Sunday, February 18, 2007

A Season for Everything

From "In the Divine Service"...

Last time we considered the question of what the Church Year is and why we observe it. Now it’s time to discuss what the “seasons” and times of the Church Year are about.
The Church Year divides, very simply, in two: the Festival Half and the Nonfestival Half, sometimes called Seasons and Ordinary Time.

The Festival Half also splits into two parts: the Time of our Lord’s Nativity, and the Time of our Lord’s Passion and Resurrection. Each of these times is subdivided further into “seasons.”

Unlike the seasons of summer, autumn, winter, and spring, the Church Year’s seasons are not defined by the weather or the growing of crops. They are defined by the events in the life and career of our Lord Jesus, from His conception and birth of the Virgin, through His death, resurrection, and ascension.

Not only do we celebrate these events at more or less the same time every year, but we also spend whole seasons preparing for these celebrations by pondering their meaning, along with themes like expectation or repentance. And we don’t just celebrate Christ’s arrival on earth, or His bodily resurrection, for one day. We also spend whole seasons reflecting on the meaning of what He has done, and glorifying God for the free gift of salvation in Him.

The Church Year begins in late November or early December, with the 1st Sunday in Advent. Advent is the season of preparation that belongs to the time of our Lord’s nativity, or birth. The four Sundays before Christmas Day highlight the theme of expectation.

Advent means the coming of Jesus. So we discipline ourselves in Advent to expect the coming of Jesus, not only in His life and death for us, but also in the Means of Grace, where He comes to dwell in us through faith. We also expect His visible coming in glory, to judge the earth. He’s coming soon: we must be prepared!

After sundown on December 24 we begin to celebrate the Nativity of our Lord, popularly known as Christmas. But Christmas does not end on December 25. There are, after all, “twelve days of Christmas” leading to the Epiphany (manifesting or revealing) of our Lord on January 6. There may be up to two “Sundays After Christmas” in the Nativity Season.

From January 6 until Ash Wednesday is the season of “After Epiphany.” Because the date of Easter fluctuates between March 22 and April 25, there may be very few Sundays After Epiphany, or as many as seven or eight. In the church calendar used by many Lutherans, the first Sunday After Epiphany is called the Baptism of our Lord. The last Sunday After Epiphany is always the Transfiguration of our Lord.

Epiphany begins with the visit of the Magi and goes on to show how Jesus demonstrated, or was manifested, as God the Son made flesh, and as the Savior for all nations. It’s neat how the Baptism and Transfiguration bracket the season, with the Lord’s voice thundering from the sky: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I delight...”

The Time of the Lord’s Passion and Resurrection begins with another season of preparation: Lent. In Lent the focus is on “fasting and repentance.” Lutherans no longer widely practice fasting because it so easily leads to legalism or self-righteousness. But the heart of Lent remains the same. We prepare ourselves to consider what our Lord suffered for our sake, by recognizing our sinfulness, our need for salvation, and the great cost of redeeming us from death and hell.

Lent peaks with the Passion of our Lord, including Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday. So we commemorate the events of the week when Jesus was tried, crucified, and buried. In all, the season of Lent or the Passion lasts 40 days—not counting Sundays! For every Sunday is a little “Easter” celebrating how Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week.

The Easter of Easters, though, is Easter Sunday, which of all Sundays of the year most directly concerns Jesus’ Resurrection. This, too, is no mere one-day event. It is the beginning of an Easter Season spanning 7 Sundays—a week of weeks!

Before the last Sunday of Easter comes an important Thursday: the Ascension of our Lord. He went up to sit at the Father’s right hand on the fortieth day after He rose from the dead. Ten days later we come to Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came with mighty signs to inaugurate the era and mission of the Church.

After that, there are no more new Seasons of the Church Year. There are no big festivals between Holy Trinity (the first Sunday After Pentecost) and the end of the Church Year. So we have entered Ordinary Time.

Our lessons during this Time are devoted not so much to events in Jesus’ life and ministry, as to practical matters of living out the Gospel as Christians and as a Church. The miracles (signs and wonders) of the Epiphany Season give way to parables (stories with a lesson about the Kingdom of God) in the Pentecost Season.

So our Church year gives us a lot to celebrate, and a lot to ponder. It teaches us lessons we need for our this life, and it keeps us prepared to enter the life eternal.

Next time: What’s in a color? What does violet, green, red, or white have to do with preaching the Gospel?

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