Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Why I Use the Three-Year Lectionary


My name is Rick.

I am a user
of the three-year lectionary.

Here's why:

It is the lectionary from which my pastors fed me with the Gospel of Christ through high school and college.

It is the lectionary that my field-work and vicarage pastors used in the course of my training for the pastoral office. It is the lectionary from which they also fed me with the Gospel of Christ, and with which they assisted me in learning the art of preaching the Gospel.

It is the lectionary that over 90% of my brother pastors within my synodical fellowship use to feed the flocks entrusted to their spiritual care. Therefore, in conversation with my colleagues we are able to engage one another in discussions of these texts that we hold in common, and we are able to assist one another in our understanding and preaching of these Holy Scriptures.

Over fourteen years of preaching from the three-year lectionary, I have found it to serve the preaching of the Gospel faithfully and well.

I especially appreciate the way it moves through the Gospel witness of the several holy Evangelists, an approach that approximates the lectio continua of the early Church.

I also very much appreciate the reading of the Acts of the Apostles throughout Eastertide.

I am grateful for the extensive historical research that went into the formation of the original three-year lectionary by the Roman Church after Vatican II. I am likewise grateful for the focus of that work on the Paschal Mystery (the Cross and Resurrection of Christ); for the fundamental connection of this lectionary to the celebration of the Mass; and for the selection of its Old Testament lections on the basis of a unified Christological reading of the Holy Scriptures.

I am also very grateful for the way the three-year lectionary reinvigorated liturgical preaching in the Lutheran Church, and greatly helped to restore the practice of preaching on the appointed lections, the Holy Gospel in particular. On that score, I maintain that the renewed interest in, appreciation for, and salutary use of the historic lectionary in recent decades would not have occurred apart from the introduction of the three-year lectionary.

I do not use the three-year lectionary out of any protest against the historic lectionary; but I do persist in exercising my freedom to use the three-year lectionary against pressures which suggest that I am confessionally bound to use the historic lectionary. Our confession and preaching of the Gospel do not require the use of any one unique lectionary vis-a-vis another. The unity of our common confession does not necessitate the same lectionary, but the same Christ.

I don't use the three-year lectionary because of its "ecumenical significance," but neither do I refuse to use it on that basis. In the main, it is the lectionary used by the bulk of Christendom in the present day of the Church on earth. I do not hold that against it, but rather am glad of it. My confession and preaching of Christ and His Gospel from the three-year lectionary are, perhaps, a witness to those of other confessions who use basically the same lectionary.


  1. Dear Rick:

    But you forgot the most important part of all: you get to use the CPH bulletins. ;-)

  2. Even if you used free-texts, we'd love you Rick.

    Seriously, and truly, the Gospel does not require the use of any particular lectionary or of a lectionary at all. I have never heard anyone suggest that the BofC requires us to use the Historic Lectionary. Local customs may vary. The idea that the Confessions require a particular lectionary is just wrong.

    You should be aware that there is great pressure to use the 3-YR lectionary. I have been told that not using the 3-YR lectionary is schismatic and sectarian, that "love" requires me to use the 3-YR Lectionary.

    I don't use the Historic Lectionary to be a rebel or in some vanity that it is more pure, or more Lutheran, than just picking random texts from the Bible. The antichrist, before he invented the 3-YR lectionary, used the Historic Lectionary for a thousand years. It didn't make him Lutheran.

    I use the Historic Lectionary because I find it useful to have the Church's wisdom order the piety of the people. My people don't get bored by a yearly repetition of texts. After 20 or 30 years, however, they do begin to associate certain texts with certain feasts and times of the year. They find that comforting. They also start to deeply know those texts. Such an intimacy can never be obtained by the pew-sitters with the 3-YR Lectionary. Never. And that is a huge point.

    So also the Historic Lectionary allows me the advantage of Luther sermons, Gerhard sermons, Bach Cantatas, etc. I find that very useful.

    I am sorry that someone has bashed you over your use of the 3-YR lectionary. It should not be so. I am not bashing you, but I am not saying you've made the best choice either. I don't think you have. I think you should give the Historic Lectionary a shot for a decade. Then see what you think. One year just won't do it. Using the Historic Lectionary for one year is almost as "bad" as using the 3-YR Lectionary. It doesn't work in a one-year shot.

