15 December 2007

Whose Way St. John the Baptist Prepared

I realize I run the risk of ruining my reputation, if ever I say anything positive about the three-year lectionary. All the more so if I offer any hint of constructive criticism concerning the historic (medieval western) lectionary. I have no beef with the historic lectionary, but neither do I regard it as the litmus test of orthodoxy that many of my dear friends and colleagues hold it to be. It has its strengths and, dare I say, its weaknesses; so does the three-year lectionary. Normally, though, because I have grown weary of arguing about it, I simply bite my tongue and swallow any comments I might otherwise offer.

I'm throwing caution to the wind in this case, however, because I have been struck by a realization this past week that still leaves me curious. Advent Tide in the three-year lectionary features prominently the preaching of repentance by St. John the Baptist, especially from St. Matthew (in Series A) and St. Luke (in Series C), and to the extent that St. Mark records it (in Series B). I think this is a good thing, which accords well with the good purpose for which the holy Evangelists recorded St. John's preaching. What has struck me, in particular, is that this preaching does not occur in the historic lectionary, leastwise not on any of the Sundays (neither in Advent Tide, nor elsewhere in the course of the year). It does seem likely that it may be among the Lections appointed for weekday Masses in the historic Roman missal, but I'm not sure to what extent those have found a regular place among Lutherans. Granted, the historic Fourth Sunday in Advent features the important words of St. John the Baptist as recorded by St. John the Evangelist, but that is a decidedly different sort of proclamation than his preaching of repentance in the three Synoptic Gospels.

Not only that, but the historic lectionary has tended to relegate the Baptism of Our Lord to relative obscurity, although that occasion has floated about a bit between Christmas Tide and the first week of Epiphany Tide. The Lutheran Service Book redaction of the historic lectionary has taken the liberty of listing the Baptism of Our Lord as the first option for the First Sunday after the Epiphany, following the lead of the three-year lectionary in that instance. Heretofore, I have to wonder to what extent the Forerunner's preaching and Baptism of repentance were heard among those following the historic (medieval western) lectionary. I also wonder why it may have been so limited, because that does not seem like such a good thing to me.

I realize that, of course, the work of St. John the Baptist was historically fulfilled and completed with the first Advent of the Christ in the flesh. Clearly, John does decrease and Christ increases, and that is only right. But I maintain that the office of the Forerunner necessarily continues, as the Advent of Christ also continues in the Ministry of the Gospel. In any case, the Evangelists not only record the preaching of St. John (as more than a bit of historic trivia, I warrant), but they also summarize the preaching of Christ and His Apostles as a continuation of St. John's preaching: "Repent! for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand." The preaching of St. Peter on Pentecost Day is once more an echo of the Forerunner's preaching: "Repent, and be baptized!" And when our Lord Himself was questioned as to His authority, He linked Himself specifically to the authority with which St. John the Baptist had been sent. In light of all of this, it seems to me that the actual preaching of St. John, as recorded especially by St. Matthew and St. Luke, is a proclamation that needs to continue in the life of the Church on earth, as the very means by which the Lord prepares His way before Him.

For my part, I am very pleased and satisfied with the way in which the LSB three-year lectionary handles the end of the Church Year and the Season of Advent, which historically belong together as a penitential period of waiting upon the coming of Christ. Each of the three years offers its own nuances, but they all retain essentially the same basic pattern and movement. The eschatological preaching and emphasis of Advent 2 in the historic lectionary, sound forth in the final Sundays of the Church Year, and then the ministry of St. John the Baptist comes into focus on the Second and Third Sundays in Advent. In this way, the LCMS Proper Preface for Advent seems less like reminiscing and more the confession of what the Lord is still doing among us. The entry of our Lord into Jerusalem is given preference on the First Sunday in Advent, reclaiming that salutary keynote to the Church Year, and the coming of our Lord in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary characterizes the Fourth Sunday in Advent. Waiting with a woman for the birth of her child seems most appropriate, not only in anticipation of Christmas, but also as the Church experiences the "birth pangs" of the approaching judgment.

