By David Barr
It is certainly no secret at this point that liturgy has made a comeback. I don’t know whether the increase in traditional patterns of worship is simply another fad in the North American church scene, or whether it is a right and lasting response to consumeristic devotional programs. But in our return to these traditional modes of devotion, particularly the use of the Daily Office, let us not forget the scriptural core that makes it all worthwhile. The prayers of the office should not be overlooked, but it is the Daily Office lectionary that feeds us.
When I was in my mid-twenties, waist-deep in a graduate program in theology, my spiritual life was all over the place. My soul was unfocused, interested in too many things, and numb to the movement of the Spirit. As many know, theology programs (and a pastoral vocation) do not always guarantee Christian growth and an increase in wisdom! I had taken some years of biblical languages and become familiar with some of the major interpretive postures of the Christian tradition, but one day I woke up to the simple fact that I had not opened my English Bible for devotional purposes in almost an entire semester. And the troubling thing to me was not that it had resulted in huge moral failures, but that I had become completely apathetic about being apathetic. I was undiscerning and unengaged. I had become detached from any sense that the Christian God is a living God.
Then, in a different graduate program almost a year later, I was introduced to the Daily Office lectionary and its broader purposes. I had grown up with the prayer book, but like too many Episcopalians I had no sense of its basic devotional power. For my entire life I had treated it as a book of eucharistic liturgies with a selection of à la carte prayers for dark nights of the soul. But I had never seen it as a way of opening myself up to the formative work of God. After a few weeks of using it I suddenly found myself being nourished: if not sated, at least more aware of my own malnourished condition and deeply hungry. Months went on and I found myself still moving through the readings, surprised by the fact that I was hungry, still reading, and being fed.
Now, I realize that the Daily Office and its lectionary are ideally suited for public worship. The Daily Office tradition is about the Word gathering the people of God as just that, a people. But the elements that made it succeed in public can also work to a lesser, but still powerful degree, in private. Here is what made it work for me.
First, there is a hidden grace that is built into the cyclical nature of the lectionary. It assumes years and years of use, and so there is no frantic effort to understand everything about a particular book of the Bible. It involves a whole lifetime of discovery, engagement, learning, and growth. If you do not get the main point in Joel, well, you will see it again!
Along with this, because the selections are made for you, there is no scramble to find what you want to read, or losing interest in a book and moving on to “better pastures.” Surely I am not the only one who has flipped around in order to find some book that adequately addresses my emotional state and season in life. With the Daily Office lectionary, it is all for your life. You are encouraged to enter into all manner of scriptural locations in relation to your own present moment, and so there is no wondering what you really ought to read. The lectionary tells you: “All of it! Again and again and again.”
Also, because it loosely follows parts of the church calendar, the lectionary assumes an ecclesial interpretive posture. When readings match up with feast days, one is encouraged to pursue the reading in relation to the church’s own use of the text, rather than some critical lens or a historical reconstruction. I remember once being given an ESV Study Bible only to be totally overwhelmed by the amount of historical information included in the prefaces, side notes, and appendices on ancient contexts. It was all too easy to read about a book of the Bible, then not read said book of the Bible, and then quietly set that Bible back down feeling as if there is too much to know in order to be fed by the Word. What a gift it is to discover that Scripture is, in fact, God’s book for his church. Also, is it not a delicious irony that the Episcopal Church, so taken with critical methods, shepherds a tradition of reading so decidedly un-modern (with a few exceptions, of course)?
Finally, as has been written about elsewhere, having multiple readings forces you to think through how the Bible works together as a whole – an approach known as figural interpretation. Romans has to be understood in light of Leviticus, and the work of Christ has to be discerned in relation to Exodus. Even if you are not interested in developing a figural imagination (though I think you should!), it makes for far more interesting reading. Intertextual reading has a rich capacity to surprise and delight.
Now, certainly some will object for sundry reasons: “But I like to have a strong grasp of a whole book of the Bible.” Well, who is to say you can’t do individual book studies as well, in small groups or Bible studies? Others might say, “Privilege the books that best present salvation history!” Maybe, but wouldn’t reading through all of the Scriptures again and again only reveal God’s work even better? Even still, others might say “I know people who have faithfully used the Daily Office lectionary for years, and they still don’t seem to have a strong knowledge of the Bible!” That might be true as well, but perhaps reading Scripture is less about comprehension and more about standing under God’s own work. Whatever your objection, if you have struggled to sustain a diet of the Word, then maybe the Daily Office lectionary is just the thing you need.
David Barr is associate rector at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Nashville, TN.