The Pattern of the Christian Year (Bible Study)

Worship planning assumes that a calendar is used. The assumption in worship planning is that we anticipate future worship.

Lesson 11                        See all lessons
Scripture:
Exodus 13:1-30, 1 Timothy 3:14-16
 
Introduction

Every week is not the same. We do not plan with 52 generic weeks of worship devoid of any special significance. Worship planning goes easier and with more satisfaction when a calendar with a pattern or rhythm is in view.

However, that immediately brings us face to face with the question of which calendar we ought to observe. Four different calendars vie for our attention. A choice needs to be made.

The chronological calendar. The year begins in January, flows through the seasons of winter, spring, summer and fall, and then ends in December. It is possible to organize the church's life along these lines. In January we begin a new year and have a new calendar; in December we put it away.

The church-program calendar. The program of most churches begins in September. "Everybody's back", we say. New classes and schedules are established and continue through late spring when many activities slow down again for the summer months. Should worship be planned according to this essentially nine-month calendar?

The "greeting card" calendar. Many social and secular events also ask for attention in our worship scheduling. Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, Father's Day, Eagle Scout Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day and a variety of other such observances often have great influence on the worship schedule of some churches.

The Christian year calendar. This pattern observes the reenactment of God's drama of redemption through the ministry of Christ. In this case the year begins in Advent (four weeks before Christmas) and continues through Pentecost, a season of growing, until we arrive back at the beginning of a new year at Advent again.

While it is difficult to isolate these calendars from each other, worship planners should clearly identify which will be their primary calendar. We suggest the Christian year calendar as the primary planning tool.

Biblical Advice

When you've read the two Scripture passages carefully, you will have noticed that God has instructed his church to engage in a regular remembering of redemptive events in order to remain focused on his plan.

Moses instructs the Israelites how they should observe their "remembering times" once they get into the Promised Land. The temptation to forget will be great. And so Israel is instructed to schedule regular and repeated observances that will keep God's mighty acts always in mind for generations to come. The consecration of the firstborn and the Passover Feast are not only times for the adults to "remember" but also an opportunity of instruction for the children. By doing so, God's concern to keep his deeds known "from generation to generation" will be accomplished, and the faith of each generation will be centered in the right place—his saving acts in history!

When Paul corresponds with Timothy, the pastor at Ephesus, he writes about structuring the life of the church.   He raises how they "ought to conduct themselves in God's household" (1 Timothy 3:15). We might expect him to launch into a discussion of morals and ethics, but instead he writes about remembering the "mystery of godliness," the incarnation and exaltation of Jesus Christ, as the heart of the church's faith. In other words, proper Christian conduct is directly related to the remembering of God's saving acts in the birth, ministry, and exaltation of Jesus Christ.

The Pattern

Following the pattern of the Christian year provides a congregation with the opportunity to remember the whole ministry of salvation in each year. It is a rich and meaningful way to orient worship around the work of Jesus Christ. The Christian year was developed in antiquity and was a vital part of the worship of the church until the time of the Protestant Reformation, when much of its observance was abandoned because of abuses that had crept into it during the Middle Ages.

The Christian year always begins with the season of Advent in anticipation of the incarnation of Christ, celebrates his birth at Christmas, and his ministry during Epiphany. The church prepares for his suffering and death during Lent, observes his death during Holy Week, celebrates his victorious resurrection on Easter, and marks the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. After Pentecost, the church observes Ordinary or Growing Time until the year begins again in Advent.

We have prepared a grid to show the pattern and to point out the characteristics of each season. It is attached at the end of this lesson as a separate sheet for print-out purposes.

Note: It is also possible to structure the Christian year according to one of the ecumenical creeds of the Christian Church. For instance, the Nicene Creed provides a helpful pattern around which the major themes of the Christian year can be organized. You will find an example of worship arranged around the structure of this creed in Part Two of The Worship Sourcebook, pages 369-761.

Tips for Discussion Leaders

As you prepare to lead this discussion, be sure that you have a clear overview of the Christian year in mind. Also identify which calendar seems to have the greatest influence over the worship planning of your congregation, either deliberately or unintentionally. Invite and encourage others to catch the broad overview, and then begin to focus on how your worship life could benefit from a greater and clearer reflection of the Christian year. Perhaps your introduction of some changes will be small at the beginning. But be sure that changes suggested are well thought-through so they can be communicated thoughtfully.

