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The Church Year: Experience the Bible in a Year

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We celebrate special days, set aside through tradition, hallowed over time, and appropriately celebrated and remembered by many faithful Christians in church every year. Think I'm talking about Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, and other holy days of the Church year? Guess again! I'm referring to Independence Day, Mother's Day, Father's Day, and the myriad other secular holidays that many churches so eagerly celebrate (just insert Bastille Day, Australia Day, or any other holiday if you're not from the USA). I see no problem in wanting to celebrate the special days of our countries; we are proud to be American, French, Australian, English, or whatever countries we hail from. I believe we should recognize and celebrate this. However, we are also Christians, so why would we not want to recognize and celebrate the life of Christ and the work of God in the world? This essay is meant to look at the Church year, not in an academic manner, but in a way that will help average non-liturgical Christians understand something that too often is completely foreign.

First of all, what is the Church year? Simply put it's the calendar of the Church. We all follow calendars, the calendar year, the fiscal year, the seasons, etc. The church year is just like that: we have fixed days, rotating days, and seasons. The main difference is that the Church year revolves around the life of Christ and the Kingdom of God: i.e. Christian themes. For example, to many people March 25th may be another day; in the Church it celebrates the Annunciation. I'm writing this article on March 13, 2003, but this is just as much to me a day in Lent as it is a day in March or winter. I, like many others, have found orienting myself around the Church year to be incredibly meaningful and spiritually satisfying. In fact, the Church year has been the primary way of celebrating Christianity throughout its nearly 2000-year history. So, why should Christians recognize and use the Church year? I've given four basic reasons I believe the Church year is important.

1. It's biblical- Many people will say there's no scripture in the Bible that says to use a Church year. This is correct, but saying that is like missing the forest for the trees! The Church year is the New Testament, particularly the life of Christ and the Kingdom of God, in a year. Do you remember the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Transfiguration, the Wise men, Pentecost, the 40 days in the wilderness, and the Nativity? If you celebrate the church year, you will, and you'll commemorate and read about them, and many, many other events in the life of Christ and the Church, at least once every year. When was the last time you heard the Ascension preached on or read about it? If you're a liturgical Christian, it was probably less than 12 months ago; for many the answer is never. The Church year makes sure that everything is remembered and celebrated, not just the fun things or the easy things. Sure, we have several weeks of Easter and 12 days of Christmas, but we also have 4 Sundays of Advent, 40 days of Lent and a week of Holy Week. How many churches not on the Church year can honestly say they have focused on the life of Christ to such an extraordinary degree?

2. It's ideal for teaching- Evidence continues to indicate that Christians are incredibly ignorant about their own faith and particularly the Bible (check out www.barna.org). St. Jerome said "ignorance of the Bible is ignorance of Christ." In many churches, bible reading is viewed merely as homework and consequently, little of it is read during the worship service, sometimes only 1 or 2 verses. Of course, we know how notoriously bad most people are with doing homework. Not only that, but in many cases the pastor chooses the passages, so many Christians will go years, if not a lifetime, without hearing or celebrating certain points of Christ's life. In the Church calendar, every Sunday and major holy day, there will be an Old Testament, Epistle, Psalm, and Gospel reading related to the calendar. These will be read aloud and preached on. Since the Church lectionary (a system of bible readings) is on a unique 3-year cycle, it insures that a variety of Scripture is read. I know that some people see church in passive terms, so this material may not always sink in. But at least, with the Church year, everyone will hear the Gospel each week. Bible studies are important, but everyone who attends a liturgical church regularly will learn about and celebrate all the major events in the life of Christ every year, regardless of his or her extra-church religious activities.

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3. Jesus is the Reason- What we commemorate and remember in the Church year is from the life of our Lord Jesus and the kingdom of God. I don't think anyone can go wrong by celebrating his life and focusing on that throughout the year. Too often worship services focus on side issues like psychology, music, and in many cases the personality of the pastor. While most liturgical churches that follow the Church year are far from perfect, at the very least, every single week, the Gospel will be proclaimed and read and the life of Christ will be celebrated. In those churches not on the Church year, it's entirely dependent on the pastor to choose the texts and theme.

4. It's the Incarnation- As Christians we believe in the Incarnation: that God became man in the person of Jesus Christ. This is a sign of God's immense love for us that God would live, suffer, and die as a man in order to save humanity. Sure, God could have done this any way he pleased, but God chose to become one with us because of his great love for his creation. In the Incarnation, God redeemed the whole creation; Christ makes all things new. As children of God and joint heirs with Christ, we are baptized into his life, death, and resurrection, not only the convenient parts, but all of it. That is the beauty of the Church year: we share in the joy of his birth, the glory of his transfiguration, the agony of the cross, the wonder of his resurrection, and the anticipation of his second coming. In the Church year and the liturgy (which is accommodated in many ways to the Church year), we not only read about Christ's life, but we share it and experience it. Anyone who has ever been through the Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and the Easter Vigil can tell you it's more than just a retelling of good stories: it's an experience, an entering into the mystery of Christ's Incarnate life. In the Incarnation, Jesus was not always happy by our contemporary standards: he wept; he was spat upon; he fasted 40 days in the wilderness; and finally was painfully crucified and died. Why should we always focus on "happy topics" when Jesus, in the Incarnation, experienced pain and suffering? We cannot have Easter without Holy Week; it's impossible to have the resurrection without the cross. Many churches forget this, but the Church year preserves it.

I want to briefly discuss a little bit about the feast days of the Saints, since they are often misunderstood. These days are usually fixed and may vary according the calendar of a particular group (e.g. Catholic, Anglican, etc). These feasts range from such well-known figures as the Blessed Virgin Mary to lesser known men and women like Columba, abbot of Iona. Many people reject these days on the grounds that we are all considered saints by virtue of our adoption by God as his children at baptism. However, the feast days celebrate those people whose lives have been rigorously researched by the Church and found to be holy. They act as examples and intercessors for us. For example, in the USA, we celebrate holidays such as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Washington's Birthday. We are all citizens of the USA, with all the rights and privileges, but we all won't have holidays in our honor. Those are reserved for great men and woman who inspire us to do wonderful things. The Saints are our brothers and sisters in Christ, our spiritual ancestors. Why should we not remember and commemorate the ones who inspire us to live more Christ-like lives? We commemorate special individuals in the secular calendar, so why not the Church calendar? I believe we should remember our friends and family who have passed on too, but that should be done on a personal level, not with a fixed day in the calendar. Also, All Souls Day (2 Nov.) is for the commemoration of all those who are children of God.

I hope this essay has explained a little bit about the Church year and why I believe it is important. I hope that you've at least learned something and can see the perspective of those of us who have for almost two thousand years found great meaning and joy in the Church year. In fact, you may be surprised to know that the vast majority of the world's Christians follow the Church year. Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, and Lutherans, which make up the largest denominations, all base their worship around it. Many Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and non-denominational churches follow it too. So, by doing it, you're in excellent company and sharing a unity with fellow Christians, past and present. More.

Check out Part Two: Feasts, Fasts, and Seasons of the Christian Church Year

Ancient and Future Catholics