One Sunday during last year’s Christmas season, my wife and I worshipped at the church of a young, dynamic pastor whom I had been coaching. His message was biblical, practical, and well delivered, and the worship music was uplifting and skillfully led. Only one thing was missing: Christmas! No mention was made of Christmas anywhere or anytime in the service. The calendar in the bulletin showed that no Christmas Eve service was planned either. The sermon was on Christian living, not the birth of Christ or the doctrine of the Incarnation. The songs were contemporary and enjoyable, but no Christmas carols—new or traditional—were among them. In fact, I had heard more Christmas carols earlier that week while mall shopping. When I tactfully inquired if they did sing carols during the Christmas season, I was told “no one likes to sing them.” I didn’t reply, but afterward, my wife and I discussed our concern for the loss of ancient Christian traditions in many churches today. While this case may be extreme, I think it is safe to say that many contemporary churches are neglecting a wealth of longstanding, powerful Christian traditions, doctrines, and symbols that have helped form Christian lives and families for millennia. They are also missing out on a time-tested framework for planning a whole year of preaching and worship.
I want to make a case for rediscovering the Church Year with all its richness. The Church Year, or Christian Year, is a way of ordering an annual cycle of preaching and worship themes. It is also a means of ensuring that a local church teaches the essential doctrines of the Christian faith. These include the incarnation, the gospel ministry of Jesus, His triumphal entry, His betrayal, His suffering and atoning death on the cross, His resurrection to life, His ascension to glory, and His ultimate return in time. Further, the Church Year connects the Old and New Testaments through the witness of the Prophets and the redemption events of the Hebrew Scriptures. And finally, the Church Year connects a particular church to the millions of churches and billions of Christians in the world.
Judaism is organized around the Jewish calendar, with particular emphasis on the Exodus as the central event of God’s redemption. Most of the major Jewish festivals hinge on different aspects of this event. Passover recalls the Israelites’ deliverance from bondage in Egypt. Pentecost celebrates the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. Tabernacles remembers the 40 years of God’s provision in the wilderness. So, too, the Church Year, though not commanded in Scripture, has its origins in the early church and is also a way of recounting the central events of our redemption through Christ.
The Church Year begins with the season of Advent, the four Sundays before Christmas Day. Advent, which means “arrival” or “coming,” refers to both the first and the second coming of Jesus. Advent has its origin in the 6th century and was widely observed in the Church as a period of fasting and prayer. It looked back on the first coming of Christ as the infant of Mary and pondered the mystery of the Incarnation of God for the salvation of the world. It also looked ahead to the Second Coming of Christ to “judge the quick and the dead.” Advent encouraged the faithful to long for the return of Christ with as much ardor as the ancient Prophets longed for the coming of the Messiah. The Protestant Reformation in Germany gave us the Advent Wreath as a way of celebrating Advent in the home as well as the church.
In the church I pastored for 35 years, we had to “rediscover” Advent because it had never been a practice in our 150-year history. I believe this was because of the strong bias against Roman Catholicism of the Scottish, Calvinistic founders of the church. There was a tendency among many Calvinistic Protestants to eschew anything that hinted of Roman Catholicism. Some of my elderly Scottish members recalled that, as recently as the early 20th century, Christmas itself was downplayed in Scotland. Instead, much was made of New Year’s Eve (“auld lang sine”) as both a Christian and secular holiday. As our church began to reach other Protestants and Roman Catholics, we began to observe and celebrate Advent. An annual Advent Wreath workshop provided families with a tangible way to teach their children the true meaning of Christmas. Preaching and worship services might focus on the hope, joy, peace, and love symbolized by the wreath candles; Old Testament messianic prophecies; the genealogies, songs, or individuals present in the Gospel narrative; or the incarnation of Christ.
Christmas Eve. Advent concludes with the celebration of Christmas. Christmas has sometimes been criticized as a lesser Christian holiday with its origin centuries after Christ in a repurposing of pagan Roman holidays. Of course, there is truth to that. It is ironic that early Christianity eventually became so dominant in the Roman Empire that it was able to co-opt pagan holidays. I wonder if the pagans of that time complained about their holiday being taken over by the Christians the way some Christians today complain about the holiday’s commercialization. A 4th century bishop declared, “We hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of Him who made it.”
Pastors should not neglect Christmas Eve as an evangelistic opportunity. It is one time in the whole year when secular society and the Christian Church intersect. For on Christmas Eve, perhaps even more than on Easter, the World will find its way into the church to worship. Parents who are otherwise very worldly will seek out Christmas opportunities for their children. We found that family friendly Christmas Eve services, with lots of candlelight, carols, and a gentle, gospel-centered message, became wonderful and fruitful outreach events.
Epiphany. The Christmas season concludes with Epiphany, the 12th day after Christmas that was traditionally the time of the visit by the Magi. Epiphany, meaning “manifestation,” refers to the manifestation of Jesus Christ to all the nations of the world, as represented by the pagan Magi. It can be an ideal occasion to refocus a church on its wider mission to the community or the world.
Just a few weeks after the Christmas season ends, Lent begins. Lent is the 40 days (not counting Sundays) before Easter. The term itself comes from lencton, the Anglo-Saxon word for “spring,” and refers to the lengthening of days in spring. In the mainline, liberal Congregational church in which I was raised, my only recollection of Lent is the cardboard coin folders we filled with dimes for the 40 days. There was no emphasis on prayer, Scripture reading, fasting, or any other spiritual discipline.
