Orality, Intertextuality, and the Revised Common Lectionary, by Amy C. Schifrin

Started by Richard Johnson, February 11, 2023, 03:34:29 PM

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Richard Johnson

The following is reprinted from the February 2023 issue of Forum Letter.

Orality, Intertextuality, and the Revised Common Lectionary
Amy C. Schifrin

Canonical, calendrical, ecumenical, and eucharistic: lectionaries at their best have worked hand in hand with the liturgical calendar, the doxological catechism that carries us forward from baptism to Christian burial. Together with the propers of the mass and the hymns of the church, a common lectionary puts the doxological content of the church year into our ears, our mouths, our hearts, and our lives. And it does this with some of its greatest strength as it provides the biblical passages for preachers to open for their congregations. While a daily lectionary is employed to bring the fullness of the scriptures into our spiritual practices with the seasonal orderings of the church year, the Sunday lectionary works both diachronically (in the juxtapositioning of the appointed texts for a given Sunday) and synchronically (as week follows week throughout the year) to fill us up, but not in a static way, for the texts of each week lean towards the next, with each liturgical season having its own arc.

No satisfaction!
Lectionaries do change over time and yet there is always as much grumbling among clergy about the changes in scriptural "diet" given in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) as there was when the children of Israel were given manna in the desert. Some pastors do their best imitation of Mick Jagger as they cry, "I Can't Get No Satisfaction," because no new lectionary has ever been fully to their liking. They may nostalgically seek to return to the historic one- or two-year lectionaries, or to some iteration of "preacher's choice," as it is now often masked with fancy thematic, agendized, or narrative titles, or as in an even more self-aggrandizing way--prepared on one's own without any ecclesial or ecumenical conversation. Part of that has to do with how ritual functions in creating a sense of what is natural and "right," because ritual works through our bodies, not just through our thoughts. It works through years and years of whole-body repetition. It's why, having grown up as a Jew in the synagogue, I have a hard time praying the psalter without voicing the words aloud with some musical inflection along with a repetitive bodily rocking movement (davening) that takes me inside the words.

In more recent years, I remember having a conversation with a long-retired New Testament scholar. Forty-five years after Vatican II's Lectionary for Mass and the subsequent creation of the Common Lectionary, he was still complaining about the inclusion of Old Testament lessons in the Sunday lectionary that came with Vatican II's desire for the people of God to receive "richer fare" through the appointed readings at Sunday Mass. My friend's formation within the Lutheran household had happened before the addition of a first reading coming from the Old Testament, and he blamed all this folderal around social justice on the inclusion of so many prophetic texts. His concern was for all things heard to be Christologically centered, and he did not see the beauty that comes when one or more texts from each testament worked dialogically as a commentary, echo, or rupture into a new world.

When the appointed texts are sounded in the presence of each other and in the midst of the eucharistic assembly, those who are gathered have the opportunity to hear each text a new living conversation, for as the calendrical context highlights scripture's intertextuality, it opens  a deeper entry into the canonical context. The result is that we may be brought into the presence of the one, who while he walked this earth, lived inside the words of the law and the prophets. He did not dismiss them but opened them to be heard in their fulness. And as we know, his preaching created a lot of folderal, too.

Spiritual classics
Lections, selected readings (or pericopes, which means cuttings) are often referred to as "spiritual classics." In general, they are scriptural verses that form a unit intended for public oral presentation. It is through their repetition in fixed cycles that we experience something of their orality. Through their repetition, they come to have a familiarity, and we long to hear them as they come to us in the current three-year cycle.

They also function in some ways as a canon within the canon because they become interpretive guides as they are embedded within our memories and through our associations with an appointed text and the liturgical year, especially on festival days or in festival seasons. (Can you imagine a Palm Sunday without hearing of Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem?) In Scripture and Memory: The Ecumenical Hermeneutic of the Three-year Lectionaries, Fritz West reminds us that lectionaries carry the appointed texts within the Christological memory of the liturgical year, and that it is the paschal mystery as it is manifested in the eucharist that is the primary mode of interpretation for all the texts that are proclaimed in that given day.

