How Christian-Year Spirituality Shapes Us In The Way of Jesus
This past Sunday was the First Sunday of Advent. The Christian Year began again. The texts in the Revised Common Lectionary switched to Year A, starting with the texts for the First Sunday of Advent. At our church, the Advent candles were lit, Advent hymns were sung, and the message focused on living with active, hopeful expectation and anticipation at the coming of Christ when everything will be put right.
This is the most counter-cultural of all the Christian seasons, our pastor suggested. Because while the rest of the world is busy shopping, decorating, preparing for Christmas, and making merry, Advent invites us to reflect on the end of the world and how Christ’s return will happen when we least expect it. So we need to be ready!
That’s maybe a little more stark way to kick off the holiday season than many of us are used to. But it’s a vital message and reminder for Christians. And it seems to be the thrust of Matthew’s Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Advent this past week.
Are we living with expectation and urgency for the coming of Christ to reconcile and restore all things? Are we doing our part to actively be ambassadors of Jesus’s kingdom vision in our various spheres of influence?
And just so we’re clear, this has nothing to do with the manufactured annual laments from some Christians about “keeping Christ in Christmas” or saying a “sinners prayer” so that when Jesus comes we’re caught away in the Rapture while all the bad people are left behind. According to Matthew’s Gospel reading on Sunday we want to be left behind rather than being swept away like the people in the story of Noah’s flood.
Rather, living with anticipation and expectation of Christ’s coming entails our prayer and hope that God’s kingdom will come and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven (see Matthew 6:7-13). It means longing for, praying for, and working towards the reconciliation, restoration, and renewal of all things, which will ultimately be accomplished when Christ returns. It means loving our neighbor (i.e. all people!) as ourselves, seeking their good and blessing. It means caring for and workings towards justice for the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized of society. It means seeking and serving Christ in all people, ascribing to them the dignity that’s intrinsically theirs as a divine image-bearer. It means all this and more.
This is my second Advent-Christmas-Epiphany season not working as an ordained minister and lead pastor. It’s admittedly a little strange to be a parishioner in the pew rather than the pastor planning, preaching, and teaching all this. After all, I did that for 10 years. But very I’m happy that Jen and I have landed in a church that lives into these rhythms and teaches these things. I need to hear them. I need to do better at living them. And these formative rhythms and liturgies help me.
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I wasn’t raised in a liturgical Christian tradition that followed the rhythms of the Christian Year. Oh, we did Christmas and Easter, of course. And since my uncle was a Pentecostal pastor I knew there was something significant about Pentecost. I had heard of Lent, but that was something Catholics did. And we all knew they weren’t really saved; what with following their lifeless liturgies and rote rituals to earn God’s favor. (I cringe at the ignorance and arrogance displayed!)
Christian-year spirituality in the independent Bible church I was raised consisted of a candlelight Christmas Eve service and an Easter service. My experience in an evangelical megachurch in my mid-to-late 20s was no different, except Good Friday services were sometimes thrown in the mix too. I mourn the paucity of those formative years. But it’s just true that you don’t know what you don’t know.
I was 30-years-old and pastoring my first church before I learned about Advent and the rest of the seasons of the Christian Year. And I made it a personal mission and spiritual discipline to introduce Christian-year spirituality and liturgical rhythms and practices into every church I served over my 10 years as an ordained minister and lead pastor.
I ministered in contexts where, like my childhood church, these things were foreign and unfamiliar at best. I worked hard to demonstrate the biblical, historical precedent and spiritually formative value of Christian-year spirituality and invited my parishioners on the journey. I tried to do it in ways that made sense with our contemporary style and evangelical context; to embody what the late theologian Robert Webber called an Ancient-Future Faith.
Some loved it. They felt that a whole new world, deeply rooted in Scripture and church history, along with a spiritually formative way to organize and live their lives, was revealed. I related and resonated with their experience because it mirrored my own discovery of the riches of liturgy and Christian-year spirituality. Their enthusiasm for these discoveries and implementations of these formative rhythms in their lives fueled my own enthusiasm as a pastor committed to teaching these things in the congregation.
Others didn’t love it — some even scorned it — feeling that we were doing things that were “too Catholic”, unbiblical, and generally not acceptable in our denominational tradition or in their estimation of what constituted correct worship. I was sympathetic to this perspective, having been raised in just such a church context. I could relate to where the naysayers were coming from, even as I tried to point them beyond their criticisms and concerns to the beauty of what awaited if they’d only give it a try. Some did try, even if ultimately disagreeing, and I loved them for it. Others left the church. I grieved that.
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In his book, Ancient-Future Time, Robert Webber said, “The simple, unadorned purpose of the Christian year is to proclaim the Gospel of God’s saving deeds with Christ, especially in his death and resurrection. The Christian year represents the historical unfolding of the life of Christ and his sure return” (31).
In other words, the Christian year tells the cosmic redemptive story God’s unfolding in history, culminating in the person and work of Jesus Christ. It provides a framework for understanding redemption and what God’s up to in the world through Christ. It’s a way to read the biblical story through a Christocentric and Christotelic lens. The more we immerse ourselves in this story and find our own story within this metanarrative, the more we become conformed to Christ.
This is very biblical and, for Christians, derives from our Jewish heritage and roots. Remember, Jesus was a Jew as were all of his disciples and most of his earliest followers!
In the Old Testament God prescribed a liturgical calendar and series of sacred days, festivals, feasts, and sacrifices for the people to observe. You can find summaries of this liturgical calendar and the special offerings required in Leviticus 23, Numbers 28 and Numbers 29, and Deuteronomy 16:1-17.
These special and sacred days were essentially weekly (in the case of Sabbath observance) and annual (in the case of most of the other special observances) opportunities for them to re-tell the story of God’s mighty acts of deliverance and remind them of God’s goodness and provision. This liturgical calendar and these sacred days, feasts, and offerings formed and shaped them as God’s people in the world. It gave them a sense of identity, purpose, and mission.
Jesus, his disciples, and the earliest Jewish followers were faithful Jews that observed these special festivals and sacred days. Early on the Church took the new thing God had done through the person and work of Christ and began developing its own sacred calendar centered on the pivotal events of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
So Advent prepares us to celebrate the incarnation and birth of Christ and also invites us to anticipate his return in hopeful expectation. Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus. Ephiphany, traditionally focusing on the story of the Three Wise Men, proclaims Christ’s manifestation to the Gentiles. Lent immerses us in Jesus’s journey towards death and invites prayerful contemplation and contrition of our lives. The days of Holy Week immerse us in the story of Jesus’s final days and death. Easter celebrates the resurrection and Jesus’s triumph over Satan, sin, and death, and also points us towards hope for our own resurrection. And finally, Pentecost celebrates the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2, traditionally marked as the birth of the Church, and invites us to live in the power of the Holy Spirit.
As we intentionally live into the annual rhythms of the Christian Year with its focus on the cosmic redemptive story God accomplished through Christ, we journey on a spiritual pilgrimage; one that forms and shapes us in the way of Jesus.
Christian-year spirituality invites into what Webber described as “the mystery of the incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection, and coming again of our Lord.” And, he concluded, “As we enter the very life of Christ, his life interpenetrates our lives, and we learn to live in the pattern of his life and death as we die to sin and rise to new life in Christ” (Ancient-Future Time, 33).
I don’t know about you, but I need to learn that more and more.