13 comments:

Susan said...

>>What has struck me, in particular, is that this preaching does not occur in the historic lectionary, leastwise not on any of the Sundays

>>I have to wonder to what extent the Forerunner's preaching and Baptism of repentance were heard among those following the historic (medieval western) lectionary

This sounded funny. I believed you. (After all, what kind of stupid thing would it be to make up a lie about this??) But it didn't sound like your statement jived with my reality. I guess for years I've been hearing about the ministry of John the Baptist on the 3rd & 4th Sundays of Advent. And his ministry can't be addressed without the call to repentance. So we always seemed to hear the kind of preaching you're talking about on half of the Advent Sundays.

But I see what you mean about those particular readings not being assigned. I suppose anything could be botched up, and thus I suppose there are plenty of pastors who preach those two lections without calling sinners to repentance and preaching the Lamb who came to save them.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Oh, I have no doubt that the Ministry of St. John the Baptist is taken up by preachers who follow the historic lectionary. Nor do I doubt for a minute that they do of course preach repentance. The many colleagues I know who use the historic lectionary are faithful and evangelical preachers of Christ, and I give thanks to God for that. As I indicated, I have no beef with the historic lectionary, nor at all with those who use it. I just don't think it is perfect or always superior; nor do I believe that it is necessary.

However, to the point at hand: The particular Gospel that is proclaimed on any given Sunday is not incidental, nor should it simply be a coat hanger for this or that topical agenda. Indeed, it ought to be the solid basis on which the entire preaching is done; or, to say it more strongly, the Gospel of the Day is precisely THE Word that is preached. As such, preaching "about" the ministry of St. John the Baptist is not yet the same thing as allowing that preacher of repentance to preach. In other words, I'm not referring to a "kind" of preaching, but to the preaching of St. John the Baptist.

I understand that in a single yearly cycle, there are going to be all sorts of things that can't be included. But it had not occurred to me before, that St. John's preaching of repentance was missing altogether from the historic lectionary (for Sundays). I think that is a shame, and a weakness, and I am curious as to why it developed in that way.

But I don't expect to convince anyone of anything; nor am I aiming to do so. I'm simply thinking out loud for my own edification. I know better than to argue with adherents of the historic lectionary; it never ends up being a discussion of strengths and weaknesses, pros and cons, but I am simply met with an insistence that it must be used because it is historic. For my part, as I have said, I find that the three-year lectionary also serves and supports the preaching of the Gospel, and I am especially pleased with the ebb and flow of Advent Tide (together with the Sundays preceding it).

As always, Susan, I am thankful for your comments. And I do rejoice in the faithful preaching and teaching that you hear and receive from your pastors.

Mark Henderson said...

Rick,
Thanks for an insightful post. I must confess I have long been puzzled by the way the historic one-year lectionary seems to have become, as you say, a litmus test of orthodoxy in the LC-MS (a church body which I highly esteem, btw). Preaching through the RCL for five years now, I am well aware of its shortcomings, but also of its advantages over the one year lectionary.
Is it possible, I wonder, that much of what happens in confessional-liturgical LC-MS circles has become purely reactionary?
I understand how this can come about - your battles are largely over worship, ours have been mainly over women's ordination - but in both cases it seems the heat generated by the battle can inflate our perception of an issue's importance in the larger scheme of things.
To keep the battle analogy going -is every issue worth going over the top of the trenches for, or would we not be better off keeping our powder dry for the really crucial engagements?
Just a view from outside the LC-MS, fwiw.

Mark Henderson

PS I have a blog, and when I get around to posting links in the near future I will include your blog, if that's OK. I appreciate your reflections on pastoral ministry.

Moria said...

