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Preaching from the Christian Year
The names of the seasons of the Christian year sometimes captivate early twenty-first-century people: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany Day, Ordinary Time, Lent, Easter, Pentecost Day, and Ordinary Time. These names imply connections with the past while prompting the mind to imagine what they might mean for the present. The colors of the Christian year enliven the worship space even as they symbolize themes: purple or light blue (Advent), white (Christmas and Epiphany Day), green (Ordinary Time), purple (Lent), white (Easter), and red (Pentecost Day). At the same time, these names can seem out of place. "How do you pronounce that word—Epiphany? And what does it mean?" Congregations are sometimes conflicted about the Christian year. I would like to have a dollar for every time I have heard about a congregational disagreement over whether to sing Christmas carols during Advent.
This chapter first briefly sketches the origin and development of the Christian year. I describe theology and functions of the Christian year with attention to how the major seasons and days affect preaching. The chapter concludes with strengths and weaknesses of the Christian year as a starting point for preaching.
While the Christian year and the Revised Common Lectionary are usually interwoven in today's church, the Christian year does not require the lectionary. A preacher can follow the main themes of the Christian year without following the RCL.
A Brief History of the Christian Year
We turn to history because history helps us understand the originating purposes and evolution of events, ideas, and practices. We can then think critically about the degree to which those purposes are appropriate for today.
Many liturgical scholars think that in early human history, human beings began to worship in response to events that suggested the presence of a transcendent power, such as a dramatic occurrence in nature that aroused awe. People worshiped spontaneously when such events occurred to acknowledge the presence of the transcendent power.
After the event passed, communities developed acts of worship to rekindle the feelings of awe and to live in harmony with that power. Liturgy helped ancient communities answer fundamental questions of life. Who are we in relationship to the transcendent power? How are we to live? Regular worship helped recall the presence of the transcendent and appropriate response.
The Roots of the Christian Year in Judaism
Such themes were in the background of the worship of the Jewish community. While liturgical scholars debate how worship emerged among the Hebrews, it seems likely that before the exodus from Egypt, the Hebrew people observed agricultural festivals to maintain relationship with the God of Sarah and Abraham as the guarantor of their life. After the exodus, many communities added the deliverance from Egypt to the people's essential memory.
By the exile (597 to 538 BCE), many Jewish people regarded the Sabbath as a centerpiece of Jewish life. We find differences of emphasis here. The priestly theologians emphasize that God rested on the Sabbath and gave the human family the Sabbath as a day of rest (Gen. 2:1-4; Exod. 20:8-11). The life of Israel—and the life of the world—are to reflect the way God lives. The Deuteronomistic theologians emphasize Sabbath as both a day of rest and a day to remember the deliverance from Egypt (Deut. 5:12-15). The Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Exod. 12:1–13:10, esp. 13:5-10; 23:14-17; Lev. 23:6-8; Num. 28:17-25) became important for many communities, as did other major festivals, such as the Waving of the Sheaf (Lev. 23:9-14), Weeks (Lev. 23:15-21; Num. 28:26-31), and Booths (Lev. 23:33-36; Num. 29:12-38). By the Hellenistic period (300 BCE to 200 CE), some communities added Purim and Hanukkah to the liturgical calendar (Esth. 3:7; 9:14; 1 Macc. 4:59; 2 Macc. 10:6-8). As the Jewish community evolved, so did its worship.
Both the priestly and Deuteronomistic theological families wrote around the time of the exile, when Jewish life and identity were threatened. The Hellenistic Jewish theologians wrote when the community lived in a vise with one prong being domination by idolatrous foreign powers and the other prong being the danger of acculturation. These writers formulated their versions of the liturgical calendar to assure their communities of their places in God's purposes and to guide the communities in faithful response. Jewish liturgical life became a mark of identity: observing Sabbath and other elements of Jewish life reminded the community of who they were and how they were to live, even in challenging circumstances.
The Christian Year Developed Piece by Piece
The Christian year functioned similarly to the Jewish year: the pieces of the Christian year reinforced identity in the face of challenge. The Christian year did not come to birth as a complete liturgical calendar but developed in pieces over several centuries.
As far as we know, Jesus and his earliest followers worshiped in Jewish ways typical of their time. They likely followed the Jewish liturgical calendar.
