A different kind of calendar

“When we submit our lives to what we read in Scripture, we find that we are not being led to see God in our stories but our stories in God’s. God is the larger context and plot in which our stories find themselves.” 

– Eugene Peterson

I can still remember the first time I heard the word “lectionary.” I was sitting in a preaching class at Princeton Theological Seminary in the mid-1970’s. The professor casually referred to the lectionary as a guide to devotional reading and preaching that would surely be as familiar to us as the Bible itself. Other students acted as though this was old news. Privately, I was utterly embarrassed because I had never heard of a lectionary!

See, I had grown up in a Southern Baptist church that had never mentioned a lectionary, or for that matter, the “Christian year.” We celebrated Christmas and Easter, of course, with great fanfare. But I had no idea that a season called Advent preceded Christmas, or that twelve additional days of Christmastide followed December 25. I knew nothing of Epiphany, or Ash Wednesday, or Lent. I knew about Palm Sunday, was barely familiar with Good Friday, but had never heard of Maundy Thursday or Holy Saturday. I looked forward to “Trick-or-Treating” on Halloween every year, but didn’t understand that Halloween was All Hallows Eve that preceded All Saints Day.

Even if I had known of these dates and seasons of the Christian year, like most Baptists I would have likely dismissed them as being “too Catholic” to observe. And even if I had been aware of a planned pattern of scripture readings called the lectionary, as a “free Baptist” I might have objected to submitting to an orderly list of readings someone else had planned.

Transforming Rhythms

Have I ever changed! Like so many in the Protestant evangelical world, I have been influenced by the “modern liturgical movement” in a way that has profoundly enriched my Christian life!

What I have learned is that if I submit my life to the ancient rhythms of the Christian year, and submit my mind and heart to the readings of a common lectionary that guides us through the Church calendar, I can more readily become a part of the Christian story. And the more deeply I am rooted in the story of Jesus, the more like Jesus I become.

As Bobby Gross explains in Living the Christian Year, the Christian year entails a sequence of days and seasons that correspond to the major events in the life of Jesus. The beginnings of the “liturgical” calendar date back to the earliest centuries of the church and the purpose of following the rhythms of the Christian year is to center our individual lives and our life together around the life of Jesus Christ.

The lectionary guides us in living these rhythms by providing a series of scriptures to be read in private worship and (hopefully) in our worship services each week. (The lectionary provides Scripture readings over a three-year span, each year a “Cycle.”) As we follow the lectionary, we will hear of some event in the life of Jesus that is a part of God’s wonderful work of redemption throughout history. This gives us an opportunity to center our lives around these events and to learn the lessons contained within them; in doing so we hope to be transformed into the likeness of Jesus. If we are faithful to submitting ourselves to God’s written Word in this way, it will become more alive in our hearts. And we will become more like the Living Word, Jesus Christ!

Beginning Again 

The liturgical year begins with the first Sunday of Advent—four Sundays before Christmas Day. During these four weeks we prepare for Christ’s advent, or his coming. This is a time of anticipation and longing for the coming of the Messiah. On Christmas we rejoice with the Shepherds that our Savior has been born, and then extend that celebration twelve more days! And on January 6, the Feast of Epiphany, we remember Jesus’ manifestation (epiphany) to the Wise Men, and continue in subsequent Sundays to review Jesus’ earthly ministry.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the forty days (excluding Sundays) that lead up to Easter. This is a season of sober self-examination. Holy Week, including Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, leads us to reflect on our redemption through the suffering and death of Jesus. On Easter Sunday, we celebrate with amazement the joy of the resurrection of our Lord. The celebration continues for forty-nine days. And on the fiftieth day, Pentecost, we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that birthed the church.

The stretch of time following Pentecost until the first Sunday of Advent is called Ordinary Time. It is “ordinary” in two respects — each Sunday is ordinal, or numbered and this is the “nonfestal” time of year. Yet, it is anything but ordinary since it chronicles the ongoing work of God in the world.

