Celebrating the Christian Year has been by far one of the most significant, dynamic and moving spiritual practices that I have ever engaged in.
It may seem strange that to begin guiding you in how to pray the Daily Office from the Book of Common Prayer, I am not going to be talking about the Prayer Book at all. Or at least it might initially seem that way. To discuss praying the Daily Office necessitates understanding the underlying framework of the Christian Year.
Along with a majority of Evangelicals, your experience of the Christian Year may have mirrored my upbringing – being limited to the days of Easter and Christmas with the possible addition of Good Friday. If you were radical, your church might have had a Maundy Thursday service or an Advent wreath. Other than that, the year at church was littered with secular, Hallmark and institutional commemorations – Labor Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Mothers Day, Fathers Day, Missions Sunday, Superbowl Sunday, etc. I remember being shocked as a teenager that Pentecost Sunday did not even warrant a mention in our church’s bulletin, let alone being celebrated or even mentioned during the service.
Enough reminiscing. The point is that the Christian Year is somewhat of an enigma to the Evangelical populace at large and might possibly seem like an encumbering profusion of obscure holidays. Why they seem obscure is a discussion for another day (i.e., contemporary Christianity often is profoundly disconnected from historic and even Biblical Christianity…) but the Christian Year is not really about “holidays,” although there are many of them. The Christian Year is fundamentally a way to sanctify time and define our lives according to the unfolding narrative of redemption by structuring the year around the central redemptive acts of God in the Messiah. (read that sentence again, its the most important one in this whole post).
Many forms of spirituality are focused on the subjective feelings of the present moment. If you know me at all, you know that I am certainly not against subjective feelings. However, making this a central or guiding focus of one’s spirituality often leads to diametrical extremes – instability and monotony. The instability arises when the normal ebb and flow of our emotions becomes the (or a) primary criterion for structuring and evaluating our spiritual existence. When the emotions are charged we are ecstatic but when they are not, we become demoralized. We then constantly shift and change our spiritual practices in order to maintain or find or refire a certain spiritual experience. This ultimately results in a haphazard and disjointed spirituality. The monotony arises in the times that fall between the spiritual peaks. We even might call it a “dry-season” or a “desert-time.” When we’re not inspired, our spirituality nearly falls apart or ceases to have much meaning.
Celebration of the Christian Year is not simply a commemoration of holidays but constitutes an entire and alternate system for ordering our spiritual lives. In such it is a radically different approach to spirituality.
Its focus is different. Rather than concentrating on one’s personal experience, it revolves around the central redemptive acts of God in the Messiah.
Its temporal matrix is different. Rather than narrowing in on the experience of the present moment, it looks to the seasons of the year as its basis. Obviously this is a significantly distinct manner of structuring one’s spirituality. The purpose is not to have the most dynamic spiritual experience in this moment, but rather over the rhythms of months and years to root and ground one’s own life in a way that is centered around the person and life of Jesus and the redemption of the world God wrought in and through Him. This does not mean celebrating the Christian Year fails to have dramatic spiritual experiences (it certainly can!) – however, the guiding and evaluative criterion is located elsewhere. Our spirituality becomes rooted in something more secure than our capricious affections, freeing us from both the instability and monotony that such a misguided focus brings. Our spirituality thus has meaning even between the experiential peaks, because our ultimate goal is not now, but a future of formation and sanctification in the Messiah.
The Christian Year structures our lives around the story of redemption. Our culture contains a plethora of competing and contradictory stories which seek to explain what the world is about and give us meaning as a part of it. Christian Year spirituality seeks to contravene each of these stories of exploitation, violence and death by superimposing a different story – one about redemption, revolution, resurrection and life. Each year, the life of Jesus is “acted out” so to speak, through the seasons and celebrations of the Christian Year. As we journey through his birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension, we become active participants in this story. The beauty of God unfolds year by year as over and over we see how different he is than the leading “actors” in the narratives weaved in alienation from him. The self-giving love, tender humility, compassionate nearness and restorative grace shown forth as the life of Jesus unfolds, demonstrates an untold beauty, beckoning us to a Kingdom that pales the allurements of secular counterfeits. By entering this story, our lives are shaped and formed in contradiction, indeed, resistance to the pseudo-stories proffered by the spirit of our age. We look with eager anticipation to the consummation of this story, when Jesus returns to make all things new, as even now we partner with him in seeing His Kingdom come on Earth as it is in Heaven.
