October 23, 2017

Jonathan Aigner: Ten reasons to follow the liturgical calendar

Cologne Cathedral, Germany

Cologne Cathedral, Germany

Note from CM: For this Jubilee Year of Mercy (which begins officially today), the Catholic Church has produced some excellent handbooks to help ministers and congregants focus on the theme of mercy. I found it interesting that the very first chapter of book one (called Celebrating Mercy), emphasized that the place to start was with a fresh understanding and practice of the liturgical year. So we’re focusing some of our posts this week on that topic.

Today we hear from our friend Jonathan Aigner, another one who admits he was not always a fan, on the benefits of liturgical worship. I respect Jonathan for his outspoken support of traditional forms of worship and hymnody, and I try to use his posts whenever I can to back him up and get an even wider audience for his thoughts. I think you’ll find this an excellent companion piece to Michael’s classic post we ran yesterday.

• • •

With the arrival of Advent this upcoming week, I’ve been thinking a bit about the benefits of following the Christian year. I’ll admit that this is a practice I once disregarded with sneers of haughty derision. But over the past decade, I’ve grown to see the liturgical year as one of the more important of our Christian traditions. Here are a few reasons why.

  1. It reminds us that we are a people set apart, and as such our lives aren’t oriented around nominal civic holidays and observances. When I was growing up in Baptistland, I never heard of the liturgical calendar. Church just wasn’t organized that way. Oh sure, we had our annual 6-week Christmas celebration, and Easter was a fairly big deal. But next to those, the biggest “feasts” we celebrated were Independence Day, Mothers Day, Fathers Day, and Thanksgiving (in that order). Most of the year was spent in a sort of liturgical purgatory; a perpetual ordinary time without the guidance of any spiritual organization, and revolving around whatever the pastor wanted. But as people of faith, we serve a higher throne, and our purpose in gathering together isn’t ever nationalism, cultural pride, or sentimentality. I love grilling on a warm summer evening, but the 4th of July has nothing to do with the Christian story, and neither do fond remembrances of mom and dad, or commemorating that one time the Pilgrims let the Native Americans dine at their table.
  2. It distinguishes our holy days from their secular knock-off celebrations. I do love many things about this time of year. The weather, hitting the mall late into the evening, holiday parties, watching National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (“Where’s the Tylenol?”). But, as fun and exciting as these things can be, the discipline of the church year helps us realize that these things are merely periphery.
  3. It organizes and shapes our lives by the Christian story, instead of the things the kingdom of the world holds valuable. Our lives are divided up into semesters, work schedules, electric bills, tax deadlines. Intentionally choosing a gospel-centered organization system helps us to maintain our first allegiance to Christ and his kingdom. Want to keep Christ in Christmas? Stop worry being the “Happy Holidays” police or petitioning to keep the nativity scene on City Hall lawn. We serve a throne that calls us to rise above that noise.
  4. The colors are so pretty. I’m kidding, of course. Sort of. Not really. The changing colors of the liturgical year can be powerful and meaningful symbols of our response to the holy events.
  5. It brings texture to our gathered worship. The object and definition of our worship never change, but observing the Christian year allows our corporate worship to reflect all the feelings and nuances of the gospel events. In that sense, it is a powerful rhetorical device, driving home the drama of the Christian story.
  6. advent-wreath-2It unites us with the holy catholic church, past, present, and future. Christ wasn’t crucified during the Clinton administration, and we don’t do the Christian life in a vacuum. We are part of a long faith tradition, one that has observed the Christian year in one form or another practically since the actual events themselves.
  7. It disciplines us to linger in the valley instead of rushing toward the mountaintop. Our culture believes wholeheartedly in the right to instant gratification, which plagues the church like festering boils on Egyptian necks. Like a kid locked unattended in a candy store, left to our own appetites, we will gorge ourselves with the sweet, sugary stuff until we puke. We need the anticipation of Advent to truly recognize the miracle of Christmas. We need to hear the voice crying in the wilderness, sing along with the heavenly host, and be without shelter in Bethlehem, before we hear the cry of the Word become flesh. We need to walk with Christ for those 40 days, see him ride into Jerusalem over the path of palm branches, dine with him in the upper room, fall asleep in the garden, and feel the hammer locked in our palm’s grip as the nails pierce our Savior’s body. Yes, we are an Easter people, but Easter doesn’t happen without the terror and anguish of the week before. It’s time to forsake the supreme quest for the Hollywood ending, and be willing to put off the unbridled excitement for our own edification.
  8. It helps church leadership avoid the narcissistic and self-referential pursuit of our own personal agendas. In the churches where I grew up, and a couple others I’ve served since, corporate worship was held hostage by the personal agendas of the pastors. Case in point: the topical sermon series. I’m not completely against the sermon series (of course, I think the Revised Common Lectionary is the greatest and most relevant sermon series possible), but so often they’re driven primarily by the personality instead of the Christian story. Following the Christian year doesn’t totally eliminate that possibility, but it’s a very helpful check.
  9. It reminds us of the parts of the Gospel story we often forget or neglect. I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t know what Pentecost was about until I was in my twenties, nor did I ever observe the Lenten season, understand Epiphany, or even hear the story of Christ’s ascension. I don’t remember hearing most of those words used, or if they were, they were too far embedded into an unrelated sermon series that I didn’t get it. I’m sure that some people grow up in liturgical churches and still don’t get it, but my Christian journey is poorer for not having the opportunity sooner.
  10. It is a supremely effective method of discipleship. While churches everywhere are falling for the latest and greatest discipleship program in the effort to revitalize their congregations, the best option might be older than all the rest. I like what Chaplain Mike over at the Internet Monk says about this curious phenomenon. “I don’t know why so many Christian groups think they need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to “discipleship programs.” This time-tested annual pattern for the life of individual believers and the Church together that is focused on Christ, organized around the Gospel, and grounded in God’s grace, is sheer genius. It is simple enough for a child. It offers enough opportunities for creativity and flexibility that it need never grow old. Each year offers a wonderful template for learning to walk with Christ more deeply in the Gospel which brings us faith, hope, and love.”

