From Reformation to Advent: Liturgical Whiplash

I'm not entirely satisfied with my experience of the church calendar in late October, November, and December.  Let me try to explain.

First, I'll make this much clear: I'm no scholar of neither the liturgy nor the lectionary (Derek and others say, "yeah, no duh").  I'm writing here as an informed and long-time participant in the Lutheran lectionary cycle, but as one who is increasingly dissatisfied with my experience of the church calendar come late October. 

After celebrating the many weeks of Pentecost from late Spring through mid Fall – and its progression through one of the synoptic Gospels and related texts in the Old and New Testaments – in late October our church jumps out of that cycle for one Sunday to celebrate Reformation Sunday (a fixed-date lesser festival that nonetheless we Lutherans always shift to the Sunday on or prior to Oct 31, and celebrate with grandeur).

The following Sunday we celebrate All Saints, another fixed-date festival that we Lutherans move to the Sunday on or following Nov 1, again jumping out of the week-by-week lectionary cycle.  (The festival readings for All Saints, however, do select from the synoptics for Year A and Year C, and from John for Year B, maintaining a connection to the church year that the Reformation festival does not.)

So what happens is that after several months of progressing quite nicely through one of the synoptic Gospels, we break away from that progression for two whole Sundays.  Normally I might not suggest that this is a grave problem.  However, the readings for the season of Pentecost are designed to lead us to the Festival of Christ the King in late November, marking the end of the church year.  This festival is characterized by eschatological themes of Christ's promised return, judgement, and promised New Creation – an essential element of the Christian worldview.  You'll note that as we get closer to Christ the King, the readings become much more apocalyptic (this is not just a theme that magically appears on Christ the King Sunday – our readings are already moving in that direction in the weeks prior to the festival).  As we get closer to that festival, as our readings orient us toward reflection upon and celebration of Christ the eschatological King, most Lutherans deviate from the intentionally-crafted lectionary for two weeks of Reformation and All Saints celebrations.  Inevitably, we miss something.

Argh.

But now that we've celebrated the Church in its Reformation glory and recalled the life and faith of the dearly departed and/or the saints of old, we return to the Pentecost readings leading us to Christ the King for two Sundays.  However, one (or more) of these Sundays are often overtaken by "Stewardship Sunday" or Congregational budgetary meeting themes.  Again, our preaching, teaching, and congregational energies are bring diverted from the liturgical calendar's themes toward other – good and holy, for sure, but nonetheless other – things.

Argh.

So, after having celebrated Church with Reformation fanfare, and remembered the dead and/or the saintly on All Saints (see my old post on our Lutheran confusion about All Saints), and having heard about giving and having made commitments of time/talents/treasure on Stewardship Sunday, we're ready (or not!) to celebrate Christ the eschatological King!  Except . . . except that about half the time Christ the King falls over Thanksgiving weekend, when the national holiday (and football) schedules overshaddow anything the church is trying to do.

Argh.

All of a sudden, following a busy month of liturgical gyrations, congregational "business" matters, and a national holiday, we're in Advent, which unfortunately is nothing more than "Pre-Christmas" for too many of our churches.  Advent especially has its apocalyptic, "Come, Lord Jesus" imagery, but this is often lost as we shop and prepare for the commercial Christian holiday of Christmas.

Argh.

And for good measure I'll share this: I find the celebration of the Christmas season – two Sundays – to be terribly lacking, as it has the misfortune of falling around New Year while schools are usually out of session, resulting in terrible attendance, simplified liturgies led by substitute (or simply worn out) preachers, or perhaps a service or two of Lessons and Carols.  Not much attention is given to this season apart from the grand Christmas Eve services, sadly.

As far as remedies go . . .

Beef up Advent.  I like the old practice (in Anglican/Episcopalian circles, I believe) of a six-week Advent season.  This would avoid the awkwardness of kicking off Advent over Thanksgiving weekend, and grant more time to this wonderful season.

End the church year intentionally.  Perhaps a six-week Advent season could be preceded by Christ the King (a 20th century liturgical innovation), and All Saints before that (check out Christopher's blogpost about the timing of Advent).  That is, All Saints could essentially lead us directly into the end of the church year (thematically it could work nicely) and then Advent.  Christopher suggests perhaps a mini-season of All Saints.  I'm not sure what I think about that, but I do like using All Saints as a shift, a liturgical marker pointing the Church toward the year end and Advent.

Establish All Saints as a Sunday feast.  Let's design the lectionary to assume All Saints as a Sunday celebration, since that's what nearly all Lutherans do anyway.  In this capacity as a Sunday feast, it will clearly and cleanly mark a change in the church season toward Christ the King and Advent.

Move Reformation Sunday.   It might be time that we Lutherans find another time of year to celebrate the Reformation.  Perhaps we could celebrate on June 25, the day of the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession – a day that better represents the work and legacy of the evangelical movement than does a commemoration of Luther's 95 theses.

Convert your congregation to a July-June fiscal year.  Congregational programs work according to a program-year schedule, as do schools.  For both liturgical and budgetary purposes, congregations should change their financial books to a fiscal year calendar beginning July 1.  Budgets would be fixed for ministry program years (making for more realistic understanding of program costs and planning), and Stewardship appeals would take place in May and June (deep in the Easter season or early in the green Sundays of Pentecost).

