If you’re like me, celebrating Advent may conjure up childhood memories of those peculiar “Advent Calendars” where you pop out a piece of chocolate each day as Christmas nears. Suffice to say, not all approaches to celebrating the Church Year are equally inspiring. Nevertheless, as I have come to seriously celebrate the Church Year, it has been one of the most compelling, inspiring and moving aspects of my spiritual life, both individual and communally.
As I have given an albeit brief explanation of the Church Year (I’ll use the terms “Church Calendar”, “Church Year” and “Christian Year” essentially interchangeably) elsewhere, I would like here to turn to practical suggestions on how to implement anywhere from a relatively simple to a full dress commemoration of the Church Year. My suggestions will be concerned with marking the primary seasons and principal feasts of the Church Year because there are many other commemorations which we need not get bogged down with at this point.
I should further note, that when I speak of “celebrating the Church Year,” I am mostly referring to means by which the formative themes of each Season and Feast can be shaped into our lives. In other words, I am primarily discussing the Church Year as spiritual formation and spiritual discipline. I am sure there is lots of advice that could be given for holiday-coordinated decorating, baking, party ideas, etc. I am not concerned with that here (though by all means – bring on the baked goods!!). The advice which follows centers on how our spiritual lives can be given definitive shape through the Church Year, and thus formed around and transformed by the unfolding story of God’s redemptive acts in and through the Messiah. It follows that my suggestions will generally draw from the Church’s liturgical tradition, which has always centered around the Church Year, and has developed quite a wealth of material over the centuries. Additionally, the suggestions which follow are not specific to Advent or any one season, but are general in nature, applicable to all seasons of the Year.
I will also attempt to make each suggestion applicable for both individual and communal use.
1) Determine to follow the Church Year through to the end. This of course hardly seems like a practical suggestion for my first point. However, I would like to begin by advising a long term though strategy rather than short term. The power of the Church Year is in the entire sequence of Advent through Pentecost and commemorating the entire sequence of the central redemptive acts of God in the Messiah. So while “celebrating Advent” or “keeping Lent” can’t hurt, the full power of the Church Year is its unity, rather than parts in abstraction. Its further power is the cumulative effect of celebrating the entire cycle over a course of years such that the redemptive acts of God in the Messiah become the central overarching rhythm of our lives.
2) Follow the Readings in the Daily Office Lectionary (from the Book of Common Prayer). The lectionary has one OT reading, one NT epistle and one Gospel reading for each day. They generally follow entire books is sequence that have themes corresponding to the Church Year. Use them in your personal Bible reading or meditation times. They are generally short (10-12 verses) and could form the basis of prayer-reading (lectio-divina). Read them with others and discuss them. Discuss a whole weeks worth of readings and reflection with others once per week. I have made Daily Office Readings booklets by compiling the assigned texts for each season. They can be downloaded here. Alternately you can download just the Daily Office Lectionary and look up the passages in your own Bible – booklet / standard.
3) Sing hymns and songs that correspond to the season. Contrary to popular belief, Advent songs and Christmas songs are not the same. Christmas songs/carols are sung during the twelve days of Christmas. Advent songs and carols are sung during Advent. Hymnals of churches that don’t keep the Christian year may not make this distinction. However, if you pick up a hymnal from a more liturgical tradition, such as Anglican, Lutheran or Catholic, there will be a wealth of material for each season. Should you not happen to know many of the hymns, do a search on the internet and you can often find at least midi files that will play the song for you so you can learn it. Check out these sites for starters: http://hymnal.oremus.org; http://www.smallchurchmusic.com; http://hymntime.com/tch/
4) Pray the Book of Common Prayer “Collect” for each week. “Collect” is a fancy word for a prayer which frequently draws together (“collects”) themes of a given season or day in the Church Calendar. Use it daily either upon waking or before going to bed. Pray it with others before a meal. Pray it for people on your prayer list. For the Collects of the Church Year click here.
5) Pray/Sing the Psalms on a monthly (or bi-monthly) schedule using seasonal antiphons. “Antiphons” are short sentences of Scripture or traditional material that are used with Psalms or Canticles in order to give them a specific (often seasonal or Calendar-related) emphasis. To use them, they are simply prayed (sung) before and after the Psalm, or alternately as a refrain periodically throughout the Psalm, every few verses or so. I have compiled a set of seasonal antiphons from various sources (including the Prayer Book Office, the Catholic Liturgy of the Hours, the Roman Breviary and elsewhere) for the entire book of Psalms that can be used with the Psalms in your BCP or Bible. They are arranged by season – so throughout Advent, each psalms will use the antiphon labeled “Advent,” during the 12 days of Christmas, the antiphon labeled “Christmas,” during the entire season of Easter, the antiphon labeled “Easter,” etc.
Click here to download the monthly Psalm schedule.
6) Use a seasonal order for Midday Prayer or Compline (night-time prayer before bed). These are orders for prayer that are more simple than those for Morning and Evening Prayer. They are self-contained and require no flipping back and forth through different places in the prayer book. Unfortunately, the BCP orders for Midday Prayer and Compline have almost no seasonal variation, so I have borrowed from the liturgy of the Church of England and elsewhere to form these adaptations of the BCP orders with strong seasonal emphasis. These work well prayed alone or in groups. Download links:
7) Begin praying the Daily Office, or at least Morning or Evening Prayer. Full details on how to do so can be found here. The office can be prayed alone or in groups. Consider praying it daily on your own and at one set time per week with others. I pray the Office daily on my own and once a week do a full sung Morning Prayer with some friends before the Sunday morning Eucharist.
8 ) If you already have been praying the Daily Office, consider using seasonal propers that add further seasonal emphasis to the flow of the Church Year. The “Proper” is the part of the liturgy which varies according to the day and/or season. These propers propose various hymns, psalms, canticles and antiphons for every Sunday of the year and for each feast. A seasonal propers booklet, largely gleaned from the unfortunately out-of-print Prayer Book Office can be downloaded here – booklet / standard
9) The Church of England has produced a book available on-line as a series of pamphlets titled “Times and Seasons” with various material for each season which could be used either as part of the Daily Office, or in other ways. They can be downloaded for free here.
10) Begin visiting a liturgical Church in the “catholic” tradition (i.e., Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox or Anglican), which follows the Church Year and incorporates its emphases into the liturgy. A directory of orthodox Anglican churches in North America can be found here. If not on a weekly basis, perhaps attend for special services throughout the year, like Christmas Eve, Epiphany, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, etc.
11) Organize a gathering of friends and family on either the day of or the eve of major feasts for a simple meal and an order for Evening Prayer, using seasonal material from some of the previous suggestions.
12) Pick up a copy of Robert Webber’s book “Ancient-Future Time.” It discusses each season and principle feast of the Church Year, highlighting the various themes for each.
** Photo credit: tome213