All liturgical texts (including scripture) have what liturgical scholars refer to as "thick" meaning, or layers of meaning. Some of these texts are very much beloved; and as every preacher knows, some of these texts are "difficult"—often because we just don't want to preach on them, or maybe we don't want to hear them ourselves because through them the law accuses us individually.

But when scriptural classics that have been loved and sounded through the centuries are given to preachers in a repeated cycle, each time a beloved or especially difficult text comes before us, we may discover even greater meaning as we return to the same texts having lived through the ups and downs of our lives and our wider communities. Sometimes we can't get to what's going on in text the first or second time we preach. But maybe, just maybe, that third time through, the Spirit has had enough time to open us up to what we could not see in the past.

Reading aloud
Let us not forget that texts convey meaning not only through the content of what is read but through the fact that they are read, for the authority of a written text, ritually speaking, gains in gravitas through its oral/aural presence in the sacred frame of the eucharistic gathering. For just like on the road to Emmaus, all that was spoken going back to Moses and the prophets gained in meaning when the bread was broken, for it is through ritual that meaning is conveyed in an incarnate, living way. Because we receive both the Bible and any lectionary in print, it is easy to forget their oral/aural character and to imbue that which is written as having greater authority than that of its performance, the event of such words being sounded in the assembly.

But these words were not written down to exist as a book that one could pick up and read. They were written on scrolls to be spoken aloud, so that an assembly of two or three, (Mt 18.20) or two or three thousand could be, "called, gathered, and enlightened by the Holy Spirit."

Unpacking the RCL and its derivatives
For those who want to examine the history and hermeneutics of the Revised Common Lectionary, I recommend three helpful sources:
(1) The website of the Consultation on Common Texts, commontexts.org/rcl/
(2) The Revised Common Lectionary: 20th Anniversary Edition (ISBN 978-1451436037)
(3) Fritz West, Scripture and Memory: The Ecumenical Hermeneutic of the Three-Year Lectionaries (ISBN 978-0814661574). Dr. West has done some superb work on how the ecumenical hermeneutic of the RCL works to balance communal memory (oral event) and written memory (biblical text) and what happens when the same readings are received in different liturgical contexts.

It is also helpful to know that the RCL is a resource that has been adapted in unique ways buy different denominational expressions. Presbyterians have expanded the particular lections more than any other groups. Episcopalians have shortened them the most. Some Lutherans (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada) have stayed the closest to the resource, and some have made wider changes in a more sectarian manner, including "heritage texts" (Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and SOLA publishing). SOLA promotes the LCMS lectionary in both the North American Lutheran Church and Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ, although not all NALC congregations are using the lectionary adaptation as published by SOLA.

In addition, the Anglican Church in North America has now moved further from the RCL in providing whole chapters of the scriptures, rather than lections, closer to the manner in which one might receive the scriptural text through a Bible study. The Revised Common lectionary was organized for eucharistic worship, not for Bible study. Its hermeneutic seeks to keep the unity of word and sacrament as essential to the witness of the church, and it was arranged so that the baptized would be called into a living and joyous union with the one who died and was raised and rules for all eternity.

So, when thinking about the interrelatedness between the lectionary and the presence of Christ alive among us, remember that he, too, was once called upon to speak for all to hear from an appointed second lesson from the lectionary of his day (haftorah), and that, indeed, the Spirit of the Lord was upon him.

Amy Schifrin is Associate Professor (ret.) of Liturgy & Homiletics at North American Lutheran Seminary and Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA, and Semi- nary President Emeritus at the North American Lutheran Seminary. She now resides in Colorado.
The Rev. Richard O. Johnson, STS

Dave Benke

This is simply outstanding.  It should be mandatory pre-seminary reading and will be part of my own parish's adult education offerings this spring.  The teaching office of the Church has received a valuable lesson from Dr. Shifrin in this article, across denominational boundaries.  Take and read!

Dave Benke
It's OK to Pray

Brian Stoffregen

Attached are the readings for Sundays and Festivals from the Revised Common Lectionary.

