Brief Book Review: The Women’s Lectionary

The Women’s Lectionary:
Preaching the Women of the Bible throughout the Year
By Ashley M. Wilcox

Who should read this? Ashley Wilcox intends this lectionary as a resource primarily for preachers and urges them to take a year to focus on women in the Bible and feminine images of God. I suggest that many others — catechists, teachers, Bible study groups, and anyone wanting to learn about and reflect upon the stories of women in the tradition — would find this volume thought-provoking and enriching.

What’s the main point? This volume is a lectionary based on women in the Bible and feminine images of God. The texts follow the liturgical calendar and may also appear in the Revised Common Lectionary, Year D, or other alternative lectionaries. The author includes commentaries for each text, which offer background, suggestions for preachers, and questions that could be used not only by preachers but individuals or small groups for reflection and discussion.

Why is this book significant? The author lifts up and probes the stories of the many inspiring and influential women of Scripture, women whose stories are too often overlooked, misinterpreted, or omitted in lectionaries. She also explores images for God that can lead Christians to deeper reflection and relationship with the Sacred.

Kudos. Kudos to Ashley M. Wilcox for asking a poignant question, “What if the church took one year to focus on the stories of women in the Bible?” What if…?  The Women’s Lectionary helps us to imagine the “what if.”

Wilcox, Ashley M. The Women’s Lectionary: Preaching the Women of the Bible throughout the Year. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2021. 294 pages. $45.00. ISBN: 9780664266196.

REVIEWER: Anne Koester
Anne Koester is Senior Compliance Specialist,
Protection of Minors Policy Manager,
and Adjunct Instructor of Theology at
Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.

February 2: “There was also a Prophet…” (Luke 2:36)

My thoughts usually turn to the prophet Anna on this day in the liturgical calendar, and I typically write a blog post that bemoans, in one way or another, the fact hat the Scriptural witness – and the tradition on which it is built – do not let Anna speak for herself. Only Simeon is given words, beautiful words.

But today, another and much more recent prophet who also was denied words, and indeed his very life, came to mind. I do not want to let the light of this day pass without holding up his name and memory: He is the Jesuit priest Fr. Alfred Delp SJ, who was executed on this day, February 2, in 1945 in Berlin. Delp was 37 years old. He had resolutely resisted the Nazi regime in his writings and his preaching and his work with the German resistance. And he resisted that genocidal regime to the end, refusing, while already imprisoned, to leave the Jesuit order in exchange for his freedom. His last scribbled notes, when he was condemned to death, do not reflect on the feast of Candlemas and the fact that this became the day of his death, probably because he was unsure when exactly he would be taken to the place of execution. But I trust that at that moment, it will have dawned on him that he too, like Simeon, was to depart in peace and encounter, after the gallows, the Living Light.

Between Epiphany and Lent: A Soft Point in the Liturgical Year

When I was a kid, I used to start counting down the days until Christmas already in July. It was, and still is, my favorite time of year. But it was always over too soon. On the morning of December 26, a youthful malaise would set in. The long, gray, West Michigan winters of my youth seemed to last until May, and sometimes I think they really did. One of the happiest discoveries of adulthood was that the 12 days of Christmas did not end on Christmas but began on Christmas. The celebration keeps going until Epiphany! So now, the onset of my winter malaise is postponed, at least for a couple of weeks.

This is the time of year for busy-ness and its cousin, distraction. It’s the time of the year for making and then quickly giving up on New Year’s resolutions. And, especially for those of us in the more northerly regions of the northern hemisphere, it’s often the time for seasonal affective disorder syndrome–whether diagnosed or not.

It is a kind of valley in the liturgical year. We have come down from the peaks of the winter holidays but the upward climb of Lent won’t begin for a while. There doesn’t seem to be anything going on in the valley. It is technically Ordinary Time, but it feels different from the expansive summer meadows of possibility that we associate with Ordinary Time between Pentecost and Advent.

Is there a way to conceive of this time of year positively instead of just an empty, “in between” time?

Soft Points in the Liturgy

One of the most important principles of liturgical history is the notion of “soft points.” Soft points are practical actions in a given liturgical rite, which, in the rite’s primitive form, took place without ceremony. Classic examples are the entrance into the church building, the transfer of the gifts, and the communion rite. As a liturgy develops, text, music, and ceremony rush in to fill the vacuum surrounding these seemingly naked action points.

With the addition of music and text, actions that previously had a purely utilitarian function suddenly become moments of rich significance. For example, in the Byzantine Rite, the transfer of gifts from point A to point B becomes the “Great Entrance.” The people sing the “Cherubic Hymn” as the clergy solemnly process through the church with the holy gifts up to the altar, imitating, according to the hymn, the angels bearing the offering to the heavenly altar.

Liturgists have, at times, disparaged these post hoc fillers as so much fluff–distractions from the essence of the rite. There something to this view. But I think we can give a more positive reading to the phenomenon. The things we do to make meaning out of soft points should not be condemned as simply inessential. They can rather be understood as opportunities for meaning-making that are vital to the worshipping community’s understanding and participation in the liturgical act.

