Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Appointed Readings

Okay, I preached today on Matthew 1:18-25, and felt emboldened to explain at the beginning why we were having this reading on the Sunday before Christmas rather than Christmas Eve or Day itself - thank you Bosco Peters for that explanation in a comment on my post below.

I appreciate what I have been learning from the discussion on that thread. In summary:

(1) It is a difficult to draw up any scheme for systematically reading the Bible, and I could be more appreciative of the work which goes into various lectionaries adopted by our church (including the RCL), including the fact of the great lectionary tradition which lies behind (and is included within) current lectionaries.

(2) Where readings are omitted from lectionaries (as in a 2:1, 7-9, 15-16 type reading) the reasons may have nothing to do with an ecclesial version of political correctness, and may have everything to do with the lectioners (is that the right term?) determining that, within congregational worship, that reading may be smoother, occasion less puzzlement and, obviously, be shorter, than if 2:1-16 were set down as the reading.

(3) Not a new learning, but reinforced here, the great achievement of lectionaries, and a special achievement in our era through the RCL for Sunday and daily eucharists is the uniting of Christians around the globe in reading together from the one Scripture.

I remain, however, a questioner if not a critic! Take the (hypothetical) example above or the real RCL example of Sundays 10, 17 and 24 July 2011 where successively the gospel readings are Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23, 13:24-30, 36-43 and 13:31-33, 44-52. The first choice is logical inasmuch as it runs the Parable of the Sower and the interpretation of the parable together; ditto the second with the Parable of the Weeds and its interpretation. Likewise the second set: a sequence of four parables plus Jesus lovely saying about scribes trained for the kingdom of heaven. But notice two things. First, this is not what Matthew himself has done in laying out the sequence of his parabolic material in Matthew 13. Secondly, omitted in this set of three Sunday readings is Matthew 13:10-17, and 13:34-35. The first is a difficult reading in any preacher's estimation, and the second is a kind of footnote. Have they been omitted from the whole year? (Sorry, dear readers, no time today to look through the other 49 Sundays to see if it occurs). It looks like preachers and readers of Matthew throughout the world are being given a pass on confronting Matthew 13:10-17. Even if a reader tells me this reading (or 13:34-35) is found on another Sunday at another part of the year, there is still a question about why these passages, crucial to our understanding of Jesus' teaching through parables, are not found in their natural Matthean context.

Naturally a question arises about what it means to be in a church such as my own which specifies in Sunday prayer book services that 'the appointed readings follow', that is, that the readings set down for the day according to the lectionary ought to be read (albeit several legitimated possibilities then could apply). Would it be disobedience to add in Matthew 13:10-17 on one of these Sundays?

More seriously, my reflections at this point on the lectionary are focused on 'the appointed readings', and include these questions (for the whole of ACANZP to consider):

(a) Should we have a church requirement which does not conform to widely practiced reality, or should reality be made to conform to requirement? Please note here that I am not talking about how most in our church follow the lectionary (to some degree) and a few do not. I am raising the question about the fact that (in my experience, across more than one diocese) parish churches following the lectionary (i.e. to one degree or another) mostly do not have four readings (psalm, OT, Ep, Gospel). Most (in my experience) have the OT or Ep and the Gospel: two readings! Some, perhaps with a handy choir to help, will have three readings: psalm and OT or Ep, and the Gospel, or OT, Ep and the Gospel. Rare is the quadrilection (is that a word?).

A further note: I observe these things about the lectionary not being followed with a great deal of sympathy, not as some kind of liturgical 'policeman'. In my experience of being Anglican in Kiwiland I cannot think of one church which actually follows the lectionary as prescribed in every service. All may be well, for instance, with the morning eucharist, but the evening readings are shortened. Usually the readings are followed but, today there is a baptism - something has to give, and it is one of the readings. All such decisions by vicars are understandable, but strictly speaking they are not according to 'the appointed readings follow'! Hence my next question:

(b) Is it more helpful to have a prescriptive rule (i.e. the literal force of the blunt words, 'the appointed readings follow') or a permissive rule (i.e. the effective manner in which the rule is treated in practice in many parishes)? I am sympathetic to a permissive interpretation because getting parish worship 'right' is very, very complicated these days, and flexibility around a fixed framework is needed according to the challenges of the moment.

(Final note: I acknowledge that when we raise the question of 'appointed readings' we have an additional problem in our church of 'which appointed readings?' as there are so many of them. Let that one alone for now: the questions framed above would remain even if we had only one lectionary to follow).


liturgy said...

