Annual Cycles of Bible Reading in the Prayer Book: Part II

In my last piece, the first part of this overview of the annual cycles of Bible reading in the Prayer Book, I discussed the Calendar with Table of Lessons for Morning and Evening Prayer (that is, the daily lectionary) and the Epistles and Gospels for the Lord’s Supper (that is the Communion lectionary). These are the two annual cycles of reading around which the whole Prayer Book system is built. As already observed, the Prayer Book’s first preface[1] regards hearing the scriptures read as the primary purpose of liturgy, “that the people (by daily hearing of holy Scripture read in the Church) might continually profit more and more in the knowledge of God, and be the more inflamed with the love of his true Religion.” In this essay, I explore a third cycle, the Proper Lessons for Sundays and Holy Days, which is embedded within the daily lectionary. After that I make a digression to address questions raised by the black letter days in the Prayer Book calendar.

Proper Lessons for Sundays and Holy Days

Sundays and certain other days of the year are called “holy days” because they are days set-apart from worldly pursuits to commemorate the Resurrection (Sundays generally, and Easter-tide particularly) and other manifestations of God’s grace. They are called “festivals” or “feast days” because these acts of divine mercy invite joyful celebration. They are also often called “red letter days,” because in medieval liturgical manuals red ink was often used to distinguish the Sundays and major festivals from minor festivals in the liturgical calendar. Whitchurch’s first printed edition of the 1549 Prayer Book continues this tradition. The 1549 has twenty-two red letter days in addition to the Sundays of the year; the 1552 drops Mary Magdalene, resulting in 21 holy days in addition to Sundays. Eleven of these are fixed days, while ten move each year in relation to the date of Easter.

All red letter days have Communion propers — a collect, epistle, and gospel assigned to them — so that, in addition to Mattins and Evensong, Antecommunion is to be read on these days. These days are also assigned proper lessons that break the lectio continuo pattern of the lessons read in the daily office. For the fixed days, the propers lessons are written into the calendar. The movable feasts, of course, cannot be so indicated, so on whichever day of the month they fall, they replace the readings appointed in the monthly table. In the Edwardine editions of the Prayer Book, only five Sundays are given proper lessons — Christmas, Easter, Ascension, Whitsunday, and Trinity (traditionally the five highest feasts of the Western liturgical calendar); all of these except for Trinity Sunday are given proper psalms. Of the twenty-two (in 1549) or twenty-one (in 1552) holy days, some are given only proper first lessons, some proper second lessons, and a few are given both (but none are given proper psalms that break the continua of the monthly psalter cycle). On these days the proper lesson(s) relates to the special commemoration — usually the death (often by martyrdom) of an Apostle, Evangelist, or other biblical saint, but sometimes other occasions from the New Testament, such as the Circumcision of Christ. When only a first or second lesson is provided, the other lesson read is the one assigned in the daily lectionary, which means there is no intentional connection between these two lessons (though, sometimes there are remarkably felicitous coincidences).

The Elizabethan Prayer Book (1559) extends and regularlizes this principle. It supplies proper first lessons for Morning and Evening Prayer to all the Sundays of the year, while to Christmas, Easter, Ascension, Whitsunday, and Trinity it provides both a first and second lesson to replace the lessons assigned in the daily lectionary, and for all of these except Trinity (just as in Edwardine editions) it assigns proper psalms (replacing the usual ones for that day of the month); in 1662 two fast days are given proper psalms, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. For all the holy days, it supplies first lessons, but to thirteen of these, both a first and second lesson are assigned. The Sunday first lessons — the Elizabethan innovation — follow a kind of lectio continua of their own. From Advent through Epiphanytide twenty-two chapters of Isaiah are read and none out of order (though not every chapter is read). On Septuagesima Genesis 1 is read and the first lessons progress through the Pentateuch in order (again, not every chapter, but without jumping around); the first break in this sequence is the first lesson of Evensong for Whitsunday, when Wisdom 1 is read. Trinity Mattins is also out of sequence, picking up a chapter from Genesis skipped over in Lent, the 18th because of its aptness for this day (the Lord appears to Abraham at Mamre as three visitors). But at Evening Prayer on Trinity Sunday the sequential reading resumes, with Joshua 1 and the history of Israel and Judah is read through most of Trinitytide, towards the end of which are assigned selections from the prophets Jeremy, Ezekiel, Daniel, Joel, Micah, and Habakkuk, before ending the year with selections from Proverbs. Thus, the proper Sunday lessons present the whole arc of the Old Testament through a Christiological lens. As Samuel Bray put it,

They present the story of Israel from creation to exile, but they also, by carefully framing the Old Testament narrative with Isaiah and Proverbs, guide us in how to read that story. We look for Christ (Luke 24). And we also, as in a mirror, look at ourselves, with a warning to be “the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts” (James 1:25).

