By Samuel Bray
Anglicans have always read the Hebrew Bible in public worship. As Wesley Hill recently pointed out in this space, that reading of the Old Testament has been insistently theological. The Psalms and Lessons are framed and interpreted by the Gloria Patri and the Canticles. But there have been changes in how the Old Testament appears in Anglican public worship. One is quantity.
On the First Sunday in Advent in 1718, a typical parishioner would have attended Morning Prayer, Litany, and Antecommunion (i.e., the Holy Communion service through the Gospel). That parishioner would have heard 98 verses from the Old Testament: 50 from the Psalms, 31 verses from Isaiah, and 17 verses from Exodus. Some parishioners would also have attended Evening Prayer on that First Sunday in Advent, hearing another 62 verses from the Old Testament (40 from Psalms, 22 from Isaiah), making a total of 160 Old Testament verses.
In 2018, a typical parishioner in the Episcopal Church attends church once, for a service of Holy Communion. On the First Sunday in Advent, this typical parishioner heard 12 verses from the Old Testament — nine verses from the Psalms and three verses from Jeremiah. Nor is the picture different in the Anglican Church in North America: 13 verses from the Old Testament — six verses from the Psalms and seven verses from Zechariah. (There is a longer Psalm option, though.)
There has been an 85 percent reduction in the quantity of reading from the Old Testament just on this one Sunday morning. That can be traced, in part, to a trend in how 20th-century American lectionaries — 1928, 1943, and 1979 — dramatically reduced the reading of the Old Testament for Morning and Evening Prayer on Sundays. It can also be traced to the shift and contraction of Anglican Sunday worship from Morning Prayer, Litany, Antecommunion, and Evening Prayer to a single service of Holy Communion.
When Anglicans read a lot of the Old Testament in public worship, what exactly were they reading? Part of the answer is Psalms — lots of them. In the Church of England the Venite (Ps. 95) was read full strength. And on both sides of the Atlantic the Decalogue was read. (Before the 1928 book, American prayer books required the Decalogue to be said at least every Sunday.)
Yet there is another part of the answer: the disappearance of the Sunday First Lessons. Beginning with the prayer book of Elizabeth I (1559), the Book of Common Prayer included a table called (to use the 1662 name) “Proper Lessons to Be Read at Morning and Evening Prayer, on the Sundays Throughout the Year.”
These Sunday First Lessons had a definite logic. It was not the logic of the Epistles and Gospels at Holy Communion — those had been formed through centuries of Western Christian tradition, inhabited the seasons, and were tied to each other and often to the Collect of the Day. Nor was it the logic of the Daily Office, for which Cranmer had prescribed readings in course through nearly the entirety of the Holy Scriptures and large swathes of the deuterocanonical books.
What was the logic of these Sunday First Lessons? The starting point is to see the reliance on canonical order. With two important exceptions — Isaiah and Proverbs — the Sunday First Lessons proceed in the order of the English Bible, going from Genesis through Habakkuk.
That general commitment to canonical order meant that for the long arc of biblical narrative the readings are sequential. Thus, beginning on Septuagesima, the readings move from the creation of the world all the way to the exile to Babylon, winding through selections from Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. These selections are presented together as a single story — the very kind of theological shaping that is implicit in the genealogies of Matthew and Luke and in the ordering of the canon (even in its different variations).
But what about the departures from the received canonical order, Isaiah and Proverbs? Here it is useful to remember Hill’s point about the interpretive framing of the Old Testament in Anglican worship. How are Christians to read this Eden-to-Babylon narrative? That is where the introduction and conclusion come in.
The introduction to the Sunday First Lessons was Isaiah, often called the Fifth Gospel. All through Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany the First Lessons are from Isaiah. Twenty-four chapters of Isaiah are read in all (and 25 if one adds the proper First Lesson for Morning Prayer on Whitsunday). Reading Isaiah as the introduction to the Old Testament encourages the reader to approach the text Christologically. Having read Isaiah, we would have ears to hear if we were to find ourselves on a road near Emmaus as an apparent stranger was “beginning with Moses” and interpreting “all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).
And the conclusion? After reading through the history of Israel, and reading 15 chapters from the prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Joel, Micah, and Habakkuk, what follows in the Sunday First Lessons is very surprising to a contemporary reader. The conclusion to the annual course is 11 chapters from the Proverbs. One might surmise again a Christological implication, with Christ as divine wisdom. But that theme is not emphasized by the selections (e.g., Proverbs 8 is not read). There is a better explanation for the sapiential conclusion to the narrative sequence, and it ties in with the Christological introduction.
The key to understanding the Sunday First Lessons is law, and specifically the three uses of the law. That is, the law can reveal to us our inability to keep God’s commandments, driving us to Christ (the pedagogical use); it can restrain evil in the life of a polity (the civil use); and it can guide the believer in what it means to love God and neighbor (the moral use). The civil use may be found in Deuteronomy and the readings about the kings of Judah and Israel, but it is the first and third uses that predominate in the Sunday First Lessons. When one has in mind the uses of the law, everything falls into place.
Isaiah tells the reader to look for Christ, so when the stories of sin and judgment come — as they do over and over in the Pentateuch, the stories of the kings, and the exile — we will see our condition, and run to Jesus. Lord, have mercy upon us.
