What the Lectionary Doesn’t Say This Advent

Advent in Scotland. I think that Scotland is a country made for Advent: the outside temperatures—and I mean the outside low temperatures—the lack of sunshine or simply blue skies, the rain, the mist: everything is on hold, waiting for better times. Reflecting a bit on my Advent in Scotland, I set out to reading the readings that the Catholic Church has for today: a reading from the Book of Isaiah (Is 45:6c-8, 18, 21c-25), followed by Psalm 85:9a, 10, 11-12, 13-14 and the Gospel reading from Luke 7:18b-23. And I could not help it, but I started to laugh.

Why? Well, I noticed immediately the pick-and-choose mentality of the lectionary. Not only are the lectures picked so that they fit with each other, comment on each other or elaborate on each other (and I have to admit the choices are sometimes good), but they also cut up the text into pieces of verses and then present a new whole. In other words, the lectionary does what I always try to avoid: namely hopping from one verse to another, skipping others, and just dealing with the nice verses. After all, we want a smooth reading in the lectionary. But that is not how texts work. Imagine reading Harry Potter’s Deadly Hallows without having read the earlier volumes. One plunges in the story not knowing about horcruxes or not knowing that Dumbledore has died. The story just would not make sense.

So, curious as I am, I checked which verses were deleted. Which dark powers were at work and why? In Isaiah 45, the lectionary has skipped the verses about Cyrus, the Persian king who is portrayed as the rescuer, saviour of the Jews… of course, we don’t want to hear that in our Christian churches. We usually do not consider outsiders to be our saviours, right? Next, the questioning of God the creator who chose Cyrus is deleted. We do not question God, nor God’s choice, right? So why would we incorporate in our readings a Biblical text in which that is said. Last but not least, the reference to other nations that pray to a god that cannot save, that verse as well is deleted from the lectionary. And note that a god that cannot save does not deserve a capital G. In other words, with advent, when listening to the beautiful text of Isaiah, we cannot be reminded of good foreigners, of foreign saviours, of gods that cannot save, and certainly not of dissenting voices questioning the so-called one and only God, with capital G.

Similarly in the Psalm: the beautiful verses in which it is described how God restored the fortunes of Jacob/Israel and how God forgives Israel are not taken up, the somewhat strange verses in which the people again ask to be forgiven—these verses seem strange as they people seem to ask for something that they already received—they too are not read in the liturgies.

There is less cutting in the gospel text. Actually, there has been no cutting at all in this section. John’s question is not shortened and Jesus’ answer is fully produced. So, why is that that we cut, pick and choose, that we skip verses in our texts? Do we avoid looking at things we don’t like? Are we afraid of strangers and foreigners? Can we not deal with the idea that there is maybe a god that can’t save? Similarly, does the omission of the verses in the Psalm which show God’s (or the author’s) irritation with the idea of questioning God point to our not-willingness to see that there could be questioning of God and/or that God does not like it. And why did the lectionary drop the verses that contain the repeated request to be saved? Can we not understand that we liked to hear the same thing twice, or do people get frustrated with repetition?

I think that precisely the omitted verses should be part of the advent readings. Of course, the rest of the readings are nice and sweet and beautiful: God creator of everything, God, the safe-place to be, God proclaiming peace and salvation, God giving benefits, what more can we ask for. But then again, the other elements belong in here as well: we have to learn to deal with the unexpected, with the questioning, with the idea that a god cannot save—whether it is God or god—, with an irritated God, with a people that repeats its questions. All these elements have an essential part in our process of waiting, for in our waiting time, in our waiting rooms, in our not yet being there, we have to reflect on all the things that obstruct or seem to obstruct our going ahead.

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by Kristin De Troyer

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Others: Lent 3

The Lectionary reading for the third week of Lent is John 4:4-42. It is the text about the Samaritan Woman at the well and her conversation with Jesus.

I want to start by thanking my former seminary classmate, the Rev. Alison Rainey English, for posting this video on Facebook. I thought this was a breathtaking retelling of the text, so take a minute and watch it:

This video reminds me that the art of biblical story telling is one that I have much respect for. It is an art that seeks to tell a story in a new way, to reach out and shake the audience into new awareness of what is being said, much like poetry does. Perhaps this is why this particular video strikes me. (There are other similar portrayals of this text.) It makes me take notice of the woman at the well and her story that became so much of the encounter with Jesus.

I have been pondering this text in part becuase it may be used in a worship service that I am helping to plan for a conference this summer. It is indeed a rich text, perhaps one that begs for the liturgical arts be present as witnesses to it. But this text is also one that comes up time and again when we talk about crossing social boundaries to invite others to our faith and to include them in worship. Here is a woman possibly outcast in her own society, certainly a woman who has seen her share of trouble, who is also a member of outcast group talking with Jesus. Jesus who does not shy away from her but engages in dialogue with her. Gail R. O’Day makes an interesting point by naming that while this woman is often seen in some immoral light because she has had five husbands Jesus does not condemn her for this but rather allows her to become an apostle by telling her people about him (Gail R O’Day, “John” in The Women’s Bible Commentary, Westminster: Louisville, 1992, 296). The truth is we don’t know much about the history of this woman before she meets Jesus. She may have been repeatedly widowed or part of a non-Jewish marriage that was based simply on a contract that could be exited at will–but we know what she does when she meets Jesus, that she unlike many in the gospels recognize Jesus as the Messiah, and we know she acts as an apostle after meeting Jesus.

It is precisely the actions of this woman in contrast to those of the disciples that strike me as a Lenten nugget in this text. This woman is outcast as a woman, outcast as a Samaritan, outcast by having a personal history; this woman is not only welcomed by Jesus but takes it upon herself to become an apostle. This Lenten season we have thought about fault and sin, about leaving and change, and now we are faced with a text that appears to lift up a person who would not be lifted up as a religious example as one who sees and seeks the truth. The woman at the well is the other who only seeks truth and love while being denied both by society. But all that changes when she meets Jesus. For Jesus reveals the truth to her, a truth that sends her back into her community, where she might to be listened to.

Could it be that the Lenten journey is one that not only calls us to examine our own actions but to also examine our social expectations to consider who we may be missing, and the truth they have to share, when we decide who is in and who is out according to our traditions? Jesus did not exclude persons; he always found a way to bring the other in. Perhaps this third week of Lent we are called to meditate on that part of the journey. The stories we could tell, and we still have so far to go!