Wednesday, April 16, 2008

How old is the lectionary?

Many Christian groups have put together lectionaries, orderly sequences of reading the Scriptures throughout the year. The practice of reading Scriptures during a worship service dates back to Biblical times, and there are various references in the Talmud to appointed lectionary-style readings. But the reference which points back furthest in history is not a record of the events in the days when the Talmud was written, but a part of the Talmud claimed to be an oral history passed along from ancient times -- even back to the days of Moses.
And Moses declared unto the children of Israel the appointed seasons of the Lord. (Lev 23:44) It is part of their observance that the section relating to each one of them should be read in its season.

Our Rabbis taught: Moses laid down a rule for the Israelites that they should enquire and give expositions concerning the subject of the day — the laws of Passover on Passover, the laws of Pentecost on Pentecost, and the laws of Tabernacles on Tabernacles. (Megilah 32a)
If this oral history is accurate, then the principle of having a lectionary -- and some of the readings used in that lectionary, still used today -- are over three thousand years old. Those of us who belong to traditional churches may pause and consider the depth of our roots. Whenever I see a reference to Christian history as if it started two thousand years ago, I cringe inside. Christ was a long-expected branch of an ancient tree; we are more than two thousand years old.

1 comment:

TheraP said...

You have already connected the lectionary to festivals. Now consider this: The Genesis account includes, on the fourth (middle) day, "Let there be lights in the vault of heavens to separate day from night, and let them serve as signs both for festivals and for seasons and years."

So by the time this Genesis account was situated at the very beginning of the Torah, there was already a well-established tradition of religious festivals, which undoubtedly included readings, just as your references suggest. (and connected to "light" as "sign")

The Jewish liturgical tradition had a reading from the Torah first, followed by one from the prophets, with psalms etc. sprinkled in. And the high point, if I recall correctly, was the Levitical blessing. (correct me if I'm wrong on this latter point)

As for the readings, recall that Deuteronomy goes no farther than "seeing" the promised land. And when you get to that point, you go right back to Genesis - in the Jewish liturgical reading cycle. So there is a distinct Messianic thrust from a liturgical point of view in historical Jewish liturgy.

We have a record of Jesus reading from Isaiah and reporting that the prophecy was "fulfilled" in his reading of it, their hearing of it. And in Acts 13:13-25, there is an account of Paul and companions attending the synagogue on the Sabbath and being invited to speak "a word of exhortation" after "the reading of the law and the prophets."

So, yes, there is ample evidence of how our faith is steeped in this long tradition, even as if the tradition harks back to creation, so that creation itself appointed the seasons and the festivals... and the need for a lectionary.

There is another point here that is very important. And that is the fact that the Hebrew tradition teaches us about an "unseen" God, rather than one which supposedly inhabited a statue. And the "word" became the mode of experiencing God's presence. On your lips. On your door posts. Written on scrolls to be worn on your forehead and your wrist. In other words, the Torah (lectionary readings) was not just a teaching but a very Presence. Words and letters became sacred. The name of God, so sacred it could not be spoken.

I know you likely know all that. But just to tie it together.

If you read the early Christian writers, you can see how steeped in the bible they are, how their words and thoughts are so sprinkled with bible words and allusions, that sometimes you hardly know where their individual voice is speaking. You also see this through the monastic tradition, even up to today.