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
I’ll admit it, I do not like to sit and wait. I especially do not like having to wait unexpectedly when deadlines approach and when I have “things to do.” I suspect I am not alone in this opinion. Often, we wait only because we have to. Waiting makes us anxious or annoyed that precious time is being wasted. But waiting is not a bad thing. Waiting gives us a chance to pause, to ask questions, and to anticipate the future.
And so, as we encounter the readings from Matthew and the prophets this Advent, we have the opportunity to ask ourselves, what do they say to us this year? Where are we in these stories? How are these stories with us today? Since Advent means “coming,” in what ways will Christ be coming to us at Holy Spirit in the year ahead?
The human experience of longing is at the center of Advent. Children long for Christmas—and the presents that come with that day. But as we grow older, don’t the presents lose their luster—at least a little? Instead of presents, we long for answers to life’s questions. We discover that possessing something does not still our desire; we long for something more. Advent allows us a time each year to become more attentive to the things we still long for in life. Maybe we long for justice and righteousness like the prophets Malachi and Jeremiah did. Maybe we long for a future that is more than the sum of past and present. Maybe we long to heal broken relationships, or to renew relationships that somehow got lost in the “hustle and bustle” we subject ourselves to. Maybe we just long for peace—peace within ourselves and peace in world divided by opposing political views.
This longing in Advent is a sign of the church at odds with our culture. In a time that says “you can watch your favorite shows and movies ‘on demand’” Advent says “Wait.” (You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. -James 5:8, NRSV) To the commercials that say “you can turn your phone into a virtual reality headset now,”1 Advent says “hope for something you may never see in this life.” (The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” Isaiah 11:6, NRSV). To an era that says “conform,” Advent says, “You have shown strength with your arm and scattered the proud in their conceit, casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. You have filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:51-3, NRSV).
Blue as a color for Advent gives us direction for our longing, for blue is the color both of the sea and the sky. Our yearning reaches to the profound and to the lofty, to the very depths of our being and to the glory of heaven. It is a longing for what we were intended to be as individuals and as the community of Holy Spirit Lutheran Church. Blue symbolizes our hope for what we could become and for what is making its way into the present. As Romans 15: 4-6 reminds us on the Second Sunday of Advent this year, “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (NRSV)
As we anticipate and long for the coming of our Savior this Advent season, ask yourself, “what is it that I am waiting for this Advent? What is it that I hope Christ will bring as he comes to me in the year ahead?”
1If you have no idea what a virtual reality headset is, here is a sample commercial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A7XdxTvFy6U ).
Image credit: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/564x/a4/55/1a/a4551a679c82406b876dc045cb3f743c.jpg
As a follow up to my article from October, I wanted to ask the very Lutheran question, “What does this mean?” with regard to the Joint Lutheran and Catholic commemoration of the Reformation in Lund, Sweden. Gathering under the theme "Together in Hope" and building upon a document prepared by Lutheran and Roman Catholic theologians titled "From Conflict to Communion", this gathering of Lutherans and Roman Catholics from around the world was historic. Still, some will say, “not much” in response to the question, "What does this mean?" And in some respects, they are correct. There was no doctrinal shift, no surprising announcement that Lutherans are now welcome to commune in the Roman Catholic Church. However, there were some significant developments from an ecumenical perspective.
First, Lutherans and Roman Catholics agreed to approach their dialogue out of those things that we hold in common instead of what divides us. As Lutheran World Federation (LWF) President, Munib Younan, Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land said in his opening remarks, "With joy we have come to recognize that what unites us is far greater than what divides us." This approach led to an important announcement at the event in Malmo following the service—more on that below. It also led to statements of repentance from both communions:
Quoting “From Conflict to Communion” LWF General Secretary Martin Junge said, “In the sixteenth century, Catholics and Lutherans frequently not only misunderstood but also exaggerated and caricatured their opponents in order to make them look ridiculous. They repeatedly violated the eighth commandment, which prohibits bearing false witness against one’s neighbor.” Representing the Roman Catholic Church, Cardinal Koch then acknowledged, “Lutherans and Catholics often focused on what separated them from each other rather than looking for what united them. They accepted that the gospel was mixed with the political and economic interests of those in power. Their failures resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. We deeply regret the evil things that Catholics and Lutherans have mutually done to each other.” This act of repentance is significant because it acknowledged the ways in which both sides failed to live out of the unity we are working toward.
