How the Practice of the Christian Year Affects Congregational Life

The way Christians keep time is a way of remembering. In communal worship, we remember and celebrate the events that make us who we are. Consequently, the celebration of the Christian year forms us into Christ’s body in the world.

Among the most remarkable aspects of the twentieth-century reform and renewal of Christian worship is the rediscovery of the church year. Twenty years ago no one could have predicted the extraordinary impact that the scholarship and the theology and practice of the church year would have on our preaching and worship. Every Christian tradition, except for the most narrowly sectarian Protestant churches, has established or proposed a version of the ecumenical new calendar and lectionary. The liturgical churches, of course, have always used calendars and lectionaries to order the worship life of the people. What prompts our reflection here, however, is an unprecedented convergence across denominational lines—including “free churches” and “liturgical churches”—on a basic theology of time represented in the new three-year lectionary.

Protestants are in the process of rediscovering the church year, not as an imposition from “outside,” but as a fundamental feature of authentic Christian worship that was part of Christian and Jewish experience from the beginning. For Judaism and for Christianity, time—and how we keep it—is crucial to faith itself. Why is this so? Because God’s self-revelation is historical and temporal. The events in and through which the living God has chosen to communicate with humankind are historical events. Even more to the point, remembering and proclaiming those events are the heartbeat of all preaching and worship. The community gathered about the Scriptures, the baptismal font, and the Table of the Lord is a community of memory. It keeps time with God by retelling and entering into the meaning and power of those “past” events again and again.

There is a considerable lack of understanding of how the laity enters into the formative and expressive range of the cycles of the church year. How a local congregation appropriates such faith and theological meaning into its ongoing worship and spirituality in common life and ministry is the point at issue.

Keeping Time as Part of Our Human Experience

In one sense time is so obvious but so hidden from us. Our temporality is itself a feature of all human experience. We know that a family gains identity and deepens its life by keeping anniversaries and by knowing how to celebrate well the significant events which mark that family’s history. Birthdays are kept with special rituals and celebrations; but so, too, in healthy families, are memories of deaths, transitions, and the characters and events of family history. At a family reunion, the foods are brought and ordered, the stories of our grandparents, aunts, and uncles are told, the songs and entertainments are performed, and the memories recited and made real.

Eating and drinking together in a family takes time. In everyday life, we come to understand certain matters only after we have had meals on birthdays, after funerals, with all the children home and with them all gone, and during the subtly changing seasons of our lives. How much more, then, is our eating and drinking at the Lord’s Table and our singing and hearing the Word of God this way. The meaning of our eucharistic meal deepens as we mature in the times and places of such gatherings.

The way Christians keep time—or fail to keep time—is a theological expression of what is remembered and lived. “Why do they keep coming, Sunday upon Sunday, year upon year, just to hear me preach, to sing the same songs, and to pray together?” This startling question from a beleaguered pastor opens up our subject to the real issue of congregational faith and life. Why, indeed, do Christians continue, over time, to gather with such regularity? Obligation? Custom? Or could they be searching for a way of opening their temporal lives to God—a search, perhaps, for genuine transformation? The answer is all of the above.

Honest reflection upon the connections between worship and our deeper hunger for God raises a series of theological issues about temporality and the cycles of time that give Christian memory and proclamation its distinctive character. Whatever else our motives may be, human beings come to worship because there is a restlessness for God and a sense, however, obscured, that time and place and life need somehow to be sanctified. The search for holy times and places is itself an expression of a deeper hunger we have for the transformation of our transitory lives. Worship, no matter how dull and routine holds out some hidden promise of sanctification in the very midst of life with all its changes, confusions, suffering, joy, and mystery.

Keeping Time as a Christian Community

The Christian community gathers to remember and to enact its particular identity as those called out by God in Christ. Because all ministries are rooted in the redemptive presence and activity of Christ in the world, the church’s sense of time and place is oriented toward God’s self-giving in the whole person and work of Jesus Christ. Christian worship involves the gathering of a baptized people who are commissioned and empowered to serve the world. Such servanthood does not take place unless the church remembers with the whole sweep of Scripture and is enabled to hope for a real future in light of God’s promises.

How may we speak in our local churches of Christian worship as forming and expressing ordinary people in the mystery of God’s unfolding relationship with us? How can pastors and musicians, and the other liturgical ministries of the laity, enable a congregation to enter more deeply into the rhythms of the church year, the week, and the shape of each day’s prayer and work? Consider a short definition and then let us draw some concrete pastoral applications from this in light of what has already been said.

Christian worship is the ongoing liturgy of Jesus Christ in and through his body in the world. It is the ongoing relationship of love and service between God and the people of God formed in the story of Creation, covenant, prophecy, and the incarnation, death, resurrection, and reign of Christ. Worship is, therefore, something communal because it is our distinctive way of remembering and celebrating who and whose we are. The adequacy of how we sing and pray and are shaped by Word and sacrament requires living with the whole reality of what God has done, in Creation and redemption, and the whole promise of the reign of God in the whole Creation.

