Belated Anticipation

My Christmas tree is still up. I’m ashamed to admit this, considering the liturgical season of Christmas finished a week ago. It is, however, but a symptom of a larger problem: how to live in the present liturgical season while reflecting on the previous season and planning for the coming one. It’s an issue that every worship leader faces, in one way or another.

So Christmas is over, Epiphany flew by, we’re now in Ordinary Time, and preparing for Lent. This cycle, I’m discovering, can be exhausting – even for the most experienced of us. I’m discovering that celebrating the Christian calendar (especially in a church that does not have historical liturgies on which to draw) requires incredible organization and foresight, not to mention ninja multi-tasking skills. And that’s when the rest of life doesn’t impinge itself on your planning and reflection process.

So – not only is my Christmas tree still up, but my church plans for Ordinary Time are unfinished, I haven’t reflected on Epiphany, and I haven’t even begun my personal plan of reading through the gospels starting last week. I’m tired. And lately this constant pressure to follow the Liturgical schedule feels heavy. I feel as if I’m on a treadmill with no emergency cord.

Yet, even as I feel stress gathering in my shoulders, and panic breathing down my neck, I’m aware that something beautiful is happening. The edges of each season are blurring, and the connections between them are becoming clearer.

Christmas, divine celebration of Christ’s birth, is essential to our understanding of the revelation of God (the Epiphany). God reveals himself to us in many ways, but the key way in which we know who God is, and how he behaves, is found in his Son, and the way he lived as one of us. And as I begin my plans for Lent, I discover that the key way in which God is revealed through Christ is in his death and resurrection – that God would become a servant (Christmas); choose to heal the sick, free the captive, and serve the poor (Ordinary Time); and submit to death (Lent) is a profound revelation indeed (Epiphany).

These are connections that were made by theologians long ago – and I have known them for years – but the belated anticipation of each season that I’m experiencing this year (as I reflect, and live, and plan for each season) is making them come to life. If I can live, somehow, with my feet planted in the present season, and my arms stretched between the previous and the coming seasons, if I can facilitate this stretched-out-way-of-life for my congregation, I think we will come to know Christ better. I think we will learn to know ourselves better.

So no, I’m not keeping up. I’m running back and forth like a maniac. But maybe that’s a good thing.

The Place of Humans in Worship Life: Chapters 7-8 of Joan Chittister’s “The Liturgical Year”

By Stacey Gleddiesmith

To be honest (and the ninth commandment states that I should be), these two chapters are my least favourite thus far. Chapter 7 does, however, bring up some interesting discussion points, so I will spend the majority of my time there.

In chapter 7, Chittister addresses the place of worship in human life. Well, actually, she addresses the place of humans in worship life (thus my very clever flipping of her chapter title). She states that humanity struggles between two emotional magnets: abjection and arrogance (p. 44). Leaving aside the fact that neither arrogance nor abjection can be properly described as emotions (sorry, I found it hard to leave off my editor hat while reading these two chapters), this is, I think, an apt description of the human “problem.” Chittister phrases it this way: “Are we, in our humanity, something glorious or are we, at base, actually nothing much at all? Of the two alternatives, neither is really adequate; both are dangerous” (p. 44).

What Chittister is driving at here, is the human condition of being made in the image of God, but marred by sin; although, interestingly, she never quite describes it like this. Instead, Chittister chooses to describe the human condition without any real reference to scripture, leaving the impression that it is more a matter of arbitrarily assigning either good or evil to the human race. She doesn’t delve beneath the problem to its source: that humanity is good by God’s decision (being made in His image) and evil by human decision (having decided to reject that image and create a new image for ourselves).

What I like about this chapter is Chittister’s answer for this condition. She states: “Only awareness of a universe whose Creator is outside and above the boundaries of humanity can save us from either the curse of futility or the devastating consequences of self-satisfaction unfulfilled” (p. 46). Placing ourselves, rightly, under God’s reign, Chittister asserts, gives us both the assurance of being of value, and the humility of knowing that our value is not unbounded. Her position would be stronger here, however, if she had first gone to the root of the problem: God’s image tainted by sin. What is actually at work in acknowledging the lordship of Christ is that we place our value in Christ’s hands and recognize our need for his redemption. This addition would not, I think, contradict her position – but it would add needed depth.

