About thirty adults were discussing their experiences of Lent at a recent Sunday school session at an American Baptist congregation where I am a member. As we reflected together on our understanding of the season, we paused for a moment and asked how many of us had practiced Lent when we were growing up. Only two people in the group raised their hands, and they were both women who had grown up Catholic.
It was a vivid reminder of the ecumenical divide that continued to shape many of our experiences as Christians growing up in the United States. Although the ages in the group ranged from the early thirties into the eighties, our experiences were similar: we had grown up alienated from the season of Lent because “that was what the Catholics did.”
So what brought about the change? The release of the Lectionary for the Mass in 1969 from Vatican II, the Protestant-shaped, ecumenical Common Lectionary in 1983, and, later, the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) in 1992, had a big part in the revival of liturgical seasons for many free churches in the United States. Excited about the breadth of scripture available in the RCL as well as the vast amount of resources for preaching, Sunday school, and worship, more and more congregations and denominations adopted the use of the lectionary for use in worship. As a result, and rather inadvertently, churches that had not followed the Christian Year—with its seasons of Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Ordinary time—began to find these ancient seasons emerging in our worship lives. Gradually, language and ritual experiences (like the imposition of ashes on our foreheads) that had seemed too Catholic only a decade before, had started to become, once again, catholic: available to the whole people of God.
This has really been a sweeping and dramatic change for many churches—and it is one that may go a little too unnoticed. The revival of the Christian Year has been almost a by-product of free-churches adoption of the RCL, because one of the guiding influences in the selection of texts for each Sunday morning was to pair the readings with the liturgical season. So, for instance, we have a lot of apocalyptic and second-coming texts in the season of Advent as we anticipate not the birth of the baby Jesus so much as the coming of Christ in this season. Or, in one year of the lectionary, we have texts that center around images of water throughout the season of Lent, traditionally the season of preparation for Baptism. How much are our congregations aware of these themes as they bubble up into worship each week? How much are our pastors, who preach from texts selected from the RCL, aware of these themes?
The students at ABSW are broadly ecumenical—African Methodist Episcopal, Christian Methodist Episcopal, Christian Methodist Episcopal Zion, Church of God in Christ, Free Methodist, American Baptist, Southern Baptist, Presbyterian, nondenominational and more! Some of these churches use the RCL in worship and some do not. Every year in our Middler Colloquium we spend some time talking about the formation of the RCL and its relationship to the Christian Year. We do not do this in order to press for the use of the RCL in all churches. Instead, we talk about the lectionary in order to encourage all congregations to be intentional about how scripture is used in worship. And, for those congregations that do follow the lectionary, to be as informed as possible about what went into shaping that lectionary and how it is related intimately to the Christian Year.
If this piques your interest, let me recommend a couple resources for you to find out more about the Revised Common Lectionary and the Christian Year. If you’ve never encountered the RCL, I invite you to look at the website for the Consultation on Common Texts, the folks behind the RCL. While you’re on that site, be sure to visit the Daily Readings section—a fabulous resource to help our congregations become more intentional about encouraging common, daily Bible reading. If you’re interested in some of the great resources available to congregations who use the RCL, be sure to check out The Text This Week. Also, The African American Lectionary Project is an online resource that overlays the Christian Year with the Black Church Year in beautiful ways, offering scripture, worship aids, cultural history, and exegetical reflections for each Sunday. (Note: This site automatically plays music on entry.)
If you want to find out more about the Christian Year, I recommend the book The New Handbook of the Christian Year by Hoyt Hickman, Don Saliers, Laurence Stookey, and James White, as a good introduction. For a more scholarly look into the hermeneutics that shaped the RCL, be sure to check out Fritz West’s book, Scripture and Memory: The Ecumenical Hermeneutic of the Three Year Lectionaries.
Finally, if you don’t already, consider providing educational opportunities for your congregation to explore the Revised Common Lectionary and the meanings of liturgical seasons. These can be done in Sunday schools, as occasional, educational “Worship Moments” on Sunday mornings, and/or as occasional articles in your church newsletter.
I invite you to leave a comment here to let us know what things you are already doing to educate your congregation about these things. Tell us your story about when you first started to observe the season of Lent. Or, whether or not you follow the RCL, share with us here the ways you place scripture at the center of your church’s worship experiences.
Jennifer W. Davidson
Assistant Professor of Worship & Director of Chapel
American Baptist Seminary of the West