December 17, 2017

Another Look: Preparing for a New Church Year

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Note from CM: In 2010, we did a series on “Church Year Spirituality.” November is the month when we complete the annual liturgical cycle and prepare for a new Church Year, which begins the first Sunday in Advent (Nov. 29 this year). Here is the first post from that series. We present it in order to help us all prepare for the first Sunday in Advent this weekend.

• • •

Christians who follow the liturgical calendar will begin a new year of living in the Gospel with the commencement of Advent on Nov. 29.

The diagram on the right gives an overview of the annual Church calendar.

  • Advent is the season when we prepare for Christ’s coming. (4 weeks)
  • Christmastide is the season when we celebrate Christ’s incarnation. (12 days)
  • In Epiphany, we remember how Christ made God’s glory known to the world. (up to 9 weeks)
  • The Lenten season leads us to the Cross, the climactic event in Holy Week, which concludes Lent. (40 days plus Sundays)
  • Eastertide (the Great 50 Days) celebrates Christ’s resurrection, new life, and his ascension to glory. It concludes on the 50th day, Pentecost, the day of the Spirit’s outpouring.
  • The Season after Pentecost (or Trinity, or Ordinary Time) is the time of the church, when by the Spirit we live out the life of the Gospel in community and in the world. (up to 29 weeks)

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.

My favorite book on church year spirituality is Robert Webber’s Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality through the Christian Year. Here is his summary of the subject:

Ancient-Future Time presents the historical understanding of the Christian year as life lived in the pattern of death and resurrection with Christ. This spiritual tradition was developed in the early church and has been passed down in history through the worship of the church. It enjoys biblical sanction, historical staying power, and contemporary relevance. Through Christian-year spirituality we are enabled to experience the biblical mandate of conforming to Christ. The Christian year orders our formation with Christ incarnate in his ministry, death, burial, resurrection, and coming again through Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost. In Christian-year spirituality we are spiritually formed by recalling and entering into his great saving events. (p. 21f)

In today’s post I will merely list five primary reasons why I think it advantageous for Christians to form their spiritual lives — their walk with God through Christ — around the liturgical year. Then, throughout the month on subsequent Sundays, we will take these points and expand upon them. We will continue exploring and discussing this over the next two weeks as we prepare for our new Church Year to begin on Nov. 30.

Five Reasons to Practice Church Year Spirituality

  • It enables us to live in God’s Story. Church Year spirituality forms Christian people around the story of redemption in Christ. It does not focus on “principles” or “steps” or “programs” for spiritual growth. It is thoroughly Jesus-shaped and uses the biblical story to conform our lives to his. As Israel was shaped by their story of slavery, redemption, covenant, and Promised Land, so the New Israel is formed by the story of Messiah.
  • It keeps the main thing the main thing. Church Year spirituality is Christ-centered. It is shaped around the events of his incarnation, ministry, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and the outpouring of his Spirit. At every turn we see Jesus, we hear Jesus, we follow Jesus.
  • It recognizes that one’s calendar forms one’s life. Church Year Spirituality is down-to-earth, utterly realistic about the day to day, season to season patterns of life that shape our behavior. All our lives we have developed habits by the way we mark and use our time. A spirituality formed around the Church Year is designed to form our habits around following Jesus. We take the place of disciples, and walk through the same experiences they had as they lived with Jesus day in and day out, season after season, over the course of three years.
  • It links personal spirituality with worship, family, and community. Church Year Spirituality recognizes both the individual journey and the corporate pilgrimage. What happens on Sundays is of a piece with what happens during the week as our corporate worship and our daily lives as individuals and families are shaped around the story of Jesus.
  • It provides a basis of unity and common experience for Christians everywhere. Our unity with other Christians is in the Gospel story. This is summarized in the Apostles’ Creed and the other creeds of the church. Propositional doctrinal statements have their place as ways to express more detailed understandings of the meaning and significance of God’s saving acts, but our unity with other believers is in Christ. We celebrate this throughout the year when churches of various traditions and denominations celebrate the Church Year and conform their worship and congregational lives to it.