Chittister then asserts that “it is this awareness of the place of God in life on which the liturgical year turns,” suggesting that the liturgical year not only allows us to walk the line between abjection and arrogance, but also to assist the world to do so (p. 46). Echoing Ian’s earlier comment in response to my post on chapters 1-2 (“is this ‘retracing’ of Christ’s own earthly life really the best/only way to make me a better disciple?” see full comment under  Have an Uncomfortable New Year), I wonder whether the liturgical year is the only way to do this. While I do agree that the liturgical year can be a valuable tool as we seek to understand our position before God, I think there are other valuable “helps” for this task, not least of which are the Spirit of God, and the word of God.

My final query regarding chapter 7 regards Chittister’s apparent definition of worship toward the end of the chapter: “Worship is the natural overflow of those who, with humble and grateful heart, understand their place in the universe and live in awe of the God who made it so” (p.48). While there is nothing “incorrect” in this definition, I am disappointed that Chittister doesn’t go further. By this point in the book, I feel that a more thorough working definition of worship (and how worship connects to the liturgical year) would be helpful. Worship is a wonderfully complex concept (as I say in my post What’s in a Word, I could study for fifty years and still only be able to say that I had begun to approach a definition for worship), but quick pat statements like the one above (actually, it’s more a statement about what drives worship than it is a definition) often encourage us to view worship as simplistic and static. This is, of course, one of my hobbyhorses – but I think it’s also a valid critique.

Finally, I would like to briefly address chapter 8, in which Chittister addresses the question of why different Christian traditions celebrate Christmas on different calendar dates. With my editor’s hat on, I would like to suggest that a full chapter on this subject was not required, nor is it helpful. Chittister basically argues that the exact historical date is not important, as we focus on the meaning of the event rather than its exact moment in history. This content could have been easily and quickly dispensed with either in the introductory material, or in the chapter on Christmas. Unfortunately, the expansion of this material into a full chapter adds confusion, as Chittister comes very close to implying that the historicity of Christ’s birth is unimportant, and that the incarnation itself is of lesser import than the death and resurrection of Christ. My hope is that the confusion this chapter creates will be resolved as we enter chapters dealing with the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Christ – as I don’t think Chittister would agree with the conclusions that chapter 8 might lead one to draw.

I’ll conclude this post with a few questions to my respondents (which could be anyone who is reading this – but definitely includes Ian and Andrea, my partners in this discussion).

  1. Do you agree that the inclusion of the concepts of “the image of God” and “sin” would have made chapter 7 stronger?
  2. What do you think of Chittister’s evaluation of the human condition, and how do you think the liturgical year addresses our condition?
  3. What is your own working definition of “worship”?
  4. And did you find something of value in chapter 8 that I missed?

Christmas Is Not A Children’s Story

This post comes a bit late (although still within the liturgical season of Christmas) because my husband Andrew and I received some bad news during the Christmas season that has set us back on our heels. We have been trying for a baby for three years. This Christmas we discovered that not only do I have endometriosis, but I have a severe case requiring complex surgery. My gynecologist gravely informed us that he may not be able to save my ovaries.

We have been grieving, we are grieving and, to be honest, the season of Christmas is a crappy time to contemplate childlessness. Christmas is about a pregnancy. A miraculous pregnancy. Christmas is about a baby. Not only that, but our society has made Christmas into a season that is directed primarily at children. Almost every Christmas commercial contains a wide-eyed child waiting for Santa, or an excited child ripping into a gift. Christmas movies inevitably contain cute kids oozing “Christmas Spirit.” Believe me. I know. TV is no place to turn for distraction at Christmas – not if your problem is infertility. Nor is facebook a place of refuge these days. I have so many friends who are pregnant, or who have recently had babies, that sometimes all my news feed seems to contain is baby news. I’m happy for my friends. I really and sincerely am. And I want to hear their baby news. But for now, just for a time, I’m taking a bit of a break from their joy.

I can’t, however, take a break from the joy of Christmas. From the celebration of the Christ child. Not if I want to continue my journey through the Christian calendar. So my question this Christmas has been: “how do I celebrate the baby Jesus in the midst of potential barrenness?”

