A Case for the Historic Year

by David H. Petersen 

(This guest article was originally published in March of 2005)



It Begins at the Beginning


The Palm Sunday reading sounds a bit strange on the first of Advent. It is not an obvious reading. Its meaning and symbolism run deep. Right from the start the Historic Year asks something of its hearers. There is the obvious connection of entering a new Church Year and Our Lord entering into Jerusalem. But that is really not very profound. Church years as years are barely more significant in eternity than calendar years. The Church year is merely a repetition of the cycle of repentance, preparation, and celebration that is all of the Christian life on this side of glory. It is not so much the beginning of such a thing (thus the “entering”) that is significant as it is the actual repentance and celebration. The Historic year’s Advent seems counterintuitive. For our instinct would be to prepare for the Christmas story with readings of the historic events preceding and surrounding the Birth of Our Lord. That instinct is not completely out of sync with the Historic Year, it is simply that the Historic Year doesn’t think chronologically. It assumes you already know the end of the story, which is not the birth but the Ascension of Our Lord. It wants to teach you to view not just the year, but all things, in light of the death and resurrection of Our Lord. In the Historic Year, Advent serves to prepare us then not for the birth of Jesus, a past event, but for the end of all things. Thus it begins by speaking to us of the culmination of all things in the holiest of weeks with the entrance of Our Lord into Jerusalem to die.


Collects out of Context


Consider also the Collect for Advent 1. It prays:  “Stir up, we beseech Thee, Thy power, O Lord, and come, . . .” If this collect is pulled out of context and married to a new Gospel it changes the meaning. Consider, for instance, if this Collect was prayed beside a reading of Our Lord’s warning of the end times and His coming in wrath, as it is in all three years of the Lutheran Worship three year series. Do we really want to pray that Our Lord stir up the power of His wrath and come? Context is crucial.


Here is what is probably the greatest weaknesses of all the current three-year cycles. The only part that rotates is the readings. For Advent 1 the writers have come up with parallels from the Synoptics but still the Epistles and Old Testaments are different. The collects have to be made markedly generic so that they will match from year to year no matter what is read or, like unto the case of Advent 1, they simply do not match or even become inadvertently different prayers. Perhaps the readings are the most important thing. Whether they are or not, they are true. And as such they ought to be able to stand alongside of any other truth. But the readings are interpreted by the other Propers. Emphasis is given. Emphasis matters. It is wrong to preach the truth of Christ’s comfort and universal atonement and then qualify it with the truth about the sin against the Holy Spirit. Both are true, but side by side they create confusion and deny comfort to the hearers. Balancing such things, and finding the proper emphasis, is the task of the preacher and of lectionary committees. The idea that the readings in any given set of propers would be interchangeable is a markedly new idea.


If we really want things to “match” and seem reasonable in their seasonal emphases, so that people do not get confused by the rich depth of the liturgy or the subtleties of the Psalter or have to hear things more than once to understand all that was implied and meant, then we will need very simple and obvious collects, verses, and such for each set of readings. But mostly it seems that the committees and framers in charge of these things have been content thus far to stick with some modification and updating of the historic collects and intervenient chants while designing new reading schedules. That has not only often weakened the collects and chants or at least made them more mundane and drab, but it has at times, albeit unintentionally, changed the meanings of the collects and psalm verses. Even if almost no one pays any attention to these things, they still matter. Again, consider how different it hits us if we hear “repent” after a reading of Our Lord’s weeping over Jerusalem or the betrayal of Judas compared to the way it rings in us after the resurrection of Lazarus. Context matters.


The Proper Thing for Propers


All of the Propers ought to be given their due. They should be prayed, spoken, and heard with alert reverence. The relationship between the historic Propers can be subtle or even unknowable to mere mortals. But it can also be profound. They are rarely obvious at the first, second, or even third reading. And sometimes reading them in your study is no good at all. They have to be heard in the context of worship. It takes a lifetime to pray the liturgy in all its fullness. If the three-year cycles have this kind of depth as well, which I doubt, then it would take three lifetimes.


Palm Sunday Power in Advent


Consider again Advent 1 and the collect at hand. In the context of Advent 1 with the Palm Sunday Gospel the power we pray for Our Lord to stir up is not the power of might or wrath, but of grace. It is markedly different than earthly power and it is not angry. The Lord Jesus Christ enters into Jerusalem as the appointed sacrifice, lowly and humbly, but still in power. St. Chyrsostom notes that the whole scene betrays Our Lord’s gracious omniscience. He knows the donkey and the colt are there. He takes them without explanation. “The Lord has need of them” is no explanation. Imagine if you caught some stranger taking your car and he said, “The Lord has need of it.” You would hardly say, “Well, then, be on your way. Good enough for me.” The Lord Jesus takes what He needs because all things are His. In the same way, when He has need of a road, men pave His path with their garments and branches. His is a power far beyond that of Pilate or Caiaphas but it is known only in weakness. It serves a different purpose than earthly power.


