While working on the Letter to the Hebrews, I came across a fascinating theory that the Epistle began life as a synagogue sermon for the ninth day of the month of Av. I won’t go into the details of it, gripping though it is, except to mention that it depends in part upon the existence of something called the Palestinian Triennial Cycle (PTC). This is a set of readings appointed for use in Jewish synagogues and known to have been current in the second century AD.
Why is this of any interest to us? Because the PTC follows a strikingly similar pattern to the readings in the Roman Lectionary on Sundays: they would take a first reading from the Torah, the first five books of the Bible which together comprise the Law of Moses, and these were read through consecutively. Start at Genesis, go through to the end of Deuteronomy, and then round again, every three years. The second reading was taken from the Prophets and, crucially, these second readings were not consecutive, but were chosen to match up with the first reading in some way. For example, on 9th Ab, the first reading dealt with the incident of the golden calf from Exodus, during which Moses in his anger breaks the tablets of the covenant; the second reading comes from Jeremiah 31, dealing with the promise of a new covenant written not on stone tablets but on the hearts and minds of believers. The link is, I think, fairly obvious.
Now our own Christian lectionary works the same way, but in reverse, as it were. The third reading is the Gospel, and we read through these continuously, more or less – at least in Ordinary Time. And, like the PTC, we are on a three-yearly cycle: we read Matthew, then Mark, then Luke, then back to Matthew. What of John? The great set pieces from the first half of the Fourth Gospel are read on the Sundays in Lent, and the second half is read in Eastertide. You’ll also have noticed that in August we have been taking a break from Mark to read John’s account of the Feeding of the Five Thousand and the subsequent teaching of Christ on the Bread of Life. Mark is the shortest Gospel, and so perhaps needs supplementing.
Most importantly, the first readings are taken from the Old Testament and, like the second readings of the PTC, are not continuous but are chosen to match the Gospel. So last Sunday (at time of writing) the story of Elijah and the miraculous appearance of bread to sustain him on his journey to the holy mountain links quite nicely with Christ’s teaching on the bread of life.
My main point, however, is to note the similarity in the fundamental principle that underlies our lectionary and that of Jewish synagogues 2,000 years ago. It is not simply that there are similar stories, but that there is foreshadowing. For example, when the people of Israel in the wilderness broke faith with God and abandoned the covenant he had just made with them, Moses was able to negotiate a renewal of that covenant and made new stone tables. But Jeremiah reveals that this incident points beyond itself, to a time when God will ultimately remake his covenant with Israel in a higher way, a covenant marked by spiritual rather than material boundaries.
However, where there is similarity there is also difference: in the Jewish tradition, the first readings follow continuously the foundational documents of Judaism, stories establishing the promises God makes to Israel. Then the prophets look forward to
the ways in which the promises these documents contain will be brought to fruition in the fullness of time. For us Christians, the Gospels show precisely how the fullness of time dawned in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus narrated in the Gospels.
Our first readings certainly foreshadow this fulfilment in Christ, but what is highlighted by the matching of first reading and Gospel is precisely that the promises are now fulfilled in Christ, and that in Christ God has kept his promises is the most remarkable and surprising way. This surprising faithfulness of God is built into the structure of our Sunday readings, including also the second readings from the Epistles and Revelation, which we read through quite systematically on Sundays through the three-yearly cycle, and which explore precisely this theme of how in Christ God keeps the promises made to Israel.
There is more information on the lectionary at catholic-resources.org/Lectionary, and I heartily recommend taking a look.
Fr Richard J Ounsworth is a fellow at Blackfriars, Oxford University
This article first appeared in the September 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today
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