Practicing the Christian Year

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Just before Advent, J.D. Walt posted a great article asking, “What Is Your Master Calendar?” and explaining why it matters. You should take a look at it if you haven’t already.

For all of us, life has a certain cycle to it. Each day and week is not simply the same as the last. We are always in the process of enjoying particular seasons and events and looking forward to others. That cycle of the year forms us. You’ve probably just experienced that naturally in the cultural Christmas and New Year’s celebrations. For nearly all of December, your calendar and life patterns changed, didn’t they?

If we’re serious, then, about letting the Christian calendar be our master calendar, how can we change some of our life patterns to more intentionally follow that calendar? Let me suggest for each season some simple practices in three different areas: family/individual, worship, and larger church activity.

Christmas and Epiphany

Technically, this season just ended at Epiphany Sunday, but our church community has decided to celebrate as if it’s “Epiphany season” until Lent begins.

The Season

At Christmas, we marvel at the fact that the Son of God took on human flesh. We stand in awe that the Creator of all time came into our time. We wonder at the One who holds all of the universe in his hands, lying in a manger. And at Epiphany, we celebrate the way he was made known to all, especially to those outside the traditional Jewish fold. We ask, “Who is this who has been born in a stable and is on his way to the cross?”[1]

Practices

As a church, this would be a particularly good season to focus on service. Christmas and Epiphany highlight God’s incarnational presence in our world. What a great time, then, to ask how the church as the body of Christ can be an incarnational presence in the world. In this, we remember that Christ – the light that came into the world – tells us, “You are the light of the world.”

In practical terms, this may be a good season for service because everyone else got their service in before Christmas. Charities seem to be awash in volunteers leading up to Christmas Day, but I suspect those numbers considerably  drop off afterward.

In worship, how can you find ways to emphasize light breaking into the world? God with us! Can you use the entrance of a Christ candle as a constant reflection of the light that has come? And though he was God with us, he took the very nature of a servant. In conjunction with the focus on service suggested above, perhaps you could use this season for regular testimonies about others’ experiences of outreach and witness.

As a family/individual, in addition to focusing on service, could you consider following the 12 days of Christmas? If you’re an American trying to follow the Christian calendar, you live in the tension of two very different Christmases. One begins on November 1 with radio songs and culminates on December 25 with Santa. The other begins on December 25 with a baby and ends on January 5, just before Epiphany. Can you find a way to celebrate the 12 days of Christmas specially with your family? You probably can’t abstain from all the “Christmas parties” that happen during Advent, but can you make your family’s most special time the period from Dec. 25 to Jan. 5? Perhaps you could give and receive your gifts slowly over these 12 days – several other cultures give gifts at Epiphany, not Christmas!

Lent

The Season

During this season, we prepare for the Easter Feast by first engaging in a forty-day period of penitence, often to include self-examination and self-denial.

Practices

As a church, you could hold weekly prayer services throughout Lent. Two years ago, my community canceled all other activities and gathered every Wednesday evening for simple worship and prayer. We sang a cappella, had a call to repentance and readings from the psalms of lament, and took times for silent prayers of confession and petition. We entered and left the chapel in silence. It was a simple yet profoundly meaningful time.

In worship, to give further opportunity for self-examination and self-denial, you might consider a reading of the 10 Commandments during the service, a prayer of confession, and silence. Last year, we started with a 15-second period of silence following the confession (it felt like a minute!), then we increased that period by 15 seconds each week. On the last Sunday of Lent, the silence was 90 seconds.

If you take weekly communion with leavened bread, you might also consider using unleavened bread throughout Lent. That reflects the Passover ritual that Lent prepares for, and some churches have historically done this to then celebrate the risen Christ at Easter with a risen loaf!

As a family/individual, could you perhaps adopt the practice of fasting for the season? Pick a day of the week and fast for 18-24 hours each week as a form of self-denial and opportunity for extra self-examination in prayer. Several people have told me they feel like they see some of their innate sinfulness bubbling out when they’re hungry. A watchful fast may allow us to see those areas that we still need God to purge.