Please explain, Peter, why you continue to think that today’s Gospel reading is not set in the Gospel of Matthew itself prior to Christmas but on Christmas Day. In simple words, please. I continue to read it simply as a story prior to Christmas. Please explain why you would need to spend any energy whatsoever in your sermon on “why we were having this reading on the Sunday before Christmas rather than Christmas Eve or Day”. With respect, this seems to me a remarkable waste of energy – I still cannot imagine that any pewsitter would have thought of this as a Christmas Day reading until you mentioned that as a possibility.

One of the principles of RCL is that if the text is essentially the same in a number of gospels it might only appear once or say twice in the three year cycle. We may argue that each gospel should be there in its total integrity – I think that argument has strong merit. It just isn’t the way RCL works. I cannot account for every omission, and I might personally disagree with a choice. I can see no problem with expanding the set text. Anyone? I also think that if we are going from the assumption that those in our pews NEVER open the Bible for themselves we are in serious trouble. And those in our pews might live up to the expectations we have…

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Bosco,

"Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way ... but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus."

Then the clincher that 1:18-25 IS Matthew's birth narrative:

"Now after Jesus was born ..." (2:1)

In other words, this story does function in two ways, speaking both about 'Christmas Day' and the preparation for Christmas Day.

My sense this morning was that the congregation appreciated the (brief) explanation that this reading was selected for this day because it is both the story of Jesus' birth AND a preparation story.

liturgy said...

I think you are pressing γένεσις far far too far. The text clearly is all set prior to the actual birth and is part of the γένεσις story of Jesus. The "now" in your 2:1 translation is unnecessary. There is no clincher. All you might logically argue is that there is no actual birth story in Matthew. Which fits with the church's tradition. As we have been discussing.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Bosco,
It is not me per se who is pushing 'genesis' too far, it is a common translation of popular English Bibles which we preachers have to contend with. Take your own preference for a Bible for Christian readers, in the study, home and pew, the NRSV:

1:18 'Now the birth of Jesus took place in this way ...'

1:25 'but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.'

2:1 'In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born ...'

I put it to you that the hearer of Matthew 1:18-25 in the pew (who may also remember 2:1) quite naturally and appropriately understands Matthew 1:18-25 to be Matthew's birth narrative, and quite reasonably wonders why she or he would be hearing it on the Sunday six days before Christmas Day.

Were we Greek then your point is well made that the story turns on 'genesis' in 1:18. But our congregations do not hear 'genesis' they hear 'birth' and 'borne' (and know the next story in 2:1 is post partum).

liturgy said...

Good points, Peter. But just to be clear: in calling vv18-24 Matthew's birth story, you are suggesting that your average English-speaking pew-sitter thinks these verses, in Matthew's story, are occurring on the day that Jesus was born? You are suggesting that average English-speaking pew-sitters are sitting there asking themselves, why, since we are exactly following the Jesus story day by day, are we reading this story a few days before the actual birth, when actually the angel appeared to Joseph, and he was going to put Mary away, and found out she was pregnant - on the actual day that Jesus was born? And this because they don't understand the Greek, but only read the NRSV?

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Bosco,
In the end it matters little what I think and a lot how congregations hear today's reading and whether or not it raises questions as to whether it sounds like a reading for Christmas Eve/Day more than a reading for beforehand, or equally plausible for both situations, or more of a beforehand reading.

Nevertheless I posit that it is heard more as a birth narrative than as a preparation narrative (because birth/borne figure in the opening and closing verses of the passage; and, a subsidiary point, Matthew offers no other birth reading, his next being a post-birth reading [though, as I am sure you know, even that is not beyond figuring in the Christmas story in some places :)].

In the cold light of day, e.g. in this careful discussion, the narrative is a preparation narrative and a birth narrative - a both/and reading!

Incidentally, our own NZPB, as you will know, lists Matthew 1:18-25 as a reading for Christmas Day (p. 557) with the heading 'The birth of the Saviour.' That is a message - I would argue - buried fairly deep in the subconscious of many Christians, not just of Kiwi Anglicans!!

liturgy said...

Please, please, please, Peter, don't get me started on the eccentricities of our NZ-only "2 year" cycle. Sit down one day and highlight which parts of the Bible are actually read and then have your discussion about major, significant stories and pieces of the scriptures that were omitted (and some others repeated!) And then explain to me how this EVER got through the Prayer Book Commission, let alone General Synod. No. Please don't get me started!

