The Lectionary: The Heart of the Prayer Book System

Robert Crouse

Published in the PBSC Newsletter, #36, July 1996

 

“All of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble.” (1 Peter, 5)


In the cycle of the Christian Year, in the ancient lectionary – that cycle of Epistle and Gospel lessons which has served the Church for well over a millennium, and still survives in our Book of Common Prayer – the essential message of Holy Scripture, God’s word to us, is set before us in an orderly and supremely logical way. As we follow the lessons appointed for the Sundays and the great festivals, as we meditate upon them, as we open our minds and hearts to understand the pattern and meaning of them, we are led, step by step, into an ever deeper and clearer perception of Christian truth and the essentials of Christian life.

In the first half of the year from Advent to Trinity Sunday, the cycle of lessons sets before us in due succession those great works wherein the mind and heart of God are manifest in Jesus Christ, those great works whereby our redemption and reconciliation are accomplished, and we are called to new life in the Spirit. All that teaching, all that revelation and illumination, is magnificently summed up in our adoring contemplation of God the Holy Trinity. A door is opened in Heaven, and souls are caught up in worship, with angels and archangels; we “rise to adore the mystery of love”.

As children of God by adoption and grace, and heirs of eternal life, we are to be partakers of the divine nature, partakers of that mystery. With open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, we are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord. (II Cor. 3:18) “Changed into the same image”: therein lies the meaning, the logic, of our lectionary for this long season of Sundays after Trinity.

What is involved here is a spiritual system, a design for sanctification, a programme of practical spirituality. For half the year, we have celebrated the mystery of love – the revelation of God’s charity; and now, in this Trinity season, we draw certain practical conclusions from that. The practical starting point is set out in the very first lesson for the season, from the First Epistle of St. John:

“Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another”.

It is the revelation of God’s love, God’s charity, which is the basis of Christian spiritual life. The starting point is the divine love:

“Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins”.

That is the basis and starting point, and therefore the lessons for the first few Sundays after Trinity concentrate upon that, in its various aspects, and draw out the practical implications for us, Thus, on the first Sunday, the theme is the self-giving charity of God; and the necessity of emulating that self-giving charity as the ground of our own spiritual life is practically illustrated in Jesus’ parable of Dives and Lazarus. Then on the second Sunday, the theme is the infinite generosity of God’s charity, with the practical lesson illustrated in the parable of the great supper. Now, on this third Sunday, the theme is the humility of God’s charity.

In the Gospel lesson, the story begins with the publicans and sinners gathering around Jesus to hear him. The publicans were tax-collectors, and were not very highly regarded, for various reasons. In the first place, they were seen as collaborationists, or lackeys of the foreign Roman overlords; but beyond that, they were in a very dubious position morally: the Roman government farmed out tax-collection to local agents, and gave each a quota to raise as best he could. The agent’s own income would depend upon whatever extra he could squeeze out of his unwilling victims. To speak of a publican was to speak of the most despicable sinner imaginable – not at all the sort of person with whom a teacher of religion should associate.

That’s what the Pharisees and Scribes complained about – “murmured” about:

“This man receiveth sinners and eateth with them”. These Scribes and Pharisees were notoriously righteous; they were the scrupulous interpreters, observers of the law, and they thought that Jesus ought to pay attention to them, instead of cavorting with unworthy publicans.

Jesus told them two stories: the story of the lost sheep, and the story of the lost coin. And the point to these stories is surely very simple: salvation is for those who need salvation, for those who are lost: “joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth more than over ninety and nine just persons who need no repentance”.

Certainly, the Scribes and Pharisees also needed repentance and salvation, but they did not think so; they stood proudly upon their worthiness, their righteousness as observers of the law. Their sin did not consist in their keeping of the law, of course – the law is holy and just and good – their sin consisted rather in the pride wherein they despised the publicans.

The lesson, then is this: the self-giving and infinitely generous charity of God cares for all with watchful providence; and it is a humble charity, which descends and condescends to the lowest: “God resisteth the proud and giveth grace unto the humble,” says our Epistle. And once again, the manifest love of God, now manifest in humility, is to b emulated: “all of you be subject to one another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud and giveth grace to the humble”.

To put this is more theological terms: what we have here is a lesson about the absolute priority of God’s grace in the work of salvation: grace which is not according to any human merit or worthiness, but God’s free and infinitely generous gift. And therefore there is no place for human pride. As our Collect indicates, even our desire to pray is God’s grace.

So pride is just a vicious deceit; it is the work of the devil who, “as a roaring lion, walketh about seeking whom he may devour”. Therefore, “be sober, be vigilant”.

The intent of these lessons, and the lessons for the following Sundays, is to show how the virtues and graces of Christian life are based upon and derived from the manifest charity of God, God’s free grace, the mystery of love; and thus, the lectionary for the Trinity season offers us a systematic, logically ordered, biblical moral and spiritual theology. The character of this ancient Eucharistic lectionary is often misunderstood and misconstrued. It is not, and was never intended to be a substitute for Bible reading and Bible study; that can be done much more completely and thoroughly in other contexts: in the Daily Offices, in Bible study groups, in private study, with the help of commentaries, and so on.

The Eucharistic lectionary offers, instead, a systematic, doctrinal, moral and spiritual teaching, by way of Biblical texts; and none of the many recent alternative lectionaries even begin to serve that purpose. It is an important, and really a basic, part of our Christian heritage, ancient and ecumenical, which it seems to me we must receive thankfully, cherish devoutly, and ponder in our minds and hearts week by week.

May God’s grace support us in that undertaking.