Making Preparation for Advent and the Christian Year in Worship

Suggestions and advice for planning Advent worship and looking ahead to the entire Christian Year.

Taking an Overview

This is a good time to pause in the process of worship planning and step back to make an overview of the year ahead. Actually, doing this during the summer months, especially in August, is a very helpful thing to build into the calendar for each year.

Planning long range in the worship life of a congregation gives us an opportunity to think more carefully about the themes and patterns of our worship life, assures us of a greater balance, and provides better preparation time for all that are involved, both pastor and musicians.

Our goal this week is to identify the issues in planning for the year ahead, possible choices, and to show you the direction that we will be taking.

Which Calendar?

The first choice we face is the choice of calendar. What considerations will guide the pattern of worship during the coming months? Which events will be included in worship? And how will the themes of worship and preaching be selected? In other words, which calendar will be our guide?

Our conviction and assumption is that to plan ahead without an intentional selection of a calendar, or to go ahead without planning, will produce worship and preaching that has little direction and misses major opportunities to proclaim the full gospel of Christ.

However, there are a number of potential calendars from which we can make our choices. Let's try to identify some of them. You will probably think of others.

1. The catechism/confessional calendar - if the pastor is preaching through the Catechism or one of the other Confessions, you may be inclined to structure the church year of worship around the themes/events that are currently being covered.

2. The secular calendar - many events on the secular calendar of our society will seem to call for attention in worship, and you'll discover that some churches follow it. Hallmark tells us that Valentines' Day, Mother's Day and Father's Day are big events. Our civic calendar tempts us to plan worship around Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day.

3. The church program season calendar - September through April/May is the season in which the largest number of church ministry events take place, with a major break for the "holidays". Worship planning can easily be determined by the rhythm of eight or nine full months, and three or four lean months. Within this calendar you will also find those "special Sundays" that each denomination likes to designate for specific ministries.

4. The Christian Year calendar - in this calendar the entire year is geared toward the remembrance of the main salvation events in the work of God. Salvation events rank much higher than local and secular events. We highly recommend this calendar and will be saying more about it.

THE CHRISTIAN YEAR CALENDAR

We are creatures of time. All our living is in the context of and governed by time. Sometimes time makes us remember as we treasure the past; other times we anticipate as we look forward to the future. As Christians we know that time is linear - it has a beginning and an end. We also know that it is made up of progressive events along the way. All of Scriptural history is built around remembrances and anticipations.

Worship needs to take this into account. God's events in the time of history should form the pattern of our worship life over the course of a year. So which calendar we select as our guide has large implications.

Selecting the Christian Year calendar to guide our worship life and planning will provide several very precious benefits:

1. Our worship will be anchored in the events of salvation history: the coming of Christ, the ministry of Christ, the suffering and death of Christ, the resurrection and exaltation of Christ, and the coming of the Holy Spirit.

2. The Christian Year will help us understand the Christian life. Each season has its own mood and spirit and they can be quite different from one another. We anticipate Christ's arrival. We are united with him in his suffering, death, and resurrection. We continue to receive new life from the Spirit. Each of these events provides a variety of themes, from anticipation, to penitence, to joy, to a challenge to growth.

3. The Christian Year provides a framework for the celebration of the gospel message. As such it becomes a careful safeguard for the church so that its message remains clearly Christ-centered. Each year the major events of God's redemptive history are celebrated and exhibit their formative influence over our worship life.

It is certainly true that Scripture does not prescribe the observance of the Christian Year, and in the past Christians of many traditions moved away from it because they were afraid that it would become an end in itself and reflect too much of medieval catholicism. But in recent years, many protestant churches have recovered the Christian Year and find it to be a valuable framework for organizing their worship life.

For the reasons stated above, we highly recommend it. You will find that the worship services provided here in the months ahead reflect the calendar of the Christian Year. A few other carefully selected events will be fit in along the way, but the rhythm of the year will be established by the Christian calendar. Once you do, you will find that it has the basic pattern of the Apostles' Creed.

THE PATTERN OF THE CHRISTIAN YEAR

There are many variations in the way in which churches and denominations structure the Christian Year. But generally it follows this pattern:

Advent - The Christian Year begins with Advent. This season includes the four Sundays preceding Christmas. Advent means "coming", and the weeks of Advent focus on the church's anticipation of the birth of the Messiah, as well as the future coming of Christ. In popular thinking Christmas is often enfolded into Advent, but we encourage you to avoid the temptation to treat all of Advent as though it were Christmas. Advent needs messages and music that focuses on anticipation and waiting.