Discussion Starters

1. Review the four possible calendars that are presented above (chronological year, church program year, "greeting card" year and Christian year). Which of these four is dominant in your worship planning? Does your committee feel this is wise and helpful?

2. Which parts of the Christian year does your congregation observe? Do Advent and Lent serve well as a time of preparation for the celebrations of Christmas and Easter? Are there parts of the Christian year that you have never observed?

3. How well does your congregation know and understand the rhythm of the Christian year? Would there be benefits to emphasizing it more? Where could you begin?

4. How much teaching is done to instruct worshipers on the seasons of the Christian year? Is that sufficient? In what other ways could teaching be accomplished?

5. How does your worship space change from season to season? Can the worshipers (especially the children) notice the changes by the use of different liturgical colors and other visuals? Where could you make improvements?

The Christian Year at a Glance  

Season

Time

Emphasis

Message

Colors

Advent

Beginning four Sundays before Christmas through December 25

Readiness through a patient waiting for the coming of Christ in Bethlehem, in our hearts, and at the end of history.

We examine and prepare our hearts that we may be renewed in repentance, patience, and anticipation to welcome the coming of Christ.

Purple or Blue

Christmas

December 25 through January 5

The prophecies have been fulfilled: the Messiah is born. The Savior of the world has arrived.

We express our joy, give thanks to God, and embrace God's presence in Jesus Christ.

White or Gold

Epiphany

January 6

The manifestation of Jesus as the Savior to the Jews and to the whole world (missions).

We celebrate Jesus as the light of God and the manifestation of God to the world.

White

After Epiphany

(Ordinary Time)

The period after January 6 until Ash Wednesday

A journey with Christ in his ministry as he manifests himself as the Son of God.

We grow with a new commitment to manifest the life of Christ through our own witness.

Green

Lent

Begins on Ash Wednesday, six and a half weeks before Easter—
includes Palm Sunday and ends at sunset on Thursday of Holy Week.

A time to travel with Christ through his suffering and preparation for death; though under attack he continues to the cross. Often a time for prayer, meditation, fasting, and almsgiving.

We examine ourselves, repent of our sins, and renew our dedication to Christ through our identification with the journey of Jesus to the cross.

Purple or Blue

The Great Triduum

"The three great days" during the week before Easter, which include Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Saturday of Holy Week.

The church recalls the institution of the Lord’s Supper, the washing of the disciples' feet, the giving of the great commandment (Maundy Thursday), the trial and crucifixion of Christ (Good Friday), and the whole of the redemption story (Easter Vigil of Saturday).

These "three great days" are a time for fasting and prayer; reflection on the suffering and death of Jesus; and a commitment to live in the pattern of his death and resurrection.

Purple or Blue (or Red as an alternative for Holy Week).

Easter

 

Easter Sunday

The most crucial event of the Christian year! A celebration of the great saving event of the resurrection of Jesus for the victory over sin and death.

We celebrate Jesus' victory as the culmination of salvation history and are called to the Christian life of dying to sin and rising to the life of the Spirit.

White or Gold

Eastertide

Extends for fifty days after Easter; includes Ascension Day and ends on Pentecost.

The continued ministry of Christ after his resurrection gives credence to his resurrection and ascension and is a time for us to reflect on his reign as the Sovereign Lord who intercedes for us in the presence of the Father.

We reflect on the implications of Jesus' resurrection and ascension, commit ourselves to live as those who are "risen with Christ," living under his reign.

White or Gold

Pentecost

Pentecost Sunday, 50 days after Easter.

The powerful outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the church for witness and service.

We are called to walk with the Spirit and participate in the growth and spread of the Christian Church in the world.

Red

 Ordinary Time

(Growing Time)

From Pentecost to the beginning of Advent—about a six month period.

Through the work of Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit, the Church of Christ enters the world with the Gospel and experiences both growth and trials.

We embrace the teachings of the church, grow deeper into the truths of God's saving events in history, and grow in our obedience and service.

Green

White (for Christ the King Sunday, the final Sunday of the season.)

Adapted from Ancient-Future Time by Robert Webber (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004)

Further Reading
Designing Worship Together, Norma de Waal Malefyt and Howard Vanderwell, Alban Institute, 2005, especially "Planning the Worship Calendar", pp. 96-128.

Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality through the Christian Year, Robert E. Webber, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004.

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