Monday, May 9, 2016

Why I'm Sticking with the Revised Common Lectionary, Part 2

Unbeknownst to me at the time, on the same day that I posted my first article about the Revised Common Lectionary (, a group called "Clergy Stuff" posted a video on Facebook about the Narrative Lectionary.  The video features Professor Rolf Jacobson of Luther Seminary, who has been one of the primary developers and proponents of the Narrative Lectionary. The video can be seen here (, and it features two comments on why the Narrative Lectionary is allegedly superior to the Revised Common Lectionary which I want to address.  I've really enjoyed some of Professor Jacobson's work in the past, particularly "Crazy Book: A Not-So-Stuffy Dictionary of Biblical Terms", as well as his other books published by Augsburg Fortress.  However, I have a profound disagreement with his assessment of the RCL, and his belief that his Narrative Lectionary rectifies the alleged problems with it.

The first comment made by Professor Jacobson is as follows:

"We actually think that we do a better job of aligning the Biblical story with the major festivals of the Church year. In the Revised Common Lectionary, you get the adult John the Baptist in Advent saying 'Jesus is coming', but that's not the Christmas story - its not the adult John the Baptist saying the adult Jesus is coming. So, what we have is the prophetic texts - the prophets longing with hope for the fulfillment of God's kingdom and the coming of the Holy One, and then the Holy One is born at Christmas, and we tell, then, the Biblical story in order...."

Is Advent merely a season where we prepare for the birth of the baby Jesus at Christmas?  If so, his claim might have merit.  However, Advent is not just about recalling the story of the baby Jesus coming into the world.  If it were, I'm not sure why we would even have a separate Advent season - we would just have one six week Christmas season. Instead, Advent is also a season where we prepare for the return of Christ at the eschaton (a word which essentially means, to borrow a phrase from the rock group REM: 'the end of the world as we know it').  Therefore, contrary to Professor Jacobson's opinion, the readings where "the adult John Baptist is saying the adult Jesus is coming" make sense given the historical purpose and meaning behind the season of Advent:

"The eschataological orientation that is found in some of these early sources continues to be a significant element in the proclamation of the season of Advent. Indeed, the very name Adventus, 'coming,' 'approach,' suggests not only the coming of God into the world in Jesus but the approaching return of the risen Lord in all his heavenly splendor.  Indeed, the Advent season and its hope should not be regarded purely or even primarily in terms of Christmas.  It should not even be seen as an introduction to the Incarnation but rather as the completion of the work of redemption.


The season gives voice to the impatience God's people feel at least from time to time but which they may be hesitant to express to God.  The purpose of Advent is to rouse once again in the people of the Church the anticipation of the End and of the great Day of the Lord, and to bid them to be prepared for it.


[T]he Church gives voice not only to the expectant joy of a bride or of a mother at the impending birth of her child. Mother Church expresses her deep longing for the coming of Christ in glory at the end of the ages. It is not a fearful dread that the Church wishes to instill in her members when through the psalms and hymns and readings and prayers she calls on us to think about the Parousia, the final coming, but rather she points us to the goal of our efforts to keep awake and to watch: unending union with Jesus Christ. All our work and study and prayer and living has one purpose and meaning: to bring us and all humanity into the kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  So the central prayer of Advent is the one word, the concluding prayer of the Bible, Maranatha, Come, Lord Jesus."

(From pp. 27-29 of "Journey Into the Heart of God: Living the Liturgical Year" by Philip Pfatteicher, a noted Lutheran liturgical theologian - these are just brief snippets of a extensive discussion about the Advent season found in the book, including a discussion about the RCL readings).

Therefore, instead of enhancing the Church's understanding of the liturgical year, the Narrative Lectionary diminishes it.

The second comment from the video that I want to address is this remark from Professor Jacobson: "The problem with the Revised Common Lectionary is that somebody in 1973 or 1972 decided what Scriptures you need in your church in 2016, 2018, 2020..."

"Somebody in 1973 or 1972"?  The Revised Common Lectionary is not based on the fruits of one person's work in the early 1970s.  As noted in my earlier article, the roots of the RCL are based on the three year lectionary developed in the Roman Catholic Church during the years following Vatican II.  Following the conclusion of Vatican II, Biblical scholars came together to work on the three year lectionary, which resulted in the publication of Ordo Lectionum Missae in 1969. After over a decade of work by scholars from numerous Christian traditions, the Common Lectionary was published in 1983.  Finally, after a trial period of the Common Lectionary, and revisions made by even more scholars, the Revised Common Lectionary was published in 1992.  (For more information, go to this website:

So, the RCL is the fruit of the labor of multiple scholars from multiple Christian traditions over the course of several decades.  It is not a perfect lectionary.  But, it is a truly "catholic" (universal, not just Roman) lectionary.  This was a sentiment expressed by ELCA Bishop Guy Erwin, who shared my earlier post on his Facebook page, and offered these words:

"This is lovely. Reading and reflecting on the RCL texts each week is for me a powerful witness to our unity as Christians. Not only the mainline churches but also the global Roman Catholic Church uses essentially the same Sunday texts, which means most of the world's Christians are focusing their hearts on the same scriptural truths each week.

No lectionary can ever be a substitute for the broader study of scripture--there simply aren't enough Sundays for that. What we hear ...on Sunday is an invitation to go deeper--to use more scripture to learn more--not an end point.

And though I believe every part of scripture is useful, I think the lectionary helps draw us away from the sense that the Bible was somehow put together and delivered to us in canonical order (and in English) by God, in order to tell us a smooth, consistent and complete story of everything God wants us to know. It is instead a wild and varied witness, and each part deserves to be considered on its own without being forced into a frame. Even the dissonances in the RCL help us be modest in the face of this sometimes mystifying collection of holy writings, and point us always back to Christ as the only unifier."



  1. Greetings in Christ Jesus! I am an LCMS pastor in rural SD. I have been reading a little bit of your blog and listened to a podcast you were on speaking about the Benedictine rule.

    I was wondering what prayer book you use? I have used the Treasury of Daily Prayer but mostly use the Brotherhood Prayer Book.

  2. Good to hear from you Pastor Bucklew - I use the 4 volume "For All the Saints" published by the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, and "Daily Prayer of the Church" by Philip Pfatteicher. Blessings to you as you seek to be faithful to your ordination vows through daily prayer.