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.
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.
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.
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.
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.