Lent has its origin in the 2nd century after Christ. Irenaeus, just two generations removed from the Apostles, introduced this season of spiritual discipline leading up to Easter. By the time of Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor, Lent was established as a 40-day period with prayer and fasting as the primary spiritual disciplines. Forty days is, of course, a significant number in the Bible. Moses spent 40 days receiving the Law on Mt. Sinai. Elijah journeyed 40 days to Mt. Horeb, another name for Mt. Sinai. Jesus fasted 40 days in the wilderness before being tempted by the devil at the inauguration of his ministry. There is something significant about a 40-day period that can modify our behavior for good.
Ash Wednesday. As a pastor, I neglected Lent and Ash Wednesday for years. I grew up in a working-class neighborhood with a largely Roman Catholic population. I recall my Catholic friends displaying their ash smudges on their foreheads, and me feeling smug that I was not Catholic. I realize it was my own thin Lenten experience and my youthful anti-Catholic prejudice that fostered my lack of appreciation of Lent. Thankfully, more spiritually mature church members eventually approached me about designing a deeper discipleship emphasis in Lent, and I began my own reeducation about this ancient Christian season.
We would begin our Lenten season with an evening Ash Wednesday service, sometimes preceded with a meatless fellowship meal. A simple service followed, with songs of Christian devotion and a message driving home the meaning of ashes as the symbol of our mortality and therefore our dependence on Christ. The service ended by inviting the congregation forward to receive communion and, if they chose, to receive the symbol of our need for God, ashes dabbed on their forehead or back of the hand. When people began to understand the biblical meaning of ashes, even the most nonliturgical members were won over to receive this ancient Christian symbol.
Palm Sunday. Six weeks later, with the days indeed lengthening, the Church celebrates Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday needs little explanation as it is widely celebrated in both free and liturgical churches. Although children are not mentioned in the Gospel narratives, we always planned our Palm Sunday service to include them. Children distributed the palms, sang in choirs, and more enthusiastically than anyone, waved the palm branches.
Holy Week has several rich opportunities to shape worship and preaching around the great redemptive events of our faith.
Maundy Thursday and Tenebrae. The Maundy Thursday service, in one form or another, dates from the 4th century. Early in my pastorate, I introduced a Tenebrae service to our congregation, it was well received. The word Maundy derives from the Latin for “commandment” and refers to Jesus’ words at the Last Supper as he washed the disciples’ feet, “a new command I give you … love one another.” The word Tenebrae means “shadows” and alludes to the darkness on that Holy Thursday as Jesus agonized in Gethsemane, was betrayed, arrested, and abandoned. This service needs no preaching since the Scriptures and symbols speak for themselves. We used meditative songs that spoke to our great need for forgiveness and the atoning sacrifice of our Lord. The service ends in a long moment of complete darkness before the congregation departs in silence. Rarely in public worship do God’s people sit in silence and darkness in His presence. It is a moving experience.
Good Friday. In our context, Good Friday was a time to join with other churches in our community. The great, multifaceted doctrine of the Atonement is on full display at this service. We clergy took turns giving the sermon. With the full preaching schedule of Holy Week, it was good to be able to sit under the teaching of a fellow pastor from time to time.
Easter. Easter is the culmination of Holy Week and the high point of the year in terms of preaching and worship. Like Christmas, Easter Sunday creates an intersection between our culture and the Church. Like Christmas, it is a time for presenting the gospel claims of Christ. Easter is not a time to chide those who only show up once a year, nor to deal with esoteric biblical texts. On Easter we get to preach the Bible’s universal themes of human existence such as sin and death, our need for redemption, the longing and hope for immortality, and the incredible gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ. On Easter the church offers its best for Christ’s sake and for the benefit of those still outside the family of God. (I used to take the Sunday after Easter off from preaching, but then I realized that some of those who visited on Easter would be back, and I wanted to be there to feed them the Word. So the season after Easter I often started a new sermon series on an appealing biblical theme and announced it on Easter Sunday. Make the most of every opportunity.)
Pentecost. The word Pentecost means “fiftieth,” as it follows Passover by 50 days, and Easter by 7 weeks. For Christians, Pentecost celebrates the birth of the Church and the giving of the Holy Spirit to be with us forever. So preaching texts and themes on the nature and life of the church, and on spiritual gifts or the giving of the Holy Spirit with fire are appropriate. For Jews, Pentecost recalled the giving of the Law to Moses and the Israelites on Mt. Sinai amid smoke.
During the summer, I usually preached a series from the Old Testament to ensure that I didn’t devote all my sermons to the New. Pentecost, coming as it does in early summer, is a fitting Sunday to introduce an Old Testament series that will take the congregation into the Law and Prophets or some other book/theme in the Hebrew Scriptures. I would remind my people that the New Testament is concealed in the Old, and the Old Testament is revealed in the New.
Reformation Sunday. The Church Year ends in the fall with a relatively new addition called Reformation Sunday. It falls on or near October 31, the date on which Martin Luther in 1517 nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church. This date marks the start of the Protestant Reformation. It is a great Sunday to teach the liberating truths that the Reformation recaptured, among them salvation by grace, through faith alone; the priesthood of all believers; the doctrine of election (good luck with that one!); the centrality of the Word (versus the mass) in worship; and primacy of the Christian family as the place of true discipleship.
Preaching the Church Year
- makes sermon and worship planning easier,
- helps ensure the great doctrines and events of our faith are proclaimed,
- connects us to the entire Christian world, and
- enables us to intersect with the local culture and community.
For all these reasons, I encourage pastors to preach it!