“When we submit our lives to what we read in Scripture, we find that we are not being led to see God in our stories but our stories in God’s.  God is the larger context and plot in which our stories find themselves.” 

Eugene Peterson

I can still remember the first time I heard the word “lectionary.”  I was sitting in a preaching class at Princeton Theological Seminary in the mid-1970’s.  The professor casually referred to the lectionary as a guide to devotional reading and preaching that would surely be as familiar to us as the Bible itself.  Other students acted as though this was old news.  Privately, I was utterly embarrassed because I had never heard of a lectionary!

See, I had grown up in a Southern Baptist church that had never mentioned a lectionary, or for that matter, the “Christian year.”  We celebrated Christmas and Easter, of course, with great fanfare.  But I had no idea that a season called Advent preceded Christmas, or that twelve additional days of Christmastide followed December 25.  I knew nothing of Epiphany, or Ash Wednesday, or Lent.  I knew about Palm Sunday, was barely familiar with Good Friday, but had never heard of Maundy Thursday or Holy Saturday.  I looked forward to “Trick-or-Treating” on Halloween every year, but didn’t understand that Halloween was All Hallows Eve that preceded All Saints Day.

Even if I had known of these dates and seasons of the Christian year, like most Baptists I would have likely dismissed them as being “too Catholic” to observe.  And even if I had been aware of a planned pattern of scripture readings called the “lectionary,” as a “free Baptist” I might have objected to submitting to an orderly list of readings someone else had planned.

Transforming Rhythms

Have I ever changed!  Like so many Baptists, and so many in the Protestant Evangelical world, I have been influenced by the “modern liturgical movement” in a way that has profoundly enriched my Christian life!

What I have learned is that if I submit my life to the ancient rhythms of the Christian year, and submit my mind and heart to the recommended readings of the lectionary that parallels the Christian year, I can more readily become a part of the Christian story.  And the more deeply I am rooted in the story of Jesus, the more like Jesus I become.

As Bobby Gross explains in Living the Christian Year, the Christian year entails a sequence of days and seasons that correspond to the major events of the life of Jesus.  The beginnings of the “liturgical” calendar date back to the earliest centuries of the church and the purpose of following the rhythms of the Christian year is to center our individual lives and our life together in the Church around the life of Jesus Christ.

The lectionary guides us in living these rhythms by providing a series of scriptures to be read in private worship and (hopefully) in our worship services each week. As we follow the lectionary, we will hear of some event in the life of Jesus that is a part of God’s wonderful work of redemption throughout history.  This gives us an opportunity to center our lives around these events and to learn the lessons contained within them; in doing so we hope to be transformed into the likeness of Jesus. If we are faithful to this plan of submitting ourselves to God’s written Word, it will become more alive in our hearts.  And we will become more like the Living Word, Jesus Christ!

Beginning Again  

The liturgical year begins with the first Sunday of Advent—four Sundays before Christmas Day.  During these four weeks we prepare for Christ’s advent, or his coming.  This is a time of anticipation and longing for the coming of the Messiah.  On Christmas we rejoice with the Shepherds that our Savior has been born, and then extend that celebration twelve more days!  And on January 6, the Feast of Epiphany, we remember Jesus’ manifestation (epiphany) to the Wise Men, and continue in subsequent Sundays to review Jesus’ earthly ministry.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the forty days (excluding Sundays) that lead up to Easter.  This is a season of sober self-examination. Holy Week, including Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, leads us to reflect on our redemption through the suffering and death of Jesus.  On Easter Sunday, we celebrate with amazement the joy of the resurrection of our Lord. The celebration continues for forty-nine days.  And on the fiftieth day, Pentecost, we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that birthed the church.

The stretch of time following Pentecost until the first Sunday of Advent is called Ordinary Time.  It is “ordinary” in two respects — each Sunday is ordinal, or numbered.  And this is the “nonfestal” time of year.  Yet, it is anything but ordinary since it chronicles the ongoing work of God in the world.

Walking Through Time Together

Since adhering to the Christian year (including the use of lectionary scripture readings suggested for worship) is meant to foster our spiritual transformation, and since pursuing transformation is what the Transforming Center is all about, once again we will launch a new Christian year together starting on the first Sunday of Advent, December 1, 2013  (the Sunday after Thanksgiving).  This year we will follow the “Cycle A” assigned readings that will typically include a passage from the Old Testament, a Psalm, a Gospel reading (usually from Matthew this year), and a reading from the epistles.

We offer several resources for walking through Advent:

  1. Advent Reflections: Revive. Restore. Reveal. by Ruth Haley Barton provides weekly guidance for walking through Advent; includes the lectionary readings, a meditation, a prayer and a reflection question for each week of Advent and Christmas Eve. Order before Friday November 21, so you have the best chance to receive it before Advent begins.
  2. Advent: Music in Solitude CD offers 10 tracks of peaceful instrumental music that settle and support us in our journey into the stillness. This year we have a new offering that picks up where Advent leave off,  Christmastide: Music in Solitude CD.
  3. Our Advent Prayer Service in Wheaton, IL on December 7th in the beautiful Loretto Center chapel. There is no cost, but the Transforming Center will be grateful to receive a free-will offering to help defray the cost of providing this service.
  4. An Advent eReflections will arrive via email the Tuesday before the first Sunday in Advent to help us enter into the season.

Our prayer is that these resources will provide you with moments of private reflection on the themes of Advent along with the opportunity to journey together with your community.  Robert Webber writes in Ancient-Future Faith that “by observing the church year, time is aligned with the living, dying, rising, and coming of Christ. The Christian, in his or her view of time, makes a dramatic break with a secular view of time and begins to consciously meditate on the aspect of Christ’s life currently being celebrated by the church.”

Our hope is that those of us who are leaders in Christ’s Church will give our best effort to using these days and weeks as a tool for our spiritual transformation which is our best preparation for leading others.  To do so will, in Webber’s words, require a “dramatic break with a secular view of time”.  It will require adherence to an entirely different kind of calendar, one that is centered around walking with Christ through the seasons of his life and allowing him to teach and transform us as we go.

©Rev. Dr. David Hughes, 2013 with contributions from David Williamson. Feel free to share this article using the buttons below; please do not reproduce and distribute without permission.

David Hughes (M.Div. Princeton Theological Seminary, PhD. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Executive Director of the Transforming Center after serving as senior pastor of First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem for 20 years. Reverend David Williamson is the Minister of Worship and Arts at First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem.

 How do you intend to walk through Advent?

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