Explanation of the Church Year
Why Are The Gospel Readings In this Order?
The above question is not as irrelevant as it might seem at first. But it may help to start by asking, "Why do we read the Gospels at all?" That's a good question since many Christians hardly ever do! They may wave their Bibles or Missals at you but for some peculiar reason don't feel at ease quietly reading in a reflective way, the Divine Word recorded in their Bible. The truth is that we all, in fact, tend to take the existence of the Bible for granted. Perhaps it would help us to remember that the Bishops of the then known world gathered in the 4th Century and declared authoritatively which spiritual writings in existence were to be considered New Testament, and which were not. We can be eternally grateful they did because there were so many corrupt and misleading writings, that the common people needed to be protected from serious error. Interestingly, most of the written works considered by the bishops have long disappeared and we have in our possession a glorious Christian heritage of writing inspired by the Holy Spirit. Christians don't agree about much, and least of all about Sacred Scripture. Thankfully we at least share the same New Testament except for a very small number of verses which, for historical reasons rather than doctrinal, have eluded universal acceptance.
Returning now to the Gospels, we would do well to pause and ponder the rather bland question, "Why do we read the Gospels? After all, we read most books because we haven't read them before and want to know what is in them. Not so with the New Testament and especially the Gospels; we read them because we know what is in them. Somehow we find that when we read them as they were meant to be "read" – that is listened to – something "comes over" us; we are moved within; we feel an urge to respond, to engage, to dwell on our Lord's words. They are like those of no other person. Why is this?
For some people, clearly it is because the Gospels record the words and action of our Lord as remembered by eye-witnesses. This means we can almost feel ourselves present and included in his magnificent lessons.
For other people, especially in our troubled times when religion has been hijacked by professional stage showmen (and women!), the Gospels present pure, unadulterated Christianity. Other books of the New Testament can be misrepresented; but the Gospels when carefully meditated upon, help the devout follower of Jesus to discern what he taught and to reject the false forms of Christianity with which we are so often confronted today.
We are going to ask you, as part of this rather long-winded reflection on Gospel reading, to take time out now and read our notes on, "He Really Is the Saviour Of The World" John 4: 5 – 42; and then come back to this point!
Did you notice in verse 26, the most powerful reply of Jesus to the woman at the well? In Latin and the ancient languages it was one word: "Sum". "I am he! (ie the Messiah)".
St Augustine, 5th Century Bishop of the thriving Christian community ay Hippo, North Africa, has a beautiful commentary on this very special verse.
"He, Son of God, spoke but one word, "I am He", and in that moment she is convinced and becomes an apostle to her townsfolk. This one word of the Saviour, he says, was more effectual than that by which God created heaven and earth, for the nothingness that preceded creation would make no resistance to God, whereas sin is wont to withstand Him. What more need we say of the power of grace? How ardently must we desire its omnipotent operation in us."
Herein lies the explanation of the power of the word of our Lord upon our souls. We need to hear him – we need to be restored, enlightened, healed; and we also need to share this spiritual treasure with others.
When we do that, we gain even more! This is the work of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit whom he sent to us, to remind us of everything he taught – and to give us understanding. (John 14: 26)
In our age of confusion and delusion, we need to remember this most important role of the Holy Spirit: to enable us to recall the words of Jesus, the Divine Word, and to repeat them to the rest of the world in a way they can understand. Many people think the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is to produce speech which their hearers cannot understand. Jesus only ever spoke what he wanted people to hear and understand. The woman at the well heard, understood and went forth to proclaim with power and effectiveness unmatched in her time. We can do the same!
Well, we are on our way. We are at least clear about why we read and meditate on the Gospels: they contain the very words of Jesus, as he taught what he had learnt from his Father. And let us not forget his Father's only commandment recorded in the New Testament:
"Listen to Him!"
Listen to Him
The cycle of Gospel readings as based on the Three Year Lectionary centres on the Father's commandment, "Listen to Him!"
For 2000 years, when Christians have gathered for worship they have recited the Scriptures. Historically, this meant reading the Old Testament if they had access to a scroll; otherwise, reciting it from memory. In time, slowly, Christian writings began to be incorporated into services of worship. Listening to the Divine Word has always been central to our worship, along with the carrying out of the commandment of Jesus (talking of the Holy Eucharist), "Do this in remembrance of me!" Communion in the Word revealed, and in the Word made flesh.
In true Christian worship, the Divine Word is not just "read": it is proclaimed with power and dignity, and listened to with eagerness, thanksgiving and in an attitude of desiring to put in into practice.
As a matter of interest, particularly for those who address a congregation, the Old Testament readings have been chosen to relate in some meaningful way to the Gospel reading of the day. The Psalm, likewise, underpins a common theme. The other reading, however, (usually an Epistle) does not necessarily have a direct relationship to the other readings. This is useful to remember, as great distortions can occur when speakers try to force the readings to fit like pieces of a jigsaw.
Now, back to our focus on "proclamation". When the Gospels are read during worship, they are almost always, with the exception of the introductory or infancy narratives, records of the actions and teaching of our Lord. The first Christians, from the very beginning of the Church, proclaimed, "Jesus is Lord!" St Paul echoes this in his writing. The proclamation of the Gospel, therefore, we always honour as the voice and presence of the Lord himself there in the centre of his people. The readings, therefore, very early in the Church's history, reflected the pattern of the life, teaching passion, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church at Pentecost. Those events, in the calendar of the Church year, are commemorated during the first six months. They are reflected in the Church's seasons listed below.
In the modern Church calendar, Epiphany (12th Day after Christmas) and Ascension are "Sundayised". With the variations of Easter each year, the number of "Sundays After Pentecost" vary somewhat.
This cycle of time helps us celebrate the time Jesus spent in his ministry of teaching and healing. As we move through the seasons, the readings are selected so that they relate to the actual circumstances in which our Lord carried out his sacred mission. By following him in this way, we can come much closer than we do simply reading a Gospel from start to finish. The Church Year enables us as a Body to behold the Lord together and to listen with one mind and heart to our Saviour's precious words. Thus we are enabled to hear not just the words, but the Word behind the words, the Word within the words. This is the real way we are invited to stand at the very threshold of Heaven, and Listen to Jesus – the Word of God.
Following the Lectionary
The three lists of Gospel readings recorded in our indexes for Years A, B, C, are therefore in a sequence which reflects the life and teaching of Jesus. If you need to, you could obtain a printed lectionary which would put dates beside each reading for you. We will try and provide links for you to obtain this information while you are on the Internet.
You will notice each of the three years, A, B and C are dedicated principally to one of the synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke respectively. The Gospel according to St John is shared out over the three year period. Small variations occur from week to week throughout the world.
We hope you will not find our order of readings, and systematisation, uncomfortable or over-regimented. As we have explained, the purpose for following this method is to reflect the presence of the living Lord among us, still caring for us, teaching and healing as he continues to send the Holy Spirit as he promised he would.
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