I hope this introduction is helpful. Advent begins on Sunday, kicking off another year of shaping our lives according to Jesus and his Story.

When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” (John 1:38-39)

It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. (Col 1:28)

Comments

  1. Eckhart Trolle says:

    To play devil’s advocate, here are three reasons why your reasons are bad:

    * Your last reason would only apply to those groups which follow “the” church calendar (i.e. this church calendar in particular). In fact your calendar is not so much ecumenical as Roman Catholic.

    * The liturgical calendar is “about” Jesus only if you think Jesus was “about” repetitive ritual behavior, displays of public piety (e.g. fasting), and flamboyant colored vestments. (Orthodox readers may add various untranslatable musical flourishes.)

    * This calendar does not map neatly onto any “story,” but was superimposed upon a set of pre-existing holidays. Think about it: if one wanted to recapitulate the life of Jesus through a cycle of celebrations, shouldn’t the events of his life be celebrated in more or less chronological order, and with more attention to his life in between the Incarnation and Crucifixion? It could start with Christmas and end with Armageddon-mas.

    In conclusion, “ancient-future” theology is just a rhetorical strategy designed to bolster one’s religious preferences with spurious claims of universality and antiquity, It works just as well with astrology.

    • The seminal festival of the Church is Easter. It was observed every Sunday from the beginning, and became instituted by the Jewish Christians as a ritualized annual festival also in the first century, observed at the time of the Jewish Passover. The rest of the calendar slowly developed after the institution of Easter, and is theologically subordinate to it. The calendar was shaped by the centrality of the Easter experience in the life of the Church, and the theological articulation of that experience is expressed in the calendar; the calendar, in turn, shapes the worship of the Church with Easter as its central theological, not chronological, reality, and seeks to recapitulate that memory of the Church in the current worship of the Church. To to be critical of the chronologically deficient shape of the calendar, and to complain about its theological biases, is to miss the point entirely: the calendar developed and exists in the first place to pass on and teach in worship the Church’s experience, memory and interpretation of the resurrection event, and the Jesus who was raised.

      • I mean, the primary reason you think the liturgical calendar is deficient is that you don’t believe what the Church teaches about Jesus Christ.

        • Read this first as “you don’t believe the church teaches Jesus Christ”, and I was nodding along.

          • I don’t think I understand what you mean, StuartB.

            If you mean there is place where I may encounter Jesus apart from the Church’s proclamation, a Jesus uninterpreted by the Church, I am incredulous. The only Jesus I have ever known has been the one proclaimed, mediated and interpreted by the Church’s witness. That witness established its norm in the canonical New Testament scriptures, which themselves are the earliest expressions of tradition that we possess. They proclaim the resurrection of Jesus, the event around which the Church was formed, and his continued living presence-beyond-death in the Church and in the world; both of these ET disbelieves. If we believe in the resurrected and living Jesus, we do so through trust in the Church’s proclamation of that reality.

          • I’d argue most of the modern christian church in america does not in fact teach the biblical Jesus from the gospels but rather some amalgation of 19th century white european middle class values gun packing abortion shooting immigrant hating last chance Messiah.

            Today has been a very bad day, and I can tell I’m actively dissociating with stuff that is happening in Colorado. Because if I think about it, I’ll get angry.

            And I know too many people who really, truly, deep down, have no problem with the shooter and what he did, because “justice”, because “abortion”, because “sin”. All things they learned from their churches’ “Jesus”.

          • I believe the Church’s witness to Jesus Christ, but I don’t believe everything the Church has ever taught; for some inscrutable reason, God has entrusted witness to Jesus to imperfect scriptures, imperfect traditions, and an imperfect and frequently evil-doing Church. Peace to you, StuartB, and peace to all those who’ve become victim to violence in Jesus’ name.