    But if you've not made the best choice, in my opinion, you have made a good choice, driven by pastoral concern and a love for the Gospel. And certainly there is no evil in sometimes allowing the synod majority to make this sort of choice for you in regards to adiaphora. In fact, there is some merit in sometimes submitting on such things, even though they do belong to freedom. So I am not even bashing those who use the 3-YR without thought, who have just fallen into it. Truly, it belongs to freedom.

    So also there should be no insistence about what "love" requires in these things. The tolerance needs to go both ways. Even if I am foolish to use the Historic Lectionary, I am not evil or disloyal to the synod, for it. If there is some merit in sometimes following the synod in adiaphpora, there is also a necessary caution in the same. Sometimes there is merit in following an older tradition and resisting changes.

  3. Rick,

    Not that I would expect anything less: that was a very good summary of why someone might want to use the 3-year lectionary. And it suggests a general framework by which a young pastor might choose which to use.

    I grew up on the three year lectionary (as Rick knows well, because his dad is the pastor who confirmed me) and it fed me through college and seminary as well. I preached from it during my first 18 months in the ministry as well. So Rick is certainly correct, as I don't think anyone doubted: the 3-year cycle can feed and sustain the flock.

    Using Rick's general framework, here's why I switched.

    The historic series of Epistles and Gospels fed and nourished my fathers in the faith stretching back for centuries.

    In my preparation I can read sermons my Luther and Augustine and Gerhard, etc.

    The texts and their rhythm stick with the people better. What's the Gospel for Quasimodo Geniti? Every one year preacher can respond in unison: Doubting Thomas. Now, quick, three year folks: what's the Gospel for Proper 17 in Year B?....

    The flipside of what Rick said about variety and hearing the witness of several Gospels is this. The three year lectionary is modern in the technical sense while the historic lectionary is pre-modern. Why doesn't John get his year, for example? Could it be bBecause he is viewed as the "least historical" - his Gospel is doctrine, so it's get smattered around. The historic series teaches that the Gospels are united: it is the lectionary from the same mindset as Augustine's Harmony. If you preach on John's account of the feeding of the 5000, there's no reason that you won't bring in a detail from Mark's account. This is anathema in the three year lectionary (as Prof. Gibbs at CSL is wont to say "When you preach on Matthew, you forget the other three exist.") The three lectionary is from the same mindset as the Anchor Bible commentary.

    In addition, the one year lectionary teaches that there is always something more to get out of a text. You can never tire of it. It is always worth going at again, just a year later. This makes it harder to preach on, but also, in my experience, more rewarding.

    This also might come down to a pastoral perspective: I think my people will benefit more from knowing some Bible more deeply, rather than more Bible less deeply. I think this because it is my own experience in growing up with the three year and switching to the historic. I know a small set of texts well, but I know them very, very well.

    Finally, as Rick alluded to, there is that bit in AC XXIV.1 about keeping the readings. And this is certainly what our fathers did as can be seen in Reed's Lutheran Liturgy. They kept the northern European historic lectionary (which had resisted several then recent changes at Rome). In my ways this just goes back to my first point on history. But I do think the confessional mentioning of this gives it a little more umpf. I'm not going to say that Rick is breaking his vow anymore than I would say that to a pastor who refuses to use a chasuble even though the same passages says we keep the traditional vestments.

    But I will ask the Rick the same question I would ask that fellow: though you are not bound to the descriptive portions of the Confessions, surely they should hold some weight - so why doesn't this statement describe your church since it did describe the churches of the AC in 1531? If we flow from the same confession, won't our practice also look the same?

    Now, Rick has actually already answered that question above and it's a good answer. So I'll ask one more. Most of us who are on the 1 year have tried it the other way, sometimes for years. Can I dare you to try the one year for a couple years?


  4. Heath, David, Larry: don't you know that the appropriate response to such a person, who stands up in the midst and introduces himself and his weakness this way is simply a robust, welcoming, "Hi, Rick!"


  5. Thanks for your responses, brothers.

    Father Hollywood, I haven't used CPH bulletin covers for at least 12 years now.

    Pastor Petersen, I agree with pretty much everything you say, at least in principle. I have no beef against the historic lectionary, nor would I suggest that anyone is sinful or unloving in using it. I'm not sure how many Christians could instantly tell you what the seventeenth Sunday after Trinity is, either.

    Pastor Curtis, I have contemplated using the historic lectionary for a span of several years, and I may do so after the completion of the present three-year cycle.

