The Christian Year
By Dr. James H. Furr, President and Professor of Church and Culture, Houston Graduate School of Theology
Like many of you, I recently noticed that some big box stores simultaneously displayed sale items for Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. What was once a sequential ordering of marginally necessary consumer goods has become a mad pursuit for whatever dollars we’re willing to spend for anything that catches our fancy. Will a Labor Day “must-have” be added to the cluster next year?
Indeed, various cycles in our lives seem to compete, not only for our attention, but for time and allegiance. Routine work cycles are divided by days, weeks, and years except for holidays and vacations. Schools cycles are clustered by terms, holidays, and summers. Civic cycles are shaped around legislative sessions, holidays, elections, and terms of office. Retailers add the incentives of pre-sale events, sale discounts, and “the sale extended for one more day.” Since these and many other processes commonly require us to play different roles, we can find ourselves struggling for clarity about who we are and where we are in the flow of life.
For disciples of Jesus and Christian communities, the Church long ago developed a seasonal pattern that can still re-frame the chaos of conflicting systems and re-focus our identity in Christ. The late Robert Webber helped introduced many evangelicals to the meaning and power of the Christian or liturgical year in his 2004 book Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality Through the Christian Year.
“Through Christian-year spirituality we are enabled to experience the biblical mandate of conforming to Christ. The Christian year orders our formation with Christ incarnate in his ministry, death, burial, resurrection, and coming again through Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost. In Christian-year spirituality we are spiritually formed by recalling and entering into his great saving events” (Introduction).
At broad and deep levels, following the Christian calendar helps ground and restore our true identity in Christ as it challenges the forces attempting to use us as mere resources for labor, revenue, distraction, or authority. When the Christian year becomes the pattern for Christian worship, we are reconciled, re-oriented, and re-inspired each week for a loving relationship with Christ, our fellow worshippers, and the rest of God’s created order.
Advent is the beginning of the Christian year, which begins next Sunday. Our participation in this shared season unites us with all Christ-followers throughout the world and across time. Not only will the memory of the Incarnation at Christmas tap wellsprings of celebration, but we are compelled by hope, peace, joy, and love to anticipate the consummation of the age when we will find our ultimate home in God’s loving design.
Note: The Vanderbilt Divinity Library maintains a helpful lectionary outline that indicates the biblical passages suggested for each Sunday of the church year. You can access the entire three-year cycle through the following link: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/. (December 2, 2018 begins “Year C” of the cycle.)