It arose out of two parallel dynamics, the desire to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus on the first day of the week, and the desire to continue the ancient Jewish practice of readings from the Scriptures as a part of the liturgical act.
There are two separate cycles within the Church Year, one based on the date of Christmas (usually December 25) and the other based on the date of Easter (which moves according to the ancient lunar calendar).
- The Advent/Christmas/Epiphany cycle begins four Sundays before Christmas, and ends with the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6 (the Twelfth Day of Christmas-tide). The Sundays after the Epiphany focus on major events in the manifestation of Jesus as the Messiah, beginning with his baptism and continuing with his several miracles.
- The Lent/Easter/Pentecost cycle begins on Ash Wednesday (forty weekdays before Easter) and continues to the fiftieth day after Easter on Pentecost.
The several weeks after Pentecost are that other half, prosaically called “The Sundays after Pentecost” (duh). This time of the Church Year is also called Ordinary Time, as these are Sundays not in one of the two cycles.
The Lectionary is the means by which we have chosen to organize the readings from the Bible over the course of the Church Year.
Its formal title is The Revised Common Lectionary (or RCL), as it is shared and used by Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and other Protestant denominations, having been slightly revised several years ago. The RCL is one of the results of the ecumenical movement beginning in the 1960s and the liturgical renewal movement that arose a few decades earlier.
The RCL provides readings for each Sunday of the Church Year (which begins on the First Sunday in Advent) as well as readings for major feast days that do not occur on Sundays (e.g., saints days).
This lectionary is divided into three cycles conveniently (?) named Years A, B, and C. The difference in the three cycles is that they are each based on one of the three Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, with occasional insertions from the Gospel according to John (especially in Lent and Eastertide).
We are currently in Year C, so the Gospel readings are typically from Luke.
The other readings—from the Hebrew Bible, the Psalms, and the Letters of the Christian Bible—are linked thematically to the Gospel for the day, with two exceptions:
- The readings from the Letters are thematically linked to the Gospel reading in the Christmas and Easter cycles, but are read seriatum (more or less continuously) by Letter during the Sundays after Pentecost. This year we begin with Galatians and continue through the Letters of Paul.
- The readings from the Hebrew Bible are always thematically linked to the reading from the Gospel, except that during Ordinary Time there are two “tracks” or strands, one of which links the OT reading to the Gospel, and the other which reads seriatum. Thus, in Year A the OT readings begin with Exodus and continue through the early historical books; in Year B the readings are from the great monarchy narratives, and in Year C we read from the later prophetic books.
Next year, in Year A in Ordinary Time we will use Track 1, which will allow us to hear read a substantial portion of the Hebrew Bible over the next three years. (Note that the selection from the Psalms almost always is linked directly to the OT reading for the day.)
There are two direct implications of the Church Year and the RCL.
First, by using a lectionary we are “forced” to read from every part of the Bible. In traditions that do not use a lectionary the (usually) single reading from the Bible is chosen by the preacher, who may have a favorite short list which is used again and again. The tendency is stay away from uncomfortable or difficult subjects (think of my sermon on the Holy Trinity on May 22).
Second, in every Episcopal Church in the world on every Sunday there are four different readings from the Bible spoken to the people: the Hebrew Bible, the Psalms, the Epistles (or Letters), and the Gospels, covering every part of the Bible in three years. In other words, there is more Bible read and heard and addressed in The Episcopal Church on Sunday than there is in any other Christian tradition in the world. The so-called “Bible-based churches” have nothing on us.
In the foregoing commentary, a number of relevant details have been passed over in the interest of length. For example, there are minor differences in the Lectionaries in each denomination due to traditional usages, and there are rules of precedence that determine what feasts can be celebrated on a Sunday. If you detect one of those deletions in the commentary please be free to ask me about it.