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Through the Liturgical Year
The Christian View of Time
Lynne Wall writes that the way we view time is linked to the way we view human life. Time may seem like a treadmill on which people arrive exhausted after a seventy-hour week to a weekend of recovery in order to start the next week’s work. On the treadmill human life is expendable in the service of production and consumption. Human beings lose their God-given image and value. But if time is viewed as God’s gift to enhance the value and growth of human life, then it need not be geared to a cycle of working to pay for things which provide our leisure to refresh us for work again.
Sunday is the central element of the Christian calendar. It represents the earliest Christian celebration of the gospel message through its focus on the day of Jesus’ resurrection (Mark 16:9, Matt 28:1) and it was a day, not of rest from work, but of gathering for worship in the early church (Acts 20:7).
However, there are links to the Jewish Sabbath in the rhythm of work and rest which is linked to God’s delight in creation (Genesis 2:1-3, Exodus 20:8-11). There is also the memory of God’s gift of freedom in the formative events of the Exodus which are recalled in the celebration of the Sabbath (Deut. 5:12-15). For Christians the spirituality of Sabbath observance, as expounded in Abraham Heschel’s book Sabbath, was lost as it degenerated into strict, legalistic observance of Sunday especially in prohibitions against many joyful activities seen as profaning the holiness of the Sabbath.
Sunday as the day of resurrection is not a rest day from work but a call to gather, to remember and to give thanks. It is a reminder to the gathered Christian community that we hold to a new way of living - a way based on the pattern of Jesus’ dying and being raised to new life. The life of the Spirit, which calls us to remember that we are children of God, offers us a new way of living in time where we value who we are, not what we can do or achieve. Sunday is a day of being rather than doing. This does not prohibit certain activities but rather reminds us that every day is holy and that through worship we nurture our imaginations and our spirits so that the whole of our life may be seen as sacred.
The Christian Calendar
One of the main activities of any celebration, be it sacred or secular, is the telling of stories. At a family reunion, for instance, our sense of belonging to the family is reinforced by the remembering of people and events that we have known or been told about. Our sense of identity is bound up in the links we make between our own personal story and that of the wider family.
In the same way, our identity as Christians is bound up in the links we make between our own personal faith story and that of the wider body of Christ. In worship we tell stories that make up our Christian heritage, both biblical stories, denominational stories and local congregational stories. These stories reinforce who we are as Christians, the shared faith we hold together and the hope we offer to the wider community.
These stories fit into a pattern of stories and celebrations that are focused mainly but not solely on Sunday worship throughout the year. A Christian calendar gradually evolved from the end of the second century CE (Common Era or AD). It was largely based on the Jewish calendar and we can trace the link between our major festivals of those of Judaism.
This is the major celebration of the church’s year though many Christians in New Zealand may see it as the last chance to get away for a long weekend before the weather signals the arrival of autumn! Easter camps may be part of your memory of this festival.
Easter is linked to the Jewish festival of Passover and its earliest name was Pascha. It was linked to the first full moon of Spring in the northern hemisphere and Christians soon began to always celebrate Easter on the nearest Sunday. As with many Jewish festivals, ancient agricultural and nomadic celebrations are linked to a later historical event. So Mazzoth, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, (the offering of the first sheaf of the barley harvest) and Pesach, the Feast of the Paschal Lamb,(the sacrifice of a young male lamb) are combined with a celebration of freedom and deliverance from slavery in Egypt to become God’s people through the telling of the Exodus story.
For Christians, there is a link with Passover because the gospels remember that Jesus celebrated Passover with his disciples the night before he died. In John’s gospel it is a little different. Here Jesus represents the paschal lamb by dying at the same time as the lambs are slaughtered for the Passover festival, cf 1 Cor. 5:7-8.
Over time, the church expanded this celebration to incorporate Palm Sunday and Holy Week with a special emphasis on the final three days of Easter as it recalled the crucifixion on Good Friday, and introduced a vigil. This vigil is celebrated especially in Roman Catholic churches on Easter Saturday with the climax of Easter Sunday.
