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An Introduction To A Biblical Study Of The Christian Year

Western (and particularly American) Christians of the twenty-first century approach their faith from out of the western traditions of individualism, independence and self-determination. We view life through the colored glasses of these traditions. Consequently, we read the Bible from these same perspectives. People from Asia, Africa, the Mideast and Latin America, however, read the Bible quite differently. They view the Bible from their cultural perspectives on life as being corporate, intertwined and profoundly social.

Which is right? How should one read the Bible? Well, when one considers that the Bible was written by Mideasterners and not Europeans or North Americans, one must realize that the Bible is written out of a corporate, social and interdependent cultural perspective. Thus, when one reads the Shema, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deut. 6:4-5); one is primarily reading instructions to the nation (a corporate entity) to be centered in Yahweh, and only secondarily to individuals within that nation.

In order to capture the authentic message of the scriptures, it is important for us who are westerners (and especially Americans) to remove our cultural individualistic sunglasses and see through the clear discerning glasses of a people who both viewed life and wrote their Bible from a corporate, social and interdependent perspective.

Much of the church today uses the lectionary each Sunday to cover much of the Bible in a three-year cycle of weekly readings from the Hebrew Bible, the Gospels and the Epistles (including Acts). The lectionary we are using is the Common Lectionary (Revised), developed by the Consultation on Common Texts. The Consultation is a forum for liturgical renewal among many of the Christian churches of North America.

Out of this corporate reflection on the given texts, the lectionary for a given Sunday enables pastors and Christian workers to use these scriptures in their personal reflection, for sermon preparation and for Bible study.

What is significant about this biblical work, however, is that it intentionally seeks to read the Bible with the Hebrew and early Christian “eye-glasses” of a people and a faith that is corporate in perspective, committed to the transformation of the world, is centered on social justice and stresses our interdependence with each other.

We hope you will find these Bible studies helpful, both for your personal reflection upon scripture and in your sharing of scripture through the sermons you may preach or the Bible studies you may teach.

Dr. Robert C. Linthicum

All materials Copyright (c) 2010 by Robert C. Linthicum

Lectionary - Advent

Advent is the beginning of the Christian Year. The Christian Year and the Season of Advent both begin on the Sunday nearest to November 30. Thus, the Christian Year does not follow the Julian calendar, beginning on January 1, but follows its own calendar, beginning in late November or early December. What is the Christian Year? It is simply the means by which the Christian Church, to some degree or another and in all of its traditions, remembers and celebrates the important events both in the life of Christ and in the church’s formation of itself as a community of believers. Even the most nonliturgical of churches celebrate at least some part of the Christian Year – in that they will inevitably celebrate Christmas, Good Friday and Easter. The most liturgical of churches – Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran and Anglican – will celebrate the Christian Year both in its entirety and throughout its worship. Other churches – like the Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists and Reformed will use it optionally in worship so that, for example, you can attend worship in some Presbyterian churches that follow the Christian Year assiduously while other Presbyterian churches will follow it from time-to-time. But the point is that, to one degree or another, all churches will observe at least some portion of the Christian Year.

The formation of the Christian Year began at the very beginnings of Christianity while it was still a reform movement within Judaism. The very earliest Church would gather as a Jewish community on the Jewish Sabbath to faithfully worship as all Jews would in their synagogues. But they would also gather on “the first day of the week”, the day of Jesus’ resurrection, to study together the Hebrew scriptures in the light of their experience with Christ, to enjoy table fellowship together, but most of all, to celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in obedience to their Lord (Acts 1-9). This weekly gathering of Christians to celebrate that sacrament together – even before they had taken their leave of their Jewish heritage – was the origin of the Christian Year

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Lectionary - ChristmasTide

The second season of the Christian Year is Christmastide. Some traditions begin it on Christmas Eve and others on Christmas Day. Traditionally, Christmastide is a twelve-day holiday, beginning with Christmas Day (December 25), and running through January 5 (THE “Twelve Days of Christmas”). January 6 is then the celebration of the coming of the Magi, and thus initiates the season of Epiphany. In our lectionary, we are following the traditional schedule that preserves the twelve days of Christmas, and therefore sets Christmas Eve as the concluding celebration of the season of Advent.¹

In importance, Christmastide is one of the two most notable seasons of the Christian year. It is dedicated to the festival of the birth of Jesus Christ and the consequent celebration of the incarnation. Since it was first celebrated, Christmas has always been a time of joy, merriment and exuberance. Its color, consequently, is white.

