Planning Worship Around The Church Year
The church year provides a ready-made pattern for worship. The key seasons are Advent and Easter, which not only mark important events in the life of our Lord, but also inform the church’s responses to these events in outward and inward worship. In addition, the church year puts the congregation in tune with a great body of Christian tradition that stretches across the world and back through the centuries.
The church year, also known as the Christian year or the liturgical year, not only has a venerable place in Christian tradition, but is an excellent framework around which to organize and plan worship over its course. In many churches today, the celebration of the Christian year is facilitated by the use of a three-year lectionary. This lectionary, indicating Old Testament, psalm, New Testament, and Gospel readings for each Sunday and festival, not only makes possible the regular systematic reading of substantial portions of the Scripture but provides a biblical framework for the planning of worship.
Cycles of the Year
The Easter Cycle
The church year is composed of two interlocking cycles. The first is the Easter cycle. This begins on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent (forty weekdays before Easter), and includes Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and the fifty days following Easter, concluding with the Day of Pentecost. Its principal theological theme is the atonement. Its center is Holy Week with its commemoration of the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday, the Crucifixion on Good Friday, and the Resurrection on Easter Day. The fifty days following Easter, originally called the Pentecost, celebrate the new life in the risen Christ, and the Day of Pentecost celebrates the gift of the Spirit to the apostolic church. (Easter is the Sunday following the first full moon of spring, and the other dates are calculated from it.)
The Christmas Cycle
The second cycle is the Christmas cycle. Its theological theme is the Incarnation. The cycle begins with Advent, four Sundays before Christmas (the Sunday closest to November 30), leading into the celebration of Christmas on December 25. The twelve days of Christmas conclude with Epiphany on January 6 (Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night), celebrating the manifestation of Christ. The three great events associated with Epiphany are the revelation of Christ to the magi through the star, the revelation of Christ through the dove and the voice at his baptism, and the revelation of Christ in his turning the water into wine at the wedding at Cana. Today, these are usually celebrated successively on the first three Sundays of the new year.
The celebration of Sunday as the Lord’s Day is the central building block of the Christian year. The weekly assembly of the people of God to hear God’s Word, to offer their common prayers, and to celebrate the sacraments lies at the heart of Christian celebration. The biblical word kyriake (Lord’s) occurs only in the phrases “the Lord’s Day” and “the Lord’s Supper.” Sunday is preeminently the Christian day of worship. It is the first day, the day of the creation of light, in Genesis 1. It is the day of Christ’s resurrection and the day of the gift of the Holy Spirit to the apostles on the Day of Pentecost. It is also the eschatological eighth day, the day that has a dawning but no evening, the eternal day of the heavenly Jerusalem. It is this weekly gathering for worship that gives meaning and form to the Christian year.
Seasons of the Year
The church year is generally considered to begin with Advent, although other days such as Christmas, Easter, the beginning of Lent, or even January 1 have sometimes been considered its beginning. The Advent season is almost archetypically a new year’s festival. It combines joy with penitence, looking back with looking forward, remembrance with hope. It celebrates the coming of Christ—both his coming as a baby at Bethlehem and his coming again in glory “to judge the quick and the dead.” The three great Advent figures are Isaiah, John the Baptist, and the Virgin Mary. The messianic prophecies of Isaiah have long been associated with Advent.
A traditional structure would begin with the eschatological Second Coming on the first Sunday. Isaiah 64:1 (“Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down … ”) and Mark 13:35 (“Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back.”) are typical themes. Bach’s “Sleepers Wake” and Charles Wesley’s “Lo! He Comes, with Clouds Descending” are typical Advent Sunday hymns. On the middle Sundays, the Baptist’s preaching of the coming of the kingdom is the typical theme. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is a hymn commonly sung here. On the fourth Sunday, our attention is turned toward Christmas. Luke’s account of the annunciation to Mary and a hymn like “I Know a Rose Tree Springing” move the theme toward the Incarnation. In North American culture, it is easy to lose sight of preparing for and looking forward to a festival and to be carried away by its anticipated celebration. Advent is intended to prepare us for Christmas, leading gently into it. Promise of Glory (Catherine Nerney [Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, n.d.]) contains a number of forms for Advent special services, as well as services for Christmas and Epiphany that keep the boundaries clear while recognizing the impossibility of refusing to live in our own culture.
