March 21, 2019

Another Look: Church Year Spirituality

Note from CM: In our worship service at church this morning, I will be continuing our series on “Why We Worship as We Do,” and our subject is the Church Year. The worship we practice each week is set within a larger annual calendar. This post, repeated and updated over the years, explains the benefits of following this yearly cycle.

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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 withChrist. 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 together to form their spiritual lives — their walk with God through Christ — around the liturgical year.

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.

Marking the Liturgical Year is a salutary way for Christians, families, small groups, and congregations to walk with Jesus over the course of the year.

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)

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If you would like to read the entire series for which this post was the introduction, here are the links:

Comments

  1. Richard Hershberger says:

    “I don’t know why so many Christian groups think they need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to “discipleship programs.””

    Seriously? Because they think the liturgical calendar is Popish. This started early on. The Reformed approach to all things liturgical was to reject anything they did not think mandated by scripture. In its extreme version this included Christmas. In less extreme versions the liturgical calendar was deemphasized. (See also: Holy Communion). This was the starting point for Evangelicalism. Put this in the culture where it was very important to be very visibly Not Catholic. A preacher who talked about Lent and Advent might be removed from the pulpit for trying to enslave his parishioners to the Pope. In modern Evangelicalism it is out of fashion to be so openly anti-Catholic, since they are allies in the all-important Culture Wars, but the legacy remains. I think for a lot of Evangelicals, this simply isn’t on the radar. But you know who, besides the Catholics, does this liturgical calendar stuff? Episcopalians and Lutherans: those Spiritually Dead (TM) apostate churches. Even if a good Evangelical church isn’t openly concerned to establish its Not Catholic credentials, it still isn’t going to go looking to those mainlines for spiritual practices. Add to this the polite fiction that Evangelical worship is improvisational, the Holy Spirit not being noted for planning ahead, and the idea of a liturgical calendar seems just wrong.

  2. Biblically Sanctioned??

  3. As one grew up in a church that the only celebrations practiced were Mother’s Day, Easter, 4th of July, and Christmas, it was a wholly new revelation to be introduced to this ancient liturgical church calendar. What a wonderful way to go through the year, I have come to love and appreciate it’s richness and all the advantages you so well describe. .