As I began to wrestle with this question (and believe me, although it sounds nice and clear and cold at this point – it started out as an emotional mess… and continues that way), I realized that there is something very wrong about the way in which we celebrate Christmas. It’s not actually about kids at all. Or, at least, not to the degree that we make it about them. Just because Christ came first as a child does not mean that Christmas is only for children. In fact, I think our focus on kids at this time of year has led us to sentimentalize Christmas. To make it less than it is. We somehow feel that, because the story contains a baby, it must be a simple one. A story easily explained to a child.

Don’t get me wrong – you should tell your children about baby Jesus in the manger every single Christmas. You should see your kids glow in anticipation of their favourite day of the year. But Christmas is not primarily about kids, and it’s not primarily for kids.

On the surface, it may seem like a simple thing to conceive a child. (Girl meets boy. Girl “lays with” boy. Girl gets pregnant. Girl has a baby.) But if we delve below that surface, something we tend to do only when we have difficulties, we find unimaginable complexity. There are hundreds of little bodily functions that need to fall in line for an egg to be fertilized and implant on a uterine wall. If even one of those functions fails, conception (let alone the birth of a healthy child) becomes unlikely, maybe even impossible.

On the surface, the Christmas story might seem like a simple thing. (Mary meets Joseph. Mary and Joseph become engaged but don’t “lay together.” Mary becomes pregnant. Wait. What?) It’s funny how we’ve learned to read this story by rote – skipping blandly over miracle after miracle, and seeing it as primarily a story for kids. Really? Try to explain the virgin birth to a three year old!

This story is anything but simple.

Mary is not representative of all other mothers. She alone had the experience of bearing a child that would also be her Saviour. King of kings. Lord of lords. God with his people at last. For the Christmas story, in its full telling, explains to us that God, the baby Jesus, is Friend to the weak and oppressed (the shepherds); that he is Messiah to those who have waited (Simeon and Anna); that he is King to the excluded (the wise men); that he is Trouble to the comfortable (Herod); and that he is Glory to the unremarkable (Mary). This baby is, in fact, God. God reaching out from his internal Trinitarian relationship, and welcoming the whole of the human race into that unity.

We rejoice, not just in the birth of a baby, but in God becoming part of his creation. We rejoice, not just at the swaying of a tiny fist in an animal’s feed trough, but at the chorus of angels proclaiming – at last – peace to humanity. We rejoice, not merely at the tiny stirrings and noises that a baby makes, but at the song of God that shakes creation. The song that will, one day, make all things new.

This is something I can celebrate. This is a reason to lift up my pain and rejoice.

Blessed Repetition: chapters 5-6 of Joan Chittister’s “The Liturgical Year”

By Ian Walden 

“The purpose of Sunday … is not to stop Christians from working in observance of God’s rest in the beauty of creation.” (37)

Controversial? Maybe. What Joan Chittister is emphasising here is the difference between the Jewish Sabbath (which could be described in this way) and the Lord’s Day. For Christians, the Sabbath of rest, remembrance, and witness to the-world-to-come is now transposed by Resurrection and Pentecost, into something more outward-looking and action-oriented. The life to come is already with us – although not entirely. We are freed, but there is a world in us and around us still unfree. And so the purpose of Sunday is to remind us, to redefine us (as a community in the freedom-and-transformation business), to call us to “reflect on God’s place in our lives and our place in the life of the world” (37).

And why all these ‘re-’ prefixes? Because we all regularly forget there’s more than this-life-as-we-know-it. Because we’re all tempted to give ourselves totally to the here and now, to the status quo. Because this world numbs us. Because we keep hiding from ourselves, from each other, and from God. Because we grow tired and discouraged, time and again.

Even on a much longer time-scale, life is not a straight line; it’s “a coil, that bends on itself over and over again” (43). We confront the same challenges, and make the same mistakes, week in, week out, year in, year out. So, Chittister suggests, it is precisely the repetitiveness of liturgical time that we need (rather than regular attempts at novelty or “discerning God’s will for us in this season”? Or is this a false dichotomy?)