The first three pages are the Gospel Readings for all three years.
The second three pages are the 2nd Readings for all three years.
The final four pages are the 1st Readings for all three years - there are two options for the Pentecost Season: thematic or semi-continuous.


The Gospel Readings during the non-green seasons (Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, & Festivals) are chosen by themes. The 1st and 2nd readings are chosen to complement the Gospel.


The Gospel Readings during the green seasons (Epiphany & Pentecost) are semi-continuous. The 2nd Readings are also semi-continuous. The 1st Reading is picked to related to one of the other readings during Epiphany and the thematic Pentecost series. (This is more the Roman Catholic, Episcopal, and Lutheran tradition.) There is also a semi-continuous series of Old Testament readings during the Pentecost Season. (This is more the tradition of other Protestants.)
I flunked retirement. Serving as a part-time interim in Ferndale, WA.

George Rahn

Quote from: Brian Stoffregen on February 11, 2023, 06:17:14 PM
Attached are the readings for Sundays and Festivals from the Revised Common Lectionary.

The first three pages are the Gospel Readings for all three years.
The second three pages are the 2nd Readings for all three years.
The final four pages are the 1st Readings for all three years - there are two options for the Pentecost Season: thematic or semi-continuous.


The Gospel Readings during the non-green seasons (Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, & Festivals) are chosen by themes. The 1st and 2nd readings are chosen to complement the Gospel.


The Gospel Readings during the green seasons (Epiphany & Pentecost) are semi-continuous. The 2nd Readings are also semi-continuous. The 1st Reading is picked to related to one of the other readings during Epiphany and the thematic Pentecost series. (This is more the Roman Catholic, Episcopal, and Lutheran tradition.) There is also a semi-continuous series of Old Testament readings during the Pentecost Season. (This is more the tradition of other Protestants.)

This is a fine and succinct summary of the use of the RCL for worship.


When the first readings are available for worship and are from the Old Testament, they are readings which indicate from where some of the New Testament kerygmatic content is initiated eg. Abraham stories and the promising tradition, the prophetic writings esp. Isaiah, which call to mind from where the Christ would come, as well as the Genesis 1-3 readings so important for the basis of reporting the matter of original sin and the human's bondage of one's will and inability to measure foundational good and evil value.  We are sinners in bondage to sin and unable to free ourselves.

It is also notable that the OT readings take a back seat during the season of Easter when the primary focus is on the key readings which are unique to Christianity and call to mind the end of the Old Testament for the New.

DCharlton

"The Revised Common lectionary was organized for eucharistic worship, not for Bible study."

I've heard Frank Senn day the same, but I confess that I have no idea what it means.   
David Charlton  

Was Algul Siento a divinity school?

J. Thomas Shelley

Quote from: Richard Johnson on April 24, 1975, 07:39:26 PM
In more recent years, I remember having a conversation with a long-retired New Testament scholar. Forty-five years after Vatican II's Lectionary for Mass and the subsequent creation of the Common Lectionary, he was still complaining about the inclusion of Old Testament lessons in the Sunday lectionary that came with Vatican II's desire for the people of God to receive "richer fare" through the appointed readings at Sunday Mass. My friend's formation within the Lutheran household had happened before the addition of a first reading coming from the Old Testament, and he blamed all this folderal around social justice on the inclusion of so many prophetic texts. His concern was for all things heard to be Christologically centered, and he did not see the beauty that comes when one or more texts from each testament worked dialogically as a commentary, echo, or rupture into a new world.

The 1978 LBW/1979 BCP lectionaries (fraternal twins) selected many Old Testament passages following the hermeneutic of Matthew the Apostle and  Evangelist who had redirected his tax-collecting, balance sheet mind toward looking for fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets in Christ.  If there was a "social justice" component that was more accidental than intentional.

The RCL rejected discarded the Christocentric lens and thematic OT lessons for a more or less lectio continuo approach; which, as Frank Senn properly noted and objected, confused a Eucharistic lectionary with Bible Study.  And, in fact, some parishes and clergy have reverted to the pre-Vatican II practice of using only Epistle and Gospel on the basis that the OT lessons are '"too long".   So the unintended consequence of adding more Scripture is that some congregations end up with less.

