Most Baptist churches don’t follow the lectionary. Actually, most of us low-church Protestants don’t even know what it is. But I do, the last two churches I’ve attended have used it, and I’m a particularly big fan. This shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows how important community is to me at both the personal and theoretical levels–the idea of reading the same passage of Scripture that church communities all across the globe are reading on a particular Sunday warms my heart.
But the lectionary is more than just a schedule of readings that churches can choose to follow. It’s an intentional crafting of a journey through the life and ministry of Christ to the life and ministry of the church. It leads us through seasons feasting and fasting, seasons of mourning, preparation, and confession to seasons of celebration and Alleluias.
Depending on your tradition, you may not know that we’re just past the half-way point of Lent this year, and a short two weeks from now, Holy Week starts with Palm Sunday. The lectionary gospel reading for today, the fourth Sunday of Lent, was from John 9, the story of the man born blind but healed by Jesus–on the Sabbath–by a mixture of spit and dirt. Pretty strange stuff.
When I hear the lectionary passages read at church, or when we read them at home, I often ask myself, Why today? Why are we reading this right now? How does this fit in with the big picture of Scripture? (You might call this the metanarrative or myth, if you’re an academic.)
Well, I was reading back over my ‘creative research paper’ on Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence again (the essay I mentioned here), and I discovered that three years ago I was writing about this very thing–why we read the particular passages we do during Lent. So I’m offering up another excerpt from that paper as a Sabbath meditation this week. It’s not directly about community but I do think it still counts. (Warning: As an excerpt, this seems to end a little abruptly because the next section moves into a discussion of Palm Sunday and Holy Week.)
I am he, the one speaking with you. [ John 9:37]
Ask someone to tell you about Lent, and you will mostly hear about “giving something up.” All throughout the year, in fact, you might hear someone mention that she “gave that up for Lent.” But the phrase is a bit nebulous and most couldn’t tell you why they do it—except the perceptive few who might guess at the biblical significance of forty days.
So what does it mean to fast during Lent? What are individuals called to do? What is the purpose of fasting? In the early seventh century, Pope Gregory I described Lent as “the spiritual tithing of the year” (Weiser 43). Fasting is about revelation. On Sundays during Lent, we break our fast to set apart the day as a feast day within the season of fasting. The church remains gray with swatches of royal purple to remind us of Christ’s bruised body and the mood remains somber. But the day is still set apart, marking the Day we know will be coming. Christ will indeed rise, even if we worship without the Alleluia in our liturgy.
And on those days of fast-breaking, what is revealed to us? The very nature of God. Each Sunday of Lent, the lectionary readings reveal to us something about the divine. The first Sunday, of course, we have Jesus’ temptation in the desert. The Catholic lectionary brings the Transfiguration to Lent on the second Sunday, while Protestants tell the story of Nicodemus. In the latter, we see Christ getting caught revealing himself to someone he shouldn’t be, and it’s only a prequel to his actions during the next two weeks. Consider the Samaritan woman at the well, whose story comes on the third Sunday. Then we have the man born blind so that the glory of the Lord can be revealed. Finally, we have Lazarus—dead and then not dead—and Jesus weeping. What does the face of God look like? The lectionary gives it to us in glimpses we must snap together like Legos….
We don’t read the Sermon on the Mount or Christ’s parables in worship during Lent because our focus is not on Christ the teacher. We hardly hear of his disciples at all. Mostly we read of Jesus’ revealing himself to normal people, of his behaving badly, of his doing the unexpected and offensive along with the compassionate and quietly wise. We remember Jesus, in his thirst, speaking into the heart of a disreputable Samaritan woman. We remember the spit-mud smeared on the blind man’s eyes. We hear his weeping over the death of Lazarus. And we know that he, the man from Galilee, was “sunken and utterly exhausted.”*
* Sidenote: “sunken and utterly exhausted” is a quote from Endo; it is how his main character describes the face of Christ when it is actually revealed to him late in the novel. Throughout the novel, Sebastian spends time conjuring up a beautiful Christ, one who is not suffering but radiant. It is not until after Sebastian’s imprisonment and torture, he is able to see Christ, and he is disgusted at the way this Christ looks. (This phrase, “sunken and utterly exhausted,” was also part of the title of my paper.)