The Nature and Purpose of the Lectionary in the Liturgy, East and West


You will forgive me, I am sure, if I begin this lecture not with my own words, but with those of a literary master whose words we would all do well to hear. As a son of the Russian Orthodox Church, Fyodor Dostoyevsky had intimate acquaintance with Scripture, not as a merely pious reader might – that is, in the form of random, if favourite, passages – but in the systematic form presented by the Church. Indeed, in The Brothers Karamazov, he presents a picture of Scripture, as proclaimed within the Liturgy, which casts it as nothing less than an icon: an image of heavenly realities infused with power, drawing its hearers heavenward. Through the mouth of his character, the Elder Zosima, Dostoyevsky says,

But I remember how, even before I learned to read, a certain spiritual perception visited me for the first time, when I was just eight years old. Mother took me to church by herself, during Holy Week, to the Monday Liturgy. It was a clear day, and, remembering it now, I seem to see again the incense rising from the censer and quietly ascending upwards, and from above, through a narrow window in the cupola, God’s rays pouring down upon us in the church, and the incense rising up to them in waves, as if dissolving into them. I looked with deep tenderness, and for the first time in my life I consciously received the first seed of the Word of God in my soul. A young man walked out into the middle of the Church with a big book, so big that it seemed to me he even had difficulty carrying it, and he placed it on the analogion, opened it and began to read, and suddenly, then, for the first time I understood something, for the first time in my life I understood what was read in God’s Church…

Lord, what a book! What lessons! What a book is the Holy Scripture, what miracle, what power are given to man with it! Like a carven image of the world, and of man, and of human characters, and everything is named and set forth unto ages of ages…