Liturgical time is the “arc that … binds heaven and earth into one and the same rhythm” (39). It relentlessly juxtaposes our joys, our fears, our sins, our needs, our wisdom, our experiences, and our doubts with the same person of Jesus, with the church’s same famous models of sanctity, and with the same great truths of the gospel.

Whenever I grieve, or sin, or lose hope, or am engulfed by fear – whether this be the ordinary struggle of the ‘other six days’ or a major life season lasting months or years – the liturgy will be there (with one of its “endless cycles”) to remind me “that death is not the end, that evil cannot prevail, that Jesus lives yet – in us, that rebirth of the Spirit is always possible is always possible to those who are willing to go down into the life of Jesus one more time, hearts open, souls athirst” (33,42-43).

Of course, this focus on the life of Jesus requires a degree of selectivity. What does this liturgy squeeze out? Other parts of scripture? Spontaneity? Other movements of the Spirit? Space for listening to the congregation and what they see in the world, the church , their families? Can it / should it strive to accommodate these things? Is this even the right question? Over to you…

Living with Jesus?: chapters 3-4 of Joan Chittister’s “The Liturgical Year”

By Andrea Tisher

I don’t think of myself as particularly spiritually-disciplined. My prayer life is never what it could be. My reading habits are varied and irregular. I do attend worship regularly, but then, that’s kind of built into my job. :) The basics of Christian discipleship from my tradition of evangelicalism are not things I’ve gotten very good at. And so I often wonder if my life is being formed by Jesus’ life as it should be.

So when Joan Chittister tells me that “the liturgical year is the arena where our life and the life of Jesus intersect. (p.16), I sit up and pay attention. Maybe because most of my life, I’ve been taught that the only way to connect with Jesus is through early morning prayer and lengthy bible study and generally just being very spiritual in my approach to life. While I don’t mean for a minute to say that prayer and bible reading and study won’t aid someone in their pursuit of life with Jesus, I’m immediately struck by Joan’s claim that the liturgical year is also key.

And the truth is, even in my ‘Christmas and Easter only’ version of the calendar that I grew up with, I did encounter Jesus. During the past fifteen years or so, as I’ve paid a little more attention to more of the calendar, this encounter has broadened and deepened. I suppose you could say that it has helped to form me in that I have not been allowed to determine for myself when I want to think about Jesus life, death, resurrection and ascension. I have submitted to the story being told and have had to wait for the next part of the story to unfold, often not according to the timetable I would choose. For instance, I would contemplate Jesus’ Passion in an hour or two. Not a whole week with a season of preparation during Lent. Other times, Holy Saturday seems the most relevant part of the story in my life or in the life of someone I know. They are not experiencing resurrection joy in the circumstances of their lives, and yet Easter Sunday has the audacity to come anyway. Christmas approaches whether I’m ready for the coming of Jesus or not. Ascension and Pentecost arrive even when I’d like to stay in the gospel accounts of Jesus and his buddies. The calendar pulls and pushes me through the story and doesn’t let me call the shots. It makes me tell the whole story and not at my own pace.

Joan says at the end of chapter 3: “the liturgical year is the voice of Jesus calling to us every day of our lives to wake our sleeping selves from the drowsing effects of purposelessness and meaninglessness, materialism and hedonism, rationalism and indifference, to attend to the life of Jesus who cries within us for fulfillment.” (p21-22)

She continues on in chapter 4 with the Components of the Liturgical Year…where she boils the whole sequence down to “one beam of light called the death and Resurrection of Jesus and its meaning for us here and now.” (p.24)

Chittister helpfully describes how the whole year hinges on this main event, but that the rest of the events help us to live out the death and Resurrection of Jesus, that the living the calendar is “a catechesis as we celebration, a spiritual adventure as well as liturgical exercise.” (p.27) She identifies four kinds of celebrations: Sundays (or as my boss calls them, “Lord’s Day”), seasons, sanctoral cycle (saints), and Ordinary Time. I am least familiar with the sanctoral cycle, but love how she describes its merit in how it shows us that a faithful life is possible to be lived by all kinds of people in all kinds of places throughout history.