There is no indication that Jesus was actually born on December 25. In fact, the likelihood is that he was born in April or in May. That can be concluded on the basis that Luke’s account is built around “shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Lk. 2:8). December 25 was much too cold and inclement for sheep to be bedding down in the fields; normally, shepherds didn’t take their flocks into the field until April.

Why, then, is December 25 the traditional day for Jesus’ birth? The selection of that date represents a political and social coup on the part of the church². The period between December 21 (the winter solstice) and December 30 was the period of greatest celebration and worship of the sun, both in the Mithraic festivals of Egypt and in Rome. This observance reached its climax on December 25, when the “birthdays” of at least five ancient gods were celebrated. In essence, Christians decided to counter this pagan festival by worshipping the birthday of their god – Jesus, and they so overwhelmed the pagan celebrations that December 25 became a major Christian holiday (“holy day”). In 336 A.D., December 25 was changed in the Roman calendar from Natalis Solis Invicti (“the birth of the Sun of Righeousness”) to Natalis Christus in Betleem Judeae (“the birth of Christ in Bethlehem of Judea”). Thus, the “Sun of Righteousness” was eclipsed by the “Son of Righteousness”!

¹ In the medieval church, all twelve days of Christmas were celebrated as a single feast, with only work necessary to preserve life being done. The Twelve Days of Christmas are:

  • Dec. 25 – Christmas Day
  • Dec. 26 – St. Stephens’ Day
  • Dec. 27 – St. John’s Day
  • Dec. 28 – Holy Innocents Day
  • Dec. 31 – Watch Night
  • Jan. 1 – Jesus’ Circumcision
  • Jan. 5 – Epiphany Eve

The remaining days would be feast days or, according to the calendar, the First and Second Sundays of Christmas.

² F.L. Cross, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (London: Oxford University Press, 1958), pp. 277-278; George Gibson, The Story of the Christian Year (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1955), pp. 87-98.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Lectionary - Epiphany

The season of Epiphany begins on January 6, on the twelfth day of Christmas, and continues until the opening of Lent. The word “epiphany” means “manifestation” or “theophany” (the preferred word in the Eastern Church). It is the season which concentrates upon God’s manifestation of God’s self through Jesus. Consequently, the visit of the wise men to the Christ child, Jesus’ baptism, his visit as a child of twelve with his parents to the Temple and the miracle of the marriage supper at Cana are four stories traditionally told during Epiphany – all signs of God’s manifestation to humanity through the person and work of Jesus.

The first mention of the church’s celebration of Epiphany is from Clement of Alexandria, who died c. 217. It was firmly established in the Eastern Church by the fourth century, where it ranked with Easter and Pentecost as one of the three primary feast days of the Church. The Eastern Church exclusively celebrated the baptism of Jesus on Epiphany Day.

When the celebration of this season was embraced by the Western Church, both its character and the length of the season changed. Whereas the Eastern Church celebrated Christ’s baptism, the Western Church celebrated a number of “manifestations” of God, but with a particular emphasis upon the coming of the Magi as the event when God was first “manifested” to the Gentiles. As well, the season of Epiphany was extended to Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday that is the beginning of the season of Lent.

The reason for the shift in focus between the two churches is intriguing. Many in the Eastern Church held that when Jesus was born, he was only a normal human being. Christ’s divine nature, they taught, came upon him at his baptism. This came to be known as the “Adoptionist Heresy”. Thus, Christ’s birth was celebrated along with his baptism on a single day, in order to celebrate both the physical birth of Jesus and the birth of his divinity as the Christ.