You will have discerned from this passage the inherent relationship between Liturgy and the reading of Scripture. In the history of the Church, there was no reading of the holy books outside of the Church; or at least, hearkening to the example of the Ethiopian eunuch in the Acts of the Apostles, there was no guarantee of right understanding of these books outside of the Church. Yet Dostoyevsky shows us just how powerful the reading of Scripture can be. For him, it does not simply excite the intellect; it is not a mere didactic tool. Rather, the Church both East and West, both Greek and Latin, has developed and set in place a system for reading Scripture through the year that is intended to draw the Christian deeper into the life of God. By marking the times and seasons with the story of salvation, the Church makes it possible for every man, woman, and child, to encounter the Divine by means of all their senses, and so to become more like the subject they encounter.
It has been a concern of mine for some time that, among far too many of those Catholics most interested in the liturgical traditions of the Church, the place of Scripture and the ancient rationale applied to its liturgical presentation has featured very little. There is limited scholarly work, in fact, to be found in either Roman Catholic, or Eastern Christian (both Catholic and Orthodox), libraries on the history and rationale of the ancient lectionaries. The gift of Summorum Pontificum, for example, has been widely recognised, celebrated, and commented upon – and that quite rightly – but I wonder to what degree those who hold the Church’s liturgical traditions most dear would have noticed had the said motu proprio not included the old lectionary within its provision. Regardless of the answer, I can only say that, central to the traditional rites is their deployment of Scripture, and it is incumbent on the whole Church, if we are to understand the treasure we possess in the form of our liturgical heritage, to come to terms with it as a whole package—that is, sublime ritual and Scripture together.
The history of lectionaries does not begin with the Christian Church; rather the Church inherited the practice of reading certain texts of Scripture on particular feast days from ancient Judaism. We can see a hint of this in the reading of the Haggadah at the Jewish Passover celebration; but even closer to us in time, some form of lectionary plays a significant part in the Gospels, for example when Jesus attends the synagogue in Nazareth: ‘And he came to Nazareth where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day. And he stood up to read; and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah.’ We do not know, of course, what specific day it was on which Jesus read this passage, or the context in which it was read out, because none of those details are relevant to the Evangelist’s purpose in this instance. What matters to us, though, is the fact that, from the time of the Exodus to the time of Jesus, from the time of the Apostles to the present day, the ordering of Scripture in a liturgical setting has been of paramount importance, and that both the synagogue and the Church have traditionally assumed the fruits to be gained from it, [even if the attention paid to it of late has been somewhat inadequate].
In any case, beyond what can be gleaned from early calendars and the homilies preserved from antiquity, we are at something of a loss in terms of knowing precisely how the earliest lectionaries of the Church were ordered. In terms of the Byzantine East, beyond recognising that the system still in use became fixed in the seventh century but existed in similar form from the fifth century, time constraints now mean that we will say little about its development in this context. Certainly, a great deal of historiographical work needs to be done in order to trace the genesis and development of the Eastern lectionary through antiquity if we are to develop a fuller understanding of its purpose. How the lectionary functions and what constitutes its key features is worth describing here, however, as it is very different to that of the Western lectionary – traditional, or otherwise.
Western and Eastern Christians alike will be familiar with the idea that the days of the Christian year are arranged thematically, and that these themes are conveyed through a combination of readings and prayers. In the West, this combination would have included—at least—the Introit and Gradual, the Collect, and the Epistle and Gospel: what we commonly call ‘the propers’ of the Mass. Historically, these elements were found in different books and compilations, and the course of Epistle and Gospel readings which existed largely unchanged until 1969 took its most definitive form at the hand of Alcuin in the eighth century,[1] but with roots extending back (like the Byzantine) to at least the fifth century. As for the Byzantine, or Greek, lectionary, if it is slightly older, its elements reflect some similarities, set alongside a number of differences. It is principally made up the Apostolos—that is, the book of readings from the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles—and the Evangelion—which is the book of the Gospels divided up into pericopes corresponding with each weekday, Sunday, and feast day of the year. But if I may be permitted to use the word ‘lectionary’ loosely here to refer to all the parts of the Liturgy that change and which serve to communicate the spiritual theme of the day, then beyond the Apostol and Gospel, we must include the troparion and kontakion which are arranged according to eight ‘tones’ and get sung on a rotational basis beginning with tone one on the first Sunday after Pentecost, together with the Theotokion and the prokiemenon. On top of this, the Byzantine Lectionary is made up of two cycles: the moveable cycle, based on the date of Pascha, and the fixed cycle, which includes the fixed feasts, such as Christmas. As complicated as this may sound, it is not that the Byzantine Lectionary is made up of radically different elements than the Western; it is that, rather, for so much of the year, it follows a lectio continua pattern, the Epistle and Gospels do not necessarily correspond to each other, and it is the troparion and kontakion through which the day is often best interpreted.
Having said all that, I am compelled to make two admissions at this point: I am grossly oversimplifying the features of the Byzantine lectionary, and there is a great deal that has yet to be done to elucidate the riches inherent in it. I am going to assert, however, that a great deal of what we might understand in terms of the spiritual meaning and purpose of the Byzantine Lectionary rests in the idea of the eight tones. Eight has been a significant number to Christians since at least the third century when Origen spoke about the eighth day as the day of Resurrection, and the number itself as symbolising humanity’s eternal destiny. It is no accident, of course, that the tones of the Eastern Church are arranged as a group of eight, and that they should be applied chronologically to the unfolding year as marked liturgically suggests that the liturgical year was a microcosm of time in which the Christian’s salvation unfolded, leading to his or her deification. The scope of this paper compels me to make this claim somewhat glibly, but that is something I am willing to hazard for the sake of illustrating what I believe to be the primary purpose of the Byzantine Lectionary. It is also something that connects Byzantine tradition with Latin.
When, a few minutes ago, I bemoaned the fact that little attention seems to have been paid to the traditional lectionary of the Latin Church, it is because it is so easy to see a dichotomy between the Latin and Greek traditions, and fail to see what riches bind the two sides together. By contrast, I want to argue that the lectionary is, in fact, one of the deepest points of connection between the Latin and Greek theological traditions. I am able to say this because of the extensive work on the matter undertaken by Anglican pastor, the Rev. David Phillips. Under the guidance of the late Patristics scholar, Robert Crouse, Phillips discerned a startling spiritual logic to the lectionary that has hardly been commented on before, and which all suggests that the traditional Latin Lectionary has the deliberate purpose of drawing the souls of the faithful through three sanctifying stages to the beatific vision. In order to understand this, though, it will be helpful, first, to briefly trace its development.
As with the Byzantine Lectionary, the Latin lectionary originally grows out of the longstanding practice of designating certain pericopes, principally from the Epistles and Gospels, first for feast days, and then eventually, the whole Christian year. And again, as with the Byzantine Lectionary, the themes evoked by the choice of readings were enhanced or guided by additional verses from the psalms, hymns of the Church, and in the case of the Latin Lectionary, the Collect. Quite different to the Byzantine lectionary, however, is the fact that by around the same time as the latter was being consolidated into its final form, ever to follow a system of lectio continua, the Latin lectionary had long since moved away from continuous reading toward something with a much more complex and interesting architecture. The seeds for this development are sown in fifth century Comes of St Jerome, but the figure behind the lectionary’s further development in the period afterward may well have been, Crouse suggests, Gallic theologian, Claudianus Mamertus.
According to fifth-century poet and author, Sidonius Apollinaris, Mamertus arranged psalms for singing in the Liturgy, and composed a lectionary. This in itself is not so significant, insofar as there were a plurality of [small ‘L’] lectionaries at the time, reflecting regional and local-episcopal influence. What makes Mamertus a likely candidate for being the progenitor of the traditional Latin lectionary, though, as we know it in the Roman Missal (and with slight variations in Sarum Use, and so the Anglican Book of Common Prayer), is that his significant work, de statu animae, elaborates on the same themes that are reflected across the readings. In the wake of this, David Phillips divides the lectionary for the season of Pentecost into three groups of Sundays, dealing with the three main moments of the Christian life as understood by the medieval Church. Drawing on Orthodox theologian Andrew Louth, Phillips says, ‘The early Church came to understand the spiritual life as characterized by three stages of growth in holiness – purgation, then illumination and leading to union. The readings in [Trinity] season can be seen to reflect these three basic stages of spiritual growth, and in this order.'[2]
Having spent the Sundays from Advent until Pentecost pondering the central doctrines of God, early in the long season of Pentecost the Church then turns to a meditation on the practical—if spiritual—outcomes of these doctrines. As Phillips puts it:

