This past Sunday, 1/22/2023, was the third Sunday of Epiphany in many liturgical Protestant churches. If you had come to worship at our church that day, were handed a bulletin with this information prominently written on the front cover, and were not familiar with what we call the “Church Year”, this phrase would have been undoubtedly confusing.
According to Britannica.com, the Church Year is defined as “church year, also called liturgical year, annual cycle of seasons and days observed in the Christian churches in commemoration of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and of his virtues as exhibited in the lives of the saints.”
Like the four seasons, our Lutheran church year has its own seasons. The church year begins with the season of Advent, which spans the four Sundays before Christmas, December 25th. Last year, Christmas Day fell on a Sunday, but that doesn’t count as the 4th Sunday of Advent AND Christmas Day – no double-dipping – so the rules still applied. The 1st Sunday of Advent was on 11/27/2022, 2nd Sunday on 12/4/2022, 3rd Sunday on 12/11/2022, and 4th Sunday on 12/18/2022.
Advent is a time of spiritual preparation – we make ourselves ready for the birth of Jesus Christ. We may prepare ourselves by activities like prayer or fasting. In our worship liturgy, our prayers and hymns reflect the season of Advent. Even though we may have been hearing Christmas carols in our secular lives (in our area, it starts immediately after October 31st), we refrain from proclaiming Christ’s birth in our Advent hymns. We patiently(?) wait until Christmas Eve before we break out with hymns like “Joy to the World!”—or so it is recommended by our ELCA documentation on the subject of liturgical practices. But ever since I joined the Lutheran Church back in 1983, I can assure you that those of us involved in planning worship services are faced with a sometimes not-very-small cadre of congregation members begging to sing Christmas hymns starting in Advent!
We mark the season of Advent visually in our sanctuary by placing blue runners and scarfs (called “paraments”) on the altar, the lectern (which is where lay persons read Scripture and offer general intercessions (prayers)), and the pulpit (from where Scripture is read and the sermon is preached). We also light a series of candles, one for each Sunday of Advent, cumulatively, so all candles are lit on the fourth Sunday of Advent. Our pastor will wear a blue stole around her neck during the Advent season during worship services. Sometimes we hang seasonal banners along the walls of the sanctuary, lovingly hand-crafted by members of our congregation.
Next in our Church Year calendar after Advent:
- Christmas Eve (December 24th) and Christmas Day (December 25th), during which we celebrate the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ,
- the “Name of Jesus” (January 1st) celebrated 8 days after Christmas, because Jewish law required baby boys to be circumcised and named 8 days after their birth,
- the “Epiphany of Our Lord” (January 6th)—Epiphany means “manifestation”—where we celebrate God’s glory revealed in the person of Jesus Christ,
- and the “Baptism of Our Lord” (the first Sunday after January 6th), which commemorates the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the river Jordan.
All but the “Baptism of Our Lord” are fixed days on our secular calendar – that is, they are not calculated based on the vernal equinox and phases of the moon (like Easter), or calculated based on other fixed dates. The paraments in the sanctuary are switched to white, we sing Christmas hymns with great gusto, and our Advent prayers and fasting turn to joyous celebrations and feasts!
It is important to note that none of these visual elements or what kind of hymns to sing and when, are commanded in Scripture. Neither are they forbidden by Scripture. Since there are no explicit instructions in Scripture, no “New Testament Worship Manual” for these customs and traditions, they vary according to local customs and practices in churches around the world. According to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), Principles for Worship, Principle S-16), “When used clearly and with understanding, vestments (with other visual arts and symbols) “embody and support the proclamation of the word of God”. This is one of the major themes about our liturgical practices – whatever we do to “support the proclamation of the word of God”, we want to make sure we understand why we do what we do—otherwise these practices are not meaningful, and that is unfortunate position to be in as a congregation.
This is one of the major motivators for my blog. I do find these visual aids and actions (colors of paraments, lighting candles, singing season-appropriate hymns) enhance my worship by anticipating and connecting to the Scripture that will be read during the service. And I hope my humble explanations will provide context for other worshippers and enhance their worship experience as well!
Next week, we will continue with the season of Epiphany. May grace, mercy, and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ the Father’s Son, in truth and love! Amen.