The first distinctive liturgical element in the life of Jesus' followers was worship on the first day of the week in honor of the belief that God raised Jesus from the dead on that day (e.g. 1 Cor. 16:2; Acts 20:7). By the time of the writing of the book of Revelation (late first century CE), some communities called the first day of the week "the Lord's Day" (Rev. 1:10). From the point of view of Paul, Mark, Matthew, Luke, and other writers influenced by Jewish end-time (apocalyptic) thinking, the resurrection confirmed God's intent to end this present evil age and to replace it with the realm of God (an unending age of love, peace, joy, solidarity, and abundance). The transition from the old age to the new had begun the ministry of Jesus, but the final and complete manifestation would come only with Jesus' return (the second coming, the apocalypse). Worship on the first day of the week both honored the resurrection and anticipated the second coming. Worship on the first day of the week did not begin as a Christian Sabbath but functioned as an identity reminder for Jesus' followers as they lived through the brokenness of the old age.
The annual observance of Easter was the second addition to the worship calendar of the early church. Some scholars think the early church celebrated the resurrection for several weeks after Easter, a tone continuing today in the Sundays after Easter. Traditional liturgical scholarship sees Easter as an occasion for baptism.
The Day of Pentecost became the third major focal point. By the end of the second century, many churches began to honor Pentecost. The church initially celebrated ascension and Pentecost on the same day, thus reminding the church of both the sovereignty of Jesus over all earthly rulers (ascension) and the continuing presence of the Holy Spirit empowering the church to faithful life and witness (Pentecost).
The earliest evidence for Epiphany, the fourth major element of the Christian year, is in the early third century. Epiphany originally had multiple associations: Jesus' birth, the astrologers, and Jesus' baptism.
In the late third and early fourth centuries, Holy Week and then Lent became the fifth and sixth elements of the calendar. Holy Week was formed from liturgical observances of events from the last week of Jesus' life: entering Jerusalem, last supper, trial, and crucifixion. In 325 CE, the Council of Nicea spoke of forty days of preparation for Easter—the beginning of Lent. For some time Lent continued as a complex season of preparation for baptism, penitence, and reconciliation, all leading to Easter.
The Western church separated Epiphany and Christmas into distinct emphases in the early fourth century, thus making Christmas the seventh element of the Christian year. Many liturgical historians think the church chose December 25 as the date of Christmas as a polemic against (and reinterpretation of) a Roman day celebrating the birth of the sun.
Some churches added Sundays to prepare for Christmas. These Sundays eventually became Advent, the eighth major element of the Christian year. Advent was initially a time of fasting and penitence in preparation for Christmas. With respect to the liturgical calendar, the last became first; that is, the last season to develop became the first one observed in the Christian year.
The basic structure of the Christian year, then, evolved over four centuries. Some additions made their way into the subsequent calendar. All Saints, for example, was added in the ninth century, and Trinity Sunday, about 1000 CE. Over the centuries, many ecclesial movements brought their own emphases to the calendar.
The History of the Christian Year as a Resource for Preaching
While the Christian year tells a single story, the Christian year is not found as a single narrative in the Bible. The church created the Christian year from bits and pieces of diverse biblical and theological materials in response to particular pastoral needs at particular moments. The Christian year and its elements are historically conditioned. The church sometimes loses sight of the created and contextual nature of the Christian year. While churches occasionally discuss amendments to the Christian year, preachers and congregations today tend to assume it without critical thought.
On the one hand, preachers who follow the Christian year could help some congregations understand the nature and function of the year by reconstructing the situations in which its parts arose and by recalling its purposes. The preacher might ponder resonance between the circumstances in which the church created the Christian year and circumstances today. How might the Christian year play analogous roles for the church today? On the other hand, such recovery might help a congregation recognize distance between its life and the world that gave birth to the Christian year, and to ponder alternatives to the Christian year that might better help the church today develop a robust theological consciousness and sense of mission.
The Christian Year as Theological Calendar
The Christian year presumes a particular theological interpretation of the world and God's response. The theology of the Christian year is framed by apocalyptic or end-time eschatology. The present world is an evil age so broken that it cannot be fixed. God must destroy it and replace it with a new world (the realm of God). According to the Christian year, God began the transformation of the old into the new through Jesus' birth, ministry, death, and resurrection. At Jesus' return, God will complete the work of re-creating the world as a realm of love, peace, justice, solidarity, and abundance.
