Ordered for Impact: Using the Revised Common Lectionary's Scripture Choices for a Rich Celebration of the Incarnation

A mother and father travel to meet their teenaged daughter, who is returning home after a year in Argentina. On the trip the parents snap pictures: (1) the departure, (2) a stop to swim in a mountain lake, (3) pictures of that lake shot from an overlook, (4) the airport, (5) the daughter’s arrival, and (6) the rainbow crowd of passengers disembarking the plane from South America.

When they get home, they sit down to organize their slides. They know the story told through these pictures will have more power if they organize it into a show, rearranging some of its moments. Although they visited the outlook after swimming, they place the panorama of the lake before the picture of them swimming in it, as if in anticipation. And they use digital formatting to set their daughter’s arrival against the background of her cross-cultural experience. They lay the image of her arrival over that of the rainbow crowd. The two pictures become one, a composite.

Christmas Cycle Slide Show

The way the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) tells the story of Christ’s birth is like that slide show. By carefully arranging the banquet of images that the story serves up, the lectionary adds power to the message. Take a look at the readings for this year, Year B.

In this seasonal cycle, the RCL moves through a series of moments: (1) the coming of the Son of Man, (2) John the Baptist, (3) the Annunciation, (4) the birth of Jesus, (5) the Presentation, and (6) the visit of the wise men. You’ll notice that, like the pictures in the slide show the parents prepared, these images are out of chronological order. For example, the readings on John the Baptist precede the birth of Christ.

This reordering of the narrative sequence of Scripture may be disconcerting to those who love to tell the story as it is found in the Bible. Such telling has a long tradition in the Reformed churches. Indeed, the Westminister Directory instructs congregations to read through the Bible in a year’s time, chapter by chapter. While this directive is hard to follow to the letter, variations upon it are still found in Reformed congregations.

The church year, and the RCL readings that give it flesh, have a different aim. They seek to proclaim the good news by focusing on the coming of Christ, from his first coming in Advent to his second at year’s end. Like a slide show, the RCL organizes the telling of Christ’s coming—selecting moments, ordering them for effect, and relating images one to another.

Layered Meaning

As a slide show may use a number of pictures to capture each moment, the RCL supports the dominant image with images found in other texts. So, alongside the governing Gospel text, we find two other texts in support—one each from the Old Testament and the New Testament writings. A psalm (also suggested for each week), is traditionally sung after the Old Testament reading.

These supporting readings serve to focus and nuance the thrust of the dominant image. Thus the RCL does not seek to proclaim the coming of the Son of Man on the First Sunday in Advent, but rather counsels us to watch and pray for that coming. This slant on the image runs like a thread through the readings for this Sunday.

Finally, the RCL uses “advanced techniques” to relate images one to another. Just as the parents of the returning daughter laid her image over the rainbow crowd, so the lectionary lays images one upon another.

In Advent-Christmas-Epiphany, the lectionary uses this technique to set the birth of Jesus in the larger context of his saving work. For while the Christmas story warms the heart, it is not in itself saving. This birth is saving only because the child born is the one who will one day suffer, die, and rise again.

Take a look at Christmas Day, Proper I, for example. The RCL juxtaposes the prophecy of Isaiah 9 and the Lukan version of Jesus’ birth to a passage from Titus that proclaims Christ’s saving work in its totality. In doing so, it lays the shadow of the cross and the light of the cave upon the hope of the crêche.

A painting by the Italian artist Giovanni Bellini (ca. 1430-1516) makes a similar move. Madonna Enthroned Adoring Sleeping Christ Child (1475) pictures the infant Jesus in the posture of the dead Christ in a pietà. The babe lies across the lap of Mary, body extended, head thrown back, right arm dangling down toward the ground, left arm laying across his loins. Just as this painting anticipates the death of Christ, even at his birth, so do readings in Advent set forth the fullness of our salvation. In the seasonal cycle surrounding Christmas, the RCL proclaims the good news through a series of images and their interplay.

Madonna Enthroned Adoring Sleeping Christ Child, 1475. Art by Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516). Tempera on wood. Accademia, Venice, Italy. Photo by Art Resource, NY.Used by permisssion.



What Is the Lectionary?