When the Western Church embraced the feast of Epiphany, they wished to make clear that they believed that Jesus was divine from his birth (in fact, from his conception). So it was that the Western Church separated the birth of Jesus from his baptism, so that the former would not be eclipsed by the latter. To do so, they moved the celebration of his birthday from January 6 (still the birthday of the Christ Child in Eastern tradition) to December 25. And they concentrated the focus of January 6, not on Jesus’ baptism but on the visit of the Magi.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Lectionary - Lent

The season of Lent is a season of penitence or fasting preceding Easter. It is traditionally forty days in length, symbolic of the time spent by Moses on Mount Sinai, the forty years’ wanderings in the wilderness, the forty days’ temptation of Jesus or his forty hours in the tomb. It is a period set aside in the Church for personal examination, contrition, repentance and spiritual formation. Unlike other seasons of the Christian Year, the six Sundays in Lent do not observe the fast. Therefore, the designation is “Sundays in Lent”, rather than “Sundays of Lent”.

Observance of a penitential fast as the Church approaches Good Friday has been a part of the liturgy of the church for almost its entire history. The first mention of such a fast was by Irenaeus (c. 130-200). And the Canons of Nicaea (c. 325) that came out of that historic meeting that created the primary creedal statements of the church stipulate a period of Lent, consisting of the forty days before Easter. Pope Gregory the Great (c. 540-604) wrote to the church that Lent should not only be observed in the worship of the Church but by every believer, “so that we, who through the past year have lived too much for ourselves, should mortify ourselves to our Creator through abstinence.”[1]

During the early centuries, observance of the fast was very strict. Only one meal a day was permitted (and that, near the end of the day), and meat, fish, eggs, milk and cheese all had to be “given up for Lent”. By the ninth century, these restrictions began to be relaxed. By the 18th century, fasting had moved away from a strict emphasis on food and toward the “fasting” of other elements of life, such as abstaining from festivities, avoiding marriage feasts, almsgiving and concentrating upon spiritual disciplines. The emphasis on fasting as a way of preparing ourselves for the agony of our Lord continues to today, with the traditions of using the season of Lent to institute a discipline (e.g., going on a diet, exercising daily, etc.) or in giving up some choice food (like chocolate, sweets, etc.) for Lent.

Lent begins with Ash Wednesday (see list), which is forty days before Easter. It continues through Holy Week, and concludes with the Saturday before Easter (technically, at noontime). Holy Week, which begins with Palm Sunday and continues through Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, is both the conclusion and apex of Lent, a time for intensive commemoration of the sufferings and death of Jesus. This final intensive preparation of penitence is accomplished in anticipation of Easter Day and the inauguration of the season of Eastertide. The traditional color of Lent is purple (the color of penitence), and Good Friday is black to designate mourning.

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[1]Gibson, George M., The Story of the Christian Year (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1945), p. 92.

All materials Copyright (c) 2010 by Robert C. Linthicum

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Lectionary - Holy Week

Holy Week is the week from Palm Sunday (celebrating the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem) through the Saturday before Easter. It is actually the conclusion of Lent, ending at noon on Easter Eve. Easter Sunday is not part of Holy Week, but is rather the beginning of a new season – Eastertide.

The celebration of Holy Week began in a unique way. Towards the end of the 4th century A.D., a European pilgrim named Egeria visited Jerusalem. Part of her visit included Holy Week. To her delight, she discovered that the church in Jerusalem had developed over the centuries a rich and complex Holy Week liturgy, based not only on the actual days of the week that the various events occurred, but on the actual places where they occurred. This could obviously only occur in just this way in Jerusalem. But the reports of Egeria back to the European church moved the western churches to adapt the practice to local needs. As early as the 5th century in Spain, local versions of the Holy Week re-enactment liturgy were adopted; from there, they spread across the rest of the church in Europe. Rome was the last of the western churches to adopt the practice, doing so in the 12th century.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Lectionary - EasterTide

Easter is the opening of the season of Eastertide. With the cry, “The Lord is risen; he is risen indeed”, the church celebrates the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The celebration of Christ’s resurrection continues for fifty days, commencing with Easter itself and concluding with the Day of Pentecost.