I have a slightly different take on the differences between the lectionaries. I have always found it a little odd that arguments for the superiority of one lectionary over the other is because of particular pericopes that are used. I recognize that certain passages evoke certain themes more than others, and that judicious apportioning of passages adds to the theme of the day. I also recognize the benefit of covering more of Scripture by including more passages in the Sunday readings over three years.

Yet both lectionaries are using Scripture. This is a "duh" statement, but the point is that neither lectionary is "better" than the other when it comes to content. Both proclaim Jesus. Both are the words of the Holy Spirit.

Furthermore, it is hard for me to say if the broader benefit of using more Scripture is outweighed by the benefit of the deeper understanding of certain passages of Scripture that comes through annual repetition. It is not just that the passages are heard more often. It is, rather, that these passages become associated with the day. They not only contribute to the theme, they define the theme. The mature and catechized hearer knows, when he hears a certain passage, exactly what day is associated, and all the themes of that day come to mind.

Finally, there is something to be said for the historic lectionary being historic. The historic lectionary bears with it the preaching and hymnody and practices that have gone with it for centuries. This itself is a rich heritage, itself actually a contribution to the faith and piety of the church today.

This is not to say that the 3-year is inferior. I am precisely trying to avoid the pitting of the lectionaries against each other. I am simply trying to point out that the argument for history is a valuable argument.

Regarding your particular point, then, about the preaching of John: it is a great blessing that the three-year lectionary includes it. And you suggested some reasons why the historic lectionary may have omitted it. It might be helpful for us actually to pursue (if possible) the reasons the preaching was omitted for Sunday readings, before actually making this another point of contention between the lectionaries.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Thanks for your kind words, Mark. Of course, you are welcome to link my blog to yours, if you like.

Moria, perhaps I have given a different impression than I intended. It is precisely not my desire to pit one lectionary against another; in fact, it is that sort of pitting that has been a source of real frustration to me. Of course, I don't help things by taking a defensive approach up front, and that may be what I have done in this case. I've become so accustomed to having anything positive I might say about the three-year lectionary met with criticism, that I have made the mistake of anticipating it before it comes.

The way you describe the different aspects of the lectionaries is quite the same as my own. I'm not as convinced, necessarily, of the extent of the advantages to a one-year series, but I happily grant that there is some such advantage. I believe there are numerous advantages to the three-year lectionary, as well, which is why I am inclined to continue using it, despite the fact that I do value and appreciate historic precedent. There is such historic precedent, of a different sort, for the three-year lectionary, as well, though it is usually dismissed. And, regrettably, much of the historic character of the historic (medieval western) lectionary has been lost, because it is no longer functioning within the broader context that it was as it developed.

Anyway, I agree completely that there are worthwhile things to be discussed, and I am very glad of people like yourself who are willing and able to discuss them. It was for that sort of purpose that I made the observation I did about St. John's preaching of repentance. It seems beneficial to ask the question, as to why it has not found a place among the Sundays of the historic lectionary. On the other side, I simply wanted to share my observation that the inclusion of St. John's preaching of repentance is a strength and benefit of the three-year lectionary. From time to time, I think it is helpful to make such positive points about it, since it is the ordering of the Holy Scriptures that is commonly used among the vast majority of Christians worldwide, including over 90% of our LCMS congregations.

Susan said...

Hey, Rick, my other pastor just switched to the 3-year series with the new church year. He's had all sorts of good things to say about the 3-year series as he's been explaining to the congregation why the change was made. But in light of your post here, I just had to smile about something he said in Bible class this week. He was commenting that the 1-year series is so much more penitential, and in accord with John's call to repentance more than the readings of the 3-year series. (I'm not complaining about the 3-year series, mind you! I just thought it was funny how the two of you had such different views on where we find the stronger message of "Repent!")

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Thanks for your futher comments, Susan. I'm pleased to hear that your pastor is using the three-year lectionary and speaking well of it. Though, again, I'm happy for people to use the historic lectionary, too.