I am approaching my eighth anniversary of Chrsimation; therefore slightly more than my eighth time in encountering the one-year Orthodox Lectionary. 

As a staunch supporter of the three year lectionary in my former life and ministry; I have been pleasantly surprised to have found little boredom and much strength in returning to the same texts at roughly the same time of every year; the variation of course due to the moveable date of Pascha.   

To offer but one example:  It is a wonderful preparation for the Nativity cycle to hear the Lukan Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus every year---not every third year--in late October or early November, and generally in proximity to the Feast of St. John Chrysostom (Nov 13) whose writings "On Wealth and Poverty" (SVS Press title) are fitting reminders that the Nativity Fast must be accompanied by almsgiving in order to be genuine.
Greek Orthodox Deacon - Ecumenical Patriarchate
Ordained to the Holy Diaconate Mary of Egypt Sunday A.D. 2022

Baptized, Confirmed, and Ordained United Methodist.
Served as a Lutheran Pastor October 31, 1989 - October 31, 2014.
Charter member of the first chapter of the Society of the Holy Trinity.

DCharlton

Quote from: J. Thomas Shelley on February 11, 2023, 11:58:59 PM
The RCL rejected discarded the Christocentric lens and thematic OT lessons for a more or less lectio continuo approach; which, as Frank Senn properly noted and objected, confused a Eucharistic lectionary with Bible Study. 

I still don't see what makes the RCL better than other options.  If the focus is on the Eucharist and not Bible study, then why have a three-year lectionary.  A one-year lectionary should do just a well.  The logic seems to be that with a three-year lectionary, more of Scripture is covered.  But if the focus isn't Bible study, why would that matter?  Another problem with the RCL is that are two options during the Season of Pentecost.  There is more variation within the RCL than there is between the RCL lectionary used by Lutherans and the LCMS three-year lectionary. 

I understand the argument for a common lectionary across denominations.  I understand the value of using a lectionary that is closely tied to the Church Year and to traditional themes that are found in historical lectionaries.  I just don't understand how the sequence utilized in the RCL is more suitable for the Eucharist than something like the Narrative Lectionary, which is still Christocentric and which takes note of the Church Year.
David Charlton  

Was Algul Siento a divinity school?

Dave Benke

Quote from: DCharlton on February 12, 2023, 02:01:52 PM
Quote from: J. Thomas Shelley on February 11, 2023, 11:58:59 PM
The RCL rejected discarded the Christocentric lens and thematic OT lessons for a more or less lectio continuo approach; which, as Frank Senn properly noted and objected, confused a Eucharistic lectionary with Bible Study. 

I still don't see what makes the RCL better than other options.  If the focus is on the Eucharist and not Bible study, then why have a three-year lectionary.  A one-year lectionary should do just a well.  The logic seems to be that with a three-year lectionary, more of Scripture is covered.  But if the focus isn't Bible study, why would that matter?  Another problem with the RCL is that are two options during the Season of Pentecost.  There is more variation within the RCL than there is between the RCL lectionary used by Lutherans and the LCMS three-year lectionary. 

I understand the argument for a common lectionary across denominations.  I understand the value of using a lectionary that is closely tied to the Church Year and to traditional themes that are found in historical lectionaries.  I just don't understand how the sequence utilized in the RCL is more suitable for the Eucharist than something like the Narrative Lectionary, which is still Christocentric and which takes not of the Church Year.

I'd like to hear Amy Shifrin unpack that sentence and the Senn reference further.  Maybe she can be asked to contribute here on the topics explored in her article, of which this is one. 
Guest Teacher/Interlocutor - why not give it a try?