        • Eckhart Trolle says:

          There is no “the Church”. There is only YOUR church.

          • That’s your opinion; of course you’re entitled to it. I, along with the church bodies with which I worship, affirm otherwise. We affirm the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church; it’s a datum of faith.

      • In the Church, every Sunday is a feast, because every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. That is the central observance of the liturgical calendar, and it stays with us every week of the year. Since you don’t believe in the resurrection event, of course the calendar is a pile of nonsense.

    • your calendar is not so much ecumenical as Roman Catholic.

      Well, there is that, but TBF almost all of Protestantism is derived from Catholic roots, not Orthodox, and the calendar differences go back even before the Reformation. Someone tell Francis and Kirill to get to work on that…

      The liturgical calendar is “about” Jesus only if you think Jesus was “about” repetitive ritual behavior, displays of public piety (e.g. fasting), and flamboyant colored vestments.

      In reverse order… 1) you don’t require vestments to follow the calendar. ;-). 2) WRT rituals and public piety, well that’s the rub. We Americans instinctively distrust “public piety” and “ritualism” because of our revivalist DNA. Used properly, however, they can help guide a community (again, that whole “it’s not just about YOU AS AN INDIVIDUAL” thingy) towards being more Christ-centric in its worship and thinking.

      This calendar does not map neatly onto any “story,” but was superimposed upon a set of pre-existing holidays.

      At an earlier point in my life’s journey, I might have cared that Christian holidays aren’t “ideologically pure”. Now, I can almost care less. If you strip away everything from Christianity that has connections and roots in other cultures, you’ll get precisely NOTHING left. We human beings are cultural, and Christ incarnated Himself within such a culture way back when.

      “ancient-future” theology is just a rhetorical strategy designed to bolster one’s religious preferences with spurious claims of universality and antiquity

      Like the particularity and modernity of American evangelicalism has been working out SO well for us lately. :-P. Talk to a lot of the folks around here – the lack of roots, history and substance has been driving many of us bat-guano crazy. Is the Evangelical church calendar of Mothers Day, the Fourth of July, and twice a year nods-to-Jesus at Easter and Christmas really no less meritorious or religiously significant than a traditional church calendar like what Chaplain Mike detailed above?

      • in the place of “the lack of roots, history and substance”, has the evangelical world sought to find a unifying structure in politics?

        I think there are signs that this may be true along the edge of the evangelical continuum that favors fundamentalism . . . politics, with its ‘slogans’, and ‘easy answers’, and ‘personalities’ . . . ready to fill a ‘void’ (and yes, a GREAT void) left by abandoning Christ as the ‘lens through which all of the Bible should be interpreted’
        but it’s what is trying to fill that void that is, or should be, extremely worrisome, yes:
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GBDbGyv6SIQ

        • Christiane, I would think that the more one approaches the fundamentalist mindset within the Evangelical world, the more politics and the culture war is operative. It would be unfair to characterize all Evangelicals as having this mindset. In my view, what does set Evangelicals apart is the adherence to the Bible as final authority in religious and spiritual matters, and of course that would be Scripture as “rightly understood”.

          Also in my view, liturgical and mainline churches have done the same thing with tradition, and of course that would be tradition as “rightly understood”. This is not an either/or distinction so much as a matter of emphasis. Again in my view, if there are mistakes being made, it would be in raising either Scripture or Tradition to a position of authority above God Most High. This can be either subtle or overt, but as far as I can tell would be mostly unrecognized consciously and likely hotly denied if pointed out. Most people would probably hold that the only way we have of knowing God is thru the human means of Scripture and Tradition in one combination or another, and of course “rightly understood”.

