Papyrus scroll of the Prophecy of Isaiah
dating from about 600 bc.
Its content is identical to that in our Bibles today.
Many people have at some time come away from a service asking, why was that passage of the Bible read today? Who on earth chose it?
In each service, we generally have three Bible readings: one from the Old Testament, one from the New Testament letters (the ‘epistles’), and one from the Gospels. (Some other churches have a fourth reading, from the psalms.)
These three readings follow this particular order because (a) this way, they occur in increasing order of importance, but also (b) it reflects the order in which these parts of the Bible were first written.
The actual choice of the readings comes from the Lectionary. The word itself comes from a Latin word, meaning ‘to read’. There have always been lectionaries: the lectionary we use dates from 1994, when a group of scholars from all the major Christian denominations were appointed to compile a list of readings to be used during church services.
The lectionary runs in a three-year cycle. In the first year (Year A), the gospel readings for the Sunday Eucharist all come from Matthew, those in the second year (Year B) from Mark’s Gospel, and in the third year (or Year C), they come from Luke. We read portions of John’s Gospel throughout the Easter season, and liturgical seasons such as Advent, Christmastide, and Lent, where appropriate.
By using the lectionary in this way, all the Gospels and all the epistles will have been covered at least once during an entire cycle. About a third of the Old Testament will also have been covered. Anyone who attends Morning Prayer each day over three consecutive years will have heard the entire Old Testament.
Sometimes the lectionary readings are themed, which means they are similar. By means of these similarities, the Bible readings interpret one another: each represents one component part of a topic, but only when read together do the jigsaw pieces come together to form a larger picture. At other times, the readings aren’t compiled thematically, although placing the readings one after another can still shed light on the wider picture of how God works in the world and in our lives.