The latest issue of the journal Liturgy contains a number of important essays on The Lectionary and its Readings. Martin Connell’s contribution describes the use of the Bible in his childhood Roman Catholic family life and in school, pointing out the controversies that reigned over translations and canon. Before his time, certainly, in the 1840s, the so-called “Bible riots” in Philadelphia (over what version of the Bible ought to be studied in public schools) left “at least fifteen dead, fifty injured.”
Thankfully, we do not see such overtly violent conflicts over translation and schoolroom religious instruction today. But we do have controversies over lectionary, specifically in some quarters over the use of the ecumenical Revised Common Lectionary versus other, newer, more sectarian calendars. Some are geared toward particular ethnic or cultural groups; others, to the notion that knowledge of the scriptural story (as if there was a single narrative) is necessary for the increase in the number of worshippers.
Connell points out that knowledge is not what the lectionary offers. Instead, study prepares us to be encountered by the divine presence. It is the reading itself in the context of worship that is central.
He sets out two events of encounter with the scriptures to help us see the import and complexity not only of the Bible but of the lectionary in worship.
In an early medieval rite of baptism—Ordo Romanus XI, from sometime in the later sixth or early seventh centuries—“four deacons process from the sacristy with the four books of the gospels, with two candlesticks and a smoking thurible before them. They put the gospel books at each of the four corners of the altar.”
. . . To the infants about to be baptized, the priest catechized, “We open for you, loved children, the Gospels.” His instruction? “Behold, the One Who Speaks is present in this very place,” highlighting the essentially social, sensory nature of the word of God: “Open your ears so that your [other] senses not be blocked.” Finally, the deacon commanded the baptized assembly and the about-to-be-baptized infants: “Stand! Be quiet! Pay attention!”
The deacon moved, “Taking up the book from the first corner of the altar at the left side, with two candles and a thurible before him, [the first deacon] ascends for the reading” from the beginning of the first Gospel, Matthew.
Each deacon, then, read from the Gospels. Of huge importance to the reading, Connell notes, were the images of the “face” of the Gospel writers on the cover of the books––person, lion, ox, and eagle––pictures to aid the hearing. “Hearing” the Gospel is not just about hearing the words or knowing them. The ritual movements and smells accompany the meaning of the words.
Imagining that early medieval rite, I remember watching with my ‘‘God and Politics’’ class—fall 2007 with the first-year seminar, at Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota—when the Republican candidates for the presidency of the United States responded to a YouTube inquirer—one Joseph Dearing of Dallas, Texas, as he held up to the screen a leather-bound King James Version of the Bible—who said, first, ‘‘The answer to this question will tell us everything we need to know about you,’’ then asked, ‘‘Do you believe every word in this book?’’ With divorced Rudy Giuliani and Latter-Day Saint Mitt Romney stuttering, hesitating, and squirming about the ‘‘every word’’ part of the query, which was reiterated by handsome host Anderson Cooper, Governor Mike Huckabee—the only guy on stage with a graduate degree in theology—rescued the others and answered nobly. The object the punchy young man held up to the screen for his question (whatever its translation) is not what the church has discerned as the medium of God’s word. God’s gift to humanity is the word of God, and the medium of the church’s gift is the lectionary, which realizes the sensory, social experience of the word, into which we were submerged at baptism and by which we are fed and convicted Sunday after Sunday.
The baptized can trust the church’s tradition and discernment in choosing lectionary readings to arrest us, comfort us, upset us, console us, and challenge us; proclamations to punctuate the days, seasons, and celebrations of our thanksgiving. Faith indeed comes from hearing, deo gratias. Reading the Bible is inspirational, perhaps, but proclaiming and hearing the word of God from the lectionary is the voice of Christ, the double-edged sword that separates ‘‘soul from spirit, joints from marrow’’ (Hebrews 4:12). Humanity, for better or worse, is saved not by aorist and perfect tenses, or by the silent Bible, ‘‘but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’’ (Matthew 4:4).
Martin Connell, “On Liturgy and Lectionary: The Word of Life in the Body of Christ,” Liturgy 29, no. 4 (10 July 2014): 33-37.
Martin Connell teaches ‘‘What We Write About When We Write About God’’ at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and in the Department of Theology at St. John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota.