Friday, December 14, 2007

Reading the Bible – Part I: The Daily Office Lectionary as a Tool.

Blessed Lord, who has caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
-- The Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent (Book of Common Prayer).

When I was in seminary, our dean was fond of reminding us that Anglicans read more Scripture than most other Christians. For those who follow the daily pattern of Morning and Evening prayer as set forth in the prayer book or any of our alternative forms, this is likely true. I think that a truer statement might be that Anglicans have opportunity to read more Scripture than most other Christians. In the parish I meet those who are deeply devoted to daily reading of Scripture and prayer. However, I also meet many who are deeply confused about how to approach the Bible, much less read it. This confusion often leads to embarrassment. Recently, in the parish, we have had some frank discussions in which several courageous individuals have expressed their confusion and embarrassment over how to approach the Bible and have asked for help.

First, there are many things that we may learn from the Bible, but as Christians we should hold fast to this important interpretive principle, that Bible contains God’s gracious self-disclosure of the Incarnate Word. This to say that in the written word we meet the Incarnate Word, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Therefore, we should approach Scripture with an expectation that we will meet our Lord. Of course, not every experience of reading Scripture will be a rapturous encounter. There is much to confuse us, sidetrack us, and much for us to misinterpret. However, as important as it is to understand Scripture, we must first cultivate the important discipline of reading Scripture. When we make time to read the Bible, we make space for God in our lives. Sometimes God will seem close and sometimes God will seem far, but God is faithful and will nor forsake us. We, too, are called to be faithful and one way in which we can do this is making the space for God through a ritual of daily Bible reading (whether or not the text makes any sense to us at the time!).

Making space for God through daily Bible reading is one thing, but if the Scriptures consistently fail to make any sense to us, our discipline of daily reading will soon fall apart as a meaningless exercise and our opportunity to encounter the Word in the word will be limited. We are blessed in our Anglican Tradition with a program for reading Scripture. Whether it is the intensive annual daily lectionary found in our traditional Book of Common Prayer, or the two-year cycle found in our Book of Alternative Services (in combination with a monthly or two-monthly recitation of the entire Psalter), we have a cycle of readings that makes some sense. During ordinary (that is, non-seasonal) time, readings from the Old Testament, the Epistles and the Gospels are mostly sequential readings through various books of the Bible. Many people begin their Bible reading at the beginning with Genesis, but quickly tire and fatigue after the narrative portions give way to Levitical Laws. The Daily Office lectionary attempts to present sequential pieces of Scripture in a sensible order, that the reader might get a sense of the narrative flow of Scripture, and thus be edified. To be sure, there are tough spots (Amongst my friends who pray the Daily Office, we often lament how difficult some of the latter portions of the Church Year can be through the tedious ramblings of II Kings). For the most part, though, we are able to enter into the narrative flow of both Old and New Testament narratives and lessons and the whole begins to make sense through the parts. During special seasons (Advent, Lent, Christmas/Epiphany, Easter) the sequences of readings tend to reflect the character of the season and allow the reader to begin to experience the change in liturgical time through the reading of Scripture.

It is not simply enough to read Scripture, though. It must be prayed. Again, our Daily Office of Morning and Evening prayer provides the context in which Scripture might be read and prayed. The reading of Scripture is punctuated by the recitation or singing of psalms and canticles. The choice of canticle can help us to highlight the season, and draw out in an emotional way some of the more intellectual concepts that we may have encountered in some of the narrative passages of Scripture. I always think of the readings for the Great Vigil of Easter in this way. At this service we always read the story of the Exodus, as told in narrative fashion, and then, immediately afterward, we sing it in the form of the Song of Miriam. This greatly deepens our understanding of the story at an emotional level. We begin to experience Scripture and not simply read it.

In Morning and Evening Prayer we combine the reading of Scripture with song, with praise, with petition and with periods of silence and meditation. In this context, day-by-day, Scripture begins to come alive for us, it begins to make sense to us, and we begin to feel it and allow it to become part of us and of our story. We encounter the Word in the word and begin to deepen our relationship with the living God who is confined not to the pages of a book but who lives and moves in us and animates our entire being.

Morning and Evening Prayer services can be found in both the Book of Common Prayer (page 1, page 17) and the Book of Alternative Services (page 47, page 61). Both the BCP and BAS contain lectionaries and instructions on how to use them (BCP page xvi, BAS, page 450). Another favourite resource, Celebrating Common Prayer, comes from the Anglican Franciscans and does a good job of highlighting seasonal cadences. Other daily Bible reading programs are available through both the Forward Movement in the United States, and the Bible Reading Fellowship in the U.K.
Next: Some useful tools to help us unlock difficult problems in the text.

Copyright 2007, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This post may not be reproduced or redistributed, by any means, either in whole or part without the express written consent of the author.


John Carrington said...


First class. I wonder how many other parishes have this challenge! Looking forward to Part II.


kristie said...

I like all the ideas you give for Bible reflection and study. I thought I'd drop a note and let you know of a site I can across that has a ton of commentaries, lexicons, historical books, and more for free. It's called Bible Study Tools and it has over 29 translations, you can highlight verses, save notes, and use a split screen panel so you can read things side by side. Very Cool. Check it out if you have a chance!

Xaviera said...

This is great info to know.