It was traditional for new Christians to be baptized at Easter so that the 40 days of Lent may have been the time for new converts to prepare themselves for the commitment they were to make in baptism.
Alternatively, it may have recalled the 40 days of testing in the desert which Jesus endured after his baptism which was celebrated in some churches immediately after Epiphany (see below). Whatever its origins, Lent has become an opportunity for fasting and self-examination before the great festival of Easter. Note its commencement on Ash Wednesday when the emphasis in worship is on human frailty (dust and ashes) and penitence, which is preceded by Shrove Tuesday, (linked to Mardi Gras), an opportunity to celebrate and use up all the leaven in the house by eating the traditional pancakes.
Pentecost, as its name suggests, comes 50 days after Easter and has its roots in another Jewish festival, the feast of Weeks (seven weeks plus one day), Shavuoth. It was originally a thanksgiving for the first fruits of the harvest but by the time of Jesus it was also a commemoration of the giving of the law at Sinai. For early Christians these 50 days were a time of special celebration of the risen Christ.
Today Pentecost is seen as the “birthday of the church” when we remember the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples of Jesus as recounted in Acts 2:1-13. This festival is quickly followed by Trinity Sunday and the Sundays after Pentecost sometimes called ‘Ordinary Time.’
The other major festival in the Christian calendar is Christmas which has become a secular holiday linked by date to the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere. Christmas is the celebration of the incarnation, the coming of God to humanity in the child Jesus. The traditional twelve days of Christmas celebration conclude on 6 January, the feast of the Epiphany when we remember the revealing of Christ to all nations, especially the wise men from the East in Matt. 2:1-12.
Just as Lent is a time of preparation before the celebration of Easter, so Advent is a time to reflect and prepare for the coming of Christ into our world and lives each Christmas. Advent Sunday marks the beginning of the Church’s year and many congregations will mark the passing of time towards Christmas by lighting candles on an Advent wreath.
The New Zealand Setting
But how does all this fit in with the New Zealand cycle of holidays and celebrations? We do not enjoy the natural associations of the northern hemisphere celebration of Spring and new life with the church’s celebration of Easter. For us Easter comes in Autumn with themes of fruitfulness and the browning and falling of leaves. Look at Juliet Batten’s book Celebrating The Seasons of the Southern Hemisphere It seems that about every four weeks or so there is an opportunity in New Zealand to celebrate a holiday or ‘holy-day’.
Now refer to your copy of the Lectionary and Calendar for the current year. A Lectionary is a series of readings from the Bible which reflect the themes of the festivals we have noted above in the Christian Calendar.
We follow the Revised Common Lectionary, (RCL), which is used by many different churches throughout the world. It is a three-year cycle of Sunday readings focussing on the gospel of Matthew in year 1, Mark in year 2 and Luke in year 3. Readings from John’s gospel appear in the seasons of Lent and Easter each year. These gospel readings focus the theme for the day and are supported by readings from the Old or First Testament, a Psalm and an Epistle.
Worship leaders are encouraged to use these lectionary readings as they help a congregation to follow the liturgical rhythm of the church’s year. They are especially helpful when celebrating the major festivals and special commemorations. On pages 10 and 11 you will find readings for such celebrations as Covenant Sunday, Spring, Harvest, Waitangi and Anzac Day.
An interesting New Zealand Anglican resource to accompany the Lectionary is Rev Bosco Peter’s liturgy site: http://liturgy.co.nz/
There are symbolic colours to match the different seasons of the church’s year. Some churches have pulpit and/or altar falls in the four colours: violet or purple, white, red and green. Some ministers wear stoles of these matching colours over a white cassock-alb. Look on page 3 of your lectionary to see the symbolic meaning of these colours as they are used at particular moments in the church’s calendar.