The Christian year is made up of three major parts. or cycles. The first cycle begins with Advent, includes Christmas and the Sundays following, and concludes on Epiphany Day. The Advent–Christmas–Epiphany Day cycle calls attention to God's initiative through Jesus to point to the presence and future of the realm of God.
The second part of the church year is the cycle that begins with Ash Wednesday, goes through Lent and Holy Week to Easter, and thence to Pentecost Day. The Lent–Easter–Pentecost Day cycle focuses attention on the death, resurrection, ascension, and return of Jesus as centerpieces in God's redeeming work, revealing the depth of opposition to God (crucifixion) and the superiority of God's power over all other powers (resurrection and ascension). The Holy Spirit is the ongoing agent of the Realm until Jesus returns.
The third part, Ordinary Time, refers to those parts of the year that are not included in the two great cycles of redemption. Ordinary Time occurs in segments: after Epiphany Day to Ash Wednesday, and again after Pentecost Day until the beginning of Advent. In Ordinary Time the church learns how to order its life in response to God's redeeming purposes.
Preachers, worship planners, and educational leaders need to explain these overarching theological motifs. While the seasons have an internal logic, their relationship may not be obvious to the parishioner who does not have an innate interest in such matters.
Brief Descriptions of the Seasons and Days
We turn now to brief descriptions of the major seasons and days of the Christian year. Since references to preaching from the Revised Common Lectionary occur along the way, the reader needs to remember that the lectionary preacher should interpret Biblical materials from the perspective of how they help the congregation understand the theology of the season and day on which they are read.
The word Advent transliterates the Latin adventus, which means "coming." The season of Advent makes a double-edged theological point. Advent ties together the first and second comings of Jesus to stress that the redeeming work of God through Jesus that was manifest in the first advent (the birth) is not complete until the second advent (the return of Jesus). Advent is thus a time to prepare for both the first and second comings of Jesus.
Preachers may need to explain that the birth of Jesus only initiates the work of God taking place through Jesus. This is why several Gospel readings in the Revised Common Lectionary on the last Sundays of Ordinary Time focus on the second coming, as do the readings on the First Sunday of Advent, itself. This raises the question for the preacher, "How do we prepare for this second coming?" The lectionary uses the figure of John the Baptist to represent the fundamental act of preparation: to repent from collusion with the values, practices, and powers of the idolatrous old age, and to turn toward the coming realm of God.
Only on the Fourth Sunday of Advent does the Christian year turn our attention to the birth of Jesus. The preacher could help the congregation recognize the birth of Jesus not as an end but as divine authorization of the ministry of Jesus, a work that climaxes only at the second coming.
The preacher following the Revised Common Lectionary may need to address a point at which some members of the church may be confused, as revealed in a parishioner's remark, "I thought Advent is the season when we anticipate the birth of the infant Jesus. Why are we talking about the second coming and John the Baptist?" The lectionary preacher needs to help the congregation toward adequate visions of Advent. The non-lectionary preacher might focus on popular associations for the four Sundays of Advent: hope, peace, joy and love, or on Christian practices that prepare the congregation for the second and first comings, such as repentance, fasting, prayer, and neighbor-love.
Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and the Sundays after Christmas give the preacher an opportunity to explore not only the meaning of the birth of Jesus but also larger issues of Christology. On a Christological spectrum, meanings of Jesus vary from the high end, which sees the birth of Jesus as the incarnation of God become flesh, to the low end, which places minimal theological significance on the birth of Jesus.
The former emphasis calls for the preacher to unpack the significance of the incarnation for the church and world. The issue for this preacher and congregation is less how Jesus can be both fully human and fully divine and more why this development matters. What does it do for church and world?
The emphasis at the other end of the Christological spectrum gives the preacher an opportunity to help the congregation think about how the birth texts can contribute to their confidence that God authorizes the ministry of Jesus. The minister can also think with the congregation about the significance of the broader ministry of Jesus in such roles as rabbi, prophet, and wisdom teacher.
Regardless of the location of the preacher on the Christological spectrum, the preacher likely faces a problem that bleeds into the church from North American Christmas culture. Many households reduce Christmas to giving and receiving gifts in a warm family time. Without disrespecting such genuine but reduced associations, the preacher needs to help the congregation open the lens of its vision to see the birth of Jesus signaling God's possibilities for renewal in a broken world.
Excerpted from Sermon Treks by Ronald J. Allen. Copyright © 2013 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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