Monday, December 05, 2005

What is the Church Year? A Bit of an Explanation

Every Sunday morning, I sit down with anyone who might be interested in discussing the Biblical texts around which our worship for that day has been built. It's a way of exploring the themes of the Bible lesson I use for my weekend messages more fully.

A week ago, on November 27, we celebrated the First Sunday in Advent, the first day of a new Church Year. So, in order to set the table, so to speak, during my weekly group. I talked a little bit about the Church Year. It was suggested that I might write down some of what I shared then. So, here goes.

The Church Year is a human invention. Observing it won't make us better than anybody else. Nor does keeping it "save" a person from sin and death.

But the Church Year is one of those customs or traditions designed to help people know the God we meet in Jesus and also help them to grow in their faith.

The Church Year is built around three great festivals: Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost.

Christmas, of course, is the celebration of Jesus' birth.

Easter is the day remembering Jesus' resurrection from the dead.

Pentecost remembers the occasion fifty days after the risen Jesus' resurrection and ten days after His ascension into heaven that the Holy Spirit came to Jesus' praying disciples and gave birth to the Church.

Historically, Easter was the first holy day that Christians began to celebrate. This only makes sense, as it's Jesus' resurrection that gives Christians hope for this life and the one to come. While early Christians did seem to remember Easter on a Sunday falling at the beginning of the Jewish Passover, the earliest practice of the first Christians, all of whom were Jesus' fellow Jews from Judea, was to worship on the traditional Jewish Sabbath--from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday--and to celebrate every Sunday as a little Easter. (Some echo of this can be found in the Gospel of John's occasional references to an "eighth day," a new beginning in a new week.)

Over time, a Church Year developed which allowed for the retelling of Jesus' life, death, resurrection, and ascension, followed by Pentecost. The Church Year, in order, moves through these seasons:
  • Advent
  • Christmas
  • Epiphany
  • Lent
  • Easter
  • Pentecost
Advent, with which the color blue is most often associated today, is celebrated on the four Sundays preceding Christmas, which always occurs on the fixed date of December 25. The word advent, means coming or presence. Its theme is waiting. This season remembers more than the centuries when the world anticipated or waited for the coming of the Savior, Jesus, on the first Christmas. It also calls us to patiently await both God's activity in our own lives and the return of Jesus at the end of earthly time. The color usually associated with Advent is blue, like the sky, reminding us of the endless hope all believers in Jesus Christ have.

Christmas begins on December 25 and ends on January 6, with Epiphany Day. (That's why people sing, The Twelve Days of Christmas.) We don't know the exact date of Jesus' birth. The date was long ago selected to be a Christian alternative to a pagan Roman festival, Saturnalia. Christmas has a short season of two Sundays associated with it, running right up to the season of Epiphany. The color of the Christmas season and of Easter, because they are both festivals of Jesus, the sinless Savior, is white.

The word epiphany comes from a Greek compound word meaning to shine upon. The Epiphany Season begins with January 6, the day historically used to commemorate the arrival of wise men from foreign lands who followed a star to the baby Jesus to a house in Bethlehem, where Mary and Joseph apparently decided to live for several years after the Savior's birth. January 6, in fact, is called Epiphany Day. (Because the wise men brought gifts, Epiphany was historically the day on which Christians gave one another presents.) There are between four and nine Sundays after the Epiphany. The season is bracketed by a first Sunday, that always remembers Jesus' Baptism, and a Sunday at the end that remembers Jesus' Transfiguration, the occasion when on top of a mountain, three of His disciples saw His image transfigured in the luminescence of heaven while He spoke with two figures of Old Testament faith, Moses and Elijah. On those two Sundays, the associated color is white. During the season in between, the color is green.

During the Epiphany season, Christians look at the early signs that pointed to Jesus being more than just a human being, but also God in the flesh, the Light of the world. The emphasis of the Epiphany season is usually on sharing the good news of Christ with others.