I know this is hardly a full explanation and justification of observing the Christian Year. I hope at some point to return and explain the concept more fully. For our purposes this simple introduction will suffice.
Now I’d like to give a brief overview of the major seasons of the Christian Year – to give you the framework within which the Daily Office is set (the Prayerbook has a more complete description of the calendar of the Church Year which you can download here). When praying the Office, it will be important at least to be able to know where in the Calendar of the Christian Year you are.
Time – from the fourth Sunday before Christmas until Christmas Eve
Color – Blue (either symbolizing either royalty or the waters of Genesis 1, the beginning of a new creation)
Central Theme – Expectation for the Messiah’s Coming – both in terms of His First Coming and Second Coming.
Spirituality – Longing for God’s Kingdom and justice on earth as it is in heaven.
Time – from Christmas Eve (Dec. 24) until the eve of Epiphany (12 days)
Color – White or Gold (symbolic of joy and celebration)
Central Theme – The Incarnation of God made flesh. God eternally united himself with humanity in the person of Jesus in order to defeat the powers of darkness.
Spirituality – Celebrating the presence of God among us.
Time – from Epiphany (January 6) until Ash Wednesday (46 days before Easter)
Color – Green
Central Theme – The manifestation of the glory of Jesus through his earthly life and ministry, particularly commemorating the visit of the Magi, His baptism by John, the changing of water to wine at Cana and the Transfiguration. Jesus’ life and ministry demonstrates the content of our salvation in the restorative presence of the Reign of God (healing the sick, cleansing the lepers, feeding the hungry, delivering the oppressed, raising the dead, welcoming the outcasts, etc.)
Spirituality – Manifesting the life of Jesus in and through us.
Time – from Ash Wednesday (46 days before Easter) until the Easter Vigil
Color – Purple (symbolizes suffering)
Central Theme – Jesus’ 40 days of fasting in the wilderness.
Spirituality – Repentance and resisting temptation as a preparation to celebrate the newness of resurrection life at Easter. Focus on fasting, prayer and giving to the poor.
Time – Palm Sunday until Holy Saturday (day before Easter)
Color – Red (symbolizing blood) or Black (symbolizing mourning/death)
Central Theme – Walking with Jesus through the days proceeding and leading up to his death.
Spirituality – Putting the old self of sin to death. Joining with Jesus as he identifies with and bears the weight of the world’s sin and suffering.
Time – Easter Sunday (or Easter Vigil) until Pentecost (7 weeks)
Color – White or Gold (symbolic of joy and celebration)
Central Theme – Resurrection Life. God triumphs over the powers of death. The New Creation is inaugurated in the resurrection of Jesus.
Spirituality – We rise from the death of sin and despair into a vibrant love for life and all that is living.
Time – 40 days after Easter (Ascension Day is always on the Thursday in the 6th week of Easter)
Color – White or Gold
Central Theme – The Reign of the Messiah and his victory over all the powers of darkness.
Spirituality – Confident intercession from a place of authority over the powers of darkness.
Time – 50 days (7 weeks) after Easter
Color – Red (symbolizing the fire of the Holy Spirit)
Central Theme – The new age of the Spirit has been inaugurated (already-but-not-yet). The restoration of all things has begun through the Spirit.
Spirituality – As participants in God’s New Creation we boldly testify to the resurrection of Jesus as agents of New Creation.
Ordinary Time (i.e., no specific season)
Time – from Pentecost until Advent
Color – Green (symbolizing growth)
Central Theme – No central theme – or a continuation of Pentecost
Spirituality – Being present and responsive to God in the ordinariness of life