It is important to note that Easter is not the close of the Lenten season; it is the opening of the Easter season. Lent officially concludes at on the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, as the church keeps vigil, awaiting Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

Easter – the Feast of the Resurrection of Christ – is the greatest and oldest celebration of the Christian Church, both in the Western (Roman Catholic, Anglican and Protestant) and Eastern (Orthodox, Coptic) traditions. The long preparation of Lent and the resulting forty-day celebration of the resurrection following Good Friday indicate the central importance of Easter. It – and not Christmas – is the most important celebration of the Christian year.

The church has celebrated Easter and Eastertide in many ways. In the earliest church, catechumens were baptized at the Easter Vigil (see “Easter Vigil” in the Holy Week section of this lectionary), joined the church and received their first holy communion. In the middle ages, the night before Easter was celebrated by the illumination of the churches awaiting the Day of Resurrection. In both the eastern churches and in many Reformation churches, the congregation would gather on Saturday night, as they waited for the dawn that would signal Christ’s resurrection. Picking up on the theme of awaiting the dawn, an Easter Sunrise Service was added to the church’s liturgy by the Moravians in the early eighteenth century, and that tradition spread across all of Christendom; however, it is not a part of the standard lectionary. If your church holds a Sunrise service and you want to choose scripture appropriate for that celebration, see the commentary on scriptures in the “Easter Vigil” portion of the lectionary, the Easter Sunday lectionary (which has additional lessons to be used for either a sunrise service or the regular service) or in the Easter Evening lectionary that follows. The liturgical color for Easter is white.

What is the derivation of the name, “Easter”? The Venerable Bede (c. 673-735) stated that it comes from an Anglo-Saxon spring goddess, “Eostre”. There is no doubt that, like Christmas, the church “baptized” a pagan spring fertility holiday, adapting it to the celebration of the resurrection of Christ. The remnants of that pagan holiday are reflected today in “Easter bunnies” and “Easter eggs” – both reminders of fertility.

Unlike Christmas, the date for Easter is movable. It is determined by the Pascal Full Moon (or the date of the full moon in the latter part of March or in early April). Thus, Easter will fall in any given year between March 21 and April 25.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Lectionary - Ordinary Time

Ordinary Time is the season for the last half of the Christian Year. It runs from Trinity Sunday (the Sunday after Pentecost) through Christ the King Sunday (the Sunday before the First Sunday in Advent), and is the longest of all the seasons of the Christian Year. Its liturgical color is green, except for Trinity Sunday, All Saints’ Day (or the first Sunday in November) and Christ the King Sunday, when the color is white. It has also been called Trinity Season or Kingdomtide.

Why is this season called “ordinary”? This longest season in the Christian Year is centered on a change in direction from the focus of the first part of that year. Beginning with the first Sunday in Advent, the first half of the Christian Year is focused upon Jesus – upon an Old Testament looking forward to him, to his anticipated advent in a politically-dominated Israel, to his birth, his life, his ministry, his teachings, his miracles, his triumphal procession into Jerusalem as the announced “king of the Jews”, his last week with his disciples, his betrayal, trial, scourging and crucifixion, and then his glorious resurrection that brings new purpose, hope and direction to his followers – the earliest Church. The “Jesus” half of the Christian Year then ends with Pentecost, as the Holy Spirit descends upon and fills the church as they seek to be Christ’s disciples to the world. That nearly six months of the Christian Year is a most extraordinary season of celebrating the One who is liberator, redeemer, savior and Lord to the world.

The second season of the year is much more “ordinary” in theme and in nature. It deals with the church “militant” – the church, sent forth by Jesus through these extraordinary events to become Jesus alive today in a very ordinary world. It is about the church getting down to the business to which it has been called by Christ. So, from June through November, God’s people encourage and seek to motivate one another to be deeply engaged in the world as Christ called us to be engaged. That engagement includes bringing good news in our words, in our work for social justice, in our effort to empower people, and in the very quality of our life together. What “ordinary time” is about is our effort to motivate and encourage each other as the church of Christ to work for the transformation of the world into the world as God intended it to be. That is the focus of the season of “Ordinary Time”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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