What does “Proper 9” mean, anyway?

You have probably seen reference to this before, on this blog if nowhere else lately, that the previous two Sundays have been called “Proper 8” and “Proper 9”.  If you look inside our 2019 Prayer Book (as well as the old 1979) you’ll see these names in the Collects and Calendar sections.  There’s a further bit of explanation in the new book, which you might find handy – “PROPER 9 Week of the Sunday from July 3 to July 9” – but still doesn’t answer the question – what does “Proper” mean?

The term proper originally referred to parts of the Mass that changed from day to day or week to week: it was a feature of the Mass that was proper to a particular occasion or date.  Traditionally this included things like the Introit, Collect, Epistle, Gradual, Gospel, Offertory Sentence, Communion Sentence, and so on, but in the Prayer Book tradition the Propers were simplified to three things: Collect, Epistle, Gospel.  These three things are printed together, for each Sunday and Major Holy Day of the year, in the Prayer Book, such that you don’t actually need a Bible in hand to follow the entire Communion service.  The advent of the three-year lectionary, with its further addition of an Old Testament lesson and Psalm, has made such a feature much too large to fit in the Prayer book, so now our Communion lectionary is just a table of lessons, rather than the actual texts themselves.

With the radical revisions of the 1970’s came a revolutionary new liturgical calendar.  Pre-Lent was gone, Epiphanytide was almost completely revamped, and the season after Trinity Sunday was utterly rewritten.  You can read a little about how the historic Trinitytide season worked on this page.  The modern calendar, which our 2019 Prayer Book has inherited (this is my only significant complaint about the new book), does not build on “Sundays after Trinity” like the historic one, but instead has a set of “Propers” – that is, collects and lessons, tied to the secular calendar dates from late May until about four weeks before Christmas when Advent starts.  This means, given the shifting date of Easter from year to year, that although “Proper 29” will always be the last one before Advent, the first Proper Sunday will be different each year.  On average it starts around Proper 5 in roughly the second week of June.

One odd feature is the fact that Proper 1 is the week of the Sunday from May 8 to May 14, which is so early that neither it nor Proper 2 will ever be used on a Sunday!  They exist solely to provide for weekday Communion services of those weeks when Pentecost is that early, because the modern calendar has (again, sadly) one away with the Pentecost Octave.  Don’t worry, the Scripture lessons aren’t wasted, as they are duplicated with the corresponding Sundays in the latter weeks of the modern Epiphanytide.  Yes it’s complicated, but thankfully most people don’t have to worry about the mechanics of all this.  I only explain it here because someone out there is bound to be curious!

You can also look at the rubrics on page 614 for a few further notes about this portion (half) of the year.

To attempt to summarize this long answer into a short one… when you see “Proper 9”, don’t imagine it has any great special meaning.  It’s merely the 9th set of Propers (Collect & Lessons) in a line of Sundays spanning from May through November.  There are 29 in all, and we just jump right in to them after Trinity Sunday each summer.