I think that living the calendar one year would be informative in some way, but living the calendar year in and year out is formative. It begins to shape my soul in ways that I wouldn’t choose on my own. Left to build my own calendar, I might avoid lament and waiting or get stuck there for entirely too long and without hope of redemption, wholeness and resurrection. The calendar teaches my soul to tell the whole story and to expect that light does shine into darkness. Those dark days of the calendar – Advent, Ash Wednesday, Lent, Good Friday, and especially Holy Saturday teach my soul to pray the darknesses. They are preparation for dark days that are sure to occur in my life. They will prepare me to live my life. In the same way, the high feasts will prepare me to celebrate, here and ultimately in the Kingdom that is not yet here in full.

Have an Uncomfortable New Year: chapters 1-2 of Joan Chittister’s “The Liturgical Year”

By Stacey Gleddiesmith

As you know, I celebrated New Year’s Day on November 27th this year, having decided to practice the liturgical cycle in a conscious and considered fashion (at least once in my life). Unfortunately for me, I’m not sure I fully considered the consequences.

Thus begins a new blog series, which will include posts from two thoughtful friends of mine: Ian Walden, and Andrea Tisher. Ian and Andrea have consented to read with me through Joan Chittister’s “The Liturgical Year,” at a pace of two chapters every week (although we may skip a week here or there). Each week, one of us will write a blog entry and then we will proceed to have a comment conversation in which you are welcome to participate. These post are not intended to read like book reviews (although taken as a whole, I’m pretty sure the book will be thoroughly reviewed by the end). Instead, we will use Chittister’s work as a jumping off point for wider ranging discussions about the Liturgical Cycle and its effect on our lives, and the life of the church. Please do consider picking up a copy of the book and joining the discussion.

Now back to the first two chapters.

Near the beginning of her first chapter, Chittister states: “The way we define our years determines what we think our lives are meant to be about and how we will live because of it.” She speaks about the different ways we have of defining our years: fiscal years, school years, planting and harvest, cycles of the moon, etc. As I thought about this, I realized that my life has been shaped by the educational year. September 1 feels far more full of promise and newness than January 1 ever did (and certainly more than November 27th!). I tend to make resolutions every Fall (“I will stick to a new schedule,” “I will write for an hour every morning,” “I will get every paper in before its due date,” “I will keep my life more balanced, and eat and exercise to fuel my study”), and I also follow the New Year tradition of breaking each resolution, almost ritualistically, one month in.

What Chittister’s first two chapters made me consider, however, was how this view of my year has caused me to evaluate my life. She says, on page 6, “Like the rings on a tree, the cycles of Christian feasts are meant to mark the levels of our spiritual growth from one stage to another in the process of human growth.” Huh. Can we derive from that statement that whatever “year” we choose to make the driving force of our life also has something to say about the way we measure our progress though life, and the way we value ourselves and others?

It’s completely natural for kids to look up to kids in higher grades (and I had three older brothers to catch up to!), but with me it went beyond this. I remember watching one of my brothers colour a map as part of his homework. I wanted so much to know enough (and to have the colouring skills) to be able to do the same thing. In fact, I even planned out how I would colour the map. In detail. A plan I brought to fruition five years later when I was given a similar assignment. In university, I shuddered every time I failed to reach above the class average on an assignment or an exam. When I reached grad school, each course I completed was one more notch on my educational belt, and my heart sank every time I received a B. My ritual of counting my years by the academic calendar has resulted in a life measured according to knowledge and skill.

So what would it look like to count my years as Chittister suggests: as levels of our spiritual growth? This is where things become uncomfortable.

In chapter 2, Chittister describes the liturgical year as “a lesson in life” (pg. 10). She states: “Simply by being itself over and over again, simply by putting before our eyes and filtering into our hearts the living presence of Jesus who walked from Galilee to Jerusalem doing good, it teaches us to do the same” (pg. 10). *Insert swear word of your choice.*

So living the Christian year over and over again will make me more like Christ. *Repeat swear word.*

How many times have I said/sung that I/we want to be more like Christ? How many times have I really meant it?

