There’s a saying among preachers: “Two cheers for the lectionary.”
The Revised Common Lectionary keeps us rooted in the ongoing and unfolding narrative of the liturgical year, provides a wide choice of texts from which to preach, and unites Protestants across denominational lines. In short, it moves us towards becoming a more fully catholic Church. Some proponents of sermon series or the “Narrative Lectionary” dismiss this achievement as yearning for a long-lost “Christendom,” but we should not be so quick to dismiss the lectionary’s major accomplishments. Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, and even a few Baptists reading and preaching on the same texts? Deo gratias!
While the RCL is certainly the work of the Holy Spirit guiding the Church, it is nevertheless mediated through human hands. It is not perfect. Sometimes preachers are left wondering what the committee was thinking some three decades ago; why place these texts together? Or why is the story unfolding this way?
In Year B, we face just such a question. Following Christmastide and the Baptism of Our Lord, we plunge into the early days of Christ’s ministry. We read about the call to the earliest disciples, early healings, and our Lord’s first teachings. From a narrative and liturgical perspective, the story flows quite well.
Because Easter and related observances are determined by the relationship between Sundays, the equinox, and lunar cycles, they “float” in the calendar, some years falling early or late in the Spring. As a result, the Season after Epiphany is shorter or longer in any given year. On the whole, that makes sense, and the RCL can still tell a steady narrative for a month or so.
But in Year B, we get an odd quirk.
As previously discussed, the RCL places the Transfiguration text on the last Sunday after Epiphany. The following Sunday, the first in Lent, focuses on the Temptation of Christ. Because the loosely-interpreted forty day duration of Lent is based partially on this text, the pericope makes sense — but because Saint Mark tells such a consolidated version, the text appears to center primarily around Christ’s Baptism: only two verses mention the Temptation. Instead, we are dropped back into the story back where we were in early January.
The RCL moves to Mark 8¹:the Son of Man must suffer.
The Lenten texts then move around quite a bit, visiting a few parts of John before the Triumphal entry.
From a narrative standpoint, then, the transition from Epiphanytide to Lent is a mess. Certainly, the Lenten texts are naturally more thematic than narrative because they’re drawn largely from the Gospel according to St. John, but the first few Sundays jump from place to place in Mark, coming within a hair’s breadth of a coherent plot. Including the readings from the Season after Epiphany, the structure goes:
Early Ministry→Transfiguration→Baptism; Temptation→Son of Man Must Suffer; Christ Rebukes Peter
But is there a better way to make the transition? Might we better preserve the narrative flow in Year B while maintaining the overall structure of the liturgical year?
Here, then, is a proposal for future revisions to the Revised Common Lectionary:
- The Penultimate Sunday² after Epiphany: Mark 8:27-9:1 — Peter Confesses Christ; The Son of Man Must Suffer
- The Last Sunday after Epiphany: Mark 9:2-9 — The Transfiguration
- The First Sunday in Lent: Matthew 4:1-11 — The Temptation of Christ
- The Second Sunday in Lent: Mark 9:30-35 — The Son of Man is to be Betrayed; Becoming a Servant of All
To my mind, such a revision to the Revised Common Lectionary would preserve some narrative flow and pull in older traditions. The new structure would flow this way:
Early Ministry→Peter Confesses Christ; Son of Man Must Suffer; Christ Rebukes Peter→Six Days Later, Transfiguration→Temptation→Son of Man is to Be Betrayed
In placing Peter’s Confession and the Lent 2 text before the Transfiguration, such an order sets up the events of the story (explaining St. Mark 9:2 — “six days later”) while also hearkening back to the pre-Lenten Sundays formerly known as Septua-, Sexa-, and Quinquagessima, times in which Christians began the work of preparing for Lent.³ More than that, it allows for the full tension between Peter’s confession and immediate denial to play out. Matthew 4 dates back to the earlier single-year lectionary cycle and gives the preacher more to focus than Mark’s two verses. (I would wager that many preachers who take up Christ’s temptation in Year B inevitably end up preaching on Matthew or Luke anyway.) Finally, the Mark 9 text maintains some of the same focus found in Mark 8, keeping the emphasis of Lent 2 on the impending Passion but also preserves narrative flow before the rest of Lent turns towards John’s thematic approach.
- An odd quirk attributed in some places to Scandinavian Lutheran tradition allows for an optional reading of the Transfiguration text instead.
- In this proposed structure, the last two Sundays after Epiphany would remain fixed without regard to the length of Epiphanytide, as compared to the current schema in which only the final Sunday remains the same.
- Carnival and Mardi Gras are, despite the excess of some locations, wonderful traditions of anti-structure and on-going feasts, but it is also supposed to be a transitional season. As you finish off the meat, alcohol, dessert, etc., you’re giving up for Lent, things should grow more somber. Thus, Shrovetide — a few weeks of “shriving” in the midst of the feasting.
Update: A friend asked what we should do with the Markan temptation. Reflecting on it, I would change the readings for the Baptism of Our Lord, removing the description of John the Baptist (Mk 1:4-6; after all, we read these just a month earlier in Advent) and add on the verses about the Temptation and first days of Christ’s ministry (1:12-15). In doing so, the revision to the lectionary would root the Baptism in the context of Christ’s proclamation and foreshadow the coming Lenten season. Epiphany 1 and Lent 1 would share similar themes and encourage the Church to look ever forward.