    I can only say that I have not found the same dissatisfaction with the three-year lectionary that others have expressed. Rather, as the years go by, I continue to appreciate it more. I also recognize and appreciate the benefits of using a yearly cycle, and do acknowledge the precedents for the historic lectionary. But there are pros and cons on both sides. I can and do make use of Luther and the church fathers in my sermon preparation. The early church fathers were not using the historic lectionary, but were usually preaching a lectio continua. There is also precedent, even among the O.T. Jews, for a three-year cycle or readings.

    Regarding the Apology, I think there is more than one point being made concerning the standard list of readings. One of those points is akin to using the vernacular. The Lutherans then could say, look, we're using the same lectionary our opponents are; we don't have our own separate canon. I would suggest that a similar argument can now be made, in our day, with respect to the three-year lectionary. When I have heard people speak of it with the harshest sort of language, as I often have (especially in the course of my work on the hymnal project), I find that to be rather unhelpful and unevangelical.

    Prior to the introduction of the three-year lectionary (and the reason that lectionary was so quickly received among Lutherans, et al.), the historic lectionary was being heard, in many cases, from the lectern but not the pulpit. It was also being routinely replaced by alternative lectionaries that various people were producing. The beloved hypo-European Lutherans also developed several systems of multi-year "preaching texts," including the SELK lectionary (six years worth). I don't suggest that the use of the historic lectionary necessitated such trends, but I do believe that it was the introduction of the three-year lectionary that helped many of my colleagues to rediscover a salutary liturgical use and preaching of the historic lectionary.

    The three-year lectionary is what I received from my own fathers in the faith. It does not contradict the Gospel, but serves it well, in my opinion and experience as both a hearer and a preacher of the Word. Although I am aware that earlier fathers used different lectionaries, I also know that my earlier fathers stretch back even much earlier than the historic (western medieval) lectionary. If one is going to play leapfrog, than many of the "innovations" of Vatican II were simply a recovery of that so-called "golden age" of the fourth century. There must be other criteria at work than simply historicity. Again, the continuity of tradition for me has been the three-year lectionary. Obviously, it is a tradition of much more recent vintage, but it is what came to me from my fathers in Christ; it does not contradict but serves the Gospel; and I find that many of my brothers in Christ(both within and outside of my own fellowship) are using this lectionary, or some "local variation" of the same. Under such circumstances, I am not driven by catholic, evangelical, or confessional "principles" to depart from its usage.

  6. Since we had Pastor Wil Weedon serve as the speaker at the St. John Chrysostom Lutheran Preacher's Retreat last summer (shameless plug - the 4th annual St. John Chrysostom Lutheran Preacher's Retreat will be held this June 22-24 with Pastor David Petersen as speaker - only a few spots remaining) I have been considering using the one-year lectionary after hearing Pr. Weedon extol its virtues. In fact when I got home from the Retreat I immediately ordered a set of Luther's sermons. They are helpful even if you are on the 3 yr cycle.

    However, at this point I have not made the switch to the 1 yr. Interestingly enough I have not made the switch for many of the same reasons that Dr. Stuckwisch mentions. The chief of which is that I regularly discuss the upcoming lections with brothers in the Ministry. I find this of great help. If I were to switch I would also have to convince at least four of my closest friends to do so. While I may be persuasive I doubt I am that persuasive.

    The way I look at it is this: there are two good options - 1 yr and 3 yr. There are pros and cons for each. We should rejoice that in either case you cannot go too far wrong since you are preaching the Word of God!

  7. Excellent summary of the virtues of the 3-year lectionary.

  8. I've always been a big fan of the one-year lectionary. I don't see any major issue behind the use of one or the other. They are both commended to us by our Synod. The majority of us prefer the three-year series. I think Rick makes good points for it use. I think others here have made good points about the use of the one year. My number one reasons for loving the one year is because it is a lot easier to find great sermons and helps for preaching in the Lutheran fathers, including our own dear Drs. Luther and Walther. And, I enjoy using the Bach Cantatas for preaching illustration and images.

  9. As a cantor, I'd only comment that I have been able to find more historically significant musical settings of the propers associated with the one-year lectionary--early 20th century LCMS sources, Anglican sources, pre-Reformation sources--which in my opinion have more musical integrity than the mass-produced 20th century chant tones.

    (This is basically the same point as preferring the lectionary for the use of the Bach Cantatas, except that there are much more practical settings of the Propers than the Bach Cantatas, settings which can actually be sung in any size church by a skilled cantor.)


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