Quite honestly, if I measure my life by the standard of spiritual growth, I’m afraid I’m more than a bit stunted. I’m selfish. I’m greedy. I’m fearful. The list is longer than a chimpanzee’s arm in that direction, and shorter than my own pinky in the other. The fact is, if I’m really committed to Christ, if I really live his life each year through the liturgical cycle, I would have to give up an awful lot of things and activities. And I would have to do an awful number of things I’d rather not. I’d rather not go out of my way to speak to people on the margins. It’s much more comfortable and enjoyable to confine my conversation to people I already like. I’d rather not take Jesus’ attitude toward the poor seriously. It’s much more comfortable to save up my wealth to buy things I “need.” I’d rather not govern my time more effectively so as to use it in service of others. It’s much more comfortable to take a morning off here, and an afternoon there, to indulge myself.

So it seems, from what Chittister has said, that I’m about to have a very uncomfortable new year. Terrific.

Ian and Andrea – over to you.

(note to readers: I strongly suggest that you subscribe to the comments for these posts about Chittister’s book, as that is where we will be engaging in further discussion.)

Advent Carols

We all know which carols to pull out for Christmas, but which carols do we turn to if we really want to observe Advent rather than start our Christmas celebrations early?

Of course the two classics that are already familiar to most congregations are: “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.” They work as Advent carols because they convey the sense of waiting and preparation that Advent entails. “Come” is the dominant word and theme, and these carols evoke both Israel’s longing for the Messiah, and our own longing for Christ to return and make all things new.

Other traditonal Advent hymns incude Lo He Comes With Clouds Descending, here sung by the Lichfield Cathedral Choir. T, Hark! A Thrilling Voice Is Sounding, and Rejoice, Rejoice Believers. These hymns speak of Christ’s second coming, and call us to prepare ourselves for his return. On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry calls us to confess our sins and prepare, once again, to welcome Christ.

Lest you feel that only hymn-singing congregations can celebrate Advent, however, allow me to recommend a few songs that, while not traditionally sung during Advent, certainly belong within a season of pain, waiting and longing. Laurell Hubick’s song Lift (unfortunately, all I have in the link to itunes, if anyone has chords, music, or a video for this song, please post it in comments) is a gentle way to enter into the disparity between what our world is, and what it should be, while still singing praise. Stephen Toon’s Even Though has a similar feel.

I would also commend to you a song that I found last year, when trolling through “holiday” music on itunes. It is an old carol that was traditionally used by beggars as Christmas approached, as a way of encouraging passersby to give more freely. It’s a haunting and repetative melody, and the lyrics are strongly moralistic, for which it has been criticised. As an Advent carol, however, it contains a confessional element (or a call to confession) that is very helpful in preparation for Christmas. I refer you here to Steve Winwood’s interpretation of the carol, but there is also a lovely acapella version by the The Watersons. The lyrics follow. Steve Winwood: “Christmas Is Now Drawing Near at Hand”

Christmas is now drawing near at hand
Come serve the Lord and be at His command
And God a portion for you will provide
And give a blessing to your soul besides
 
Down in the garden where flowers grow in ranks
Down on your bended knees and give the Lord thanks
Down on your knees and pray both night and day
Leave off your sins and live upright I pray
 
So proud and lofty is some sort of sin
Which many take delight and pleasure in
Whose conversation God doth much dislike
And yet He shakes His sword before He strike
 
So proud and lofty do some people go
Dressing themselves like players in a show
They patch and paint and dress with idle stuff
As if God had not made ’em fine enough
 
Even little children learn to curse and swear
And can’t rehearse one word of godly prayer
Oh teach them better, oh teach them to rely
On Christ the sinner’s friend who reigns on high

Advent Liturgies, 2011

Most of the scripture passages are taken from the lectionary. The other words I wrote in the hope that they will help our community to be honest about the darkness in which we wait – but also will encourage anticipation for Christ’s coming. So often we seem to think he could hold off a bit (until we reach a certain goal, or achieve a certain experience), but the reality is that we need him now – our world needs him now.

If you wish, you could repeat these readings and prayers each day, as a personal means of experiencing Advent. Light a candle. Create some space. And add to these words your own prayers for our world, for your community, and for yourself.

