The church calendar creates challenges for those who would create lectionaries, for Sundays and even more for daily use. This post will explore and explain some of the more significant issues lectionary authors must grapple with. In a subsequent post, we will look at how the ACNA Daily Lectionary addresses (or fails to address) these challenges.
The most obvious challenge in constructing a lectionary that follows the church year is the variable date of Easter.¹ It can fall anywhere between 22 March and 25 April.² The date of Easter determines the dates of everything from Ash Wednesday — or actually, the last Sunday of Epiphany — to Trinity Sunday. This large sliding block of dates which comprise the seasons of Lent and Easter creates five weeks at the end of Epiphany and five weeks at the beginning of Pentecost which may or may not be read in any given year.
The common practice regarding these 10 weeks is to treat them as distinct and always occurring. This creates a problem since the effect is to make the year seem 57 weeks long when planning the readings. In any given year, therefore, an entire month of readings are omitted by the Lent-Trinity block. The readings at the end of Epiphany and beginning of Ordinary Time3 are rarely read. In my analysis of the next 30 years, the 8th Sunday of Epiphany is never read, and Proper 3 is read only once.
There is a way to fix this. Only 4 weeks of readings could be given starting with the first Sunday after Epiphany. (These could be tied to the themes of Epiphany if desired.) Then, beginning with the 5th Sunday after Epiphany, we could begin a cycle of readings that would be contiguous with Ordinary Time. We would switch to the Lent/Easter readings whenever they occur, and then resume with the rest of the readings after Trinity Sunday. In this method, a week of readings could occur either at the later stages of Epiphany or the early weeks of Ordinary Time, but none would be omitted.
Advent 4 and Christmas
The minor penitential season of Advent creates a similar, though smaller problem. Advent begins 4 Sundays before Christmas, but Christmas is always on 25 December, so the days of the week of 4 Advent are often truncated. (This year 2016 is an exception. Since Christmas is on a Sunday, we have all of 4 Advent, but this only occurs every 6 years.4) Christmas can fall on any date from the Monday after 4 Advent (making 4 Advent fall on Christmas Eve) to the following Sunday.
Similarly, though 6 January begins the season of Epiphany, it does not always fall on a Sunday. Because Epiphany is tied to a date while the First Sunday in Epiphany is tied to a Sunday, the days after Epiphany are also often omitted.
Finally, the third major problem for lectionaries are all the other observances throughout the church year which are tied to particular dates. All Saints’ Day, as well as all of the saints’ days, are tied to dates on the calendar and not to a particular Sunday. Besides this is the decision of which to include and which to exclude. A lectionary could be nothing but readings commemorating various saints and historical figures in the church, but that would destroy the flow of the church year.
These issues must all be kept in mind by those wishing to craft a lectionary. Even leap years throw a small knot in creating a daily lectionary. Having a multi-year lectionary (such as most Sunday lectionaries) makes the analysis of how often some texts are actually read that much more complicated, since not only do we have the shifts mentioned above, but the 3-year cycle to consider as well, making the omitted weeks even more obscure.
¹ If you want to know how the date of Easter is determined, this is a good article.
² This Wikipedia article gives a good overview of the dates of Easter.
3 Ordinary time is not “plain” but ordered, and is referred to by the number of the “proper”. For example, Proper 10 is the appointed readings for the Sunday closest to 13 July. Propers are typically numbered as the Sunday after Pentecost or the Sunday after Trinity, and because those dates change, a given proper will fall on a different Sunday each year.
4 It’s every 6 years, not 7 because of leap years.