What if we envisioned the “empty” period of time between Epiphany and Lent instead as a soft point, an opportunity for making meaning?

Making Meaning in the In Between

The period of time between Epiphany and Lent is not, of course, actually empty in the various liturgical traditions of Christianity. The Assyrian Church of the East and the Oriental Orthodox churches keep the Fast of the Ninevites during this time. This three-day fast commemorates God’s merciful response to the repentance of the Ninevites in the book of Jonah. The fast probably originated during a plague and famine that struck Mesopotamia in the sixth century AD. It is still meaningful for Middle Eastern Christians today. Some have appropriated it as a way of responding to modern upheavals such as war and persecution.

In the Byzantine Rite, my home tradition, this time is filled with substance. January is loaded with commemorations of great saints and teachers, especially from the early church, as Adam DeVille has recently pointed out. We celebrate such holy women and men as Basil the Great, Seraphim of Sarov, and Genevieve of Paris––and that’s just the first three days of the month.

The Septuagesima and the other two pre-Lent Sundays were omitted in the reforms of Vatican II, but the Roman Catholic Church also celebrates many great saints during this time including many of those celebrated in the Byzantine Rite, as well as others like St Agnes (January 21) and St John Bosco (January 31).

And then, of course, there’s the Feast of Presentation/Candlemas, which is due for a revitalization. It seems to me that most of us have forgotten how to celebrate it.

These existing ways of marking the time between Epiphany and Lent leave plenty of room for context-specific meaning-making. There is no reason why we can’t adapt this period to the needs and desires of our communities with something that makes sense in each place, based on what is already there in our liturgical calendars.

This time of busyness and distraction, fatigue and stasis, calls out for “redeeming” (Eph. 5:16). Perhaps one the most meaningful ways to do so is to lean into the “in-betweenness,” and find in it a more substantive silence. Silence in liturgy is intentional silence. It does work. It transforms “in-betweenness” and “emptiness” into rest and regeneration. Speaking for myself, structured silence during this time of year would go a long way towards keeping focus, and remaining grounded in hope.

Rev. Dr. Mark Roosien is Lecturer in Liturgical Studies at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School and a deacon in the Orthodox Church in America. His translation of Sergius Bulgakov, The Eucharistic Sacrifice, was released in 2021 by University of Notre Dame Press.

Singing Properly

Every year when celebrations of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross come around, I have a flashback to a liturgical music conference a number of years ago, at which I was a speaker. The flashback involves one of my speaker colleagues that day. He began his talk by describing what had happened one morning at a Sunday Eucharist for which he was to preside and preach. It had been the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, celebrated on a Sunday. Unbeknownst to him, the musician had switched the opening song to “Morning Has Broken” because it was a rainy day (“Sweet the rain’s new fall…”). After he had knocked over the straw man and the chuckles subsided, he lamented this change, since he’d based his homily on the proper entrance antiphon: “We should glory in the cross of our Lord, Jesus Christ” (cf. Gal. 6:14). He was using his story to illustrate the importance of using the proper entrance antiphon at Sunday liturgy.

It seemed to me that his tale simultaneously illustrated the importance of communication between musicians and clergy. Had he and the musician done a quick check-in that Sunday morning, the situation could have been avoided. I’d think that if a priest knew the parish musician had a propensity for making such changes, he’d check to make sure the proper antiphon was still in place.

We were never told what opening song had been originally scheduled; based on the story, I presumed it was the proper antiphon, since he seemed to have been expecting it while preparing his homily. This led me to surmise that the musician at this liturgy wasn’t the same musician who’d scheduled the proper antiphon. In my experience, musicians who utilize the proper antiphons tend not to replace them on the basis of meteorological conditions.

One incorrect assumption this story might have led to, however, is that the proper entrance antiphons always make this kind of direct connection to the day. If we look ahead at the calendar this year, this coming Sunday (the Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time) has the entrance antiphon “I am the Savior of all people, says the Lord. Whatever their troubles, I will answer their cry, and I will always be their Lord.” (cf. Psalm 37). The Lectionary scriptures are Wisdom 2 (the persecution of the just), Psalm 54 (“The LORD upholds my life”), James 3 (conflicts in the community), and Mark 9 (the greatest in the kingdom must be like a child). The proper entrance antiphon—the same in both the Roman Missal and Graduale Romanum, itself not a terribly common occurrence—doesn’t have a particularly strong connection to the lections of the day (perhaps to the first reading and psalm). I am not sure if its connection would be better in Years C or A, but this points to another sticking point with using the proper antiphons: they largely remain fixed, against our Lectionary’s three-year rotation.

The speaker’s account also illustrated the need for the solid liturgical/pastoral formation of musicians. Such a musician would have known that a well-chosen entrance song, such as “Lift High the Cross” or “We Acclaim the Cross of Jesus,” would have been preferable to a singing weather report that day. If the parish begins the Sacred Triduum with this same antiphon on Holy Thursday, a Sunday celebration of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on a Sunday would have been a marvelous opportunity to give the Triduum some musical resonance as the heart of the whole liturgical year.