Dave Benke
It's OK to Pray

Terry W Culler

Just a word about the idea that the lectionary should not be seen as teaching Scripture, which is for Bible study.  That sounds great until you look around and see how few people are actually in a true Bible study.  The number is far less than it ought to be and I chose to preach lectio continua for years so people could have a decent basis for why we believe, teach and confess certain doctrines of the Church.  I have nothing against lectionaries per se and have generally used various ones, but neither is there any real reason to hold them up as some kind of end all or be all in Christian worship.  BTW, the OT readings often seem to have more to do with the Gospel than some of the Epistle readings.
"No particular Church has ... a right to existence, except as it believes itself the most perfect from of Christianity, the form which of right, should and will be universal."
Charles Porterfield Krauth

Dave Benke

Quote from: Terry W Culler on February 12, 2023, 03:21:43 PM
Just a word about the idea that the lectionary should not be seen as teaching Scripture, which is for Bible study.  That sounds great until you look around and see how few people are actually in a true Bible study.  The number is far less than it ought to be and I chose to preach lectio continua for years so people could have a decent basis for why we believe, teach and confess certain doctrines of the Church.  I have nothing against lectionaries per se and have generally used various ones, but neither is there any real reason to hold them up as some kind of end all or be all in Christian worship.  BTW, the OT readings often seem to have more to do with the Gospel than some of the Epistle readings.

What then is true bible study?  As it happens I just had some conversations about bible study this morning after church.  What the adults who spoke to me are looking for is
a) solid teaching from the teacher
b) interactive mode of learning
c) open to all
d) questions abounding

I'm on that side of the page, which is a different way, my opinion, of "indoctrination."  More Socratic and perambulative than sit at desk, take notes, write them down and memorize them.

Where are you on that spectrum?

Dave Benke
It's OK to Pray

Terry W Culler

Quote from: Dave Benke on February 12, 2023, 03:26:59 PM
Quote from: Terry W Culler on February 12, 2023, 03:21:43 PM
Just a word about the idea that the lectionary should not be seen as teaching Scripture, which is for Bible study.  That sounds great until you look around and see how few people are actually in a true Bible study.  The number is far less than it ought to be and I chose to preach lectio continua for years so people could have a decent basis for why we believe, teach and confess certain doctrines of the Church.  I have nothing against lectionaries per se and have generally used various ones, but neither is there any real reason to hold them up as some kind of end all or be all in Christian worship.  BTW, the OT readings often seem to have more to do with the Gospel than some of the Epistle readings.

What then is true bible study?  As it happens I just had some conversations about bible study this morning after church.  What the adults who spoke to me are looking for is
a) solid teaching from the teacher
b) interactive mode of learning
c) open to all
d) questions abounding

I'm on that side of the page, which is a different way, my opinion, of "indoctrination."  More Socratic and perambulative than sit at desk, take notes, write them down and memorize them.

Where are you on that spectrum?

Dave Benke


Even though I'm retired I'm still teaching Bible study--just started Revelation for the first time in about 13 years.  I try to engage people in conversation about the text and what God is saying to His people.  I also try to encourage cross currents, if you will, where the people engage each other.  It would be great if every Bible study everywhere ran out of space because so many people wanted to dig deep into the Word.  But we know that isn't going to happen, even in conservative congregations. 
"No particular Church has ... a right to existence, except as it believes itself the most perfect from of Christianity, the form which of right, should and will be universal."
Charles Porterfield Krauth

Brian Stoffregen

Quote from: Dave Benke on February 12, 2023, 03:26:59 PM
Quote from: Terry W Culler on February 12, 2023, 03:21:43 PM
Just a word about the idea that the lectionary should not be seen as teaching Scripture, which is for Bible study.  That sounds great until you look around and see how few people are actually in a true Bible study.  The number is far less than it ought to be and I chose to preach lectio continua for years so people could have a decent basis for why we believe, teach and confess certain doctrines of the Church.  I have nothing against lectionaries per se and have generally used various ones, but neither is there any real reason to hold them up as some kind of end all or be all in Christian worship.  BTW, the OT readings often seem to have more to do with the Gospel than some of the Epistle readings.

What then is true bible study?  As it happens I just had some conversations about bible study this morning after church.  What the adults who spoke to me are looking for is
a) solid teaching from the teacher
b) interactive mode of learning
c) open to all
d) questions abounding

I'm on that side of the page, which is a different way, my opinion, of "indoctrination."  More Socratic and perambulative than sit at desk, take notes, write them down and memorize them.

Where are you on that spectrum?