Epiphany - The word "epiphany" means "manifestation" and comes from the purpose of Christ to manifest or reveal the glory of God. The origins and details of Epiphany are less clear, but it usually begins on or about January 6 and considers the visit of the Magi, the baptism of Jesus, his first miracle, and his transfiguration.

Lent - Perhaps the best known of the seasons of the Christian Year is Lent. It is a period of preparation before Easter, and originally signified a period of preparation for baptism on Easter. Generally this time of preparation is associated with the number forty - after Moses' forty years preparing for his ministry, the forty years of Israel in the wilderness, and the forty days of Jesus in the wilderness. The forty days of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, excludes Sundays, and concludes with Holy Week in which the suffering and death of Christ are central. The spirit of Lent is penitential and devotional.

Holy Week - Though not a separate "season" of the Christian Year, Holy Week is the most significant time for all Christians. During this week worshipers prepare to mark the journey of Christ to Calvary with additional times of worship and reflection. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday are its highlights.

Eastertide - The Easter season stands out as a time of celebration and joy. This season is fifty days in length leading from Easter (Resurrection) Sunday to Pentecost Sunday. The worship of this season calls attention to the resurrection of Christ, his post-resurrection appearances, his ascension into heaven, and the preparation of his disciples to witness to his kingdom.

Pentecost - Pentecost is both a day and a season. The Day of Pentecost, 50 days after Easter, marks the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the church. The season of Pentecost is the longest season of the entire Christian Year, stretching out until Advent begins again. Its emphasis is on the work of the Holy Spirit to give power and growth to the church so that the kingdom of God can be built. This season historically concludes with "Christ the King Sunday" which is the last Sunday before the beginning of Advent.

When all of these seasons are put together as a whole, we see that the Christian Year begins with Advent, and continues through the whole ministry of Christ and the Spirit until the next Advent!

BEGINNING WITH ADVENT

In these worship services, we are planning ahead for Advent. A meaningful Advent may include a carefully designed series of sermons, and services built around them. Advent services and sermons should be planned in conjunction with each other.

Sermon series for Advent can be of three types:

--A thematic series of messages will focus on the themes of anticipation, joy, hope, peace, etc. that are part of this season.
--A narrative series of messages will select various events in history that illustrate how God has broken in to history with his saving acts.
--A series of messages based on a specific book or passage of Scripture will focus on a highly concentrated passage that captures God's intervention and expound it carefully, such as one of the minor prophets, Isaiah 40, etc.

In the series of messages that will shape the Advent services here, we will select the second option and provide the outline of a series of messages entitled "When God Breaks In". This series is intended to focus on God's acts of breaking in to history to do his saving work, providing narratives of events in which that has happened, and to teach his plan for us. The series will begin on November 30 and continue beyond the four weeks of Advent into Christmas Day and the Sunday beyond it.

Nov. 30: When God Breaks In - He Reveals Himself - Exodus 3:1-15. The experience of Moses shows that God comes to us and tells us who he is, the "I am".

Dec. 7: When God Breaks In - He Calls Us For Life - I Samuel 3:1-10. Samuel's call teaches us that God comes to us for special roles of service and "captures" our entire life for his work.

Dec. 14: When God Breaks In - He Stretches Us - Jonah 1-4. Jonah discovered that God sometimes has plans for us that are bigger than we expected, or want.

Dec. 21: When God Breaks In - He Accomplishes Great Things - Luke 1:26-38. The experience of Mary shows that those who respond to God with faith can expect to see great acts of God.

Dec. 24/25: When God Breaks In - We See Glory - Luke 2:8-20. This message, designed for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, helps us step into the experiences of the shepherds who saw the glory of God.

Dec. 28: When God Breaks In - A Conflict Breaks Out - Matthew 2:13-18 and Revelation 12:1-9. As we enter Epiphany we discover that God's entrance also provokes the retaliatory response of evil. The passage from Revelation 12 provides commentary on what was behind the scenes for the massacre in Bethlehem.

DECISIONS TO BE MADE

Adequate advanced worship planning means anticipating the decisions that will need to be made. Perhaps by identifying some of these ahead of time you will be prepared to make them more wisely. We'll list some of them we can think of, but you will undoubtedly encounter others.

1. When will the sacrament of the Lord's Supper be celebrated during the Advent Season - first Sunday, Christmas Eve, Christmas, some other time?

2. What spirit or emphasis will we try to encourage during this season - devotion, anticipation, penitence, awe, or ...?

3. Will we have a worship service on Christmas Eve? Christmas Day? Will one of these services be a candlelight service? If so, what preparations should begin immediately?

4. Which of the services associated with Christmas will be the most likely entry point for worship visitors? How can we make it visitor-friendly? How will we publicize our invitation to the community?