In any event, we cannot say that 1) only the proper entrance antiphon text could have accomplished the speaker’s purpose (a number of selections from the familiar hymn repertoire could have connected to the homily that day) or; 2) the text of the entrance antiphon cannot possibly be useful for preaching if it is not sung (easy enough for a homilist to quote the text, cite its reference to Galatians, or even describe its role as our entry into the Triduum).
There was a general sense in his talk that the word “proper” means “mandatory” (or that it ought to). But it doesn’t—it merely is a way of contrasting these texts to the fixed or “ordinary” texts of the eucharistic liturgy. I’m not opposing the use of the proper entrance antiphons in the eucharistic liturgy. I am in full agreement with those who say they are a sadly unknown, under-utilized treasure of our heritage. Our worship truly would be richer if we used them more frequently, even as a reference or starting point when selecting another option for the entrance chant.

I write the following in full “it takes one to know one” mode: That day there was, in my view, quite a bit of passive-aggressive behavior on display in one conference presentation. (For example, no time for question/comment or follow-up was allowed at the end of the talk.) Other, healthier behaviors might serve the faithful better.

Yes, let us glory in the Cross. Let us also keep channels of communication clear and open. Let us strive to bring the gifts of our various ministries together for the service of God’s people. Let us continue to learn and reflect on the richness of our liturgical heritage, using every skill to offer its richness for a deepened spirituality in the Paschal Mystery.

A blessed Exaltation of the Holy Cross to you!

A Troubling End to Christmas?

Stained glass image of baptism of Jesus
Baptism of Jesus – Stained glass window at Church of Our Savior MCC, Boynton Beach, Florida, USA. Photo by Deisenbe (CC BY-SA 4.0)


The Christmas Season concludes with the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Surprisingly or not, there are people who may not know this. For many Christmas ends in a number ways: on Christmas Day, on civil New Year’s Day, or on Epiphany (whenever it is celebrated). But the truth is that it concludes with Jesus’ baptism. I use “concludes” purposefully, because an ending is finite. Endings halt something from continuing, but conclusions can lead to further developments, and this is what the feast of Jesus’ remarkable baptism does. It leads us to furthering what it means to believe and to act as believers in the world.

It is not a feast to educate us on baptism, let that be the focus of the Easter Season. Nor is it really a feast to debate why Jesus submits to baptism at all. No, Christmas concludes with this pivotal moment, the beginning of Jesus of Nazareth’s earthly ministry. And it is a troubling moment if we remember Simeon’s prophecy that Jesus “is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted” (Luke 2:34). So an unpredictable life moves forward with baptism, and the impact of his baptism, trouble and glory, resounds in the lives of us who are baptized.

Gregory of Nazianzus wrote that the baptism of Jesus ushered an unexpected beginning to his ministry. Isaiah anticipated a “rending of the heavens” with armies of angels descending to wreak havoc, punishment, and destruction upon a deserving sinful and wicked humanity. Yet, at the baptism of Jesus the heavens “open of their own accord.” What descends are not vengeance seeking angels, but the Spirit, which empowers Jesus for his mission on earth. A mission “to bring glad tidings to the poor, proclaim liberty to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord” (Luke 4). If this is true of Jesus, then it is true of all the baptized.

This is why Christmas concludes on what some might see as a troubling note. With calls for so much vengeance, division, discord, and unrest in our world at this moment, such a mission for believers to undertake might seem improbable if not impossible.

We realize that Christmas is not a momentary respite from the ills that plague our communities, that it is not merely a frivolous distraction or occasion for inane bliss. Christmas opens our eyes and minds and hearts to what can be, what must be, if creation and humanity within it can flourish. It can only come about to the extent we cooperate with God’s plan of salvation, employing our own gifts and talents to further God’s work. This realization may be all too much to handle. All we wanted was the diversion, the senseless joy, but with Jesus’ baptism, linked as it is to our own, we must acknowledge that Christmas asks, if not requires us, to make Jesus’ mission our own.

It is certainly not an easy mission, and it is mission that may seem foolish to some, destined for rejection and misunderstanding to others, and yet it is still our mission. As the prophets tell us all through Advent, so, too, at Christmas’s conclusion, we need to wake up. We need to awaken ourselves to an image yet to be more widely included among the other images of Christmas: an adult Christ, baptized by John, about whom a voice from heaven affirms “beloved and well pleasing.” God speaks these same words to each of us when we pass through the waters of baptism.

And this why we celebrate year after year the memory of a child born for us. A child whose life offers us the way, the only way, to understand and embrace ourselves as God’s very image. An image meant to live and to act and to respond appropriately in this good creation with which God has gifted us. We accept this great commission, this awesome responsibility, because Christmas enshrines the profound memory that God creates us and all creation good. God could not become one like us if we and creation at our fundamental cores were anything less.