But these stories of sin and judgment are also supposed to work on our moral imagination, to guide and form our intention for obedience. For that purpose, the pithy axioms found in Proverbs are invaluable. When placed at the end of the entire year’s reading, the Proverbs reveal and sum up wisdom from the narratives. Incline our hearts to keep this law. And the sequence is exactly right: we move from the first use of the law to the third, from justification to sanctification.
In between Isaiah and Proverbs, we see how God chastises and corrects his covenant people, and we thus learn how God deals with us as individuals. This point was made by John Keble in his analysis of the Sunday First Lessons:
The selection may be accounted for on this supposition, viz. That the arrangers desired to exhibit God’s former dealings with His chosen people collectively, and the return made by them to God, in such manner as might best illustrate His dealings with each individual, chosen now to be in His Church, and the snares and temptations most apt to beset us as Christians.
With exquisite skill, Keble works through the entire year of Sunday First Lessons. He concludes that his sketch
may serve to point out the thread of warning, which, it is conceived, runs through the Sunday Lessons, and renders it very improper to deal with them as if they had been taken at random, or might fitly be changed at will, for others supposed in themselves more edifying.
This, then, is the logic of the Sunday First Lessons. They present the story of Israel from creation to exile, but they also, by carefully framing the Old Testament narrative with Isaiah and Proverbs, guide us in how to read that story. We look for Christ (Luke 24). And we also, as in a mirror, look at ourselves, with a warning to be “the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts” (James 1:25).
Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.
Now the reader may have a nagging doubt. This is how the Sunday First Lessons once worked, but can they still work this way today? Is the logic of the Sunday First Lessons compatible with prayer books from the 20th and 21st centuries?
Yes. All one has to do is allow the series of Old Testament Lessons to have its logic. The Epistles and Gospels have their logic, and are tightly connected with each other and sometimes with the Collect. Or, in a service of Morning or Evening Prayer, a seasonal proper for the Second Lesson will have its logic. Or, if a New Testament book is being read through in course for an expository series, those readings will have their logic.
Each of those can be complemented well by the Sunday First Lessons. Consider, for example, whether the Sunday First Lessons would pair well with the Epistle and Gospel in a contemporary service of Holy Communion. The answer is yes, and without regard to whether the Epistle and Gospel come from the traditional Book of Common Prayer eucharistic lectionary or the Revised Common Lectionary. Either way, a congregation formed throughout the year by Israel’s story will be better able to grasp, Sunday after Sunday, the allusions and echoes in the Epistle and Gospel. It’s Richard Hays meets Thomas Cranmer.
Moreover, the Sunday First Lessons better fit ancient Christian tradition than other schedules of Old Testament Lessons do. There is a very long history of Christian reading of Isaiah in Advent and Genesis in the Sundays preceding Lent (Septuagesima, Sexagesima, Quinquagesima). And the logic is sound: Isaiah prepares us for the birth of the Savior at Christmas, and the failures of Adam and the patriarchs prepare us for the mortification of Lent. Neither one of these ancient Christian patterns is consistently followed in other lectionaries, including the lectionary printed in the 1928 prayer book (i.e., the 1943) and the Revised Common Lectionary. In those lectionaries there is some Isaiah in Advent and some Genesis before Lent, but without consistency.
What would be required for a congregation to try the Sunday First Lessons, assuming there was ecclesiastical permission to do so? It might involve adding Morning Prayer before Holy Communion. Or the Sunday First Lesson could be used instead of the Old Testament Lesson at Holy Communion in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer or ACNA’s 2019 Book of Common Prayer.
For any congregation that used the Sunday First Lessons, one difference would be immediately detected. The readings are longer. Yet this length is often accompanied by greater understanding, because the longer reading is more coherent and sensible as a unit. That, at least, has been my experience at Christ Church in South Bend, which has been using the Sunday First Lessons from the Book of Common Prayer (1662). The chapters chosen for the Sunday First Lessons are often rhetorical masterpieces, the kind that cannot be successfully peeled and diced into smaller units, such as Genesis 3, Daniel 4, and Ezekiel 18. These chapters are far more coherent when read whole (contrast, e.g., Genesis 3 in the Sunday First Lessons with Genesis 3:8-15 in the RCL).
Anglicans like to think we read a lot of the Old Testament in our public worship services. The reality is that we read a lot less than we used to. We have forgotten that for centuries Anglicans used to read far more, and we’ve forgotten which parts were read, and why. William Wilberforce, the renowned abolitionist and evangelical Anglican, once called the 1662 Book of Common Prayer
justly inestimable, as setting before us a faithful model of the Christian’s belief, and practice, and language … [and] daily shaming us, by preserving a living representation of the opinions and habits of better times, like some historical record which reproaches a degenerate posterity, by exhibiting the worthier deeds of their progenitors.
Wouldn’t it be nice if he were wrong?
Samuel L. Bray is a professor of law at Notre Dame Law School in South Bend, Indiana. He is also a coauthor, with John F. Hobbins, of Genesis 1-11: A New Old Translation for Readers, Scholars, and Translators (2017).