Introducing and Celebrating The Christian Liturgical Year in Evangelical Churches
by Larry D. Ellis, D.W.S.
In recent years, many evangelical church leaders are having an increased curiosity about the use of the historic Christian year in their church worship services. However, many of these churches presently have no significant experience with the Christian year except on the Sunday before Christmas and Easter Sunday. Occasionally, one can find a Good Friday communion service. Some Christians resist what seems to be a more formal style of Christian worship. Sometime there is a feeling that such liturgical practices within the church would work against the primary mission of the church, which is to implement the great commission — making disciples of all nations and baptizing them. Observing the Christian year can often be thought as requiring a lot of work on the part of Church leadership, while providing only minimum encouragement for the members focus on their “real” mission – discipleship. While there is widespread lack of knowledge of most of the themes of the Christian year, there is also a suspicion that Christians who practice such “non-biblical”-based activities do so as a dry, unfulfilling ritual (perceived as a bad word), which is irrelevant in our age of individual, spiritual freedom, freshness, and spontaneity from the Holy Spirit. Many denominational publishing houses mirror these positions and provide no instruction about these practices – not even historical in nature of the Christian year, despite its widespread continued use in most liturgical churches.
Churches which have not embraced the use of using the Christian year often decide to regularly celebrate the secular calendar within public worship times. Popular themes are American Independence Day, Valentine’s Day, Veterans’ Day, Mother’s and Father’s Days, and sometimes remembering of important denominational leaders who advanced their particular denominational mission through public teaching. Actually, ongoing observance of the Christian calendar as a framework for living and public worship, will place the focus on the major events in the life of Jesus Christ, rather than marking time by secular events. There are are several collections of Bible readings organized around the seasons of the Christian year. Each collection will move from the Incarnation, or birth of Jesus Christ, and progress into the season of Pentecost, the time following Jesus’ ascension to be with his Father, when the Holy Spirit was given to live with and guide Christians. Most of these systems of worship planning are designed around a one year remembering of these events. For the two successive years, the same themes are repeated but drawing from different Scriptural passages. Marking time within worship with the important major events in the life of Jesus will tell and retell the gospel story to all who are in attendance, no matter what the particular content of the teaching will be.
This article will present a generalized perspective with a brief overview of the events and spiritual purposes for choosing this structure for worship. There are many exhaustive texts that explain the process of formation of these seasons. Some excellent recommendations are listed at the end of this article. Use them for a more in depth study of this subject. The use of this Christian year for worship is not limited by one’s musical tastes, ethnic background, or a church’s particular theological track. However, because of the narrow scope of musical texts within certain Christian traditions, some of these themes will likely draw music from outside their own tradition or present challenges to compose new music embracing some of these important theological themes.
The Christian year begins with Advent. Advent is a season of anticipation. It begins four Sundays prior to Christmas day. Worshipers celebrate not only the promises of Jesus’ coming as a baby in the manger (the Incarnation), but they also rejoice in the anticipation of his second coming at the close of this age. Some traditions have an annual visit of the Ancient Bishop of Myra, St. Nicholas. He will retell the true historic record of the original St. Nicholas, framing this Christmas icon within his historic Christian setting. During Advent, worshipers sing primarily Advent carols which invite or promise Jesus’ coming to be in our midst. Christmas carols are not sung before Christmas eve and continue at any worship gathering for the next twelve days. Teaching and prayers together focus on anticipation of these pivotal events and their significance to believers. Christmas hymns and carols are sung until the arrival of Epiphany, on January 6th.
During Epiphany worshipers begin to celebrate the wise men from the East giving precious gifts to our Lord, but they also learn about the many gifts that God give to each of us, including his spiritual gifts. On the day of Epiphany, we recall Jesus’ baptism and reflect on the significance of our baptism as a full participant in the church.
Next, Christians move into the Lenten season, discovering again the uniqueness of our Christian faith, God’s plan of our redemption, and the sacrifice of his son Jesus on the cross. It is a forty-day season for each Christian to evaluate their life and repent of destructive behavior which is not pleasing to God. The Lenten season gives us the opportunity to sing many hymns and contemporary music about the cross and prayerfully examine all that we are doing both in and outside the church, so that we can shift our priorities, where needed. The season begins on Ash Wednesday, approximately five and a half weeks before Easter Sunday. On Ash Wednesday, penitent believers receive a symbol on their foreheads in the shape of a cross, making it visible by using ashes from burned palm leaves. It is a widespread tradition to not say or sing alleluias during Lent. They are returned to our corporate worship on Easter eve. It is also customary to elect to forgo something that we enjoy, not because it is bad, but that upon each remembrance of our sacrifice of not enjoying it, we also recall the sacrifice that God the Father and Jesus made on our behalf.