Third, as part of the joint statement signed at the service, Lutherans and Roman Catholics committed to sharing in Holy Communion as an end goal of these dialogues. This is important because those who are unfamiliar with ecumenical dialogues often assume that unification into one church is the goal. IT IS NOT. Lutherans and Roman Catholics value the diversity within the Body of Christ, and that does not mean we all have to agree on every theological point in order to share Holy Communion with each other. For example, it means that Lutherans can lift up the role of women in ministry and Roman Catholics can abide by their dogma around an all-male priesthood. It means that Lutherans don’t have to accept the teaching authority of the Pope as the final authority. We do need to have serious discussions about these and other issues that divide us, but unification into one denomination is not the goal. Rather, a shared Eucharistic Table is what we see as the culmination of our ecumenical efforts.
Finally, at Malmo, the Vatican and LWF signed a “Declaration of Intent” between Caritas Internationalis and LWF World Service. Building upon our common calling to serve others in Christ’s name, the international aid arms of each denomination are committing to “actively look for opportunities to work together increasingly in countries affected by conflict and war, and where large numbers of refugees are on the move.” LWF World Service Director Maria Immonen continued by saying, “The poor are expecting this of us. The world is expecting us to work more closely together. We need to bring hope, inspiration and faith in humanity through our work together.” The churches named as a first priority responding to the crisis in Syria. (For more, see: https://www.lutheranworld.org/news/new-beginning-lutheran-and-catholic-aid-agencies and http://www.caritas.org/2016/10/concrete-action-lutherans-catholics-service-worlds-poor/ )
These developments may seem small or slow for some, but in the world of ecumenism, they are giant leaps forward—especially when one considers where Lutherans and Catholics were fifty years ago. And ultimately, it is up to us to move the dialogue forward. The joint statement is not simply a document for theologians. In fact, it ends with a call to all of us: "We call upon all Lutheran and Catholic parishes and communities to be bold and creative, joyful and hopeful in their commitment to continue the great journey ahead of us. Rather than conflicts of the past, God’s gift of unity among us shall guide cooperation and deepen our solidarity. By drawing close in faith to Christ, by praying together, by listening to one another, by living Christ’s love in our relationships, we, Catholics and Lutherans, open ourselves to the power of the Triune God. Rooted in Christ and witnessing to him, we renew our determination to be faithful heralds of God’s boundless love for all humanity." May it be so, and may we be called to serve as disciples of Christ—together in hope.
(For the full text of the joint statement from the service in Lund, click here.)
(For the full text of "From Conflict to Communion" click here; it is a PDF download on the right of that page. This resource is the theological foundation for the joint commemoration.)
“What happened in the past cannot be changed, but what is remembered of the past and how it is remembered can, with the passage of time, indeed change. Remembrance makes the past present. “
- From Conflict to Communion, a joint publication of the Vatican and Lutheran World Federation
On Reformation day, the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church will hold a joint commemoration of the Reformation in Lund and Malmö, Sweden. Pope Francis, LWF President Bishop Dr Munib A. Younan and LWF General Secretary Rev. Dr Martin Junge will lead the Common Prayer service in Lund and then an event in Malmö. (The services will be live-streamed. You can view the live-stream atwww.lutheranworld.org/lund2016/livestream if you wish.) Update: the service is available at: https://youtu.be/plkK6zNHP_0
This commemoration will highlight the ecumenical developments between Catholics and Lutherans over the past fifty years. While the churches are still far from “full communion”, theses events are certainly significant steps forward for not just Lutherans and Roman Catholics, but all Christians as we both celebrate the unique gifts of each denomination and the unity we already share in Christ as his followers. Last June on his flight back to Rome from Armenia, Pope Francis even praised Luther. He told reporters, "The church was not a role model, there was corruption, there was worldliness, there was greed, and lust for power. He protested against this. And he was an intelligent man." (quote from: http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2016/10/28/499587801/pope-francis-reaches-out-to-honor-the-man-who-splintered-christianity?sc=17&f=1001)
As we look to the future of the church, this event and others like it will mark what kind of church we hope to be for the next 500 years. The Christian church as a whole has been blessed and enriched through our Lutheran theological perspective; that is our heritage—that is what we remember and commemorate this day. We do not celebrate the divisions and in some cases, the violence undertaken by Christians against other Christians in our past history. Rather, we look to the future with hope for what Christ will do through his disciples of every denomination to proclaim his good news of forgiveness and eternal life.