A lectionary is a set of biblical readings assigned to the Sundays and feasts of the church year. The Revised Common Lectionary is a three-year lectionary that assigns three readings to these times—one each from the Old Testament, New Testament writings, and the Gospels. An ecumenical effort that builds upon Roman Catholic initiatives, the RCL is now used by many of the historic Protestant denominations on the North American continent and around the globe.

Two features mark this lectionary: the clarity of its liturgical year and its use of biblical forms for selecting texts. The latter feature is most striking:

  • In each of the RCL’s three years one of the synoptic gospels is used predominantly (Matt. for Year A; Mark for Year B; Luke for Year C).
  • In all years certain books are assigned to particular seasons (for example, Isaiah in Advent, Acts in Easter).
  • On the Sundays that fall outside of the seasons the New Testament epistles are read through semi-continuously.

A booklet by Gail Ramshaw entitled A Three-Year Banquet: The Lectionary for the Assembly (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2004) provides more detail. Though its liturgical examples are more Lutheran than Reformed, the book’s heart is a well-informed introduction to the Revised Common Lectionary.



Images and the Lectionary?

Lectionary images can enhance worship by inspiring sermon illustrations, children’s moments, sanctuary decorations, or AV projections. The following resources are suggested for those who wish to explore these uses and more.

  • Michael G. Bausch, Silver Screen, Sacred Story: Using Multimedia in Worship (Bethesda, Md.: Alban Institute, 2002). UCC pastor Michael Bausch incorporates visual elements into his congregation’s worship every week. This resource offers practical advice for those interested in this possibility.
  • Kenneth T. Lawrence, et al. Imaging the Word: An Arts and Lectionary Resource, 3 vols. (Berea, Ohio: Pilgrim Press, 1994-6). These beautifully produced art books provide visual and literary images for one reading for each Sunday of the RCL’s three-year cycle.
  • Gail Ramshaw, Treasures Old and New: Images in the Lectionary (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002). After introducing images and their use in the RCL, this excellent book focuses upon forty images for consideration. In an appendix the author identifies three images for each set of readings found in the RCL.



In a Word
“Ordinary” and “Proper”

Two words historically distinguished between texts that were always included (therefore “Ordinary”) in the Catholic Mass, including the Nicene Creed, and those that changed from service to service, such as the Scripture readings. The three Christmas Propers included in the chart indicate three sets of readings that may be used for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day services.


Day Text Image Proclamation
First Sunday  Isa. 64:1-9 The Coming of the

Son of Man

Watch and Pray 
in Advent 1 Cor. 1:3-9    
Mark 13:24-37    
Second Sunday  Isa. 40:1-11 John the Baptist Prepare the Way
in Advent 2 Pet. 3:8-15a    
Mark 1:1-8    
Third Sunday  Isa. 61:1-4, 8-11 John the Baptist Messianic Age
in Advent 1 Thess. 5:16-24    
John 1:6-8, 19-28    
Fourth Sunday  2 Sam. 7:1-11, 16 The Annunciation Christ Is Coming
in Advent Rom. 16:25-27  
Luke 1:26-38    
Christmas Day* Isa. 9:2-7 The Birth of Jesus; Incarnation
Proper I Tit. 2:11-14 the Shepherds  
Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)    
Proper II Isa. 62:6-12 The Birth of Jesus;  
Tit. 3:4-7 the Shepherds  
Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20    
Proper III Isa. 52:7-10 Word Made Flesh  
Heb. 1:1-4 (5-12)    
John 1:1-14**    
First Sunday  Isa. 61:10-62:3 The Presentation Holy Family
in the Season  Gal. 4:4-7    
of Christmas Luke 2:22-40    
Second Sunday  Jer. 31:7-14 The Word Made Flesh Incarnation
in the Season  Eph. 1:3-14    
of Christmas John 1:(1-9) 10-18**    
Feast of Epiphany Isa. 60:1-6 The Visit of the  Manifestation of 
Eph. 3:1-12 Wise Men the Son of God
Matt. 2:1-12    

Art by Clemens Schmidt, from Clip Art for the Liturgical Year (© 1988, The Liturgical Press, 1-800-858-5450, www.ltp.org).
Used by permisssion.

Fritz West (westevencroft@aol.com) is pastor of St. John's United Church of Christ, Fountain City, Wisconsin, and liturgical writer and author of Scripture and Memory--the Ecumenical Hermeneutic of the Three-Year Lectionary (The Liturgical Press, 1997).


Reformed Worship 77 © September 2005, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.