The Lord enters into Jerusalem with both eyes open. He not only knows where the donkey and foal are, He also knows what is in store. It is not just that He goes anyway. It is why He goes. It is His will to rescue and redeem mankind by His suffering and dying. In death He will destroy death and Hell. In His self-sacrifice, He will break the prisoners out of Hell and tear down heaven’s fence. This is His exodus. It is the topic of conversation and joy in heaven. It is not a sad day. But it is a sober one. That is the power we desire Our Lord to stir up on Advent 1. That is the power in which we desire Him to come to us, and not in the power of wrath, might, or impregnation. The context of the prayer is defining.


That is point one. The historic lectionary has an internal strength and depth. There is more to the historic Propers than is first noticed. It has developed in the combined wisdom of the Church for over a thousand years. No single man or group of men, not even a single generation, can compete at this level. It is not fair to ask the three year lectionaries to provide us with this kind of insight and beauty.


Repetition is inevitable. It is. It is inevitable. There is going to be repetition.


Here is point two: repetition is good. The three-year cycles are also repetitive. The three year cycles repeat the collects and intervenient chants every year regardless of the lection, as already noted, and the lection repeats every three years. The three year cycle does not cover the entire canon. The historic year is also repetitious and only slightly more and it is as well more consistent in its repetition. In the historic year you have to sit through the exact same lesson once, or in the case of the Palm Sunday Gospel twice, in a mere twelve months.


The question is not how often is too often. Even the most impious among us would not dare to claim that he has exhausted all preaching possibilities from even a single Gospel. The question is: “What is being missed or neglected?” The boast of the three-year cycles is that the people hear more of God’s Word. The idea behind it is that the historic lectionary is missing too much of the Bible. Three year preachers expound more sacred texts. I don’t doubt that this is partially true, at least, in so far as three-year preachers expound sacred texts. But my question is: “How much is grasped,” or again, “What is being missed or neglected?”


Repetition for Catechesis


Lectionaries and catechisms serve similar purposes. There is more information in Luther’s Large Catechism than in his Small Catechism. But committing the Large Catechism to heart, word for word, is a bit daunting. What good would it do? Is that the best task for children? More is not necessarily better. We might also consider a lectionary to be a kind of children’s Bible. Some stories and texts are more appropriate for this than others.  Jephthah’s oath and execution of his daughter is God’s Word. But does it belong in a children’s Bible? More is not always better and choices always have to be made.


Our people suffer from a very low level of Biblical literacy. That is pretty well agreed upon in all quarters. The question then is what is Biblical literacy and how can the Lectionary serve to get us there? Basic Biblical literacy is better served by the Historic lectionary. It is stronger for this purpose than the three-year by its simplicity and repetition. It provides the key events and passages. It keeps it at a manageable level while still providing plenty of depth and nuance for the more mature (and for preachers who grow too easily bored.)


The Romance Argument (or is it the 4th Commandment?)


The Historic year, its texts and accompanying Propers have stood the test of time. This is how and what the Church has always taught her children. Its use ensures our people will receive a good foundation, no matter how infrequently they come or how poor their memory is. This is the combined wisdom of wiser men than us. That is not saying the Bible is ineffective in three-year cycles. The Bible is the Bible. It will do what God wants it to. But a three-year cycle does not aid catechesis as effectively as a yearly repetition. To put it to a cliché: the three year cycles claim quantity. The historic year claims quality.


Plagiarizing from Quality Sources


Point three: there are more and better resources for the historic lectionary. Luther and the Lutheran fathers preached on the historic year and texts. We have as many as eight Luther sermons in English for a single Sunday or feast. No Sunday has less than five Luther sermons. But some Sundays and feasts in the three-year cycles do not have anything by Luther. The same is true of the Lutheran fathers. It is true also of music. The Reformation era lists for the hymns of the day are all geared toward specific Gospels and days. We do not have three years’ worth of these hymns. It is a problem like unto the collects, a hymn written for a specific text has to serve a multitude of others. Bach, Schuetz, and other Lutheran composers wrote music and arrangements of the hymns of the day for specific Gospels. The best music for preludes, offertories, and even choral pieces are tied to the historic year. Certainly, for us, there are no more important resources outside of the Bible than these, and none of them really fit the three-year cycles.


There are also other sources helpful for the historic year that are not available for the new cycles. Two of the most significant are Pius Parsch’s Year of Grace and Fred Lindemann’s The Sermon and the Propers. They give both liturgical and exegetical notes for each Sunday and feast of the year. These are both quite rich and detailed, chock full of sermon illustrations from history and legend. There are also a number of modern resources through the internet and in journals like this one and Gottesdienst. One particularly helpful website is “Lectionary Central.” This Anglican site is dedicated to promoting the historical year. They have links displaying the Propers for every day. They also give links on each day to patristic and reformation sermons. It is more than Luther and the fathers. They also have links to Calvin, Wesley, and the Oxford movement, but it is also Luther and the fathers. It is very easy to use and even free.