Dave Benke


A simple distinction: (Lutheran) sermons are perhaps 10-20 minutes long. Bible study classes were 60-90 minutes long.
Another distinction between reading and studying the Bible. Study takes longer. Other resources are used. Notes are taken. (Devotional) reading doesn't involve any of that.
I flunked retirement. Serving as a part-time interim in Ferndale, WA.

Terry W Culler

Who in the world preaches a 10 minute sermon?  And why would anyone think that was sufficient for the care of souls in their congregation?  Even 20 minutes is barely enough.  Luther said we shouldn't preach more than an hour unless we had something especially important to say!
"No particular Church has ... a right to existence, except as it believes itself the most perfect from of Christianity, the form which of right, should and will be universal."
Charles Porterfield Krauth

Brian Stoffregen

Quote from: Terry W Culler on February 12, 2023, 05:29:22 PM
Who in the world preaches a 10 minute sermon?  And why would anyone think that was sufficient for the care of souls in their congregation?  Even 20 minutes is barely enough.  Luther said we shouldn't preach more than an hour unless we had something especially important to say!

Most of my sermons were about 12 minutes long. (Much longer than that, my wife would tell me about it afterwards.) I learned early, perhaps jr. high, that the length of sermon was the number one topic of conversations/complaint my parents and their church friends had after worship. The length of the whole service was the number two topic. We celebrated communion every Sunday, and we were usually finished in less than an hour - time to get to the restaurants before the other congregations finished.

I disagreed with a speaker who believed that you had to tell the people what you're going to tell them, tell them, then remind them again what you told them. My belief is: if you tell the effectively the first time, that's enough.

I also believe that the Sunday's message is much more than just the sermon. There are the lessons - read in a fairly easy to understand translation. (The NRSV at about an 11th grade reading level is a bit high for listening, in my opinion.) I picked the hymns to relate to the theme of the day. I considered them part of the message I was proclaiming to the people - sometimes better than the sermon.
I flunked retirement. Serving as a part-time interim in Ferndale, WA.

Brian Stoffregen

Quote from: DCharlton on February 12, 2023, 02:01:52 PM
Quote from: J. Thomas Shelley on February 11, 2023, 11:58:59 PM
The RCL rejected discarded the Christocentric lens and thematic OT lessons for a more or less lectio continuo approach; which, as Frank Senn properly noted and objected, confused a Eucharistic lectionary with Bible Study. 

I still don't see what makes the RCL better than other options.  If the focus is on the Eucharist and not Bible study, then why have a three-year lectionary.  A one-year lectionary should do just a well.  The logic seems to be that with a three-year lectionary, more of Scripture is covered.  But if the focus isn't Bible study, why would that matter?  Another problem with the RCL is that are two options during the Season of Pentecost.  There is more variation within the RCL than there is between the RCL lectionary used by Lutherans and the LCMS three-year lectionary. 


The focus is Bible reading (or listening), not Bible study. Especially in the daily prayer liturgies, a sermon was not traditionally part of Matins, Vespers, Compline, etc. The reading of scriptures, including the psalms and NT canticles sung at these services, was sufficient to hear God speaking to us.


The two options come from two different traditions. The Roman, Episcopalian, and Lutheran tradition had a 1st Reading that was related to one of the other readings (during the Pentecost season). Other Protestants used a semi-continuous Old Testament readings (during the Pentecost season.) The RCL is a bit of a compromise between the original Roman Catholic three-year lectionary, the Episcopalian and Lutheran adaptations of it; and the Protestant Common Lectionary used by others.

QuoteI understand the argument for a common lectionary across denominations.  I understand the value of using a lectionary that is closely tied to the Church Year and to traditional themes that are found in historical lectionaries.  I just don't understand how the sequence utilized in the RCL is more suitable for the Eucharist than something like the Narrative Lectionary, which is still Christocentric and which takes note of the Church Year.


Having been in ecumenical pericope study groups, having a common lectionary was quite important.


The RCL has many more thematic dates related to the church year, e.g., each Sunday in Advent, the temptation of Jesus, than I've seen in the Narrative lectionary.
I flunked retirement. Serving as a part-time interim in Ferndale, WA.

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