Sunday, February 18, 2007

What is the Church Year?

From "In the Divine Service"...
There is a season and a time for everything, both in nature and in society. For ages, people have observed the rhythms of moon and stars, heat and cold, wet and dry, tides, currents, and prevailing winds. Thus they learn when to plant and harvest, when to sail in what direction, and where to lead their herds and flocks.

Calendars were not always everywhere the same. Only in recent times has mankind shared a common calendar, with standard months and seasons, solstice and equinox, and Leap Year to keep the seasons where they are. Even now, other ways of marking time survive alongside the modern calendar—for instance, the Chinese New Year, the Hebrew calendar, and so forth.

Maybe you’ve never realized that when the year and the seasons begin and end is not engraved in nature. It is an open question that has been settled by common consensus.

Since we live in this society, we can’t help observing such fictions as “February” and “Presidents’ Day” and “Valentine’s Day,” not to mention Labor, Memorial, and Independence Day, Columbus and Martin Luther King Day, Secretary’s, Mother’s, and Father’s Day, Halloween, and Thanksgiving.

Besides these “holidays” created by our culture, there are also man-made seasons, like African-American History Month, Public Library Awareness Week, and Pheasant Hunting Season. A glance at your wall calendar might confirm that other religions have special times, like the Islamic month of Ramadan, the Jewish Hanukkah, the Roman Catholic Mardi Gras and Corpus Christi, and Kwanzaa (whatever that is).

So what is the Church Year? It is the Church’s way of telling time. We have different seasons and holidays from the general public. Some are solemn fasts, others joyful feasts. Some times of the Church Year commemorate events in the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus. These add up to the “festival half” of the Church Year. The other half, known as the Pentecost or Trinity Season, is sometimes called “normal time.”

For Christians of most varieties, throughout our Church’s history, the Church Year is defined by a cycle of readings selected from the Bible. These are read in the Divine Service and form the basis of the message preached. The same reading comes back at the same time every year or every three years, depending on what lectionary (set of readings) a church uses. Right now we are on a three-year lectionary.

As a result of this repetitive set of readings, you don’t actually hear all of the Bible read in church. Instead, you are instructed by selections that represent the “whole counsel of God” over the course of the cycle. These selections are called pericopes (peh-RIC-kuh-pee: cut around).

The pattern of pericopes is not meaningless repetition. It is a teaching tool. After hearing the same or similar readings at the same time of year for many years, such lessons become part of you and work ever deeper into your heart. What they say about personal libraries goes for Bible lessons as well: it is better to become intimately familiar with a few important selections, than to have a superficial knowledge of everything. The pericopal system, at the heart of the Church Year, is aimed at making you intimately familiar with the most important lessons of the Christian faith.

IMAGE: Inca calendar

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