On the matter of one or the other lectionary being more "penitential," I am inclined to agree with your pastor that the historic lectionary is moreso over all. My point with reference to the preaching of repentance by St. John the Baptist was not to suggest that the historic lectionary is lacking in its penitential emphases. Rather, I was simply observing that the preaching of St. John is not included. It's the particularity and specificity of that preaching that I was considering; just as each Gospel is to be preached in its own particularity and specificity. I'm not arguing that one Gospel is inherently superior to another, nor anything like that. I simply find it intriguing that the definitive preaching of repentance by St. John the Baptist is not to be found on any of the Sundays in the historic lectionary. All things considered, I think that is a shame (but not a fatal flaw).

Past Elder said...

The three year lectionary didn't just happen. It originates with the liturgical revision of the Roman Church at Vatican II. Being RC at the time and watching that come about, it was the expressed aim of its fashioners, some of whom were my teachers, to make a break with the lectionary of the past and begin again with something more in line with what had been gained from historical critical study. A good bit of the "greater exposure to Scripture" was to lessen the prominence of miracle stories (which probably didn't happen anyway, as we learned in class) to include more moral teaching. As well, the preaching tradition and devotional literature associated with the (old)lectionary would no longer be connected to the new.

Any lectionary will include Scripture, so any lectionary will have that benefit and can be taken by them all. Not the point. Unless we want to participate in the disconnect this lectionary was intended to make, there is no reason to use it.

This new lectionary to accompany the new mass has been (as with the new mass itself) adopted and adapted for use by all major denominations, which is no argument for its use -- most of the world's Christians use this lectionary in its various adaptations, it is because most of the world's Christians are in heterodox churches to start with, for whose ends the new lectionary was designed.

The liturgical aim expressed in the Confessions was to preserve to the extent it does not contradict the Gospel the traditional customs and ceremonies passed on to us. I cannot see incorporating something that originated in 1960s Roman heterodoxy and has since become an emblem of Christian liturgical heteroxy in general as consistent with that aim.

The only Lutheran source I have come across that seems to understand what the new lectionary was really all about to begin with is a paper found on the ELS site:

http://www.blc.edu/comm/gargy/gargy1/AlexRing.gpc.html

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

With all due respect, Past Elder, I believe you are mistaken in a number of your assertions, and I disagree with your assessments and conclusions.

I don't know who your teachers may have been who participated in the fashioning of the three-year lectionary, but your description of its aims and of the approach that was taken to achieve them is misleading and unfair. I am well aware of the diversity of opinions within the Roman Church concerning the purpose and accomplishments of Vatican II in general, and your remarks seem to reflect the attitudes of the liberal American Roman Catholics who were among my teachers at Notre Dame. At one point, I pursued a dissertation proposal on the origins of the three-year lectionary, and quickly discovered that my Roman Catholic professors were more interested in agendas and controversies over it within the Roman Church than they were in the actual achievements of the lectionary itself.

In the course of my extensive studies of the three-year lectionary, I was struck by the scholarship and piety that guided and informed its development. It is true that it did take into account the historical critical scholarship of recent centuries, but it is quite unfair to throw that sort of comment out without any other consideration. Far from making a conscious break with the past, the scholars who worked on the three-year lectionary did exhaustive research on the ancient and broad (eastern and western) practices of the Church. In many respects, the three-year lectionary follows much older historic precedents than the "historic" (western medieval) lectionary previously in use. Nevertheless, that lectionary was also a prominent consideration in the work that was done.

The guiding genius of the three-year lectionary, by deliberate intention of its framers, was a focus on the Paschal Mystery, that is to say, the Cross and Resurrection of Christ. To ignore that central emphasis, and to make accusations of an intentional avoidance of miracles, is to give a false impression altogether.

Sometimes we are known best by considering those who criticize and oppose us. The primary critics of the three-year lectionary, at least in its early years, were those who faulted it for being too Christological, too typological, too sacramental, and too patriarchal. It was criticized, in particular, for treating the Old Testament as fulfilled in Christ Jesus.

