The Top Ten Reasons to use the Historic Lectionary

Written in collaboration with Dr. Jonathan Wessler, Kantor at First Lutheran Church of Boston.  Jonathan is a super awesome Lutheran organist who has a lovely wife and three wonderful children.  Along with being a consummate organist, he also enjoys good beer, mocking terrible church music, and driving super fast on the Autobahn.  You can learn more about the FLC music program at: https://www.flc-boston.org/ministries/music-ministry

The past half century has seen the wholesale adoption of the Three-Year lectionary by liturgical churches outside of the Roman Catholic sphere.  However, in recent years some have reconsidered this move and are returning to the Historic Lectionary used by the Western church for centuries prior to the 1960s.  We’d like to add our encouragement to this effort with this handy list of 10 reasons to return to the Historic Lectionary

  1. Why would you want to follow the papists?:  Since when has the Lutheran Church taken its cues from Rome?  Sure, we reformed the abusive Mass at the time of the Reformation. However, after that point Lutheran worship became its own stream, one that continued to retain many salutary things Rome threw out at Trent (as the fine folks at The Lutheran Missal Project are discovering every day).  In addition, Rome’s theology of worship and the Word is not the same as ours.  That should make us immediately suspicious of any innovation coming out of their house.  Finally, it is a bizarre accident of history that the Lutheran church, especially the LCMS, ended up imbibing so much of Vatican II after being so anti-Roman for generations.  Heck, there are still many congregations that balk at ceremonies that seem too Roman Catholic (like incense or the sign of the Cross) but happily go along with authentically Roman Catholic Vatican II changes (like the passing of the peace and lay lectors).
  2. The Historic Lectionary is catholic:  This may be the most important reason to use the Historic Lectionary. Its wide use by many people of many times and places makes it truly catholic.  This makes it the opinion of no one person, group, or tradition, which automatically makes it superior to the opinion of a committee of 1960s Roman Catholics.  It also has great utility in connecting believers of our current time and place to the congregation of the saints in all times and places. Prior generations did not see fit to create a whole new lectionary. They realized that by using the same lectionary you gain a greater appreciation and insight into the lives of faith and wisdom of those who went before. You participate in something much greater than just your time, place, and culture.
  3. The Historic Lectionary is catechetical: The axiom “repetition is the mother of learning” is on full display in the Historic Lectionary.  A three-year cadence is just too long for effective internalization. While you may get a breadth of Scripture, you lack the depth. In addition, humans do not naturally perceive time over the course of three years. Rather, we naturally experience time over the course of a single year. This natural annual cadence of the Historic Lectionary also means you get the whole counsel of God every single year on the same texts: you get the Feeding of the 5000, the Good Samaritan, the Canaanite Woman, every year. Sundays become associated with specific themes, texts, and hymns, which cannot be said for the longer three-year cycle (quick, what’s the Epistle for Proper 18B?).  Also, challenging texts are not avoided in the Historic Lectionary; the example par excellence being the Unjust Steward (Trinity 9).  Thus the congregation gets to hear how we deal with difficult texts, which is useful for teaching discernment.
  4. Named Sundays: The names for the Sundays in the Historic Lectionary come from the first words of the Introit in Latin, connecting the title with the celebration itself.  Naming helps to recall the theme of the Sunday aiding in catechesis. Plus, everybody loves saying Septuagesima, Quasimodo geniti, and Exaudi.
  5. Gesimatide: This is probably the most unfamiliar and confusing part of the Historic Lectionary for those accustomed to the Three-Year, but it is there for a good reason.  Gesimatide is a time of preparation for the journey to Easter that is Lent.  After climbing through Epiphanytide to the heights of Transfiguration (Solus Christus, Soli Deo Gloria), through meditation on the three great solas of the Reformation (Sola Gratia (Septuagesima), Sola Scriptura (Sexagesima), Sola Fide (Quinquagesima)) you descend to the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday.  This gradual transition parallels the human experience: you don’t embark on a journey on a whim, you carefully prepare. The Three-Year lectionary replaces this preparation with a liturgical whiplash from the heights of Epiphany to the depths of Lent.
  6. Music: If there is anything that recommends the Historic Lectionary (aside from what has already been stated), it’s the vast superiority of music. There is simply no quality music for the Three-Year propers. Yes, we are looking at you, CPH and LCMS.org/worship.  However, there is a wealth of great music for the Historic Lectionary, propers and otherwise.  You have access to the whole history of ecclessiastical music, from ancient Israel all the way to the 21st Century.  Did we mention Bach wrote a cantata for each week?  Can you do better than Bach?  Or how about the wealth of other Lutheran cantatas written by eminent composers?  In addition, hymns are identified with certain days. Quasimodo geniti: O Sons and Daughters of the King. Invocavit: A Mighty Fortress. Ad te levavi: Savior of the Nations Come. Laetare: Jesus, Priceless Treasure. Rogate: Our Father, Who In Heaven Above.  No better tool can be had for catechizing your congregation than having a great hymn of the day that sticks with you not just through the week but through the entire year.
  7. See what previous preachers did with the text:  This is a great boon to preacher and laity alike.  You have access to the best preachers the church has to offer.  Good preachers, like the Church Fathers, Lutheran Reformers like Luther and Walther, or even old-school Anglicans like Phillips Brooks, all the way up through the sainted Norman Nagel and well-known contemporaries like the Rev. David Petersen.  Need we mention all the Postils that were used by Christians for centuries?  By comparison, for the Three-Year you can refer to sermons by… some popes? Presiding bishops of The Episcopal Church? Archbishops of Canterbury? Hahahahaha
  8. The Historic Lectionary is organic:  Not to sound like a bunch of liturgical hipsters, but the Historic Lectionary is an organic whole, not something produced by a committee of academics.  It is also constantly evolving and improving with each passing century.  A great example of this organic improvement (and also a uniquely Lutheran one) was the move to bring Transfiguration to the end of Epiphany from its original date of August 6th.  This does lead to idiosyncrasies though, such as the out-of-order reading of John 14–16 in the Easter season.  However, the Church has lived with this quirk for generations and had no issue.  In fact there is value for the preacher for doing it like this, as it makes you seriously consider the text that is in front of you.  Another oddity of the Historic Lectionary is the apparent mismatches of Gospels and Epistles. There are some pairings of Epistle and Gospel that simply don’t make sense to those accustomed to the Three-Year, with its academically curated series of readings. The Three-Year approach is so strict and clean as to be inauthentic and sterile, and it does not mirror the kind of preaching delivered by the Church Fathers or the Reformers. There is no life, no whimsy, no vitality, no surprise, no opportunity for that supposedly errant Epistle to push you in a new direction on this Gospel. The organic nature of the Historic Lectionary should not cause consternation, but rather consideration and contemplation of the deeper meanings and connections between every part of Scripture.  Read any of the sermons from the Church Fathers and you will see that they are more adept at making scriptural connections than we are.
  9. The Three-Year Lectionary is a product of the 1960s:  The Historic Lectionary was conceived, refined, and molded slowly over the course of centuries by the entire Western Church. There was no agenda at play except to confess Christ and Him crucified.  The Three-Year Lectionary, on the other hand, was produced by a panel of “liturgical experts” who ran with hog-wild zeal and overreach following Vatican II’s decree to make “the riches of God’s Word… easily accessible in more abundant measure” (Sacrosanctum concilium, ¶92).  In fixing Rome’s very real problems having to do with unintelligible worship and a poorly catechized laity, they went too far.  Rather than respecting the treasure they had and fixing it like the Lutherans had done 400 years prior, they instead threw the baby out with the bathwater.  The real issue here is in their embrace of modern values. In line with the spirit of the times, they discarded the traditions of the past as if they had nothing to say to the present.  And so the lectionary they produced is a product of its time. Return to the aforementioned Epistle for Proper 18B: it’s nearly impossible to remember what it is in the context of so many other readings and Sundays.  But more to the point, why should anyone care what that Epistle is? Proper 18B was made up by a committee of pointy-hat-wearing self-appointed experts who were intentionally discarding the tradition of the entire Western Church. We cannot take them or their work seriously because it lacks the authenticity the Historic Lectionary has by virtue of its catholicity. If over half a century of hindsight has proven anything, it is that the majority of the cultural and religious products of that generation deserve to be thrown into the trash bin of history.
  10. Seriously, why would you want to mirror a bunch of Antichrist-following hippies? ’Nuff said.

