On the Third Sunday of Advent, we celebrate Gaudate Sunday (from the Latin for "joy"). But did you know that the Third Sunday in Lent is known as Laetare Sunday? Laetare means "Rejoice!" and it is always celebrated 21 days before Easter as a traditional "midway" point through the season of Lent. The Sunday is considered a day of relaxation from normal Lenten disciplines as Easter approaches. Traditionally, weddings (which were otherwise forbidden during Lent) could be performed on this day, and servants were released from service for this day to visit their mothers which is why it is also known as 'Mothering Sunday'.
For those who were preparing for baptism, this was also a time of "scrutiny." This time was a chance to examine (scrutinize) the areas of our lives where we are tempted to - or do - sin in what we do and what we fail to do. However, it is also a time to scrutinize how God's amazing grace is working in and through us. Like the man whom Jesus restored at the Pool of Siloam, we all need the healing and the strength that can come from the support of Christian community. So ask yourself this Lenten season:
You hopefully have noticed that we are repeating the same “Call to Worship” throughout Lent. And yes, this is intentional. In part, it is in response to feedback we have received that some of the newer songs are unfamiliar to members, and so we hope the repetition helps people learn music that may be new to them. It is not that the old favorites are going away, but learning new music does help us hear and reflect on a familiar message in a new way, which brings up another important point:
The primary purpose of music in church has always been for the words to reinforce the Scripture passages selected for the day. So while a nice melody is important, our primary focus should be on the words. The music is there to help us remember the passages of Scripture, which brings up one more important point:
We want you to sing along! The Call to Worship is not a choir anthem, or a song leader solo. It tells us that worship has begun and reminds us that we are the ekklesia, the “called out ones.” When we gather as God’s people we are being called away from all the other things that compete for our time and attention so that we can worship God together in a specific place and time. So regardless of whether you see yourself as the next Pavarotti, or Adele, or more like Florence Foster Jenkins (google her if you don’t know who that is), don’t be afraid to sing out—because God invites—even commands us to sing praise in Psalm 95:1-2 (the appointed Psalm for March 19, 2017):
1O come, let us sing to the LORD;
let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
2Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!
You may (or may not) have noticed that the word "alleluia" disappears from the liturgy during Lent. But why?
Well, because of the penitential character of the season of Lent, singing or saying the word "alleluia" has historically been suspended during Lent's forty days. Some have described the omission of the word as a "fast" from the exuberant joy that "alleluia!" is meant to evoke--until we hear again the Good News of Christ's resurrection on Easter. The word itself comes from the Hebrew word, hallelu yah, meaning “Praise the Lord.”
The omission of alleluia during Lent goes back at least to the fifth century in the western church. Later in the Middle Ages, a custom of actually bidding it farewell (or "burying the alleluia") developed, which some congregations still practice (it makes for a great children's sermon!). The hymn "Alleluia, song of gladness" (Evangelical Lutheran Worship #318) contains a translation of an 11th century text that compares an alleluia-less Lent to the exile of the Israelites in Babylon. The text then anticipates the joy of Easter when glad alleluias will return in all their heavenly splendor:
1 Alleluia, song of gladness, voice of joy that cannot die;
alleluia is the anthem ever dear to choirs on high;
in the house of God abiding thus they sing eternally.
2 Alleluia you are sounding, true Jerusalem and free;
alleluia, joyful mother, bring us to your jubilee;
here by Babylon's sad waters mourning exiles still are we.
3 Alleluia cannot always be our song while here below;
alleluia our transgressions make us for a while forgo;
for the solemn time is coming when our tears for sin shall flow.
4 In our hymns we pray with longing: Grant us, blessed Trinity,
at the last to keep glad Easter with the faithful saints on high;
there to you forever singing alleluia joyfully.
As we begin this season of Lent, may our "fasting from Alleluia" remind us of our need for prayer, fasting and acts of love (almsgiving) to draw us closer to God--recall the gospel reading from Ash Wednesday: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21. And may it help us anticipate not only the joy of Easter, but the eternal joy that Christ's resurrection promises us all.
The information above is adapted from the ELCA Worship resource, "Why don't we use alleluias during Lent?": http://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/Why_don't_we_use_alleluias_during_Lent.pdf. The hymn text for "Alleluia, songs of gladness" is public domain.
At times I am asked why we celebrate certain events when we do in the church. Especially around the Christmas and Easter seasons, there can be a great deal of confusion over when Christmas and Easter start and end, and who decides on what date they should be celebrated. in response to these questions, I developed a short series on the church calendar, the readings we (generally) use, and why we use them.
So what does the church year look like?
The church calendar is fixed around the two principle festivals in the life of Christ: Christmas and Easter. These two feasts become the basis for the Easter cycle and the Christmas cycle. Each cycle includes a festival season (Easter and Christmas), preceded by a season of preparation and anticipation (Lent and Advent). In most mainline Protestant churches, Lent and Advent are immediately preceded by a transitional festival Sunday (Transfiguration and Christ the King), and the Easter and Christmas Seasons are immediately followed by a transitional festival Sunday (Trinity and Baptism of Our Lord). In between these transitional festivals is what is known as “Ordinary Time” or “Time after Epiphany” and “Time after Pentecost”. These green seasons are a time of growth and instruction in the teachings of Christ.
How does the lectionary correspond to the seasons of the church year?
