Monday, November 17, 2008

Why do Catholics use a Lectionary?

The lectionary is the book of bible readings used at Catholic Masses. It spells out which readings will be used during each Mass. Many non-Catholic denominations choose to have their minister select what bible verses to preach on for that service instead of going by a strict guide and I’ve been asked by people who go to those types of churches why Catholics use such a formulaic, dry, and uninspired way of coming up with bible readings. After all, shouldn’t the Spirit lead this sort of thing?

There are three major reasons for using the lectionary. First, the Catholic Church had to cope with a world of vastly illiterate people. Most people who went to a Catholic Mass until the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries couldn’t read the Bible if they had one.

But they could hear.

So it was very important to the Church to put in place a schedule of readings so that none were missed. They devised the lectionary to be a three-year cycle of readings so if you go to Mass daily you’ll hear the whole Bible in three years, with some passages repeated more often. What would happen if a priest wasn’t familiar with a particular book in the Bible and didn’t preach on it? How many people would never get the benefit of having heard it?

Second, the Catholic Church is quite into being one church, even though we’re flug all across the world. Our sacraments are the same from parish to parish. Our liturgies are (basically) the same as well. Using the same reading at all Catholic Masses is another way to keep the universality between all Catholic Churches.

Finally, the Catholic Church teaches that there is a special relationship between the Old and New Testaments. The Old is fulfilled in the New and the New is prefigured in the Old. The parings of Old and New Testament readings on Sundays are selected very carefully to pair Old Testament passages specifically with the Gospel reading. There’s much more to be said on this topic, and I’m sure I’ll post more on it another time, but the main point is that the New Testament isn’t intended to be taken as it’s own set of books. Much of it requires the Old Testament as a sort of source document. Without that older information, much of the New Testament’s message is lost.

So, no, I don’t think the lectionary makes the readings dry, formulaic, or uninspired. There’s a place for being lead by the Spirit as you explore the Bible, and there’s a place for a more purposeful, intentional approach as well.

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