Anonymous said...

Hi Peter,

I was interested, given your discussion, as to how our 8am congregation would 'hear' the Matthew reading. The reader of the gospel became increasingly uncomfortable until she stopped at the end of v24 to double check the pew newsletter and mumbled something about having to read further before completing to the end of v25. She was so flummoxed that she mucked up the reader's response at the end, making it difficult for us to say our rejoinder. Such is the reality of parish life.


Peter Carrell said...

Hi Bosco: discussion of the 2 year cycle is hereby not started :)

Hi Malcolm: the point I am making well illustrated!

Brother David said...

Malcom, it is too bad that your "reader' for the service never took the position seriously enough to have actually have read the appointed text for the day beforehand! Then she need not have been flummoxed and could have asked your rector about any questions that she may have had.

Liturgy always works a bit better when folks prepare, instead of rushing in at the last minute to claim their part.

liturgy said...

I am with David on this one. Reading the scriptures in the gathered community is a ministry. Traditionally the Gospel reading is read by an ordained person. NZ Anglicanism, as in so much else, has abandoned this tradition. It is appalling that a person, the community and parish, would have so little respect for the inspired Word of God read in the midst of the Body of Christ that they had not looked at it beforehand. It is also the responsibility of the priest, in NZ specifically ordained to enable the ministry of all the baptised, to see that something like this does not happen, and certainly does not happen again.

I also wonder if behind all this there is the understanding of liturgy as some sort of play. A re-enactment chronologically. There are elements of this, of course, but pressing this too far makes little sense of so much in liturgy: St Steven’s Day, reading the Last Supper gospels in John during the Easter Season, etc. The Matthew text we are discussing is presumably set months prior to the birth of Christ. I still, hence, even following the re-enactment model of liturgy, cannot understand why the reader got increasingly uncomfortable. The Vicar has a lot of work to do in that community.

Anonymous said...

Hi Peter

you might find this reverse lectionary site useful -- I cannot vouch for its accuracy but I have used it a bit and it seems to be so.

Some years ago I did a short item for our parish magazine on the lectionary, and its omissions. It seemed to cause a stir as the Minister (Graham Redding) felt obliged to put a comment after it - I think the only time in the history of the parish newsletter that such a comment was required!!!

If you are interested it is here - starting on about page 10:


Peter Carrell said...

Hi Bosco and David
Thank you for helpful comments.
I would like to be cautious on one thing, please: surmising what may or may not have happened or be happening in the life of a reader or a parish because one observation is made about a stumble!

liturgy said...

Fair enough, Peter, if it was told here as the story of a stumble. But it was told here to reinforce a point. You yourself called it “the point I am making well illustrated!” I think you cannot have it both ways.

Brother David said...

Peter, Malcom presented it as more than a stumble. It is apparent from the way that he has reported it that she had no idea until she was reading it out loud in the service what it was that she was going to actually be reading.

Now there are possible reasons for that, perhaps she was asked to read at the last moment before the service. I guess that I am perhaps different than others, but I would have found a moment to know what it was I was actually reading and learn how to pronounce certain words if necessary.

It was reported on another blog that a reader was reading a lection in the service which included the name Hittites several times. He proceeded to pronounce it as high titties every time it came up throughout the reading. As he finished his reading with; "Here ends the reading," the congregation reportedly responded with a loud and tittering, "Thanks be to God!"

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Bosco,
Yes, it could be that "I" cannot have it both ways. But I am only suggesting that the reader stumbled because it seemed to be an odd reading for six days prior to Christmas Day itself. Your/David's comments offer surmises re lack of preparation, work to be done in the parish. There may be a perfectly understandable reason why the reader was (apparently) unprepared such as being asked at the last minute because the deputed reader was ill etc etc :)

Peter Carrell said...

Good story, David!

liturgy said...

“the reader stumbled because it seemed to be an odd reading for six days prior to Christmas Day itself”.

You still haven’t explained, Peter, why it is an odd reading for six days prior to Christmas Day itself. It is the story of Joseph’s reaction to the information that Mary is pregnant. This is not a story about Christmas Day itself. It appears as having occurred months prior to Christmas Day. You make a big point of the word “birth” in 1:18 – but the story then picks up with Joseph some months earlier. No reason, then, to argue from “The reader of the gospel became increasingly uncomfortable” to this is an inappropriate reading for Advent – all that might be argued is that Matthew has messed up the story and made a mistake in saying in verse 18 that “the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.”

