I’ve been thinking about the lectionary for a while. You might have noticed. Some weeks, I use this space to write of nothing but. Others, I may dip into the lectionary readings, but spend more time talking through the little happenings of my little family’s life, spilling them out across the table, and hoping that they fall into some sense of order that might bring clarity.
But I’m finding that more and more, the act of reading the lectionary has become a spiritual discipline for me. Reading these set texts is a kind of listening – I have to be quiet so that my own voice doesn’t take over. But I’m also trying to remind myself that my own life grounds my understanding of these words. There is something akin to translation that goes on as I try to read honestly. I have to work a little – sifting through and creating parallels – to receive what’s there.
Julia Donaldson, of Gruffalo fame (perhaps #1 book in the current parents survival kit), has recently translated a poem by Ludwig Bechstein and has published it as The Gloomster. A wonderful celebration of being grumpy (and oft quoted around here when the grumps strike one but not all of us.) She reflected on this her first experience of translation like this. It was an enjoyable challenge, “rather like doing a fiendishly difficult Sudoku or cryptic crossword.”
Sometimes reading the lectionary is enjoyable like that. Sometimes it takes a lot of puzzling to get to the heart of the message. Of course, the comparison is faulty because the crossword creator does not work alongside me as I puzzle through the crossword, bringing my thoughts into light. But still, there is a degree of working through the scriptures in reading lectionary. I can’t just jump to the places where interpretation is easiest. I need to be patient and persistent, faithful as I look for understanding.
Or maybe reading lectionary is better compared to preparing a meal. Looking to see what’s in the cupboard. Sometimes I have to seek outside help in commentary or recipes. Using what I find, I work with it to find nourishment.
That nourishment also comes from the fact that lectionary reading is common work. It connects me with others church-wide around the world. I like the thought of working through the text that my parents will be hearing on Sunday, that my friends are praying through this week as they work on sermons and Sunday school lessons. We are wondering about these stories together, week by week.
Pentecost was an important Festival within the Ancient Jewish calendar, making the giving of the Law to Moses and the renewal of the covenant with the people. It was to celebrate this festival that the people were gathered in Jerusalem early in the story we find in Acts 2. Or so one line of commentary goes.
But when you read this text closely and with a little research, it falls apart in rather messy ways. For one, the writer of Acts says that the diverse group mentioned were living in Jerusalem at the time. So much for a festival gathering. And then, looking at the list, it’s a really bizarre group of people. It was anachronistic to refer to the Medes and Elamites at that time, for example, as they had ceased to be ethnic groups five hundred years previously. So what we have here to puzzle through isn’t straight up history – it’s something like poetic remembering.
4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.
It is a significant story – a memory for the church to hold onto – because it demonstrates the experience of the Early Church, growing and reaching out across ethnic and historical divisions with the astonishing and translating power of the Holy Spirit.
The Pentecost experience for the Early Church is sometimes described as a reversal of the story of Babel, but I think that is meant as much more that. The story in Acts 2 begins with the undoing of Babel already achieved. The scattered are gathered and living devout lives, recentred together in God’s presence in the holy city of Jerusalem. But then the Spirit arrives. It’s like the incarnation, when God broke into history in the birth of Christ . Now at Pentecost, God is proclaiming that this in-breaking isn’t stopping in the post-resurrection world. Maybe that’s where the diversity of languages coming into play. We read that people gathered from at least 15 nationalities and ethnicities (some of which had not existed for centuries) and then they hear the disciples speak in their own languages. Not that they just got what was said – they heard the words in their own mother tongues. The language of their homes and hearts. God entered into the messiness of human history and politics to speak directly to their hearts.
Reading lectionary feels like this festival gathering to me – it puts us together in the unBabeling of the world. And into that space, God shows up in the reality of each of our lives. Our biases and inclinations aren’t swept away – instead, they are the lens through which we see God, the ground beneath our feet as God steps into our midst. Christ is, as he promised, with us always, to the very end. And in all things, there is God.
The incarnate Word is with us,
Is still speaking, is present
Always, yet leaves no sign
But everything that is.”
Wendell Berry Sabbaths 1999