Since the advent of the Three-Year Lectionary the LCMS has treated lectionary use as pastoral discretion: “we have two lectionaries, and the pastor gets to decide which one to use.” While it’s obviously not a sin to use the Three-Year Lectionary, it’s also not the historic practice of the Church to do so—and our forefathers knew what they were doing.  We hope that these reasons provide food for thought for those who use the Three-Year, and good support for those who use the Historic Lectionary.  There is a precious treasure here that we should not lightly disregard.

3 thoughts on “The Top Ten Reasons to use the Historic Lectionary

  1. When I joined our board of elders a few years ago I asked our pastor to switch back to the One Year Historic Lectionary when we adopted the new Lutheran Service Book. It goes well with Luther’s Postils and Walther’s devotional “God Grant It” and even Higher Things’ Advent and Lenten devotions. We used it for over ten years, but we had to go back to the Three-Year Lectionary a few months ago because that is the lectionary that our vacancy pastor uses for his sermons.

  2. I don’t have a parish anymore. I serve as a chaplain. But my preference is the historic one year series. There is much to recommend about it. However, there is something to be said about unity of practice, and as long as most of the LCMS use the three year series, that remains one reason to retain it as a local decision. Perhaps if an entire circuit (or even district) can make the change and use it, that would be better than individual congregations, but my preference woud be that all of the congregations of the synod would use the same lectionary, and hope that could be the one year series.

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