Anonymous said...

Dear Peter,

Thank you for defending my gospel reader from the liturgical purists. I myself could draw no conclusion as to the level of her preparation, only that in the delivery she was caught off guard. If I had had opportunity, my only pastoral response would have been to thank her for doing the reading. I'm sure that her heart was in the right place and it was received by the congregation in that spirit. I think God would have enjoyed the joke!


Peter Carrell said...

Hi Bosco,
My view: Matthew 1:18-25 is an appropriate reading for Advent and for Christmas.

My surmise: many readers of Matthew 1:18-25 read it (or 'read' it) as a Christmas Day or birth narrative reading. Without questioning these readers, of course, I do not know why they might think that, but I am offering as suggestions:

(1) Many Christians have heard it as a Christmas Day reading (recalling that this is a permissible option which parishes can (and have) follow(ed) in our church.

(2) Many Christians have herd this reading as a post Christmas (i.e. Sunday after Christmas Day) reading, according to BCP/1928 green prayer book.

(3) It is a natural reading of 1:18-25 to do so in many English translations which use the word family 'birth/born(e)' in the first and last passages of the passage. (To make this assertion is not to deny that between v. 18 and v. 25 is a 'preparation for birth' story; it is simply making a claim about how the story might naturally be read).

But otherwise one would have to ask folk what is going on inside their heads as readers/hearers of the passage.

But it is interesting, is it not, that for hundreds of years Anglicans did not read this as an Advent reading!

liturgy said...

Thanks for pointing out, Peter, that this used to be the reading for the Sunday after Christmas. This underscores my point of the difficulty of pressing a re-enactment model – which seems to lie behind your suggestion of difficulties with expecting this to be the reading for Christmas Day.

If expecting and encouraging and facilitating good reading of the scriptures in church is being a “liturgical purist” then I am proud to be called that. If it is a put-down, then I hope, Peter, knowing me, you would defend me as strongly to whoever Malcolm is. :-)

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Bosco,
I won't defend any here who put down others; I will defend those who facilitate the building up of Christ's church.

'Malcolm' is undoubtedly the recipient of C.S.Lewis' letters on prayer :)

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Margaret
(For some reason I did not get, or did not notice a notification of your comment until, via another means, I noticed it today).

Thank you for your comment and links.

I like your piece on the lectionary's shortcoming!

liturgy said...

I have had a moment now, Peter, to research your point that Matt 1:18ff is in BCP for Christmas 1. Traditionally the Gospel on that Sunday is Luke 2:33-40. Matt 1:18-21 was read at the Vigil Mass of Christmas. Cranmer omitted that Mass from the BCP. He already had Luke’s text on the Annunciation, so he read Chapter 1 of Matthew on Christmas 1. Verses 1-17 were omitted after 1561. Prayer Book commentator, Massey Shepherd, writes: “From a strictly chronological standpoint this lesson is more suitably appointed before Christmas Day than in its present position.” (my emphasis)

I appreciated Margaret’s article. Although essentially correct, I think what she wrote can be misread by protestants. The RCL originates with the Vatican – yes RCs are reading a variant as she says, but theirs is the original. The RCL is a revision of the RC 3 year lectionary responding precisely to the sort of critiques that this and your other thread have been making. That it can be improved upon, no one is denying.

When Margaret writes, “Firstly there are the omissions we should be glad of – the cutting of the long genealogies and descriptions of tribal boundaries and obsolete laws of the early books of the Bible, and the culling of the repetitive prophecies of doom in many of the prophets.” I’m not sure everyone should agree with her so readily. Long genealogies are a particular feature in our own land, where identification is made with the Biblical context, and why does Margaret think God inspired these in the Bible, but they are of no value to read now? Editing out “obsolete laws of the early books of the Bible” appears another very dangerous thing to do. Has God changed his mind? Why? And are we not allowed to talk about this in church? Can only atheists point these out gloatingly to us and we have had no reflection on them together? The debate, much on this site, around possible laws about homosexuality in the same chapter as laws about heterosexual intercourse around a woman’s period, do we toss both out as “obsolete laws of the early books of the Bible”? You can already see that Margaret and I might not be able to agree on a lectionary – and if two people cannot, you see what an amazing feature it is that we have the RCL at all! So with RCs being slightly different from time to time with RCLs, I’m not too keen to see us attempt another revision and create another division unless there is a very significant groundswell.