After Epiphany comes Lent, a word which in the Old English, meant spring. Lent is a time for spiritual renewal which precedes the holiest days of the Church Year, including Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. Lent is referred to as a season of forty days, which it is if you know how to count the days. Because Sundays are always "little Easters," the Sundays in Lent (not of Lent), are not counted as part of those forty days. The color associated with Lent is purple, the color of royalty because in ancient times, purple dyes were so rare and expensive that only royalty could afford cloth of that color. Historically, the season of Lent was a time of preparation for adult converts to the faith to prepare for their initiation into Christianity at Easter.

There are several key days on the Lenten calendar. The season begins with Ash Wednesday. This is a day of repentance, that is, of turning away from sin and turning to Christ for forgiveness. Of course, as Martin Luther phrased it, "daily repentance and renewal" are meant to be an ongoing element of the Christian's life as we routinely strive to orient ourselves to God and His will for us. But Ash Wednesday is a time when all are especially reminded of it.

Near the end of the season comes Passion Sunday (also known as Palm Sunday). On this day, we're called to remember both Jesus' seemingly triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the Sunday before His execution and Christ's passion, as well as its foreshadowing of Easter. Passion, a word that is really misused today, really means to be so committed to the well-being of another that we're willing to die for them. Christ had that kind of commitment to us and so, went to a cross. Passion Sunday begins that portion of Lent called Holy Week.

The next major day on the Holy Week calendar is Maundy Thursday. Maundy is rooted in the Latin word mandatum, from which we get our word mandate, related to the word commandment. That's because on the Thursday night before He was to be executed, during the Passover celebration at which He instituted Holy Communion, Jesus also gave His disciples "a new commandment": that they love one another. Many churches have foot-washing rites during their special gatherings on this day. Jesus washed the feet of His disciples before they ate together on that first Maundy Thursday and also commanded all of His followers to be servants like Him.

Good Friday, which comes on the next night, is a solemn remembrance of Jesus' death on the cross. For me, this is the most somber and one of the most moving worship services of the year. At our congregation, as is true of many churches, we have a service called Tenebrae. This word comes from the Latin and means darkness. The service remembers the darkness that engulfed the world at Jesus' execution as well as our need of Him as the light in our darkness. The service ends in silence as all contemplate Jesus' sacrifice of Himself for us.

Easter Sunday brings the celebration of Jesus' resurrection in a special way and continues throughout the Easter season. This is usually the high point of the year, even in churches that don't use the Church Year. The Easter Season lasts about seven weeks. The Gospel lessons incorporate accounts of the resurrected Jesus' appearances. Tucked in the midst of the season, on a Thursday, is Ascension Day. This comes forty days after Easter. More on that below.

Pentecost Day, as I mentioned, is the celebration of the Church's birthday, when the Holy Spirit, Who hovered over the waters of primordial chaos to bring life into being back in the Old Testament book of Genesis, once again creates. This time, He creates new life by bringing Christ's Church, His body in the world, into being. The color of this day is red.

There follows after that a season that lasts from twenty-three to twenty-eight weeks. It's referred to simply as the Pentecost Season. The color is green because the emphasis here is on growing in our faith, learning to be Jesus' disciples or followers at ever-deepening levels of maturity.

The very first Sunday after Pentecost is Holy Trinity Sunday. This focuses on the great mystery of the God we meet in the Bible: One God in three Persons made up of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The whole Church Year comes to a close, usually on the last or next-to-last Sunday in November with Christ the King Sunday.

Associated with each of the Sundays and many of the festivals of the Church Year are three cycles of appointed Biblical lessons. These cycles, referred to as Years A, B, and C, are called lectionaries. There are several sets of lectionaries, the the most well-known being those associated with the Roman Catholics, another with Lutherans, and another with a consortium of several Protestant denominations. The lectionaries are fairly similar, but do diverge occasionally.

