Friday, September 19, 2014

Lectionary Riches: Setting Texts Side by Side

The many lectionaries currently in use––or proposed for use––in our congregations may well confound a preacher with confusing choices. Ephraim Radner, an Anglican, points to the great benefit of the lectionaries that come to us from the ancient wisdom of the church. 

Cranmer conceived of the English prayer book in a very specific way: it was fundamentally and effectively ordered to immerse Christians in the words of scripture so that finally the words become a part of ongoing formative memory. The collects and prayers were, as far as possible, made up of scriptural phrases. The communion service itself was both about a scriptural act and story—the passion, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ—but it takes us through this scriptural reality including, in many parts, its literal words. The liturgical seasonal calendar—from Advent promise to Pentecostal gift—is a grand ordering of the church's year according to the scriptural shape of Jesus’ life and teaching. And one must not forget the hymns that, from early on in Anglicanism, engaged especially the psalms and then other scriptural texts in metrical song.
And at the center of this prayer book worship was the lectionary . . . ordering the readings for both daily and Sunday worship . . .  [T]he people would hear the whole Bible in a year, through daily and Sunday readings, and the Psalter every month. 

Having in mind a vast treasure of biblical narrative, image, and doctrine gives the church’s people both a pattern and a complex body of language for creating and sustaining faith. Radner describes the result of Cranmer’s work.

What it gave rise to is what I call “juxtapositional” exegesis or understanding, which proved deeply significant. By this phrase I mean the understanding of scripture that arises when its parts are simply and openly laid side by side each other, as far as possible without prior demands. Much of this juxtaposition arose from mental or mnemonic associations, as well as reflections upon them.  . . . 
I want to emphasize what an important resource the lectionary is. Use it; build on it; find ways of integrating it; don't dilute it. Obviously, what is optimal for scriptural apprehension is the integrated practice of memorized scripture, calendrically and liturgically ordered regular readings of key portions of scripture, and preaching that engages, over and over again, the combustive encounter of disparate texts within this continually informed vision. But the optimal has fast ceded place to the incapable, as each plank in such scriptural life has been reduced or withdrawn: reiterated listening, memorization, comprehensive exposure to the entire scriptures, assumptions of its divine power.
I don't have a solution to any of this larger problem, which is bound up with cultural changes that are difficult to resist. My purpose has simply been to show something of what is at stake in the challenge. 

Radner undertakes a careful comparison of Athanasius and Arius, and I leave it to the interested preacher to examine the full article in this issue of Liturgy. Suffice it at this point to end with Radner’s cautionary words about the vitality of the lectionary and immersion in God’s word. He asserts the importance of 

. . . hearing, learning, ingesting, and remembering the full range of texts until their coordinated power asserts itself upon our perceptions; until, that is, they emerge as figures of Christ Jesus. 
Heresy is the deliberated withering, far more even than the purported contradicting, of the scriptures.

Ephraim Radner, “Lectionary and the Figural Meaning of the Scriptures,” Liturgy 29, no. 4 (10 July 2014): 56-62.

Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

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