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The custom of reading the books of Moses in the synagogues on Sabbath was a very ancient one. The addition of lections (i.e. readings) from the prophetic books had been made afterwards and was in existence at the time of Jesus, as may be gathered from such passages as St Luke 4:16–20, 16:29. This element in synagogue worship was taken over with others into the Christian divine service, see Early Christianity, additions being made to it from the writings of the Apostles and evangelists as the New Testament canon developed. We find traces of such additions within the New Testament itself in such directions as are contained in Colossians 4:16; First Thessalonians 5:27.
From the 2nd century onwards references multiply, though the earlier references do not prove the existence of a fixed lectionary or order of lessons, but rather point the other way. Justin Martyr, describing divine worship in the middle of the 2nd century says: On the day called Sunday all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the Apostles, or the writings of the Prophets are read as long as time permits (Apol. i. cap. 67). Tertullian about half a century later makes frequent reference to the reading of Holy Scripture in public worship (Apol. ~9; De praescript. 36; De amina, 9).
In the canons of Hippolytus in the first half of the 3rd century we find this direction: Let presbyters, subdeacons and readers, and all the people assemble daily in the church at time of cockcrow, and betake themselves to prayers, to psalms and to the reading of the Scriptures, according to the command of the Apostles, until I come attend to reading (canon xxi.).
But there are traces of fixed lessons coming into existence in the course of this century; Origen refers to the Book of Job being read in Holy Week (Commentaries on Job, lib. i.). Allusions of a similar kind in the 4th century are frequent. John Cassian (c. 380) tells us that throughout Egypt the Psalms were divided into groups of twelve, and that after each group there followed two lessons, one from the Old, one from the New Testament (De caenob. inst. ii. 4), implying but not absolutely stating that there was a fixed order of such lessons just as there was of the Psalms. St Basil the Great mentions fixed lessons on certain occasions taken from Isaiah, Proverbs, St Matthew and Acts (Hom. xiii. De bapt.). From Chrysostom (Horn. lxiii. in Act. etc.), and Augustine (Tract. vi. in Joann. &c.) we learn that Genesis was read in Lent, Job and Jonah in Passion Week, the Acts of the Apostles in Eastertide, lessons on the Passion on Good Friday and on the Resurrection on Easter Day. In the Apostolical Constitutions (ii. 57) the following service is described and enjoined. First come two lessons from the Old Testament by a reader, the whole of the Old Testament being made use of except the books of the Apocrypha. The Psalms of David are then to be sung. Next the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles of Paul are to be read, and finally the four Gospels by a deacon or a priest. Whether the selections were ad libitum or according to a fixed table of lessons we are not informed. Nothing in the shape of a lectionary is extant older than the 8th century, though there is evidence that Claudianus Marnercus made one for the church at Vienne in 450, and that Musaeus made one for the church at Marseilles ca. 458. The Liber comitis formerly attributed to St Jerome must be three, or nearly three, centuries later than that saint, and the Luxeuil lectionary, or Lectionarium Gallicanum, which Mabillon attributed to the seventh, cannot be earlier than the 8th century; yet the oldest MSS. of the Gospels have marginal marks, and sometimes actual interpolations, which can only be accounted for as indicating the beginnings and endings of liturgical lessons. The third Council of Carthage in 397 forbade anything but Holy Scripture to be read in church; this rule has been adhered to so far as the liturgical epistle and gospel, and occasional additional lessons in the Roman missal are concerned, but in the divine office, on feasts when nine lessons are read at matins, only the first three lessons are taken from Holy Scripture, the next three being taken from the sermons of ecclesiastical writers and the last three from expositions of the day's gospel; but sometimes the lives or Passions of the saints, or of some particular saints, were substituted for any or all of these breviary lessons.
- "Lection, Lectionary", Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911.
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