5. What visuals should we be preparing for the Advent season? Banners? Candles? Paraments? Other resources?

6. How will we be able to incorporate children in Advent season worship? Will they lead in some prayers, readings, dramas? Will we have children's messages for them?

7. What music ministries will need to be planned? How can we aid the director of choir(s) or musical groups with adequate information enough in advance for careful planning and rehearsing?

8. Will we use an Advent wreath in our worship this season? If so, what script will we use and how will we select the participants? Do we have the candles and wreath?

MUSIC FOR ADVENT

Most denominational hymnals have a section of hymns devoted to Advent. Most hymnals also have a topical index that provides additional suggestions of hymns appropriate for the season. As introduced earlier, we encourage the use of predominately Advent hymns early in the season, and gradually adding hymns that are appropriate to both Advent and Christmas. It can be wonderful in post-December 25 worship to be able to concentratedly sing Christmas carols. If we sing Advent hymns during Advent, we will be able to sing the carols of Christmas vibrantly after the malls are done with them!

Though your denominational hymnal includes hymns for Advent and your congregation has its own standard Advent hymns, you may wish to consider incorporating some supplementary hymns or refrains that have been published more recently. Sing! A New Creation has 17 Advent resources, including refrains, newer hymns, spoken prayers, and responsive settings of text and song that could enrich your congregation's worship life.

You will find an extensive list of available music for the season for vocal choirs, organists, pianists, and handbell choirs in this quarter's issue of Reformed Worship, vol. 69.

LIGHTING THE ADVENT WREATH

Many churches find it very meaningful to add the lighting of the Advent wreath during the season of Advent. A white Christ candle is surrounded by four other candles, with one additional candle lit each week of Advent to represent our growing anticipation for the coming of the Messiah. This "service of lighting" is an excellent way to involve children and family units in the readings, yet families should not be used exclusively so that singles feel excluded. Care should be taken so that all preparations are made and the candles are in place before the first Sunday of Advent. The service is usually much the same each week, though with different readings. The readings usually comprise both Old Testament and New Testament, and we have often encouraged the practice of standing for the gospel reading.

The following are the suggested readings for Advent 2003. We encourage you to keep these on file for your Advent service planning. We have included the suggested script of readings for the first Sunday, which can be altered for each of the remaining Sundays.

***

First Reader: As we begin the Advent season, we prepare our hearts for the coming of the Christ child, and we focus on the entrance of God into history and into people's lives to carry out his work. Hear the Word of the Lord from Exodus 19:1-6 in which God instructs Moses on how to lead the people of God.

First Reading: Exodus 19:1-6

Candlelighting: We light the first candle of Advent in remembrance of God's promise to bring the Messiah, and in anticipation of the day when God's Son, Jesus, returns to the world and brings His blessing.

Second Reader: Now hear the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ from John 1:1-5, and verse 14. In these words the apostle John tells that the Jesus Christ who comes is the eternal Word of God. Please rise for the reading of the gospel. (We prefer to ask worshipers to practice the ancient Christian habit of standing for the reading of the gospel during this season.)

Second Reading: John 1:1-5, 14

Song: "Magnify the Lord" PsH 622, RN131, SFL13

***

Readings for the second Sunday of Advent: I Samuel 12:19-25 and Luke 3:15-18

Readings for the third Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 55:1-3 and Luke 4:16-21

Readings for the fourth Sunday of Advent: Micah 5:1-5 and Luke 2:1-7

Readings for Christmas Eve or Day: Isaiah 9:6, 7 and John 1:1-5, 14, 29

Partial Glossary of Hymnal Abbreviations:

PsH The Psalter Hymnal (Christian Reformed Church; Faith Alive Christian Resources)
RN Renew! (Hope Publishing Company)
SFL Songs for LiFE (children's songbook; Faith Alive Christian Resources)

DATES FOR PLANNING AHEAD IN WORSHIP

Since we are trying to give you an overview for this year, we've listed some of the major dates that you may want to consider for the worship life of the church.

October 5 - World Communion Sunday
October 13 - Thanksgiving Day (Canada)
October 26 - Observance of Reformation Day
November 23 - Christ the King Sunday
November 27 - Thanksgiving Day (U.S.)
November 30 - First Sunday of Advent
December 24 - Christmas Eve
December 25 - Christmas Day
December 31 - Old Year's
January 1, 2004 - New Year's
January 11 - First Sunday of Epiphany
February 25 - Ash Wednesday
February 29 - First Sunday of Lent
April 4 - Palm Sunday
April 8 - Maundy Thursday
April 9 - Good Friday
April 11 - Easter Sunday
May 20 - Ascension Day
May 30 - Pentecost Sunday

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