Week 1, Sunday, November 27: HOPE

Reading 1: Psalm 80:1-7; 17-19

Reading 2: 1 Corinthians 1:3-9

Lighting of the Candle: We light this candle as a symbol of Israel’s hope for a Saviour, fulfilled in Christ. We light this candle as a symbol of our hope that Christ might enter each of our lives and transform us. We light this candle as a symbol of our hope that Christ will return and make all things new. Blessed be the name of the Lord!

Prayer: Dear Lord, we are surrounded by darkness. When we look at our world we see famine, injustice, and war. When we look at our community we see loneliness, sorrow, and pain. When we look at our own lives we see sin, fear, and shame. We are surrounded by darkness. But you, Jesus, are the morning star. The star that appears when night is at its darkest—and heralds the morning. Come, Lord Jesus, and awaken our hope. Come, Lord Jesus, and light our darkness. Come, Lord Jesus, and restore us, restore our community, restore our world. Come, Lord Jesus, come!

Congregation Sings: verse one only of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (no chorus).

Week 2, Sunday, December 4: LOVE

Reading 1: 2 Peter 3:8-15

Reading 2: Isaiah 40:1-11

Lighting of the Candle: We light this candle as a symbol of God’s love for us, for our community, and for our world. We light this candle in the understanding that we continue to live in darkness, because God desires to bring light more abundantly. We light this candle as a symbol of our love, which provides light to the world through the Spirit of Christ, as we wait for him to return and make all things new. Blessed be the name of the Lord!

Prayer: Dear Lord, we are surrounded by darkness. We don’t understand why you allow famine and sickness. We don’t understand why you allow injustice and war. We don’t understand why you allow loneliness and pain. We are surrounded by darkness. But we understand that you love us. We see evidence of that love in the air we breathe, in the beauty we see, in the community you have given us, and especially in the gift of your son, Jesus Christ. Even as we long for your coming, we are thankful that your love holds it at bay—that more may come to you. As we wait, help us to extend your love to others. Come, Lord Jesus, and love beyond our understanding. Come, Lord Jesus, and let your tenacious love transform us, transform our community, transform our world. Come, Lord Jesus, come!

Congregation Sings: verse one and two only of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (no chorus).

Week 3, Sunday, December 11: JOY

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Isaiah 61:1-4, 10-11

Lighting of the Candle: We light this candle as a symbol of the joy we have in Christ. We light this candle in celebration of the good news we have received, and the good news that is surely coming. We light this candle in anticipation of the joy we will experience when Christ returns to make all things new. Blessed be the name of the Lord!

Prayer:  Dear Lord, we are surrounded by darkness. Our joy is tempered by tears of sorrow. Our joy is tempered by pain and confusion. Our joy is tempered by news of the world’s despair. We are surrounded by darkness. But even in the midst of darkness, our joy cannot be repressed. For you have come to free the captive. You have come to make the blind see, and the deaf hear. You have come to bring peace to the nations. You have come to give sustenance to the poor, and to provide justice for the oppressed. Come, Lord Jesus, and teach us joy beyond circumstance. Come, Lord Jesus, and give us reason to rejoice. Come, Lord Jesus, so that our joy may be abundant, spilling from our mouths to light our community, and even our world. Come, Lord Jesus, Come!

Congregation Sings: verse one, two, and three only of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (no chorus).

Week 4, Sunday, December 18: PEACE

Reading 1: Isaiah 9: 2-7

Reading 2: Colossians 1:15-20

Lighting of the Candle:  We light this candle as a symbol of the peace given to us by Jesus Christ, our Lord. We light this candle as a symbol of our unity as the body of Christ, and in the hope of greater unity yet to come. We light this candle, in a world tainted by war, as a proclamation that the God of peace will bring justice and peace to every shore. Blessed be the name of the Lord!

Prayer: Dear Lord, we are surrounded by darkness. When we look at our world we see hatred and war. When we look at our community we see anger and broken families. When we look at ourselves we see selfishness and discontentment. We are surrounded by darkness. But you, the light of life, have come to bring us peace—a peace that passes understanding, as we wait in our war-torn world for the light of your righteousness. Come, Lord Jesus, and heal our broken nations. Come, Lord Jesus, and heal our broken families. Come, Lord Jesus, and heal our broken hearts. Fill us with your peace. Come, Lord Jesus, Come!