          • Christiane says:

            Hi CHARLES,
            thank you for your response . . . I can very much agree that ‘mainline’ Evangelicals are not the sort to promote the kind of message that video showed . . . that IS an ‘extreme’ and that is my point . . . that now, in the wake of something fulfilling to occupy the fundamentalist ‘void’, extreme viewpoints have a great attraction, and I am concerned because some of our top candidates for political office seem to support those extreme viewpoints and they self-identify as Evangelicals

            I have friends who are Evangelicals and I respect them as good Christian people and would never think of them as prone to extremism of the negative sort seen on that video. I do know there is a difference. I think there is something about extreme fundamentalism in ANY religion that brings out the worst in human nature. At least some are willing to expose the evil and alert folks to its presence lurking at the edges and borders of our faith . . . an example is the good work of Wartburg Watch.

            I don’t want evangelicals hurt by extremism of the sort in that video. I am very concerned about this.

      • Eckhart Trolle says:

        Some churches (not all of them unambiguously “Protestant”–think of Quakers, for instance) arose well after the Reformation, and had little emotional attachment to Catholic practices. They typically tried to reconstuct the teachings and practices of pre-“Catholic” Christianity (and indeed, Jesus himself).

        BTW rather than Kirill, Patriarch of (autocephalous) Moscow, the pope should probably be talking to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholemew.

    • Armageddon-mas

      That’s so metal.

      • Eckhart Trolle says:

        You could add a whole feast cycle based on the rapture, Gog and Magog, the 7 years of Tribulation. etc. The iconography alone would be worth it.

  2. Thanks for your work on this, chap Mike. This reflection is a great way to celebrate adventure and prepare for 2016. Your posts are a solid continuation of the ancient-modern IMONK traditions . Peace to you and those you hold dear.

  3. Any church that holds its main worship services on Sunday, and observes Easter (some evangelicals call this Resurrection Sunday), is already observing the most important parts of the liturgical calendar; the question is: Why do they want to go and reinvent the wheel the rest of the year (excluding Christmas Day, of course), when the wheel we have inherited is perfectly functional and serviceable all year long?

    • Christiane says:

      of greater concern is the relegating of The Lord’s Supper (holy communion) to a minor role in the life of some faith communities . . . once that has lost it’s attraction, what remains for people to gather around that makes them a ‘community’ ??

      the liturgy for all it is dissed by some Christians does at least retain a focus of Our Lord which strengthens the community and keeps it aligned with the core purposes of the Body of Christ

      • once (communion) has lost it’s attraction, what remains for people to gather around that makes them a ‘community’?

        Music. The pastor. The children’s programs. The theology. Hanging out with the “right sort”. The list is endless.

        • And, of course, longer and longer and longer sermons….oh my goodness. I hear the gospel proclaimed in the liturgy, and the appointed scriptural readings, far more than I ever hear it in sermons. The best sermons I’ve heard were short; actually, they were homilies.

          • >> The best sermons I’ve heard were short; actually, they were homilies.

            Right with you there, Robert. I imagine that is offensive or hurtful for most preachers. Romans seem to be better at this than anyone else in the West. You might not want to go the rest of the way with me tho. I’m after a spoken service, sometimes called a said service, with no music, no hymns, the essential liturgy and your homily. Maybe half an hour tops, people in big cities do it in their lunch hour.

            Romans and ‘Piscopals seem to be most familiar with it. I did find two ELCA Lutheran churches online doing it, one in Downers Grove, IL and one in w’s neck of the woods in PA, so it’s not unheard of. Not likely to happen by me, but I would attend in a heartbeat, and would be most curious to see if anyone besides me showed up. I consider hymns and the Creed and a sermon beyond seven minutes to be the price I have to pay to participate in the Eucharist and the Passing of the Peace and the liturgy. Yeah, yeah, those things ARE part of the liturgy. No they’re not, give me a break, give me a spoken service.

