October 16, 2017

The New Liturgical Gangstas (4)

Today, we present the fourth installment renewing IM’s popular feature, “The Liturgical Gangstas,” a panel discussion involving representatives from different liturgical traditions who will be answering questions regarding theology and church practice. Lord willing, the Gangstas will appear near the end of each month to share with our IM audience.

Today two of our Gangstas weigh in on the value of keeping the Church Year.

  • Rev. Angie Gage is an associate pastor in a United Methodist church in Arkansas.
  • Rev. William Cwirla is a Lutheran pastor (LCMS) and one of the hosts of the excellent podcast, The God Whisperers.

Today’s Question: THE LITURGICAL YEAR
Many churches use the Christian calendar as a pattern for organizing their ministry and approach to spiritual themes throughout the year. Even churches that are not traditionally liturgical are using elements of the Christian year in their ministries now. In your tradition, how much does the Christian calendar inform and order your church’s practice?

Rev. William Cwirla (Lutheran, LCMS)

We Lutherans are heirs to the liturgical customs of the western catholic tradition by way of the Reformation.  While we recognize that there is no divinely mandated calendar of worship in the new testament as there was in the old (Romans 14:5; Colossians 2;16), we do recognize the value of an ordered system of celebrations for highlighting various aspects of God’s work of salvation in Christ.  And so, like so many other things catholic, Lutherans keep the liturgical calendar.

The liturgical calendar is driven by a system of readings for each Sunday called the “lectionary.”  Each Sunday has assigned readings from the Old Testament, the NT epistles, and one of the synoptic gospels.  I’m not going to go into the nuances between the so-called “one-year historic lectionary” and the modern “three-year lectionary.” Just as the Orthodox have their old and new “Calendarists,” so we Lutherans have our one and three-year lectionaryists.  We still manage to agree on the date of Easter.

The western liturgical calendar is built around three major feast/festival cycles – Christmas/Epiphany, Good Friday/Easter/Ascension (“Cross and Resurrection” in the early church), and Pentecost.

Christmas/Epiphany deals with the Incarnation and Manifestation of Christ in the Flesh.  “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.”  (John 1:14).  Good Friday/Easter/Ascension focuses on the death, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ.  “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  (Jn 1:29).  Pentecost is concerned with the activity of the glorified Christ who sens the Holy Spirit to give breath and life to His Church’s proclamation of His salvation.  “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” (John 16:13).

These three feasts each generate a “season,” a period of time that follows, and a preparatory  fast, a period of time that precedes it.  Each season also has its own character determined by its Scripture readings, the hymns chosen to reflect those readings, and devotional practices and pieties, such as fasting, feasting, Advent wreaths, etc.  Color is also used symbolically in adorning our churches.  For example Advent is purple, denoting Christ’s royalty; Christmas, Epiphany, and Easter are white, symbolizing Christ’s divinity; Pentecost is red for the fire of the Holy Spirit.  The “ordinary time” following Pentecost is green, denoting the growth in sanctification worked by the Spirit through the Word and sacraments.

You might think of church year in terms of the Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  (I thank John Pless for this, though I’m not certain it originates with him.)  The season of Advent/Christmas/Epiphany is the season of the Father who sends the Son on His mission of incarnation to save the world from Sin and Death.  The season of Lent/Easter/Ascension is the season of the Son, who lays down His life and takes it up again as the sacrificial Lamb and Savior.  The season of Pentecost is the season of the Holy Spirit, who is the breath and life of the Church as the Body of Christ in discipling mission to the world.

The church year is an annual pilgrimage, beginning with the anticipation of Christ’s coming in glory (Advent), going through His incarnation (Christmas) and manifestation (Epiphany), contemplating our sinfulness (Lent) in view of Christ’s sacrifice (Good Friday), His victory over death (Easter), His ascension to glory at the right hand of the Father by which our humanity is glorified in Him (Ascension), and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the last days (Pentecost) as we wind our way to the Last Day and the consummation of all things.  In other words, the entire work of our justification and sanctification in Christ is rehearsed every year – from incarnation to glorification.

Sprinkled throughout the year are various commemorations of saints and minor festivals.  But I’m way over my word limit.  So permit me a personal word.  I love the church year.  For me, it’s like the changes of the weather and foliage with the seasons.  I’ve lived it my entire 53 years as a baptized believer; I’ve preached it for the last 18 years as an ordained pastor.  The church year rescues us from the tyranny of the urgent to proclaim the urgency of the kingdom and its coming in Christ.  We’re rescued from the pressures of being relevant to hearing the relevance of both the teaching of Christ and Christ’s teachings.  Every year is a pilgrimage through the revelation of Jesus Christ for us and for our salvation.

Blessed Advent to all.  Come, Lord Jesus!