I do not know about NPH, but CPH does not support the historic year, and this can be a problem. But if you are wanting bulletin inserts and the like for the historic year they can be found. Rev. Erich Fickel in Chesterton, Indiana has inserts already made that he will e-mail you for free. They mimic the publishing house products. As far as graphics go, who can take another picture of kids on swings, leavened bread by a wooden cup, or daisies anyway? Get a copy of a clip art CD from Higher Things for $50 (http://www.higherthing.org) whose graphics are Dürer quality. They reproduce beautifully and they will save you money in the long run. There are over 400 pictures on that CD based on the Gospels. They will do more to focus people on God’s grace and Biblical history than cornucopias and autumn leaves ever have. You do not even have to figure out the calendar or the readings for yourself. I will e-mail you a little file so that Outlook and your Palm software puts the days and the Gospel reading right on your computer screen or in your hand if asked. A little looking on the internet will find even more helps. So not only are there better, more plentiful, and cheaper resources available for preaching and worship planning in the historic lectionary, but there is also help to make the transition as painless as possible.


A Catholic Plea


Finally, the last charge one hears against the historic lectionary is one of ecumenism. Some people want us to use mostly the same Sunday readings as the Methodists or the ELCA or even Rome. (No one seems to be saying we should use the same readings, just mostly the same.) Others just want us to have the same Sunday readings as the rest of our synod, except, of course, for the movable feasts of LWML and Bring A Friend Sunday. I am not actually unsympathetic to either desire. But it is a stronger position for true ecumenism to have the same Sunday readings as the Church always has had, at least since the time of Luther. I don’t deny that this is somewhat romantic. I like the idea of being rooted in history. There is something profound about sitting in our churches on any given Sunday and hearing the same readings that Luther heard all his life, as did the last 20 popes, and Thomas Cranmer, as well as hosts of others before us inside and outside our reforming movement. That is more ecumenical than a near-correspondence with the ELCA and PCUSA. That is more ecumenical and more unifying then joining in with 5000 other churches in America in what they’ve been doing for the past 20 years.


The Adiaphora and Local Custom Clause


Still we should not be slavishly tied to one version of the historic year. The calendar and lectionary in TLH have weaknesses, so does the SELK. We are free to modify it to bring it into line with other traditions or simply because it seems wise to us. Minimally, we add Old Testament readings. There is also good precedent for celebrating the Baptism of Our Lord, or for reading the Annunciation Gospel on Advent 4, or for seeking out an entirely different Gospel for Thanksgiving other than the ten lepers. There are other places as well where local tradition, custom, or even new knowledge might advocate a slight change. We are not so romantic as to think that the lectionary fell from heaven or has not developed over time. Nor are we against its continued development. We do not bind men’s consciences on these things nor make these the marks of true unity. Let it vary in slight ways from place to place, as even the confessions endorse. Let men use it not out of compulsion but in freedom and for good, but let men use it.


Pulling out our Favorite Soapboxes


Even with all that, the charge might be brought that there are some significant and wonderful texts missing from the historic lectionary, such as a goodly number of the parables and prophecies of the Old Testament. True. But this, my friends, is why we hold midweek services in Advent and Lent. If that is not enough, they also work well for weddings and funerals. If you still can not find a place to preach on all of your favorite texts, even though I do not much care for it, there is plenty of precedence in Lutheranism for free texts in the non-festal half of the year, or best of all, you might simply use them as sermon illustrations.


All this comes down to one point: use the historic year. Over time your members will see the pattern. They will come to know that Advent 1 is Palm Sunday. They will learn to anticipate the Sundays and will be blessed by it in the way they now anticipate Luke 2 on Christmas Eve. Meanwhile you will be united with Luther and the Reformers, and have the best resources available for preaching and service planning. Join the resistance. Bring back the Gesimas!  §


Reverend Fr. David H. Petersen is pastor of Redeemer Evangelical Lutheran Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana.



FN Frank C. Senn. Christian Liturgy: Catholic and Evangelical.  Minn.: Fortress Press, 1997, p.188-192. Senn does not specifically date the first appearance of Matthew 21 in Advent. It is mentioned in a paragraph on p. 190. There he notes Advent’s development, including Matthew 21 in the period from 567-1200. He does not tell us which lectionary or year it appears in but footnotes a chart in F. Cabrol, “L’Advent liturgique,” Revue Benedictine 22 (1905), 484-95. Advent was the last part of the festive half of the Church year to develop. Senn’s sections relevant to our topic: 188-192; 342-6. It is all very well footnoted. Senn loves the Vatican II reforms, but he does not shy away from calling the lectionary revisions “revolutionary.” 657.


Luther D. Reed. The Lutheran Liturgy: A Study of the Common Service of the Lutheran Church in America.  Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1947. On pages 427-433 Reed describes the state of the lectionary at the time of the Reformation. On pages 433-5 he discusses something behind the formation of the Lectionary. It is mostly without sources as our most works of this sort from that era.