The fact of the matter is that the three-year lectionary contributed to a resurgence of liturgical and sacramental preaching. It brought back the reading of the Old Testament at the Divine Service, but also helped to encourage the preaching of the Holy Gospel of the Day. Among Lutherans prior to the emergence of the three-year lectionary, there were a plethora of parochial lectionaries that had developed, in addition to rampent free-texting, and accompanying cycles of "preaching texts" that stood alongside of the lectionary.

I'm familiar with the ELS paper that you reference. Whether it is the best thing written about the three-year lectionary by a Lutheran, I don't know, but it is only one of many things that have been written on the topic from a wide variety of perspectives. It is a contribution, but I would not recommend drawing conclusions about the three-year lectionary from one such secondary source.

Past Elder said...

I'll come back to this -- it's just a moment between the family afternoon gathering and our 11pm service! -- but as a point of clarification, I did not come to any conclusions based on the ELS paper, but rather found it the first, and so far the only, Lutheran treatment of the new lectionary that expressed an awareness of what I consistently saw and heard in the RC church as the new lectionary was formed and adopted.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Fair enough, Past Elder. Although I didn't take it that you had formed your conclusions on the basis of that paper alone; I was expressing caution to others, that they not draw conclusions from it.

As far as what you may have heard within the Roman Church as the lectionary was being developed and adopted, my own take on that would be -- as I tried to express -- that there surely were such liberal hopes on the part of many people (especially in this country, and for the entire work of Vatican II), but that much of that was not realized. My own professors at Notre Dame, for example, were in large part disappointed by the lack of such developments in the lectionary and in other respects.

I have far more concerns about the revisions that were done to the three-year lectionary by the mainline protestant churches, finally resulting in the Revised Common Lectionary. There you certainly do have some liberal agendas very much at work. Interestingly, it was also in that development that one heard a good deal of complaining about how conservative, typological, and Christological the Roman three-year Lectionary for Mass really is.

You are, of course, welcome to your opinions, even though I disagree with some of them. But the sort of broad critique that you have offered in your original comments is, I think, uncharitable and misleading. One finally has to deal with what is actually set forth in the lectionary -- from the Holy Scriptures -- and not simply criticize the motivations or intentions behind it, whether real or imagined, whether realized or frustrated.

As I mentioned, my research of the three-year lectionary -- which was rather thorough, although it was now about ten years ago that I did it -- revealed a rigorous and pious approach to the historical precedents and other considerations, which I appreciate, even if I don't agree with all of the other criteria that may have been employed.

For the record, the greatest advantage and blessing of the three-year lectionary, in my opinion, is not its more thorough coverage of the Scriptures (though I do not think that is a bad thing), nor its ecumenical usage (though I do not think that is a bad thing either), but the way in which it allows the holy evangelists to speak over the course of the year in a way that is much closer to their actual Gospels. It is my belief that the Gospels in particular were written for liturgical usage to begin with; and that the Church Year actually developed out of that liturgical usage of the Gospels. Thus, I find it meet, right and salutary that the Gospels are read through more straightforwardly in the three-year lectionary (with allowances given, of course, to the final shape of the Church Year).

In any case, my use of the three-year lectionary has nothing at all to do with denials of miracles or with the higher critical approach to the Holy Scriptures. It does have everything to do with the way in which it serves and supports the preaching of the Gospel among the people to whom the Lord has called and sent me as a Minister of His Word.

Past Elder said...

Snacks made, laundry in dryer, 11pm closer -- another quick note.

I mentioned my general background was RC, and, while leaving out names in deference to those who have passed on to whatever that may be, I'll mention my university was St John's Collegeville, during the years right after Vatican II and during the promulgation of the novus ordo.

No doubt your time at Notre Dame, even if some years later, would have included an awareness of that bunch! Many of them were quite aware of LCMS during the Seminex thing -- rooting for you know which side!