In many churches, an Advent wreath—an evergreen wreath with four candles in it and sometimes a fifth in the center—is lighted during this season. One candle is lighted on the first Sunday of Advent, two on the second Sunday, and so on. If a fifth candle is used, it is lighted on Christmas. The candles symbolize the light of Christ shining in the darkness.
Christmas and Epiphany
The celebration of Christmas on December 25 and during the twelve days until Epiphany is the climax of the season. Christmas celebrates not just the birthday of the Christ child, but also the Incarnation. The prologue to John’s Gospel, as well as the nativity account in Luke, are proper Christmas readings. John 1 is an appropriate reading and sermon text for one of the Sundays following Christmas. The season ends with the celebration of the baptism of Christ on the Sunday after Epiphany or (in some churches) of Christ’s presentation in the temple on Candlemas (February 2). The baptism of Christ is an obvious occasion to make the principal service a baptismal service. The reading of the Gospel account of our Lord’s baptism provides an occasion for a sermon on baptism as an introduction to the baptismal rite. Epiphany baptisms were the custom of many ancient churches of both East and West, and it is a tradition that can be profitably revived. If Candlemas is observed, the song of Simeon (Luke 2:29–32), with its reference to the light to enlighten the nations, serves as the pivot for a service of light and the refocusing of attention from looking back to Christmas to looking forward to the Crucifixion (Luke 2:34–35).
The baptism of Christ is celebrated on the first Sunday after Epiphany, and other manifestations of Christ on the following Sunday. The Lutheran and Episcopal versions of the three-year lectionary read the account of the Transfiguration on the Sunday before the beginning of Lent, using the references to the Passion and Resurrection in the accounts as a transition into the Easter cycle.
The Easter cycle celebrates the paschal mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ and the church’s participation in it. The cycle begins with the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday (a sort of Christian Yom Kippur), on which penitential liturgies reflect our confrontation with our own mortality and our sorrow for sin. Lent, however, is intended to be not a daily repetition of Ash Wednesday but a season of preparation for the joy of Easter. Baptism, the sacrament of the forgiveness of sins and participation in the resurrection of Christ, is the Easter sacrament par excellence, and Lent originated as a season of preparation for baptism. Its themes, therefore, are repentance, spiritual growth, and entering into union with Christ. The temptation of Christ in the wilderness is the traditional theme for the first Sunday in Lent (“Forty days and forty nights, thou wast fasting in the wild”). The most ancient readings for the Lenten season are the Gospel readings for the third, fourth, and fifth Sundays from Year A of the three-year lectionary. These readings are narratives of Jesus and the Samaritan woman, the healing of the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus. The ancient Lenten lessons provided the texts for the instruction of candidates for Easter baptism and still serve as an introduction to the great theological themes to lead a congregation to renewal at Easter.
Lenten services can be planned to have a distinctive seasonal tone. The use of distinctive Lenten vestments or ornamentation of the church building, the choice of hymns, and the inclusion of penitential elements in the service are all ways of marking the season. Some churches refrain from using flowers during Lent; others use a single budding branch as a sign of spring and resurrection to come. Often, midweek evening services are a part of a congregation’s Lenten plan.
Holy Week is central to the liturgical year. It begins on Palm Sunday. Traditionally, the celebration has had two distinct foci: the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, often expressed by a palm procession at the beginning and the distribution of palms to the congregation; and the Passion, marked by the reading of the Gospel account of the Crucifixion from one of the Synoptics and the singing of passion hymns and chorales. The movement from the joy of the Triumphal Entry to the solemnity of the Passion narrative is extremely powerful.
The contrast can be emphasized by gathering for the distribution of palms and the reading of the account of the Triumphal Entry in a place other than the church and proceeding to the church carrying palms. The hymns “All Glory, Laud and Honor” and “Ride On, Ride On in Majesty,” are traditionally associated with the procession. The reading and preaching of the Passion, with appropriate music, then follows in the church.
