I’ve been looking at the lectionary and wondering about the nomenclature of Sundays between Pentecost and Christ the King. For most of my life these Sundays have been called, “The # Sunday after Pentecost.” When I went to seminary, I learned that the texts and prayers assigned to a given day were also organized into numbered “Propers,” and the new Evangelical Lutheran Worship materials use “Lectionary #” to denote the assigned readings and Prayer of the Day for a given day on the liturgical calendar.
For display on a hymnboard or on a worship bulletin, “The # Sunday after Pentecost” is more descriptive than “Proper #” or “Lectionary #.” It makes sense to the lay reader. But, it is also misleading.
Because Pentecost falls on a different Sunday each year – some years it falls in May, some years in June, depending on the dating of Easter – the number of Sundays between Pentecost and Christ the King is different each year. The season of Pentecost can have a variable number of Sundays. For example:
This year the season of Pentecost will have 27 Sundays. November 16 will be the “27th Sunday after Pentecost,” and the final Sunday before Christ the King (which is the last Sunday in the Church Year).
Next year, because of a later Pentecost date, the season of Pentecost will have only 24 Sundays. November 15, 2009 will be “The 24th Sunday after Pentecost,” and also the final Sunday before Christ the King.
Since we cannot depend on a fixed number of Sundays in Pentecost – as we can in Advent or Lent – readings and prayers for the Sundays following Pentecost are not organized sequentially from a Pentecost starting point, as the phrase “The # Sunday after Pentecost” would suggest. A Sunday’s position in relation to Pentecost is largely irrelevant when it comes to the lectionary readings and assigned prayers.
Readings and prayers for Pentecost and Holy Trinity – the Sunday after Pentecost Sunday – are fixed. However, after Holy Trinity Sunday, the readings are based not on a sequence starting at Pentecost, but on a sequence working back from Christ the King Sunday. The readings in the season after Pentecost lead us to Christ the King Sunday, with its apocalyptic, dawning of God’s Kingdom imagery. You’ll note that by All Saints Sunday in early November, the readings have made a turn, and through November we have readings that make some moderate mainliners anxious. It’s the relationship to Christ the King, not to Pentecost Sunday, that is significant.
This year, the season of Pentecost will have 27 Sundays. In 2011, the next time we’re in the year of Matthew, the season of Pentecost will have only 22 Sundays. Thus, what we read this year on “The 27th Sunday after Pentecost” – the final Sunday before Christ the King this year – will be the same readings as “The 22nd Sunday after Pentecost in 2011” – the final Sunday before Christ the King in 2011. It’s not the # Sunday after Pentecost that is significant, but the Sunday’s relationship to Christ the King that is significant.
So why don’t we have a nomenclature that reflects this orientation toward Christ the King Sunday? It makes no sense in November (especially!) to refer to a holiday months earlier, when that holiday does not determine the readings. It would seem to me more accurate to refer to these Sundays as “The # Sunday before Christ the King,” or some other phrase that reflects the movement toward the end of the church year and its hopeful themes of renewal in Christ’s Kingdom.
One reason for maintaining a reference to the Pentecost season is to emphasize that we Christians are living in the age of the Spirit, given at Pentecost. Just as the disciples were gifted and led by the Spirit, so too are we. We are a church still living from the Pentecost described in Acts chapter 2. But . . . as helpful as a reminder might be that we continue to live in the wake of the Pentecost, I’m not sure that we need a named season to remind us of that truth. That’s Christian Living 101, whether in the season after Pentecost, or the season of Christmas, Lent, Easter, etc. And a Pentecost reference point seems to confuse our liturgical orientation during those many weeks between Pentecost and Christ the King.
Details? Nitpicking? Perhaps. But I was developing a calendar for adult education, a calendar that listed dates and the liturgical day. I found it awkward to refer to the liturgical name of Sundays this fall, because using “Lectionary #” – as Evangelical Lutheran Worship does – might be fine for liturgical bookkeeping, but doesn’t make much sense outside of worship planning materials. But I find that referring to the Sundays in relationship to Pentecost is not truly descriptive of what the lectionary does.
Finally, I have noticed that in the churches in which I have worshiped Christ the King Sunday and its eschatological themes often come up as a surprise shortly after “the twenty-some odd Sunday after Pentecost.” Careful preaching and teaching certainly should set the stage for Christ the King, but our nomenclature can help, too. The four Sundays of Advent offer a clear chronology that leads us to the Nativity of our Lord. The five Sundays of Lent lead us to the cross. And the Sundays between Pentecost and Christ the King lead us to the eschaton.
Couldn’t the way we refer to those Sundays also guide us along the way?