There is no better time to discover (or rediscover) the power in this beautiful discipline.

Comments

  1. I’m all for traditional liturgical worship. I’ve never belonged to a church that didn’t practice such worship, nor do I think ever will.

    But the resurrection of Jesus is the starting point of and the reason for all that comes after in the liturgical calendar. In the development of the liturgical year, it was Easter Sunday, with the Great Fifty Days from Easter to Pentecost, that was the first Church season. That’s because we don’t need to go through anything to get to Easter; Easter comes to us as the resurrected and living Jesus in the midst of the Church and the world, and is celebrated as principal Feast by the gathered community every Sunday in every liturgical season.

    • Good point Robert, and good liturgical churches keep this front and center.

    • Easter is to the Christian year as the resurrection is to the Christian faith. In fact, every Sunday is sort of considered to be a mini-Easter, with the actual Easter considered the peak celebration of what is remembered and celebrated all year.

      However, where as the rest of the Christian world is free to get on with their jolly gaiety of happy resurrection-ness, us dour Lutherans prefer to think of Good Friday as the center of the Christian faith and year. It is the cross that holds everything together in our religion, and the empty tomb is merely a necessary consequence of it.

      I mean, come on, if you had to chose between “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” and “Jesus Christ is Risen Today,” I know which one I would rather sing. 😛

  2. Really enjoyed reading this. I have never considered the calendar to reflect a different citizenship but how true. I think I need to pay greater heed to it. It is a very concrete differentiator and reminder of our true identity.

  3. I dunno.

    If liturgy for the sake of liturgy was the answer, there wouldn’t be so much variation in liturgical churches.

    The Orthodox and the ECUSA both have liturgy, but their comparative world-views are considerably different.

    It’s what you say about the events that occur during the Christian year that matter. The liturgies of Christendom can be used to advance other agendas besides that of the Kingdom of God, and the Devil is just as ardent a liturgist as he is a revivalist.

    • There are no perfect practices. We all need to disabuse ourselves of that notion now and forevermore. Amen.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        But there ARE perfect practices, CM.
        MY Practice is always the Perfect Practice. Any and all others are Apostate and Heretical.
        Ask any Net Orthodox, Baptist, Fundagelical, or Young Restless and Really TRULY Reformed.

    • Maybe consider a holiday from being the devil’s advocate . There are always exceptions, qualifiers, etc…..

  4. Steve Newell says:

    At the LCMS Lutheran Church that my family attends, there is a scripture reference to each part of the liturgy. It is show how the historic liturgy ties with Holy Scripture. I found this to be very helpful.

    • Steve Newell says:

      Another thought on the historic liturgy is that every one participates. We listen; we speak, we pray, we stand, we sit, we kneel, we chant, we sing, we confess, etc. My kids were able to participate in worship from a very young age in following along and they understand why we do what we do. Now my oldest, a college junior only wants to attend churches that follow the historic liturgy since he views “contemporary worship” as lacking in substance.

  5. You can tell this wasn’t written by a Presbyterian; it would’ve only been Five Reasons.

    Joking aside, it’s a nice list. I really like #7, “It disciplines us to linger in the valley instead of rushing toward the mountaintop.” We read Psalm 38 in the class I facilitate on Sunday and it struck all of us as one of the few Psalms that ends without resolution. It’s a plea for forgiveness and help, but ends with a lingering in the valley!

  6. Marcus Johnson says:

    I like #8. I would imagine that there must be something humbling in sermon preparation when a pastor becomes enamored with a particular sermon topic, but the liturgical calendar and lectionary dictate something else. It’s almost like being told, “This isn’t about what you (the pastor) want.”

    Also, since I do some traveling throughout the year for my job, I like the idea of going churches in other states and hearing sermons that stick to the calendar. Do it long enough, and you’ll get an idea of how big the church actually is, regardless of location or church community or pastor.

  7. “Do it long enough, and you’ll get an idea of how big the church actually is, regardless of location or church community or pastor.” Well put, Marcus! I like this.