Happy New Year!
With the arrival of Advent this upcoming week, I’ve been thinking a bit about the benefits of following the Christian year. I’ll admit that this is a practice I once disregarded with sneers of haughty derision. But over the past decade, I’ve grown to see the liturgical year as one of the more important of our Christian traditions. Here are a few reasons why.
- It reminds us that we are a people set apart, and as such our lives aren’t oriented around nominal civic holidays and observances. When I was growing up in Baptistland, I never heard of the liturgical calendar. Church just wasn’t organized that way. Oh sure, we had our annual 6-week Christmas celebration, and Easter was a fairly big deal. But next to those, the biggest “feasts” we celebrated were Independence Day, Mothers Day, Fathers Day, and Thanksgiving (in that order). Most of the year was spent in a sort of liturgical purgatory; a perpetual ordinary time without the guidance of any spiritual organization, and revolving around whatever the pastor wanted. But as people of faith, we serve a higher throne, and our purpose in gathering together isn’t ever nationalism, cultural pride, or sentimentality. I love grilling on a warm summer evening, but the 4th of July has nothing to do with the Christian story, and neither do fond remembrances of mom and dad, or commemorating that one time the Pilgrims let the Native Americans dine at their table.
- It distinguishes our holy days from their secular knock-off celebrations. I do love many things about this time of year. The weather, hitting the mall late into the evening, holiday parties, watching National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (“Where’s the Tylenol?”). But, as fun and exciting as these things can be, the discipline of the church year helps us realize that these things are merely periphery.
- It organizes and shapes our lives by the Christian story, instead of the things the kingdom of the world holds valuable. Our lives are divided up into semesters, work schedules, electric bills, tax deadlines. Intentionally choosing a gospel-centered organization system helps us to maintain our first allegiance to Christ and his kingdom. Want to keep Christ in Christmas? Stop worry being the “Happy Holidays” police or petitioning to keep the nativity scene on City Hall lawn. We serve a throne that calls us to rise above that noise.
- The colors are so pretty. I’m kidding, of course. Sort of. Not really. The changing colors of the liturgical year can be powerful and meaningful symbols of our response to the holy events.
- It brings texture to our gathered worship. The object and definition of our worship never change, but observing the Christian year allows our corporate worship to reflect all the feelings and nuances of the gospel events. In that sense, it is a powerful rhetorical device, driving home the drama of the Christian story.
- It unites us with the holy catholic church, past, present, and future. Christ wasn’t crucified during the Clinton administration, and we don’t do the Christian life in a vacuum. We are part of a long faith tradition, one that has observed the Christian year in one form or another practically since the actual events themselves.
- It disciplines us to linger in the valley instead of rushing toward the mountaintop. Our culture believes wholeheartedly in the right to instant gratification, which plagues the church like festering boils on Egyptian necks. Like a kid locked unattended in a candy store, left to our own appetites, we will gorge ourselves with the sweet, sugary stuff until we puke. We need the anticipation of Advent to truly recognize the miracle of Christmas. We need to hear the voice crying in the wilderness, sing along with the heavenly host, and be without shelter in Bethlehem, before we hear the cry of the Word become flesh. We need to walk with Christ for those 40 days, see him ride into Jerusalem over the path of palm branches, dine with him in the upper room, fall asleep in the garden, and feel the hammer locked in our palm’s grip as the nails pierce our Savior’s body. Yes, we are an Easter people, but Easter doesn’t happen without the terror and anguish of the week before. It’s time to forsake the supreme quest for the Hollywood ending, and be willing to put off the unbridled excitement for our own edification.
- It helps church leadership avoid the narcissistic and self-referential pursuit of our own personal agendas. In the churches where I grew up, and a couple others I’ve served since, corporate worship was held hostage by the personal agendas of the pastors. Case in point: the topical sermon series. I’m not completely against the sermon series (of course, I think the Revised Common Lectionary is the greatest and most relevant sermon series possible), but so often they’re driven primarily by the personality instead of the Christian story. Following the Christian year doesn’t totally eliminate that possibility, but it’s a very helpful check.
- It reminds us of the parts of the Gospel story we often forget or neglect. I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t know what Pentecost was about until I was in my twenties, nor did I ever observe the Lenten season, understand Epiphany, or even hear the story of Christ’s ascension. I don’t remember hearing most of those words used, or if they were, they were too far embedded into an unrelated sermon series that I didn’t get it. I’m sure that some people grow up in liturgical churches and still don’t get it, but my Christian journey is poorer for not having the opportunity sooner.
- It is a supremely effective method of discipleship. While churches everywhere are falling for the latest and greatest discipleship program in the effort to revitalize their congregations, the best option might be older than all the rest. I like what Chaplain Mike over at the Internet Monk says about this curious phenomenon. “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.”
There is no better time to discover (or rediscover) the power in this beautiful discipline.