The practice of using a “lectionary” (pre-assigned, scheduled readings from the scriptures based on the church year) can be traced back to the early church. It most likely was inherited from Judaism, which adopted a similar practice. While we can't prove it one way or another, some have argued that Jesus referenced what might be considered a lectionary (or assigned daily text) scroll when he preached in his hometown of Nazareth (Luke 4:16-17). Individual readings in the Lectionary are called pericopes, from a Greek word meaning a "section" or "cutting."
The seasons of the church year are meant to take us through the major life events and teachings of Jesus in a single year. Consequently, the gospel readings for each Sunday provide the focus for that day. The other readings for a given day generally have a thematic relationship to the gospel reading for that day, although this is not always the case. In “Ordinary Time,” the Revised Common Lectionary offers two sets of readings for the lessons from the Old Testament. One set proceeds mostly continuously, giving the story of the Patriarchs and the Exodus in Year A (the year we are currently in), the monarchial narratives (such as stories about Kings of Israel like Saul, David, and Solomon) in Year B, and readings from the Prophets (primarily Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos) in Year C. In the other set of readings for Ordinary Time the readings from the Hebrew Bible are thematically related to the gospel lections. Denominations or local churches generally use either the semi-continuous readings or the thematic readings during Ordinary Time. They do not typically move back and forth between the two over the course of a single season. Lutherans are free to use either the semi-continuous or thematic readings based on the preacher’s preference.
How are the readings for each Sunday chosen?
Different churches and regions have used various lectionaries over time. Until the Second Vatican Council most Western Christians used a lectionary that repeated on an annual basis. This annual lectionary provided readings for Sundays and, in those Churches that celebrated the festivals of saints, feast-day readings (we celebrate these in the ELCA). In 1969, the Roman Catholic Church adopted a three-year lectionary highlighting Matthew in the first year (Year A), Mark in the second year (Year B) and Luke in the final year (Year C). Over each year, selected readings from John’s gospel are interspersed (especially in Year B).
In 1983, many “mainline” Protestant churches adopted the “Common Lectionary” which built on the Roman Catholic Lectionary. In 1992, the same churches adopted “The Revised Common Lectionary”. The Eastern Orthodox Church and many of the Coptic, Syrian, and Armenian Churches continue to use one-year lectionary.
How much of the Bible is covered by the Revised Common Lectionary?
If you came to church for every Sunday Service and all the major Church Festivals, you would hear approximately 13 percent of the Bible: 6 percent of the Old Testament (not counting the Psalms) and 41 percent of the New Testament. (Source: "An Introduction to the Homily" by Robert P. Woznak, pg. 75). If you use a daily lectionary, the percentage is much higher--in some daily lectionaries, you can read through the entire Bible over the course of three years. For an example of a Daily Lectionary, see Evangelical Lutheran Worship pew edition pgs. 1121-1153.
For more on the history of the Revised Common Lectionary, see: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/ For more on the last two questions, see: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/faq2.php. The photo is cited from: http://www.ithacapres.org/uploads/8/3/5/6/8356238/churchyear_graphic.png
In today’s Second Lesson (for January 22, 2017), we hear Paul appeal “that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1 Cor. 1:10b, NRSV). Paul’s words remind us that there have always been issues over which Christians have not agreed. Many times the issues are over personal preferences, or driven by personal experiences (what Paul seems to be getting at when he says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,”). Other times the disagreements are based on theological differences (for example see the acceptance of Gentiles into the church without requiring circumcision in Acts 15). But regardless of the cause of the disagreements, Paul reminds us here that the message of Christ and his cross is what unites us—that is what is essential. In Galatians 3:28, he says it this way, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (NRSV). So when divisions threaten to undermine the church’s work and witness, one thing we can do is pray—for an end to division and a reminder of the unity that we already have in Christ Jesus.
With this in mind, every year between January 18 (the day the church remembers the Confession of Peter - see Mt. 16:13-20) and January 25 (the day the church remembers the Conversion of Paul - see Acts 9), the church celebrates the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (WPCU) began in 1908 among Roman Catholics and was increasingly adopted by Protestant churches around the world in the 1940’s with the founding of the World Council of Churches. In 1968, the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (the Roman Catholic Church’s ecumenism office) began publishing joint materials.
Each year, these two groups select a team of individuals to develop materials on a common theme. The 2017 theme is based on the occasion of the 500th anniversary year of the beginning of the Reformation. It is: "Reconciliation – The Love of Christ Compels Us" (2 Corinthians 5:14-20). Reflections are from the Council of Churches in German, which highlight the main concerns of reformation churches while also acknowledging the pain of the subsequent divisions the reformation caused.
This week, I invite you to join with Christians around the world in praying for reconciliation and unity using one of the prayers developed for the WPCU: “God of all, we pray as one, that we may be one, just as the Lord Jesus prayed we may be one in Him. Your son Jesus compels us to be reconciled to one another. May our spirits be joined to your Holy Spirit, that we may witness to the visible unity of your Church. May we all recognize that we are truly one with you, Father, Son and Holy Spirit and grow together in peace. We ask this in the name of Jesus our Lord. Amen.”
(For more on the history of the WPCU, past themes and prayer card prayer go to: http://geii.org/week_of_prayer_for_christian_unity/week_of_prayer_history.htm and