The last week of the Lenten season is called Holy Week. During this week we recall the major events that Jesus experienced during the last week before his crucifixion. Starting on Palm Sunday, Jesus was hailed as the King of the Jews, adored by many who publicly praised him. On Palm Sunday, there is usually a festive procession into worship with each worshiper being given a palm branch. Only a few days later, believed to be on Thursday, he was displaying his great servant love for his disciples by washing the disciples’ feet and sharing his last meal with all those closest to him, encouraging them to remember these events in the future as they shared meals and worshiped together. Today, some church traditions have an annual foot-washing ceremony where the Christians actually wash one another’s feet, exhibiting a great act of humility toward one another. This last supper is the basis for Christians to celebrate what is know as the Eucharist, or the Lord’s supper on a regular basis That night, following the dinner together, Jesus also experienced complete aloneness on earth and the pain of his impending crucifixion, as he prayed in the garden. There, he also prayed that his followers would be filled with blessings and joy. On Friday, Jesus was sentenced to death and publicly executed by the Romans who nailed him to a cross. His body was then placed in a borrowed tomb. Reading Scriptures aloud that report these seminal events to us today, and re-enacting some of these events ushers us quickly and dramatically into God’s presence. Reliving these events in Jesus’ ministry each year brings a fresh experience of God’s great love and sacrifice to each of us. Our participation challenges us to become enthusiastically obedient to him.
The end of Holy Week is the beginning of the celebration of Jesus’ physical resurrection from the dead. The historical setting of the first Easter was when several women went to the tomb where Jesus had been buried and found the stone rolled away. Celebration of Easter often commences after sunset on the eve of Easter, because Jewish days were understood to begin at sundown, rather than at midnight as we observe today. The date on the calendar is not fixed, but it usually is celebrated in late March or April. In the Ancient Church, Easter was often a time were baptism was a celebrated event for the many new Christians who had become Christ-followers. Approximatly forty-five days after Easter Sunday, worshipers commemorate the ascension of Jesus into Heaven. The Easter season lasts for fifty days.
Following Easter, worshipers focus on thankfulness for God’s great gift of the Holy Spirit to us — Pentecost. This is the day when God sent his Spirit to be with those who were Christ-followers. This is was an important day, discussed by the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Christians at Corinth (1 Cor 16:8). It was to supplant the Jewish feast of Pentecost, which was observed fifty days following Passover and which sealed God’s first covenant at Mt. Sinai. The time following Pentecost Sunday is known as the Season after Pentecost, which continues up to the last Sunday before the beginning of Advent, once again.
Walking through each of these main events in the life and experience of Jesus as recorded in the scriptures, provides us with an endless list of praise themes, periods of confession and repentance, and sermon topics, and texts. Employing the regular use of the Christian year provides countless teaching opportunities to make private and public worship moments tied directly to the life that Jesus lived and called us to live with one another.
The author encourages you to move to embrace the structure of the Christian year as the normal worship experience. The all-too-common ritual of three hymns or twenty-five minute song set, offering, special music, and the forty-minute preaching of a sermon will not bring into our common experience these recurring events in Jesus’ life. Should you move this direction, you might well experience some resistance from those whose traditions are not inclusive of them. It seems that such resistance might generally be from those who had strong resistance to many types of changes, rather than from those who had previously chosen to leave the liturgical environment. Many times the former Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Episcopalians, who are a part of a congregation embracing the Christian year have experienced significantly new meaning to their worship life, because of the reality of their evangelical faith. For those who have their first taste of the Christian year in worship, a sense of stability and continuity in their Christian faith and worship is found. The structure of prayers, confessions, singing of the Psalms, connected by the focus of the Christian year gives just enough structure to worship to enable each person to be called to ongoing repentance and to offer praise and adoration to our Lord. God has richly blessed many Christian worshipers who have embraced this structure to Christian worship.
Suggested Additional Reading
The New Handbook of the Christian Year: Based on the Revised Common Lectionary by Hoyt L. Hickman, Don E. Saliers, Laurence Hull Stookey, and James F. White
Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God by Robert E. Gross