Easter

The Season

Many people and churches treat Easter as merely a day, but in the Christian year, Easter is a season – the Great Fifty Days leading up to Pentecost. At Easter Day, everything changes. We worship with great fanfare, many Hallelujahs, and plenty of ornamentation. And appropriately so, as we celebrate the mighty work of our God in the resurrection and the promise of new life. We follow the Lenten season of fasting with a great season of feasting.

Practices

As a church, take this as a season of feasting. We celebrate a great Easter Feast on Easter Day each year. We encourage people to begin fasting on Saturday afternoon, and then we break the long Lenten fast together. To extend the feasting into the whole season, last year we canceled Sunday School from Easter Day to Pentecost and had brunch feasts together each week.

In worship, this would be a great time to hear people’s testimonies about new life in Christ. Can you find people to share throughout the season about the ways that God has given them new hope and new life where before seemed to be only death and despair? It would be great to celebrate baptisms throughout the season, and perhaps to offer people an opportunity to remember their baptisms – especially those celebrating new life and new hope in Christ.

As a family/individual, might you consider especially during this season how you can share your witness with others? Find ways to privately and publicly share with others about the new life you have found in Christ. If you came out of the Lenten self-examination with a newfound freedom in some area of your life, share it with others.

Advent

The Season

Advent is considered the beginning of the Christian year, but many people neglect to notice that it is also the appropriate end to the Christian year. In one sense, Advent calls us to remember the world’s eager longing for a Messiah before Christ came. In another sense, Advent calls us to again join in that expectation and anticipation, knowing that Christ has promised he will return and God will re-create this broken and hurting world.

Practices

As a church, how can you focus on simplicity and generosity throughout this season? While our world is caught up in Christmas consumerism, we take the focus off ourselves and place it on the hope of Christ. While our culture focuses on accumulating more during this time, perhaps as a congregation you can ask what you can do without. You could do a church-wide yard sale (may need to be indoors) and give the proceeds to a local outreach. At a time when many churches are finalizing next year’s budget, perhaps you approach your budget by asking what you can do without next year and increase the missions budget. In all, our attitude takes our minds off our own worldly desires and says that only Christ can truly fulfill. He is our true desire, and he is enough. How do we simplify the rest and use our surplus to meet someone else’s need?

In worship, many churches use an Advent wreath, which actually prepares perfectly to celebrate the common Good Friday service of Tenebrae in reverse. At the Tenebrae, lights are extinguished one at a time, and the room grows darker, preparing for the announcement of Christ’s death. How can you do the opposite throughout Advent, slowly increasing the light in the room, preparing for the great announcement of Christ’s birth?

Another way our community sought to take the focus off ourselves this Advent was by replacing our standard pastoral prayer time with a silent, guided prayer of thanksgiving and intercession from the United Methodist Book of Worship. The prayer longs for that day with no more crying or tears and prays for the nations, for victims and survivors of violence, and for the sick and suffering.

As a family/individual, how can you further focus on simplicity and generosity? We went through our kids’ toys with them this Advent and had them choose toys they would generously give away to other children. It warmed our hearts to see them so excitedly choose toys and talk about how much another kid might enjoy them. And perhaps you might again consider fasting. See Jonathan Powers’s great Seedbed article on Advent as a season for fasting.

We haven’t even gotten to ordinary season, or Kingdomtide, yet. I’ll leave that long season for your own creativity. It celebrates the church’s growth and mission, and our own growth as vines off the branch that is Christ. How can you highlight that in your practices?


[1] Found in Laurence Hull Stookey’s brilliant guide to prayer, This Day (Abingdon, 2004), p. 117.

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Teddy Ray is a pastor and preacher for the Offerings Community and the Executive Pastor of 1st United Methodist Church in Lexington, KY. He also coauthored Echo: A Catechism for Discipleship in the Ancient Christian Tradition. For more of his writing about theology, ministry, and life with God, see his blog: www.teddyray.com.

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