Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Living the Christian Year

Thoughts on Lent, Holy Week, Easter and the Rest of the Christian Calendar

As Christians, we want to conform to the image of Christ. In other words, we want Jesus to shape us into “little Christs.” I hope this is a given. Now a great way to do this is to enter into a rhythm of life that constantly reminds us of Jesus and brings us, as a church, into his presence on a regular basis. We’re not simply talking about Sunday worship, though that weekly rehearsal of heavenly adoration is paramount to our spiritual vitality as believers. We’re actually speaking of the Christian seasons that imbue the calendar year with meaning and significance and prompt us to circle our lives, individually and as a community, around Jesus.

Wait, back up, you might say…there are Christian seasons? Yes! Seven, in fact, divided into three liturgical cycles that focus on key aspects of the Gospel, the good news of Jesus’s life and ministry. The three cycles highlight 1) Christ’s birth, 2) his passion, and 3) the gift of the Spirit along with his second coming. The first two cycles follow the pattern of preparation, fulfillment, and proclamation. The final season can be described as living in the Spirit in preparation for Christ’s return. Here’s how it breaks down.

The Church years starts with a Cycle of Light.* The three seasons are: Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. Advent is a time for preparing for Christ’s birth where we anticipate “a great light” (Isaiah 9.2) who will rescue the nations from the darkness; Christmas is when we celebrate the fulfillment of OT prophecy, the birth of Jesus, the “true light…coming into the world” (John 1.9); and Epiphany is the manifestation of that light, the proclamation with the Magi at his birth and with John the Baptist that Jesus truly is, as He said, “the light of the world” (John 8.12).

Next comes the Cycle of Life: Lent, Holy Week, and Easter. This is when we celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus, who came to “give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark10.45). We prepare for this event during the season of Lent. We recognize it’s fulfillment during the events of Holy Week, especially Good Friday. And with the angels, we proclaim, “He is not here; he is risen!” (Luke 24.6) during the season of Easter (which lasts seven weeks, by the way, and not just one day!). This is the oldest celebrated cycle of Christian festivals, dating back to the very early days of the Church.

The final season (called, by one writer, the Cycle of Love) is Pentecost (also known as Ordinary Time or Kingdomtide) in which we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit who enables us to live for Christ as we serve, worship, and await his return. This is the season in which the Church experiences God’s Kingdom fulfilled in Christ and yet anticipates and prepares for the New Heavens and Earth, all the while proclaiming the reality of God’s reign in our lives.

It’s no accident that the last festival of the Church year is Christ the King Sunday, which is the final Sunday before Advent and reminds us of his coming in glory. This Second Advent brings us full circle to the Advent season in which we prepare for his birth at Christmas and his revelation at Epiphany. And thus we begin to circle our lives around Christ for another year.

What the liturgical calendar is meant to do, then, is shape our thinking and lifestyle in order to become more like Jesus (little Christs). It pervades everything we do. Instead of letting the fiscal year shape us, or the school year, or the season opener of baseball and the rest of the sports calendar, we are declaring that we are traveling with Jesus from his birth, through his life, to his death and resurrection, his ascension, the giving of the Spirit, all the way until his return. This not only shapes us, but it’s an incredible witness as well. When we talk about the Twelve Days of Christmas or when we’re still celebrating the Feast of the Resurrection of our Lord seven weeks after Easter Sunday, someone is bound to notice!

So as enter into the next cycle of reflection, celebration, and proclamation, let’s see if we can embark together as a congregation on a journey to live the Christian year. Along the way, I’ll post gentle reminders every now and then as to what event in Christ’s life we are celebrating and why. Signposts, if you will, that point to Jesus and keep him central to our lives in the days ahead.

Are we ready to allow Christ to use the liturgical year to shape us, conform us, into his image? Then let’s begin!

(* See “Living the Christian Year” by Bobby Gross [IVP, 2009] for the terms, Cycles of Light, Life, and Love.)