authority as to over-rule or supersede the Bible, an essentially inorganic and static principal of authority, even when (perhaps especially when) a contemporary estimation of the former disagrees with the latter. However, the great patristic scholar, G.L. Prestige, reminded us 60 years ago that the Church, from its earliest days, understood the principle of "tradition" as constituting the "title deeds of two possessions fundamental to Christianity - first, belief in divine revelation, and second, acceptance of the primacy of Holy Scripture as the guide of faith." As such, our Christian Tradition is always bound by the teaching of the Bible and our reading of it ought always to be, in the words of Thomas Cranmer, devoid of pride. "For, as St. Augustine saith, the knowledge of holy Scripture is a great, large and a high palace, but the door is very low; so that the high and arrogant man cannot run in, but he must stoop low and humble himself that shall enter into it." So when we read our Bibles, as we ought to every day, we must remember that God has given us His Word written "for our learning, that we, through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope." The exercise of Bible reading is one that must be approached with humility, patience and with the understanding that those that have gone before us in the faith will have as much, or more, to tell us of the meaning of these words, than we ourselves will.

Perhaps the best place to start a study of Scripture then, is with those lections or readings appointed by the Church for Sunday Services. And because it is the product of over 15 centuries (roughly from the time of Gregory the Great) of wisdom and meditation, I would commend the traditional lectionary of Western Churches of Christendom; that set of readings used with small variations by all Roman Catholics, Anglicans and Lutherans until recent decades. I do so because even though only a small number still use this lectionary, it is being rediscovered by a new generation of younger Christians in concert with their rediscovery of traditional patterns of prayer and worship.

Indeed, Pope Benedict's Motu Proprio, Summorum Pontificum of 2007 clearly commends the use of this traditional lectionary where the Tridentine Mass is celebrated. In the coming weeks I will be offering a weekly meditation on these prayers and readings (Collects, Epistles and Gospels) with commentary on the scope of the lectionary itself. Very little, if anything, original will be shared with you as most of what I write will be a digest of 1,500 years of commentary on the same. I hope and trust that you will find, as I have, the traditional lectionary of the Western Church to be a key that unlocks the riches of the Bible as a whole.

Father Rix is rector at All Saints' Church in Wynnewood, a traditional Anglican parish serving the heart of Philadelphia's Main Line. He can be reached at elrix@

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