Happy New (Christian) Year!
The calendar won’t turn over for a few more weeks, but a new year for worship begins this Sunday! Starting with Advent – the four weeks prior to Christmas – we will use elements of the Christian Year in our worship services. I wanted to give you an introduction to the Christian Year, a preview of what you’ll see, and some thoughts on how the Christian Year can help us as we follow Jesus.
I. WHAT IS THE CHRISTIAN YEAR?
Centuries ago, the church was filled with large numbers of people who had little education, or were even illiterate. To disciple these people, the church created an annual cycle of lessons centered on the life and ministry of Jesus. Though particular passages changed year-to-year, the pattern remained the same. Every twelve months, the people were taught about Jesus’ birth, ministry, death, and resurrection, followed by a long season devoted to the Holy Spirit and the ministry of the church.
Over time, the stages in this pattern acquired names and colors to mark transitions in the Gospel story:
Advent (the four weeks preceding Christmas) recalls the time of waiting for Jesus to arrive, and is marked by the color blue
Christmas (December 25 to January 6) recalls the milestones in Jesus’ infancy: his birth; the visitation by the wise men, also called Epiphany; and his baptism. This season is marked by the color white.
Ordinary Time (Round 1 – January 6 to the start of Lent), looks at the words and acts of Jesus during his earthly ministry, and is marked by the color green. “Ordinary” does not mean bland or boring – it comes from the Latin word “ordinalis,” which refers to a number in a series. “Ordinary” weeks are numbered in relation to a prior season or Sunday – in this case, Epiphany.
Lent (the six Sundays prior to Easter) looks at the latter part of Jesus’ ministry as he moved towards Jerusalem and the cross, and is marked by the color purple. Lent calls Christians to renewed repentance.
Easter (beginning on Easter Sunday, which can be anywhere from March 22 to April 25, and continuing for six weeks) focuses on the resurrection of Jesus and his appearances to the disciples. Easter is marked by the color white.
Pentecost (the seventh Sunday after Easter) celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church, and is marked by the color red.
Ordinary Time (Round 2 – beginning after Pentecost and ending with Advent) explores the Christian life and the ministry of the church. Like Round 1 of Ordinary Time, Round 2 is marked by the color green. Some Sundays during Ordinary Time have a special emphasis and a different color. These include Trinity Sunday (white), Reformation Sunday (red), and Christ the King Sunday (white).
It’s important to note that illiteracy is not a problem at New Hope, and that most of our families read and study the Scriptures on their own. Nevertheless, we think that we can all benefit from the Christian Year’s intentionality and repetition, its focus on the life of Jesus, and the way that it engages our senses in worship as well as our brains.
II. HOW WILL THIS BE USED AT NEW HOPE?
Some of you have been in churches where the Christian Year was followed in great detail. These include the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Episcopal, Lutheran, and Methodist churches, as well as the Presbyterian Church (USA), the mainline Presbyterian denomination. In these churches you see pastors and priests wearing colored vestments matching the seasons. You hear scripture passages and sermons based on a lectionary – a predetermined calendar of readings. Lastly, in the “highest” of these churches – Roman Catholic and Anglican – the different seasons also include holy days and feast days in honor of various saints.
None of those features will be used at New Hope. There will be no “holy” or “feast” days, since we do not recognize only certain people as “saints,” nor do we regard any particular day as more holy than any other. Gerald, Ben, and I will still dress the same way, and we will still select our own books and passages for reading and preaching. For the most part, we will continue to preach through a particular book of the Bible, rather than jump around from week to week.
What, then, will you see?
First, you’ll notice some color. Earlier this year, we replaced our banners with new ones, made by members of our congregation, that display the different colors of the Christian Year. The drapes and decor on the stage and the runner on the communion table will now change with the seasons of the Christian Year, as will the colors on the slides and bulletins. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve probably noticed this already!
These are simple changes, but they are not insignificant. Think of how you use decorations in your home to “get in the mood” of spring, summer, fall, and winter. These visual markers can help us “get in the mood” to focus on different aspects of discipleship.
Second, each sermon series will have some connection to the different seasons of the year:
- For Advent, we will preach on waiting for Christ from the Gospel of Luke.
- From Epiphany through Easter, we will preach through the Gospel of Mark, focusing on life in the Kingdom of God (Ordinary Time) and repentance in the Kingdom of God (Lent).
- Between Easter and Pentecost, we will preach on Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances described in the Gospel of John.
- From Pentecost to Advent, we will have three different series on the Christian Life and the mission of the church:
- “A New Era” – the power of God in the church as shown in the Book of Acts
- “A New Way” – how to serve God in “the new way of the Spirit” as described by Paul in Romans 7-8
- “The New Life” – a study on doing God’s will that asks what it looks like to fulfill the Ten Commandments through the Spirit
Our Adult Sunday School lessons will likewise connect with the seasons of the Christian Year
- For Advent, we will focus on the incarnation of Jesus, and why it matters that he took up a real body, soul, and mind.
- For Round 1 of Ordinary Time, we will examine the theme of revival – how it comes about, and what it accomplishes.
- For Lent, we will learn about the various Old Testament sacrifices, and what they reveal about the sacrifice of Jesus.
- For Easter, we will explore different ways of understanding the Atonement – what did Jesus’ death and resurrection accomplish for us and the world?
- For Ordinary Time Round 2, we will explore our identity as Christians through lessons on Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Christian Ethics.
III. HOW WILL ANY OF THIS HELP ME?
Great question! Though there are many possible benefits, let me emphasize two: rhythm, and focus.
Rhythm: Life comes at us extremely fast. When we are young, our lives have a rhythm marked by the changing seasons and the school year. As adults, however, each week and month tends to run into the next. We get run ragged and can easily lose sight of where our lives are headed – towards Christ in glory!
Used properly, the Christian year can impart a rhythm to our lives that counteracts the hectic pace we encounter in the world. Year after year, it calls us to slow down and pay attention to the person and ministry of Jesus. Over time, it trains us to live with the stable, the cross, and the empty tomb in the front of our minds.
Focus: There are millions of books and sermons on the Christian Life – so many that you could easily get lost and confused about the best way to grow as a disciple. However, the Christian Life is actually very simple, and the Christian Year enables us to focus on the core elements of discipleship: waiting (Advent), learning (Ordinary 1),repenting (Lent), rejoicing (Easter), and serving (Ordinary 2).
While it’s true that we need to do all of these every day of our lives, it’s equally true that we can only get better at them by focusing on them one at a time. The Christian Year invites us to do this – not mainly with colors and decorations, but with themes, sermons, devotions, prayers, and practices that will strengthen us in each element of discipleship. Gerald, Ben, and I will send you resources like these with each season – some of them original works. We pray that they will bear fruit in each of you personally, and will enable our church family to grow in health, maturity, and love.
I’m always excited to worship with you at New Hope, but I’m eager to see how the Lord meets us as we adopt a more intentional model of church life. I think that it will enrich our Life Groups as well as our worship, and even enable us to grow in evangelism and missions. Please pray that the Lord would do this very thing!