Everyone knows what you do when you fall off the proverbial horse. But nobody spends a lot of time talking about how painful it is. So it is after a very sparse couple of months of pain, I climb back up into the saddle that I made for myself on the horse that I have raised over the last decade. There are times when I really don’t like the horse, but by now, walking away from it just seems silly.
Tomorrow begins the new liturgical Church year. Just like we have a calendar that marks off the year from January to December, with associated holidays and milemarkers along the way, the Church has a means of keeping track of time as well. But the Church calendar isn’t linked to the physical seasons, rather utilizes a series of seasons with holidays and milemarkers centered around the Incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ.
The Church year begins with the season of Advent that starts the last Sunday of November. Advent is a season of waiting and preparation for the arrival of the Christ child. Of course, we’re participating in the waiting vicariously, but also actually. Vicariously because we aren’t waiting for the first arrival of the Christ, as God’s people were 2000+ years ago. Rather, we are waiting for his return. We join with all God’s people in history in looking forward to the fulfillment of his promise to Eve in Genesis 3:15 that one of her offspring would destroy the serpent. But we look forward to his return in glory, to the revelation of the victory accomplished nearly 2000 years ago in his incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension.
Advent leads us to the fulfillment of God’s promise in the birth of the Christ child, a moment of fulfillment that gives our hope for his return shape and substance and meaning. We don’t wait in vain. God fulfilled his promise to his people 2000 years ago. He fulfilled it in his time and way, but He fulfilled it, so we can trust He will fulfill his promise that Christ will return again. The season of Christmas celebrates the physical incarnation of the Son of God. Unlike the secular ‘season’ of Christmas, the liturgical one begins on Christmas Day, rather than before, and then extends for three weeks and kind of blurs into the season of Epiphany, which accentuates the divine nature of the Christ child. It is not simply the offspring of Eve who gains victory over creation’s ancient enemy, but the Son of God as well.
The season of Epiphany runs for six more weeks, but after the actually Feast of Epiphany, the remaining weeks are treated as part of Ordinary Time, the description of those parts of the Church year that are not concerned with a particular feast or celebration. Epiphany ends with Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, the liturgical season of preparation for Holy Week, which remembers the last week of our Lord’s life from his arrival in Jerusalem to his Easter resurrection, which in turn launches the season of Easter. This lasts seven weeks and ends with Pentecost Sunday, which initiates the season of Pentecost. Pentecost, in turn, is the liturgical season which will run the rest of the liturgical year, to the end of November and the beginning of the new Church year with Advent. Because there aren’t any overriding themes that dominate this time of the Church year, it is considered Ordinary Time – the way the bulk of Epiphany was.
Each liturgical season has a color associated with it. Advent traditionally was purple – the same as Lent. Both seasons have a strong element of penitence associated with them. However Advent has gradually become more of a season of festive waiting rather than penitential, and so the desire for a different liturgical color from Lent has expanded. Now Advent can be noted either with purple or blue. Christmas, Easter, and the individual festivals during the Church year are noted with white. Ordinary Time (including most of Pentecost season and Epiphany) is noted with green as a season, though Pentecost Sunday is traditionally marked with red paraments (cloths that adorn the altar, pulpit, and perhaps other areas of the nave [main worship area] of a church).
So in historic Christian worship, the look and feel of the nave changes through the year. Roughly half the year – from Advent through Pentecost Sunday – focuses on the life of Jesus, specific biographical and historical events and teachings. The other half of the year, following Trinity Sunday (the Sunday right after Pentecost Sunday) through the end of the liturgical year is less chronological, and takes time to highlight aspects of a particular Gospel account of Jesus’ ministry.
Traditionally, there are two ways of selecting Bible readings for any given Sunday in the Church year, in an attempt to retain some level of uniformity with historic Christian worship practice, and incorporating two major ways of going about Bible reading in worship. Both are ancient in practice and deserving of continuity. One is lectio continua, which seeks to read large chunks of Scripture more or less in continuity. This is usually accomplished during the season of Pentecost by reading more or less through an entire Epistle (or more) from the New Testament, and by a more or less linear progression through a single Gospel.
The other type of reading is lectio selecta, which more accurately maintains the pre-Christian Jewish way of reading Scripture, highlighting specific texts rather than trying to move through any particular book of Scripture in order. This is the kind of reading that happens more from Advent through Pentecost Sunday, as the readings are selected to work with each other to flesh out theological themes implicit or explicit in the Gospel narrative.
Another layer of all of this is that there are schedules for Scripture reading. For centuries, the Roman Catholics utilized a 1-year lectionary (reading) cycle, so that every year you moved through the exact same texts over and over again. In the last century there was a cooperative effort among Christian groups to create a larger lectionary cycle that would incorporate more Scripture (both Old and New Testament) while still providing a cyclical pattern. The result is the 3-year lectionary cycle, where each year is associated with a specific Gospel. Year A uses Matthew. Year B uses Mark. Year C uses Luke. Within each year, the Gospel of John is typically utilized around Christmas and Easter at the high points of the Church year, and therfore doesn’t have a separate year of its own. There are other lectionary cycles as well, but the 1-year and the 3-year are the most common, probably because they were developed within and still utilized by the Roman Catholic Church. But other denominations with a keen sense of the continuity of Christian history also utilize them. This Sunday begins Year A, and will highlight the Gospel of Matthew.
I like the liturgical cycle and the Church year. I believe that overall it helps keep me from circling around particular texts that I prefer, or themes that I want to preach about. It drives me to a broad array of Scripture to constantly encounter and re-encounter the Word of God and how it applies in my life and to the lives of my people. I look forward to changes of the liturgical season just as I look forward to the changing seasons of the calendar year, each emphasizing different things. As with any set of traditions, they become new and refreshing (God-willing!) each time around, rather than simply rote and repetitive and boring.
So, happy Advent. Does your Christian community utilize any of these tools for marking time through the year? Are there some that are particularly meaningful to you?