          • Charles,
            Actually, I like the said service, as does my wife, who is a Church musician; as Episcopalians, we’ve both experienced it, and appreciate its simplicity and elegance, and its silent spaces. One thing my wife doesn’t like about the Lutheran services she plays for is the requirement they have for what she calls “traveling music”: if an action on or off the altar would require more than ten seconds, then there must be music to fill the otherwise silent duration.

            Neither I nor she, however, would like all services to be silent; that may be for purely mercenary reasons, but I hope not.

            Btw, I’ve never been to a said service where the Creed was not recited. On this we disagree, as you know: I love the poetry of the Creeds.

          • That is, Neither I nor she, however, would like all services to be said services….

          • >>Btw, I’ve never been to a said service where the Creed was not recited.

            Robert, if standing while the Creed was recited was the price I had to pay for a said service, I could handle it. Might get a little uncomfortable if I was the only one in attendance or close to it. I can deal with the Apostles a whole lot better than the Nicene, but I truly don’t think God is keeping score as to what I say I believe. especially since this has changed over the years and likely will continue to do so. I can see where a Creed could be problematic for folks with a non-liturgical background while the rest of the liturgy wouldn’t, and have seen this at liturgical funerals. Different strokes.

      • I agree. But, for some reason, the two usually go hand-in-hand: neglect of the liturgical calendar and of frequent celebration of Holy Communion seem to run along parallel tracks.

    • Eckhart Trolle says:

      How do you define “servicable”? Any religion creaks along more or less equally well.

      Most churches use a very stripped-down liturgical calendar (i.e., Christmas and Easter, calculated as per the Catholics). Isn’t that enough? Do you really have to add all the flourishes? Is the celebration of Mardi Gras really that necessary?

      The rhetoric of church as “community” is very overblown. Generally speaking, your church is not a community properly so-called, but something more like a club. The people there may befriend you, or even help you, but then they may also treat you as a stranger who happens to be in the same place as them.

      • You’re a cynical one, Mr. Grinch!

      • I have no beef with minimalist liturgy and church; problem is, the spaces that the practices of liturgical and ecclesial minimalism open up usually become filled with things of distinctly inferior quality compared with what came before. You may say that is an aesthetic judgment, and all aesthetics are purely subjective, but I have to disagree: I believe that beauty is an objective quality.

      • Christiane says:

        Hi Eckhart,

        when you hear ‘faith community’, think of people who gather around a communion table . . . they may not know one another socially, but they recognize the bond that exists in Holy Communion

        the words ‘communion’ and ‘community’ is, of course, related in their meaning in this context . . . that is my point

        a Church with a stage and an audience and a lot of entertaining offerings for the members which doesn’t celebrate the Lord’s Supper regularly . . . what draws them together MAY be more social . . . but I cannot know that . . . I’m concerned that what is drawing fundamentalists together may not be the most wholesome influences these days, as per that video I shared . . . am I worried ? . . . you bet

  4. A few years after I left the RCatholic Church, I became interested in the feasts of Judaism, especially as they are seen as fulfilled in Jesus. The cycle of Jewish feasts was its own kind of “church year.” It was even more ancient/”biblical” than what the big, bad Roman bishops had instituted – so went the non-historical belief of the non-liturgical churches of which I was a part. There are still quite a few Protestant Christians of my acquaintance, some who look askance at a “church year” and others who don’t know or care so much about it, who are attracted to the Jewish feasts.

    I may be wrong, but I think this betrays some sort of lack, and a longing for the “baptism of time” that is the Church Year – along with the cycle of daily monastic prayer (the Hours) and the weekly Sunday celebration of Pascha (Cross+Resurrection).

    The Church Year is somewhat different in the East, beginning 1 September, thus making Pascha more central for the whole year. The year is bookended by feasts of the Cross, reminding us what is central, and also by feasts related to Mary the Mother of God and John the Baptizer, reminding us of Mary’s unique place within humanity in salvation history, and that we are called to martyrdom (witness) because of our identification with the Cross and Resurrection of Christ.

    Dana