Walking Through Time Together

Since adhering to the Christian year (including the use of lectionary scripture readings) is meant to foster our spiritual transformation, once again we will enter into a new Christian year together starting on the first Sunday of Advent, November 29, 2015. This year we will follow the assigned readings for Cycle C; each week will typically include a passage from the Old Testament, a Psalm, a Gospel reading, and a reading from the Epistles.

The Transforming Center offers several resources for walking through Advent:

  1. Advent Reflections: Come, Lord Jesus, Come by Ruth Haley Barton provides weekly guidance for walking through Advent. For each week of Advent and Christmas Eve, the full Scripture text from the lectionary readings, along with a meditation, a prayer and a reflection question are included. Order now to have the best chance to receive it before Advent.
  2. Advent: Music in Solitude CD offers 10 tracks of peaceful instrumental music that support us in our journey of stillness and waiting. Christmastide: Music in Solitude CD picks up where Advent leaves off.
  3. Our Advent Evening Prayer Service in Wheaton, IL . Enjoy quiet moments of music, liturgical prayer, thoughtful meditation and silent reflection on the themes of Advent.
  4. An Advent eReflections will arrive via email the Friday before the first Sunday in Advent to help us enter into the season together.

Robert Webber writes in Ancient-Future Faith that “by observing the church year, time is aligned with the living, dying, rising, and coming of Christ. The Christian, in his or her view of time, makes a dramatic break with a secular view of time and begins to consciously meditate on the aspect of Christ’s life currently being celebrated by the church.”

Our hope is that those of us who are leaders in Christ’s Church will be very intentional about entering into these days and weeks as a season of spiritual transformation, which is our best preparation for leading others. To do so will, in Webber’s words, require a “dramatic break with a secular view of time”. It will require adherence to an entirely different kind of calendar, one that is centered around walking with Christ through the seasons of his life and allowing him to teach and transform us as we go.

©Rev. Dr. David Hughes, 2013 with contributions from David Williamson. Feel free to share this article using the buttons below; please do not reproduce and distribute without permission.

David Hughes

is the Transforming Center Ambassador. David holds an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary, a PhD from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and comes to us after thirty-six years of ordained pastoral ministry – twenty-two of which were spent at First Baptist Church of Winston-Salem.
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Another southern baptist who grew up Lutheran meaning my understanding oflectionary was the 75% sized pulpit to the left side of the church from which the pastor read the gospel and epistle reading forwhichever Sunday morning

That’s funny Bill! I’m glad it’s never too late to learn something new, even for Southern Baptists!

attention David Hughes, this is the other David Hughes, i got in the mail a Christmas card for you, it is from The Baxley Family, 1181 Arizona Bend, Watkinsville, GA 30677, i don’t have your address, please tell me what to do with it

Thanks, David!

I gave brief instructions this past weekend to our congregation regarding the lectionary readings for the year. I am going to send this article to our congregation in my weekly email. Many of our congregants at PCC are from a background that has never interacted with the lectionary – so it’s new to us! This piece will be a great help as we prepare our hearts for the coming King!

Thanks, again!

Thanks Biz! We at the TC will be interested to hear how the good folks of PCC respond to your invitation to follow the lectionary as you begin a new Christian year. Blessings!

Thank you for this clear and compelling summary of the lexitionary. I was brought to Jesus during the Jesus Movement of the 70’s, have been in leadership in nondenominational churches ever since- and sense a beckoning to enter into this rhythm of celebration. One question: who writes the lectionaries?

Thanks for your kind comments, Diane! While there are various lectionaries available, the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) is the preferred lectionary for many Christians and Christian ministries, including the Transforming Center. The RCL is the product of the “Consultation on Common Texts” (CCT). The CCT originated in the mid-1960s as a forum for consultation on worship renewal among many of the major Christian churches in the USA and Canada. Through the CCT, representatives of over 20 Christian bodies produced the RCL, first published in 1992, that we use today.

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