THE LITURGICAL SEASONS OF THE CHURCH YEAR
By: Glenn Baaten
“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance”. —Ecclesiastes 3:1-4
Wise king Solomon points out in Ecclesiastes how everything in life seems to happen in cycles; being born, dying; planting, harvesting; laughing, crying. Our life is framed by the circle of time; day in – day out, eating, sleeping, working. The sun goes up, the sun goes down. The weeks, months and years pass by. Solomon sums this up by observing that “to every thing there is a season”. The recurrence in seasons and cycles is how we experience so much of our reality. The spring season is sweet because we’re coming out of bleakness of winter. The season brings with it a whole association of thoughts and feelings that we’ve compiled over the span of our lifetimes. This is what makes cycles and seasons so powerful in our human experience.
I submit that SEASONS AND CYCLES ARE EXTREMELY IMPORTANT TO THE LIFE OF THE CHURCH’S WORSHIP. They are spiritually formative. Year after year, they leave a deepening and lasting impression upon our spirits. Let me illustrate. There are two major cycles in the Church year: the Advent/Christmas cycle, and the Lent/Easter/Pentecost cycle.
In the first cycle, Advent signals longing. We human beings have deep expectations and hopes. The Christmas celebration is God’s answer to our expectations. God is with us in the person of our Savior Jesus. The second cycle has similar human and divine sides. The season of Lent allows us to ponder our mortality, brokenness and sin. This human attitude is met by the surprising grace of our God. Jesus’ response to our human reality of sin and death is His offer of forgiveness and the new life of the resurrection.
These spiritual themes are reinforced and deepened in our hearts and minds as each passing year goes by. The cycles of the seasons lay out as follows:
- Advent = HOPE: expectation and longing.
- Christmas = SAVIOR: Immanuel has come!
- Epiphany = LIGHT: out of the darkness into Christ’s light.
- Lent = REMORSE: acknowledgement of sin and need for salvation.
- Easter = NEW LIFE: He is Risen! He is Risen indeed!
- Ascension = COMPLETION: Jesus now sits at the Father’s right hand.
- Pentecost = POWER: Christ’s gifts are ours, by the Holy Spirit.
The vast majority of Presbyterian churches throughout the country now acknowledge the importance of these two cycles for Christian worship, and include them in varying degrees in the life of their churches. As you know, I’ve always held the Church year in the highest regard. I thank God for how we’ve made great strides in this regard. Obviously, it HASN’T ALWAYS BEEN THIS WAY, not for our church, nor for Presbyterians in general. Let me share with you some of the history of our denomination and the Church year.
Calvinist churches were identified as “Reformed” in Europe and “Presbyterian” in England and Scotland. When Calvinism came to America, it appeared primarily in its Presbyterian form. All Reformed churches throughout the world only observed FOUR holy days during the year, and no seasons at all. All the rest of the Sundays throughout the year were to be the same. The four special days were: Christmas Day, Easter Day, the Day of the Ascension (Jesus going up to heaven), and the Day of Pentecost. The Westminster Directory of Publick Worship, written in 1645, would stipulate that ALL Sundays throughout the year be the same in terms of content for worship, and that ALL special seasons and cycles be abolished:
AN APPENDIX TOUCHING DAYS AND PLACES FOR PUBLICK WORSHIP
There is no day commanded in scripture to be kept holy under the gospel but the Lord’s day, which is the Christian Sabbath. Festival days, vulgarly called Holy-days, having no warrant in the word of God, are NOT to be continued.
Over the last 150 years or so, Presbyterians have acknowledged that there was an “overreaction” on the part of the Reformed churches in the 16th and 17th centuries towards liturgical worship as found in Catholicism, Lutheranism and Anglicanism. These three church traditions continued to observe the cycles of the Christian year that we’d gotten rid of. It was acknowledged that much of the richness of Christian worship had be tossed out among the Reformed and Presbyterians. There was a growing desire to reincorporate much of the great tradition back into the life of our public worship. In the Preface of our denomination’s most recent Book of Common Worship, the authors write, “In the middle of the nineteenth century a movement emerged among American Presbyterians and other Reformed churches that sought to restore a liturgical tradition that was both Reformed and catholic.”
Rather than continuing to hold on to what separated us as Presbyterians from other Christian bodies, an ecumenical liturgical renewal was growing. It sought to reattach us to our common heritage with other mainline Protestant churches, as well as with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. Again, in our Book of Common Worship, the authors observe, “It is important to recognize that as Christians we share much of our history in common with other parts of the church. While the sixteenth-century reforms and events of later centuries are very important in shaping the particular way we worship, we share in common with other Christians FIFTEEN CENTURIES of pre-Reformation history.”
This has been nothing short of revolutionary for us as Presbyterians! Whereas, the Westminster Directory absolutely prohibited the observance of seasons and festivals, our Book of Order now strongly encourages their inclusion. It is recognized that the cycles and seasons of the church year provide a powerful opportunity for spiritual formation of individual believers as well as the collective body of worshippers gathered together. In the section of the Book of Order entitled the “Directory for Worship”, we discover the exact opposite of what was written 350 years earlier:
God has provided a rhythm of seasons which orders life and influences the church’s worship… in relationship to significant occasions in the life of Jesus and the people of God. The Church thus has come to observe the following days and seasons: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, the Day of Pentecost; as well as the lesser festivals: Baptism of the Lord, Transfiguration of the Lord, Trinity Sunday, All Saints Day, and Christ the King Sunday.
Our current Directory of Worship rings a lot like the wisdom of Ecclesiastes: “for every thing there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven”! What a difference over the course of three-and-a-half centuries of Presbyterianism. All of the “prohibited” seasons are restored. Talking about doing a liturgical 180°.