While the proper lessons for Sundays require a weekly break in the lectio continua of the daily lectionary, the breaks do not fall on the same days of the month each year (so those chapters missed in one year will be read in subsequent years). This cycle provides a second means of reading through the Old Testament that specifically highlights the interpretation of it in light of the Gospel, as Christ himself did — “beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). The advantage of this second, Christological read-through of the Old Testament seems to outweigh the disadvantage of the weekly disruption in the daily lectionary.

In 1561 Elizabeth ordered Archbishop Parker to undertake a careful review of the daily calendar. Few changes were made and those were minor (e.g., the second lesson for Evensong on the feast of the Circumcision was previously Deut. 10; Parker shortened it to begin at v. 12). In addition, Parker marked out some of the eves of red letter days for fasting; twelve fast days were added (though not one in each month) to the two fast days already marked in the Edwardine editions: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The 1662 adds a list of “Days of Fasting, or Abstinence” which adds these additional days: the forty days of Lent, the four Ember Days, the three Rogation Days, and all the Fridays of the year (except for when Christmas Day falls on a Friday). Fasting has the effect of highlighting the festival by increasing the contrast with the day preceding it. The primary purpose of a fast is spiritual preparation. By temporarily refraining from usual comforts (in both senses: a source of strength and of solace) attention can be redirected towards the highest and only permanent comfort; time (spent in the preparation and consumption of food) can be redirected towards prayer, scripture reading, and self-examination (particularly if one intends to receive the Lord’s Supper on the feast day); and resources (that would have been spent on food) can be redirected towards charitable ends.

A Note on Black Letter Days

The Medieval church calendars (which differed to varying degrees in different ecclessiastical jurisdictions) involved frequent breaks in the continuous reading for many minor festivals, i.e, black letter days in addition to the major festivals of the liturgical year. For example, in the Sarum Breviary, the month of January alone has eighteen feast days with proper lessons, 14 of which are taken from non-biblical texts.[2] Holy days were days to rest from worldly work (hence the current usage of holiday, which has lost its religious association, but means simply a day or days one can take off work). Day-labourers, then, would not be paid on these days; so festivals, while they could be a source of merriment, could also be a source of misery.[3] There were many calls for calendar reform in the high middle ages.

Henry VIII instituted a calendar reform in 1536.[4] A more thorough reform came under Edward VI, in the first edition of the Book of Common Prayer. In Cranmer’s revised calendar (in 1549) no black letter days were listed at all. The only holy days were Sundays and the twenty-two major feasts, a calendar reform first proposed by Erasmus earlier in the sixteenth century.[5] The 1552 revision provides four black letter days — Saints George (23 April), Laurence (10 August), and Clement (23 November) and Lammas Day (1 August). Cranmer left us no explanation of the rationale for this change. It is possible Cranmer saw Clement of Rome as a biblical figure, as the Clement mentioned by Paul in Phillipians 4:3 was traditionally identified with Clement of Rome. The popular English custom of “clementing” continued in some places well into the nineteenth century — children would go door-to-door begging for apples, pears, nuts, and other treats, in exchange for which they sang. Laurence of Rome, a deacon martyred in the Valerian persecution, was one of the most widely venerated Western martyrs, named in the Roman Canon of the Mass (as well as its Sarum variant). George, a high-ranking Roman soldier martyred in the Diocletianic persecution, was another of the medieval Western Church’s most popular martyrs. In the fourteenth century, George became an official patron of England, when Edward III founded the Order of the Garter; gradually he displaced Edmund the Martyr and Edward the Confessor, thanks in large degree to Edward VI, who discontinued the flying of the banners of the other two traditional patron saints of England (hence the national flag of England is a red cross on a white field, which had become associated with George by the twelfth century). Lammas Day celebrates the wheat harvest, a day on which a fair was held, so a secular rationale for noting it on the calendar is obvious in this case. None of these black letter days are assigned proper lessons, so they do not break the pattern of continuous reading. None are assigned Communion propers either. In other words, while these days are marked in the calendar, they are not observed liturgically.

As noted above, in 1561 Elizabeth ordered Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury, to review the Prayer Book calendar. Parker added this note:

These to be observed for holy days and none other.

That is to say, all Sundays in the year; the days of the feasts: of the Circumcision of our Lord Jesus Christ; of the Epiphany; of the Purification of the blessed Virgin; of St. Matthias the Apostle; of the Annunciation of the blessed Virgin; of St. Mark the Evangelist; of Sts. Philip and Jacob [i.e., James], Apostles; of the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ; of the Nativity of St. John Baptist; of St. Peter the Apostle; of St. James the Apostle; of St. Bartholomew the Apostle; of St. Matthew the Apostle; of St. Michael the Archangel; of St. Luke the Evangelist; of Sts. Simon and Jude, Apostles; of All Saints; of St. Andrew the Apostle; of St. Thomas the Apostle; of the Nativity of our Lord; of St. Stephen the Martyr; of St. John Evangelist; of the holy Innocents; Monday and Tuesday in Easter week; Monday and Tuesday in Whitsun week.