Such an account of Christian liturgy shows the mutuality of divine and human dialogue. Christian life together is thus patterned in accordance with the humanity shown in God’s history with us. The faith of the church from its beginnings manifests in its pattern of worship over time an implicitly Trinitarian structure—God the Father made manifest in history and prophecy, and supremely in the events of Jesus Christ—suffering, dying and rising—and in the Holy Spirit indwelling and making alive the community of those who believe. The early church remembered Jesus especially with the keeping of Sunday, the day of creation and of resurrection. The very term “Lord’s Day” had become a Christian term for the first day of the week by the early second century. Sunday was and is in essence, a weekly anniversary of the Resurrection. But it takes time for all such a claim means to be unfolded. This is the domain of the church year.

The temporal pattern of the year and the reading, preaching, singing, and hearing of God’s Word over time itself witnesses to the holy history of God’s act focused on the unfolding story of Christ’s redeeming life, teachings, dying, and rising. The center point for the church was and is the Christian Passover—the Easter Pasch—which we celebrate as the three days at the climax of Holy Week. This, in turn, is approached by remembering our mortality and by preparing ourselves for the renewal of the baptismal covenant at Easter. The two other great feasts in the early church were Epiphany and Pentecost. The new ecumenical lectionary and calendar recover the relationship between Easter and Pentecost in the “Great Fifty Days” as a time of the outpouring of the Spirit.

Entering into the rhythms of the church year thus implies that our musical experiences sensitively unfold this. By working carefully together, pastors and musicians can provide an extraordinary opportunity for the congregation to “live into” the unfathomable riches of the cycles of Christian time. This implies that entering into the cycles of the liturgical year is a way of unfolding and exploring the gospel itself: opening the treasury of who Jesus is and what he does in and through a human community called forth to conversion and transformation. So we enter Advent/Christmas/Epiphany precisely as a way of expectation, reception, and the manifestation of the love of God in human form. But in so doing, the Scripture itself opens new dimensions of reality to us. The same is true of Lent/Easter/Pentecost. In this case, the central mystery of participation in the death and resurrection of Christ is at the heart of the journey.

Far from “playing church,” a genuine entry into these two focal cycles of the Christian year, with the interconnection of Old and New Testament and the treasury of the church’s prayer and song, provides the very pattern of the Christian life itself. This is why the pastor’s understanding of the cycles of time and the ability to guide the church’s worship through such feasts and seasons is itself a spiritual discovery. Because the community of faith and each faithful person continue to experience the changes of life—growth, suffering, joy, passages of various kinds, and death—the liturgical year is never the same. For our lives are constantly being reinterpreted into the story of God with us. In this manner, “Keeping time with Jesus” may never fall into a habitual routine or empty cycles of ceremony. Rather, in and through such remembrance and retelling, our very lives are given significance and a deeper sense of time and place.

Keeping Time “Between the Times”

But this leads us to a further aspect of the spirituality of the cycles of time. There is a tension that is part of the intrinsic nature of the Gospel claim itself. Christianity claims that the Messiah has come, ushering in the new age and opening up a way into the Kingdom of God. At the same time, the world and our human existence go on. Empires still rise and fall; there is birth and suffering and human passage and death. There is the already of death and resurrection and the salvation from sin and death, but there is unmistakably the not yet. The rule and reign of God have not fully come into human history. So we live between the times. This tension is the permanent feature of Christian worship and of the Christian life. The ongoing liturgy of Christ in the world still calls us to journey and to serve a broken, suffering world. The sanctification of time and place and human life cannot be possessed apart from the concrete world of human experience. Yet authentic Christian worship is a time and a place of remembering and rehearsing and proclaiming what is yet to be, while all the time being about the work of redemptive love, mercy, and justice among the human family.

Not only the year as the arena of sanctification but the week and the day as well, are part of the discipline and discovery of the spiritual life. The early church took the week, with the Lord’s Day at its beginning and end, as the most significant liturgical cycle. For Sunday—the day of Creation and of resurrection from the dead, the “first day” and the “eighth day”—was the paradigm of the gathering in the Spirit. Christians celebrated the Eucharist every Lord’s Day as the pattern for orienting all other times, including the liturgy of the hours for the sanctification of the day and the feasts and seasons in which Word and Eucharist reflected the unfolding of the larger story of salvation.

The pastor and musicians must therefore offer the treasury of this tradition to contemporary Christians. To be a community of living memory is thus to desire to live in light of who God in Christ is: his advent and birth, his appearance and death, and his resurrection, ascension, and life-giving Spirit is given to the community of faith. Within this discipline of time, we live with the symbols, the sign-actions of God in baptism and Eucharist, and the works of love and mercy.

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