Rev. Angie Gage (United Methodist)

I absolutely love the Christian Calendar.  I tend to celebrate it more than our secular calendar.  I guess one might say I am an odd duck because I celebrate the less celebrated Holy Days.  I find them exciting, even in the midst of them being somewhat mundane to most people.  I know people celebrate in a large way days like Christmas  and Easter, but I celebrate Baptism of our Lord Sunday, Transfiguration Sunday, Epiphany Sunday and others.  The days of the Liturgical Year speak to me personally within my faith life.  They are also significant as to how I order the spiritual themes that I study personally throughout the year.

In my first two churches, I was the only pastor.  I followed the Revised Common Lectionary for my preaching schedule.  By using the RCL, I was able to closely follow the Christian Calendar for the liturgy and celebration of worship in the churches.  I also liked doing this because it aided in the hymn selection in which the hymns would match the scripture and central theme of the sermon.  There are resource materials within my denomination that assist in this process of hymn selection.  By matching the scripture and hymns together with the aid of the RCL and the Christian calendar, I feel that the congregations were able to get a more grounded experience in worship and deeper understanding of the message from God within our worship experience, realizing that God can work beyond the message of which I was aware.

Being an associate pastor now has changed how I approach the Christian Calendar in regards to worship and study.  The senior pastor with whom I now work typically preaches in series.  It has been an adjustment, but refreshing and reassuring as I discovered that in the midst of series, he is traditional in the following of the Christian year.  We just ended the year with Christ the King Sunday and begin a new year with the First Sunday of Advent.  I still have the freedom to order my ministry around the Christian calendar and use it as a source to offer new studies within my church.  At this time, I am offering to my congregation and others a Daily Devotional for Advent.  This is a devotional that I have authored.  I currently plan to continue to write more devotionals that coincide with the Christian year.  I feel that as we teach and lead according to the pattern established by the Christian calendar, we offer yet another teaching and window into the gospel message of Jesus Christ.

The United Methodist Church has a long standing tradition of following the Christian year with the Liturgical calendar.  We are a Liturgical Church.  Our General Board of Discipleship is even given charge to provide the resources that we need in order to celebrate the Liturgical seasons.  They provide learning opportunities, print resources, and other advice to the church to insure that in our worship, we have what we need in order to celebrate the Liturgical seasons.  Walk into our sanctuaries and you will see the colors of the liturgical year, the stoles that our ordained clergy wear are made in the liturgical colors (as well as other designs), most of our weekly bulletins have the reminder of what day of the Christian Year it is.  We follow the Liturgical calendar.

Following the Christian calendar allows us to provides unique worship experiences focused around the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The Christian calendar provides a structure for churches to follow that will allow the people to see the gospel unfold in a significant and moving way.  It is also an educational opportunity for the people to seek greater understanding of what God has done for us through Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit offered to us.

While many churches/denominations do not use the Christian calendar, I feel that they are missing out on something.  I recently was in a discussion with a few young adults regarding the Christian calendar.  It amazed me to find that there are people who did not realize there was a Liturgical season in which we prepared for the celebration of the birth of the Christ Child (Advent) or a season for preparation of the celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Lent).  The people I was in a conversation with were under thirty.  They were fascinated with the idea of Advent and Lent and wanted to know more.

With so many churches straying from the traditions of the church, I think it is important, even in the midst of our modern culture, to maintain the integrity of the Christian year and teach it to our people.  Thematic, Series, or Lectionary, whatever the preaching style may be, there is still opportunity to include the Christian calendar beyond simply Christmas and Easter so that God’s children are able to grow in their faith and understanding in what is a new way to some, and a familiar way to many.

Comments

  1. I receive Angie’s Advent devotional via email and I love and look forward to each one. They are very well written and Angie demonstrates a powerful commitment to sharing the love of Christ by taking the time to develop the devotionals. Coming from a church background that never included celebration of the Christian year (rather, in fact, condemned such celebration as sinful, believe it or not), I have found learning about the Liturgical calendar to be enlightening. I feel like I am learning more about Christ’s life and ministry as I learn about the Holy Days of the Christian year.

  2. At the Methodist church where I split my time with here in Australia, the lack of use of the liturgical year is one thing that irks me a little bit. OK, quite a lot if I’m honest with myself. Which is why I’ve ended up splitting my church attendance by being a parishioner at the cathedral parish of the Anglican diocese in my neck of the woods.

    The liturgical year is followed in the Anglican cathedral parish and I’ve found that the preaching through the lectionary has helped me get a better grasp of the totality of the Biblical message and allowed me to dig further where I want to/feel led to. While there’s a place for preaching in series (as is often the case at the Methodist parish), I find that sometimes, the preaching series is totally out of kilter with my observation of the liturgical year. At times some of the topics preached on a Sunday in the weeks preceding Easter or Christmas seem to be entirely irrelevant to the upcoming major festivals.

    I do quite like Rev. Cwirla’s take on the liturgical year being Trinitarian though. I’d never really thought of it that way before so thanks Rev. Cwirla for providing some food for thought and meditation over the next week! 🙂