Maundy Thursday is celebrated as the anniversary of the Last Supper. The celebration of the Eucharist with the reading of the account of the Supper are obvious ways of marking the day. In many places, John’s account of the Last Supper is also read, and a symbolic footwashing takes place. The calendar ties the Last Supper to the events that followed it—the betrayal, trial, and Crucifixion—and the preacher should do likewise.
Good Friday is the church’s solemn commemoration of the Crucifixion. John’s account of the Crucifixion is the traditional reading. It was for this occasion that Bach composed his St. John’s Passion. In some places, preaching on the Passion for three hours has become traditional. A more liturgical tradition links the reading and preaching of the Passion to devotions before the cross. An excellent modern interpretation of the traditional anthem, “The Reproaches,” is contained in From Ashes to Fire (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1979) and has been reprinted in many other service books.
Prayer vigils, either between the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services, or from Good Friday until Easter sunrise, are often included in the planning. Increasingly, the ancient tradition of celebrating the Great Vigil of Easter between sunset Saturday and Easter sunrise is being revived. It was at this vigil that the catechumens were baptized, and it concluded with their reception of Holy Communion at the sunrise service on Easter.
The Easter Vigil
The Easter Vigil begins with a service of light at which the Paschal candle is lighted. This burns during worship throughout the fifty days from Easter to Pentecost and is a symbol of the season and our life in the risen Christ. It is also lighted at baptisms and funerals to continue the symbolism. The Word service contains a series of Old Testament readings. The congregation renews their baptismal vows, and baptisms (if there are any) take place. The Vigil concludes with the first service of Easter, traditionally a Communion service, including the reading of Matthew’s account of the Resurrection.
Like the baptism of Christ, the Easter Vigil is a traditional time for baptisms. The Pauline baptismal theology of Romans 6 associates baptism so deeply with the death and resurrection of Christ that its celebration at this time has been a constant feature of Christian tradition. Lent is the time of preparation for baptism, the baptism itself is at Easter, and the fifty days of Easter are a period of rejoicing as the new Christians enter into the risen life.
Easter Season and Pentecost
Alleluia! is the great Easter word, and it is included in hymns and responses throughout the Easter season. The festal adornment of the church building and the joyful tone of the worship continue until Pentecost. The resurrection appearances and the life of the apostolic church as recorded in Acts are the customary Scripture readings and sermon themes. The Ascension is celebrated on the fortieth day after Easter (a Thursday) or the Sunday following, and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2) on the Day of Pentecost, which brings the season to a close. This is a part of the same Easter celebration, and services should be planned integrally for all eight Sundays. Frequently, the Easter character of services is lost after a week or two, so that Pentecost seems an unrelated celebration when it arrives. The early church called the Easter season “fifty days of rejoicing.” It follows the forty days of Lent and provides balance.
Pentecost itself is appropriately observed in many churches as the day for confirmation. It is a celebration of the spread of the church throughout the world in the power of the Holy Spirit, and Christian unity, Christian missions, and evangelism are suitable Pentecost themes. Following the example of Acts 2, the Word is often proclaimed in as many languages as the congregation can muster among its people.
The Season after Pentecost
The season after Pentecost is the season of the life of the Christian church. We ourselves actually live in the season between Pentecost and the Second Advent. Some churches call it “ordinary time,” but it is the time of our redemption. At the beginning of November, the parables of the kingdom become the Sunday readings, and post-Pentecost begins to look forward to Advent. It is not reasonable to plan the entire post-Pentecost season as a unit, because it would be too long, but this last part of the season can be so planned (e.g., the outline set forth in Promise of Glory). The last Sunday before Advent is often observed as a festival of the reign of Jesus Christ, which leads easily into the celebration of the final Advent on the next Sunday as the climax to the series of readings about the kingdom of God. In this way, the years are bound together and the cycle begins again.
Using the Christian year as a basis for the planning of worship not only puts the congregation in tune with a great body of Christian tradition stretching all across the world and back through the centuries, but also assures a balanced, integrated, and biblically based plan, and frees the congregation from the whims and biases of the individual pastor.