Teach more.  These seasons and themes are important, and the ways we celebrate them in worship is critical to our proclamation of the Gospel.  However, we can also do well to teach these themes and support their integration into the lives of our members through intentional education programs and devotional materials (daily lectionary readings, pericope groups, email prayer and devotional readings, etc.).

More to say, but it's very late.  G'night.

About Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.
This entry was posted in Faith & the Church, Liturgy, Lutheran. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to From Reformation to Advent: Liturgical Whiplash

  1. Beth says:

    You get my vote. Autumn in the church always feels too busy with the switching up of everything – and you’re right, to me it loses a lot of the natural progression of “finish the old year, open the new year” that Christ the King into Advent should bring. Working on the program calendar always confused me – in the church I grew up in, everything but the Religious Education program (which was never on Sunday) went year round – all committees, choirs, activities, and definitely service times (no changing times in the summer- STRANGE), which made having a fiscal year July 1 – June 30 work nicely.
    In a brief discussion not long ago, I was trying to explain to someone what I missed about my old (Catholic) church, and it was hard to come up with – now I realize that most of what I miss is programmatic (?) or logistic. Huh. Interesting.
    On another note- if you decide to ditch the blog (which would be sad for some of us), we’d understand, but perhaps keep thoughts and things elsewhere? I’d love to go to a church that put into practice MANY of the things you’ve commented and essayed on! But as many have said… change? We don’t DO that.

  2. Brian says:

    Interesting thoughts.
    The main issues I see in the changes you suggest are ecumenical and historical. First ecumenical: many Lutheran churches follow the Revised Common Lectionary (and the liturgical calendar) in common with many other denominations. Enlarging Advent, and moving All Saints and Reformation would put us out of sync with many of our brothers and sisters. Second, historically: again, we share out liturgical year with brothers and sisters of many ages before ours. I’m not sure the reasons you cite are strong enough to merit breaking that continuity.
    My personal preference in “fixing” some of the issues you identify would be to take the church year more seriously. So: 1) celebrate Reformation Day and All Saints Day on the October 31 and November 1, no matter what day of the week they fall on; 2) which leaves the Sundays open (most years) for the appointed time-after-Pentecost eschatological readings; 3) respect Advent (i.e., no Christmas carols, no children’s pageant, no decorated trees, etc.); 4) celebrate the 12 days of Christmas (and Epiphany). I also like your idea of doing the stewardship drive in May or June, but I know more than one pastor who would protest that the response would not be as good at the end of the program year when people are starting to think about vacations, etc.
    In a way, it can be a good thing that our culture’s “holiday season” (mid-October through the New Year as a celebration of consumerism and family) does not coincide with the church’s year. That way, if we discipline ourselves by the lectionary, it is clear that our Christmas is not the same as Santa Claus’s Christmas, and that our Advent is not the same as Sears’ holiday blowout. It does take discipline, though, and, as you say, education.

  3. Chris says:

    BTW, Thomas over at Everyday Liturgy picked up on this post and added a few of his own comments. Check it out: Fixing the Preludes to Advent. This, along with the above comments, invites a further discussion of the relationship between church practice and culture . . . Perhaps in a future post.

  4. David says:

    I shied away from the Reformation texts and stuck with the lectionary this year. No one seemed to notice the lack of “Reformation Day” preaching. The next week, however, I did use the texts for All Saints day.
    As far as budget and stewardship Sundays…I figured these folks have been at this a long time and didn’t need the extra nudge. Besiades, I preach stewardship at least once each month so they get it year round.
    I see your point about being agrivated with the Oct – Dec calendar of events, but I found that by down playing the “extra” things (budget and such) we were able to focus on the coming of Christ the King Sunday. At least it seems to have worked this year.

  5. Chris, with your suggestion about fixing dates on Sundays and such aren’t you falling into the grand cultural trap–and insisting that religion has its proper place on a Sunday morning?
    Fight the power, I say…
    Feast days aren’t at the whim of those who want to have tidy sacred and secular columns.
    Furthermore…there’s every reason for even a transferred All Saints’ to serve a much better purpose than what you’re seeing here. It’s *not* a break from the regular lectionary, rather it’s the starting gun for the eschatological crescendo. After all, that’s the whole point of the Saints, isn’t it–eschatological power made manifest in every-day human life?
    Christ the King actually isn’t a modern innovation. It’s *placement* is. Remember, the RCL took two already existing late-in-Green feasts and decided to use them as markers for the end of the Ordinal seasons: Transfiguration (Aug 6) and Christ the King (Last Sunday of October).
    One of the causes of our problems is the shearing off of half the meaning of Advent. The eschatological meaning was always much more pronounced in the earlier days of the church. Look through your hymnal and see what the earliest Advent hymns were about–the coming of Jesus but on the clouds of heaven with power, not as a little baby. It’s important to remember that for quite a while missals use to begin the church year with Christmas; Advent was the end. And if we were to see the Church year as a continuous narrative of Christ that begins with his birth then it ends with Advent where we look to the second coming… But that doesn’t do much for sales figures, of course.

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