Liturgy: the Lessons
So far in the divine worship service the congregation has been the primary speakers, opening their lips in prayer and praise. At this point the congregation falls silent and our Lord himself speaks to us. We open our ears and hearts to his life giving words spoken through the Lessons.
We typically read three lessons in our worship (see page 67 in our Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary). The Old Testament lesson points to the coming of the Savior and the Epistle (Greek: ‘letter’) and Gospel lessons indicate its fulfillment in Christ. The Gospel reading always sets the theme for the day.
The readings for the whole year are organized in a calendar called a ‘lectionary.’ In general the Gospel readings from the first half of the church year give the steps in the development of our Lord’s life on earth. The second half presents a selection of his parables, miracles, and teachings that relate to the development of the Christian’s life of faith on earth.
Public worship from the days of the Jewish synagogue has provided some sort of musical interlude between the readings. In the synagogue this was a psalm sung between the readings. In the Christian church, this psalm was connected to an alleluia refrain (Hebrew: ‘praise the Lord’). It was called a ‘gradual’ because it was sung while the pastor stood on the step (Latin: ‘gradus’) below the altar. The Gradual is sung after the first lesson and the Alleluia after the second. The cantatas of J. S. Bach and other composers were written to be sung at this point in the service. In modern days this music is often dropped in order to fit into an hour-long worship limit. Likewise one of the three readings is today moved to be read at the time of the sermon instead of here.
The reading of the Gospel lesson is the liturgical summit of the first half of the service. The standing of the people in reverence and honor for its reading is one of the most ancient and universal ceremonies of the divine service.
Brief history of the lectionary practice
The lectionary practice developed first in the Jewish synagogues. Their services regularly had readings from the Law and the Prophets. Jesus launched his teaching career one such occasion by reading a few verses from the book of Isaiah and then explaining how it related to himself (Luke 4:16-21). St. Paul instructed the young pastor Timothy to continue this practice in the New Testament churches (1 Timothy 4:13).
In the first few centuries after Christ, worshipers read large pieces from the letters of the apostles and from the Gospels, “as long as time permits” according to Justin Martyr (from about A.D. 150). The three great festivals of the year—Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost—were the first to have definite lessons assigned to them, and eventually that practice spread throughout all the Sundays of the year.
Charlemagne (A.D. 800) largely firmed up the selections of readings, but minor differences in the lessons existed all the way up until Pope Pius V in 1570 prescribed a single order for the Roman church. This was a one-year cycle of lessons and contained only Gospel and Epistle readings. The Old Testament lesson was added back to the liturgy in the 1940s.
The practice of reading short paragraphs in the church service assumes that the people know the larger biblical stories and themes from reading them at home. That may not be the case. So beginning in the 1960s, other lectionaries were developed in the Christian church that contain more selections. Many of these lectionaries are arranged in three-year cycles to accommodate this larger number of readings.