To understand the logic for the second half of the Church year, one must consider the time when the readings in the lectionary were chosen. It was developed soon after the time of […] Augustine and of John Cassian. […] Augustine had left to the Church a certain psychology of the soul and understanding of the soul’s ascent to God. John Cassian is important for bringing to the West the insights from the Eastern ascetics about the passions and our growth in the spiritual life in his Conferences and Institutes.[3]

Such historical considerations fairly demand that we look beyond the notion that the readings of Pentecost are simply a residual collection of readings determined by inscrutable past circumstance. Rather, on the basis that these readings were almost certainly established through the Patristic lens of prayer, meditation, and spiritual conceptions of the soul and its ultimate purpose, it is incumbent on us to explore their logic and embrace the idea their redactors wished to impart.
Regardless of whether or not the principal early redactor was Claudius Mamertus, what David Phillips has managed to establish by studying the correlation between Collects, Epistles, and Gospels, is that from precisely the fourth Sunday of Pentecost until the tenth Sunday, the lessons reveal the means to the soul’s purgation. Following that, the lessons spanning the eleventh Sunday after Pentecost to the seventeenth, set out the means to the soul’s illumination. Pentecost eighteen to twenty four, finally, speak of the nature of the soul’s union with God. How this can be discerned from the Lectionary is developed and discussed at length by Phillips, to an extent we cannot cover here, but his summary is both convincing and helpful:

One can look at the three cycles of seven Sundays as relating to the classical medieval treatment of the soul’s journey to God as one from being absorbed in the external world (carnally minded) (Trinity 3 to 9), to a movement within (Trinity 10–16), and finally to a movement above (spiritually minded) (Trinity 17–23). As the soul moves from the exterior to the interior to the superior, to a greater love of God, there is necessarily a corresponding greater love of neighbour – the reconciliation is both personal and social.

Now, I began by asserting a mysterious and glorious link between the Liturgy of the Church, and the proclamation of Scripture. I will go further and say that it is in the context of the Liturgy that Scripture is best interpreted. But this being the case, it is imperative that Catholics of any tradition spend more time considering the nature and content of the lectionary, and be significantly more attentive to the role it plays in instructing the soul in its progress toward heaven. Were it possible to celebrate a Mass in the extraordinary form but combine it with the new lectionary, I would go so far as to say the holistic nature of the Mass itself would be seriously compromised. This is because the Liturgy of the Church is a vessel for the deifying work of God, and the lectionary serves as one of the key mechanisms by which this work takes place. Of course, it is not possible, but my hope is that all those with an interest in the Church’s liturgical traditions, will take an interest in this particular facet, and realise what riches are lost when it is neglected.
The Christian East is credited, almost exclusively, with using the language of deification to describe the purpose and destiny of man in the wake of the Incarnation. In spite of this, it would not be true to say that the Latin Church does not think in terms of deification at all, or to somehow suggest that her language for the soul is not equally as rich. This is certainly the case with regard to the Lectionary. In the Greek East, instruction in the way of Christ is enmeshed with an understanding of time based on an eight week cycle. From Origen at least, the number eight has been a symbol of the eighth day—that is, the day of resurrection; the day on which our eternal destiny is fulfilled. According to the East, then, time is marked by means of the lectionary for the communication of deifying truths, but also becomes, itself, a living icon of eternal truth. In the Latin West, meanwhile, the year unfolds with some of the same features, but according to different divisions of time and with a different approach to the deployment of Scripture. In Latin tradition, after half a year of doctrinal instruction, over the course of three groups of seven weeks, man is steeped in the vocabulary of the whole Christian life, from purgation to illumination to union. In other words, the genius of the Latin lectionary is that through the proclamation of Scripture in a liturgical context, the path to God is opened up, and the possibility of being transformed into a heavenly creature man is supposed to be is made very real.
East or West, then, the lectionary is a tool for sanctifying time, by marking the days, weeks, and seasons, and uniting their passage with the eternal reality of heaven. It is also the means to our getting there. By instruction, recollection, illustration, and exhortation, our souls are moved from where they are now to where God destines them to be. The end of man is to be transformed and taken up into the life of God. If this is the case, then we do well to avail ourselves of the Church’s luminous intelligence, and follow the path she has lit, by basking in her proclamation of Scripture and allowing ourselves to know the mystery at the heart of her life.

[1] See H. Wegman, Christian Worship in East and West, Collegeville, 1990, pp. 157-8. Also A. Nocent, ‘The Roman Lectionary for Mass’, Handbook for Liturgical Studies, vol. 3:The Eucharist, A. Chupungco, ed., pp. 177-88.
[2] D. Phillips, ‘The Lectionaries in the Book of Common Prayer’, The Book of Common Prayer: Past, Present, and Future, P. Daly, ed., 2011, p. 131.
[3] Ibid, p. 130.​