My favourite Notre Dame joke of the time was the one about Ara showing up for the job interview and the priest saying "Name", he said "Parseghian", the priest said "Religion" and he said "Presbyterian" to which the priest interrupted "Wait, how do you spell that?", and Ara started P-A-R- and the priest said "No. I mean Presbyterian".

Past Elder said...

OK, church last night, presents opened this morning, now a little break as the kids play with them until brunch -- stollen and sausage. As a widower dad, life is a lot different than a single grad student! I have a good idea why the original university students were celibate (officially, anyway) clerics!

One thing I really appreciate about being LCMS is that there are people who will engage in informed discussion about things like this, rather than just say "Christian Freedom" or "adiaphora" as usually happened in my former synod. So thank you!

Certainly I do not think that use of the three-year constitutes an endorsement of a higher-critical view of scripture, a condemnation of what went before, though it was uniformly just that for those who brought it to power (and power was the name of the game then), nor do I think that the Gospel cannot be preached using it or any lectionary as they all lection, so to speak, Scripture.

Maybe I can make the point by referencing the revised liturgy, the novus ordo, which the revised lectionary was meant to accompany as the new Comes, so zu sagen. I'm opposed to that too, on the same grounds, though we have similarly adapted it as well.

Consider the kyrie as our example. Came the Revolution, er, Vatican II, and we were told how the Kyrie was not really what the Kyrie is, that as we had it, it was a vestigal remain of a fuller prayer in the Eastern liturgy whose character is lost. Well, that's true, actually. With the result that it sounds kind of penitential right after confession and absolution has been said!

But look what happened in the novus ordo -- the phrase Lord have mercy was attached to penitential pleas (For the times we have ..., Lord have mercy) replacing the Confiteor and the Kyrie alike, the whole thing then nothing like the petitionary prayer it is in the Eastern liturgy! Nice job Roman dudes. And my former synod went them one better, relocating the Kyrie before the Absolution in the Common Service!

By contrast, from the LBW (which when I first saw it I thought, being ex-RC at the time, if this is Lutheranism why bother, stick with Vatican II rather than wannabes) on through LW and the LSB, the whole problem has been solved, well retaining something of the Eastern liturgy at this point by retaining the "In peace let us pray to the Lord" then the first few petitions of the Eastern liturgy. It works, though in typically Western smaller scale.

But still I'm against it even though we got it right. Not that it's intrinsically wrong any more than the three year lectionary doesn't present Scripture, but it's main attraction was it, as it was presented, gets us out of the mediaeval time warp we have been in for a millenium and a half and re-establishes that liturgy is really more about community than the Lord so the community needs to use more of the community's various usages over time. The call of the Revolution. Yes it has bona fide historical antecendents, but they were the surface and not the point.

Likewise communion in the hand, for a second and final example. While citing the in fact true statement that the practice has ancient roots, more ancient than communion on the tongue, the whole idea as presented was that by this gesture we indicate our active, not passive, role in faith and salvation, indicating our co-operation with God who comes to meet us. In short, works righteousness intrudes even at the moment of Communion.

In both cases, then, we have what are true historical roots but enlisted in the cause of a heterodox church, Rome, taking itself further into heterodoxy. While these revisional replacements can indeed be corrected and used faithful to the catholic (sic) faith, why bother? When we do that, I hold, we are presenting "contemporary worship" no less than those who look to Willow Creek or Saddleback and try to Lutheranise it, differing only in the sources chosen, even as we talk of adherence to the historic liturgy.

Now, as to ruining one's confessional reputation, suppose it got out that Past Elder, having weighed in against the three-year lectionary and novus ordo derived liturgy, has no problem with individual cups, fruit of the vine grape juice in them for those who cannot tolerate wine, and children's sermons!!!!

Time to cook up sausage and serve stollen. Feliz Navidad!!