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Fr. Richard Johnson

LITURGY NOTES: THE LITURGICAL LESSONS (PART 1)

“On the Lord’s Day, all who live in city or countryside assemble. The memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read for as long as time allows.” So wrote Justin Martyr in the middle of the second century. For as long as Christians have worshiped, reading the Scriptures has been one of the most important parts of the Sunday liturgy.


The early church took over this practice from the Jewish synagogue, where it was customary to read two lessons, one from the “Law” (the five books of Moses) and another from the “Prophets” (the rest of the Hebrew Bible). We get just a hint of this in Luke 4, where Jesus goes to the synagogue and “the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him.” He read it and then explained it to his hearers.


The earliest Christians continued this practice; then, as Paul’s letters began to circulate among the churches, portions of these “Epistles” were added. Still later, a reading from the Gospels became a regular part of the liturgy. We don’t know exactly when the pattern of three lessons was adopted, but we know that it was very early in the church’s life.

In medieval times, the Old Testament lesson fell away, but in the 20th century, due to a more serious commitment to expose congregation to the whole Word of God, the entire three-fold set of lessons became standard again in Episcopal, Roman Catholic, Lutheran and some other churches.

The Scripture lessons are really the central focus of the first half of the service. Through them, God addresses us. Some Sundays it seems as if the three appointed lessons fit very nicely together, with a common theme; other Sundays, the three lessons seem to have little in common. But any of the three lessons may be precisely the point where God speaks to us on a given Sunday, so it is important that we attend to all three.

The first lesson is usually from the Old Testament, connecting the Christian church to the covenant God made with Israel. In the Book of Common Prayer, there are two “tracks” for the first lesson. In one of them, the one we are presently using at Emmanuel, the first lesson moves sequentially through the Old Testament. In the other, the Old Testament lesson is chosen because it has some connection with the day’s Gospel lesson. In the Easter season, the first lesson comes from the Acts, a book which tells the story of the young church and represents the continuity between the old covenant and the new.

The second lesson is often called the “Epistle,” though it isn’t always technically from a letter; it may come from any New Testament book other than one of the Gospels. Usually it comes from one of the epistles of St. Paul, St. Peter, or St. John.

The third lesson, and the climax of this portion of the service, is always the Gospel. In this reading we hear the words of our Lord (or an account of his life and teaching). The church has always treated this reading with special respect in worship. This is not because the Gospels are “more important” than the rest of the Bible; the entire Scripture speaks God’s Word to us. But when are hearing the Gospel, we are especially aware of the good news God has given us in Jesus Christ.

Over the years, some customs arose to symbolize the uniqueness of the Gospel lesson—a procession (in some churches with candles and incense); people standing for the reading; the lesson itself being read by a deacon or priest. Next time we’ll look at some of these special practices and consider what they mean.