New Lectionary

Parish Diary

Peter J. Daly

April 15, 1999



            We have been using the new lectionary, for about six months now.  Since the first week of Advent.  Considering how long we waited for its publication, I expected more of an impact.   So far it has been greeted a yawn.

 I think this is a mark of  a modest "success" in liturgical change. 

Years ago, C. S. Lewis criticized the members of his Anglican church whom he called the "liturgical fidgets".  They were always changing everything.  He noted that liturgy works best when "through long familiarity, we don't have to think about it."  He compared it to ballroom dancing.  If you have to count the steps, (i.e. think about dancing), you are not really dancing.  In liturgy, if you are constantly doing new things, and therefore have to "count the steps" you are not really praying.  The basic idea of liturgy is a ritual that by long repetition develops in us what Lewis called the habito dell'arte. 

But he also noted that there is no such thing as "timeless" English and that the words of scriptural translations and prayers should change with the culture.  However, the change should be gradual, replacing an obsolete word here and an outworn style there, when necessary.

            So I guess, by this standard, the new lectionary is a modest success.  Nothing too jarring.

            Some things I like. I like its replacement of some phrases like "sons of God" with the more inclusive "children of God" is better accepted by the modern ear.

            Some things about the new lectionary, however, don't make any sense to me.

For instance, the style they use in the introduction of the readings is not consistent.   Why does it use the word "saint" in the introductions to the second reading.  We used to say simply a "reading from Paul's letter to the Romans."  Now we say "a reading from the letter of Saint Paul's letter to the Romans."  Don't we already know that it is Saint Paul, not Pope Paul or Paul Jones?

If they are going to adopt this style for one introduction, why don' they keep it for the gospel?   In introducing the Gospel, we drop the "Saint" title and say simply a "reading from the holy gospel according to Mark."   How come we have to tell the congregation the writer is a "saint" for the second reading and don't mention it for the gospel?   Seems to me the old way was simpler and more consistent. 

Sometimes the new translation is actually more obscure.  

For instance the second week after Easter,  we have become used to hearing that the name Thomas means twin.  The new translation goes back and uses the Greek, "Didymus" again.  If the idea was to make the translation more intelligible and if we have come to be used to the English word  "twin",  why would we change back to a more obscure  Greek word  that nobody in the congregation understands?

Some changes were made for no particular reason.  For example,  in Matthew's passion when Judas says, "Surely it is not I, Rabbi."  Jesus used to say, "It is you who have said it."  Now Jesus says, "You have said so."  Is the change really worth it.

Other examples come to mind.  Why, change Jacob's "well" to a "cistern" in the story of  the  Samaritan woman?  Do we now have to change the hymn to "Jesus met the woman at the cistern?"

Oh well, (or is it oh cistern), I suppose that anyone could "nit-pick" about a translation.  There don't seem to be any huge problems.  It just doesn't seem to have been worth the effort.

The only thing we can say for sure about the new lectionary, it has certainly been a great boon to the publishers and sellers of expensive liturgical books.  Consider that 20,000 Catholic churches and chapels in the U.S. have had to replace every single lectionary and book of the gospels. 

As they say in Virginia, "That's a long way to go for a short drink of water."