Each Sunday and special festival day of the Church Year has appointed lessons from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the New Testament (either Acts, Revelation, or the letters), and a Gospel lesson. Generally speaking, the Old Testament, Psalm, and Gospel readings are thematically linked. The New Testament lessons are designed to make it possible over a three year period, to have almost all the letters, Revelation, and Acts read in public worship.

The three different cycles are built on the three synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. (Synoptic is a word that means to see together. These three Gospels are quite similar to one another--they see things similarly, while the Gospel of John has the most unique material.) Because Mark, with only sixteen chapters, is so short, the appointed Gospel lesson during its year is often taken from John.

At Friendship Church, where I serve as pastor, we've decided to use one or, at most, two Bible lessons on most Sundays. This allows our worship to be more thematically tight. About 80% of the time, those lessons come from the lectionary.

But I also feel free to spring loose from what one of our former Lutheran bishops, David Preus, called "the tyranny of the lectionary," in order to address issues that seem to be important in our community or world.

UPDATE: Mark Roberts, one of my favorite bloggers, is doing a series on that part of the Church Year we're currently celebrating, Advent. Check it out here.

8 comments:

Deborah said...

This site already has enough materials for two or three books. Posts like this are begging for a publisher! :)

Mark Daniels said...

Deborah:
You must be part of a southern California conspiracy to inflate my head to unmanageable proportions: Today I was asked for permission by a person from Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena to use a portion of my November 27 message in materials for their adult Sunday School class. Apparently, the person who contacted me found that post from a link to it by Mark Roberts, who said very kind things about it.

You SoCal people are going to make me insufferable to my family.

But thank you very much!

God bless.

Mark

Deborah said...

Perhaps it's a Pasadena thing: I grew up in the Pasadena area, and am quite familiar with Lake Avenue Church. :)

Your church writings,in particular, deserve to be shared with a bigger,published readership.

Congrats to your parents! That's wonderful. Mine celebrated 57 years of marriage on Nov 25.

Mark Daniels said...

Once again, Deborah, thank you!

Mark

gaw said...

Mark-

Thanks for the informative explanation of the calendar. Being a southern baptist, I've never really understood or fully appreciated things like Ash Wednesday and Lent... I've tended to view them as throwbacks to Roman tradition and things to be avoided.

Is there a such a thing as a "Lectionary for Dummies?" I ask, because it seems to me that following the scripture reading and thematic structure of the church year could make for an enriching program of family worship. A guide to the calendar and suggested scripture readings would be most helpful.

Mark Daniels said...

gaw:
I don't know of a 'Lectionary for Dummies' or even a 'Church Year for Dummies,' but it may be a good idea and I would volunteer to write it, I think. Maybe I'll try writing something like that later on this blog.

As to whether there are daily lectionaries that families (or individuals) can use, there are. But I would caution that for families with younger children, having three or four daily Bible readings could get to be a bit too much to bear. Near the front of the 'Lutheran Book of Worship,' for example, there is a daily lectionary. I'm sure that other hymnals of other denominations would have something similar in them. The daily lectionaries with which I'm familiar though, aren't on the three-year cycle; they're designed instead, to get you through the whole Bible in one year.

One thing that a family could do is take one of the three-year lectionaries appointed for public worship and somehow spread out their weekly round of four lessons over the week. This would be a great approach because, whether you're part of a liturgical church or not, it would keep you in sync with the seasons of the Church Year, especially important at Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, and help you pursue the goal of a deeper discipleship that is behind all lectionaries. If a person did that, I would advise reading the Psalm and the Gospel lesson on more than one day during the week and then choosing between the Old Testament and non-Gospel New Testament lesson to double up on during the week.

You could "google" a lectionary, by typing "lectionary, 2006" into the search box. You could refine the search by typing in whatever denominational flavor might interest you.

Just a few thoughts.

Thank you so much for reading the blog and for your affirming comments. God bless you!

Mark

Chad Toney said...

gaw:

http://www.churchyear.net/

beware, it is "Roman"! ;-)

Anonymous said...

This is an outstanding post, Mark. Congratulations, and thank you.

Bob