Congregation Sings: verse one, two, three, and four only of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (no chorus).

Christmas: Sunday December 25 (or Saturday December 24); repeat on Sunday, January 1

Reading 1: Psalm 98

Reading 2: John 1:1-14

Reading 3: Titus 2:11-14

Lighting of the Candle: We light this candle as a symbol of our hope in Christ (light first candle). We light this candle as a symbol of Christ’s love for us (light second candle). We light this candle as a symbol of the joy we find in Christ (light third candle). We light this candle as a symbol of the peace of Christ (light fourth candle). And we light this candle in thankfulness for a creator who consented to become part of creation, so that we might know him better. We light this candle, rejoicing in the light of life that has broken into the darkness of the world. We light this candle, proclaiming that Christ has come, and that Christ is coming. Blessed be the name of the Lord!

Prayer: Dear Lord, we are surrounded by light. We do not deny the darkness that still lays hold of our world, of our community, of our lives—but we recognize that your light is greater. Your hope is stronger. Your love is wider. Your joy is deeper. Your peace is more substantial. We welcome you here. We rejoice over the unimaginable mystery of your incarnation with Simeon and Anna. We sing for joy over field and city with the angels. We kneel by your humble cradle with the shepherds. You have come. And everything is different. May we draw nearer to you this Christmas. May we share your hope. May we extend your love. May we be filled with your joy. May we experience your peace. Come, Lord Jesus, come!

Congregation Sings: All of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” including the choruses!

Liturgical New Year

This year I’m celebrating New Years on November 27th. I’m not going to stay up till midnight on the 26th. I’m not going to eat oliebollen (sorry, Dutch food reference). And I’m not going to sing “Auld Lang Syne.”

What I am going to do, is take some time to pray in preparation. As another liturgical year begins, this time around I hope to live it mindfully. And in the company of my readers.

I was raised in the Christian Reformed Church – a denomination that falls somewhere between high and low church. Let’s call it middle church. This means that we had things like congregational readings, and we celebrated some aspects of church/liturgical calendar, but we didn’t go whole hog. I have since attended and been in leadership in Alliance churches, Baptist churches, and Pentecostal churches, but it wasn’t until I attended Regent College that I came into contact with full celebration of the Christian year. Ash Wednesday, Holy Saturday, Ordinary Time, Epiphany… I had a basic knowledge of what they comprised, but I’ve never actually lived them in a cyclical way. I’ve observed one feast one year, and maybe tried a different one in a following year, but I have never observed them sequentially. And I want to.

In preparation for my year of liturgy, I’ve begun reading Joan Chittister’s The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life. What I love thus far about this book is Chittister’s contemplative approach (she’s a Benedictine nun, which may have something to do with it). The liturgical year is, she says:

“…the attempt to live the Jesus life over and over again all the years of our lives… It is about the spirituality of joy and suffering, of waiting and faith, of asceticism and celebration, of loss and hope that marks all our lives and that needs to be strengthened, deepened, revisited, and rediscovered in the life of Jesus and the life of the church every year of our lives” (xvi).

She speaks of the Christian year as a means of slowly – drip by drip, she says – becoming Christlike. One year, one feast at a time:

 “The liturgical year… proposes, year after year, to immerse us over and over again into the sense and substance of the Christian life until, eventually, we become what we say we are – followers of Jesus all the way to the heart of God” (6).

That’s what I want to be (on my better days). So I want to explore this life – to orient my year around the life of Christ, rather than tie it to the earth’s rotation around the sun, or the cycle of education, or the yearly accumulation of finances, or the payment of taxes.

I hope to write at least once a week (perhaps even more often, if I can manage a few regular posts here and there between the Christian year). Some posts will contain church liturgies (I also hope to use this year to explore what it means for a “non-liturgical” church to experience the Christian year). Some posts will contain explanations of different fasts and feasts. Some posts will track my personal experience throughout the year. Some posts will be biblical reflections from within a particular liturgical season.

If there is a type of post you would find particularly helpful – or a question you would like me to research during the year, please feel free to post a comment and let me know.

If you are interested in participating in this journey with me – let me know that too. Consider picking up Chittister’s book as a starting point, and prepare with me to ring in the New Year on November 27.