He added fifty-nine black letter days into the calendar, but like the four black letter days of 1552, he did not assign any propers to these days. In 1604, without authorization, printers began to add the name Enurchus to 7 September, a misspelling of the name Evurtrius, a relatively obscure Bishop of Orleans.[6] The reason for this was almost certainly to continue to mark the birthday of Queen Elizabeth after she was succeeded by James I (the nativity and accession day of the reigning monarch was marked as a red letter day in the Prayer Book calendar). The misspelled Enurchus was officially added in 1662, along with Hugh of Lincoln, on 17 November (which so happens to be Elizabeth I’s accession day), the Venerable Bede, on 27 May, and Alban the Martyr on 17 June. The 1662 also added the list of fast days noted above, about which we should further observe that two of the prescribed fast days, the Ember Days of 14 September and 13 December coincide with black letter days — Holy Cross and Lucy’s Day — which means the Restoration bishops could not have thought of the black letter days as feast days. From 1552 (when the first black letter days are added into the Prayer Book calendar) onward, no provision for the liturgical observance of black letter days was made; indeed, the note listing the holy days explicitly excludes observation of these days. Canon 88 of the 1604 Constitutions and Canons of the Church of England makes the matter more explicit by forbidding any liturgical observance of them. What, then, was the point in noting them on the calendar at all?

Elizabeth’s third Archbishop of Canterbury, John Whitgift, defended the inclusion of these festivals against protests from those who objected to “festival days observed of the papists,” by explaining they are only meant “to express the usual times of payments, and the times of the courts and their returns.”[7] In other words, it was customary for contracts and leases and other legal documents to use the traditional names of days rather than the day of the month, so the inclusion of these names in the Prayer Book calendar was useful for secular reasons (though modern historians have noted that many traditional day names that were commonly used in secular affairs were not included in the fifty-nine days added by Parker, so it is not as useful in this way as it could have been). After the 1660 Restoration, the Bishops at the Savoy Conference reiterated Whitgift’s rationale and added “they are useful for the preservation of [the saints’] memories,”[8] though the authenticity of a good number of these figures or the acts associated with them is highly doubtful. Wheatley’s early eighteenth century commentary on the Prayer Book only points to the secular utility of marking these days.


The three annual cycles of bible reading in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer — the daily calendar, the Sunday lessons, and the Communion propers — provide three different means of “setting forth” the grand narrative of scripture. The cycles were designed to work together. The daily lessons — in which the Old Testament is read once each year, and the New Testament thrice — provide a bird’s-eye view. The proper first lessons for Sundays provide a second comprehensive view of the Old Testament, but one with a doctrinal lens, focused on how Moses and the Prophets speak of Christ. Together these provide two different, complimentary means of hearing and coming to terms with the Old Testament. The Communion propers, by contrast, burrow into particular moments in the New Testament. The daily lessons support general biblical literacy, while the Communion propers support teaching the doctrines of the church. Because these readings are short (except, of course, in holy week!) they invite the preacher and assembly to delve deeply. That depth depends upon the general familiarity with the scriptures provided by the daily lessons; without it the Communion propers would make little sense. Allusions to other parts of scripture would not be recognized. The place in larger narrative arcs would go unnoticed. Moreover, connections between the Epistle and Gospel pericopes are obscured without familiarity with other passages to which they both in some way relate. So, while the specific readings in these three cycles are not selected to complement or connect to each other on a given Sunday or other feast day, the three cycles are designed to go together. How they complement each other is visible at broader levels of analysis — apparent when we consider the full year, and, even more so, when we consider many years of repeating the cycles.

  1. A new preface is added in 1662, but the original preface is retained under a new title, “Concerning the Service of the Church.”
  2. Prichard, 2018, p. 147
  3. Tomlinson, 1897, p. 2
  4. Tomlinson, 1897, p. 3
  5. Tomlinson, 1897, p. 2
  6. MacCulloch, 2016, p. 136.
  7. Qtd. from Haugaard, 1968, p. 118 (I have modernized the spelling).
  8. Qtd. From Haugaard, 1968, p. 119.

Drew Keane

Drew Nathaniel Keane is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Writing and Linguistics at Georgia Southern University and a PhD candidate in the School of English at the University of St. Andrews, writing a thesis (tentatively) titled The Use of the Prayer Book: The Book of Common Prayer (1549-1604) as Technical Writing for an Oral-Aural Culture. With Samuel L. Bray, he edited the 1662 Book of Common Prayer: International Edition (IVP Academic, March 2021). From 2012 to 2018 he served on the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music. More of his work is available at

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