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How Far Off Are We from the Reformers' Vision for Lent?

I utilize a wonderful little liturgical resource in some of my worship planning for the chapel services at Knox Seminary, where I both study and teach. This book is a devotionally-oriented compendium of the collects (the short prayers, invocations which "collect" the hearts of the people at the beginning of worship) of the brilliant liturgical reformer, Thomas Cranmer. This book presents the week's collect along with a few historical observations of how the prayer was written and then offers a page-length devotional meditation on the collect.

The Fine-Meshed Filter of the Gospel

Cranmer composed, edited, or re-purposed these historic liturgical prayers, and they have become for the Anglican tradition some of the most beautiful gems of the Prayer Book. Reformation scholar Diarmaid MacCulloch says that the collects are "one of the chief glories" of the entire tradition of Anglican worship.* Studying the origins of the collects of Cranmer would be a formative exercise for any earnest worship leader interested in how a gospel-centered thinker edited the "worship words" of his tradition to be more in line with the good news of Jesus Christ. In writing his liturgies for the English church, Cranmer took the received Roman liturgy and not only translated it into English but "gospel-ized" it. In other words, Cranmer edited out everything in the liturgy that he felt was not in line with the Gospel, and he replaced it with an enormous spotlight on the finished work of Christ's life and death. He ferreted out every last hint of works-based righteousness, and replaced it with what Paul calls "a righteousness that is by faith from first to last" (Rom 1:17, NIV).

God's Word is a fine-meshed filter, sifting out self-righteousness in parts per trillion. The Law says that our righteousness isn't really righteousness after all. And the Gospel says that God didn't need our righteousness anyway. I was reminded of all this when I opened up my book to Cranmer's collect for the first Sunday in Lent. Here it is.


The Collect for the First Sunday in Lent

O Lord, which for our sake didst fast forty days and forty nights; Give us grace to use such abstinence, that, our flesh being subdued to the spirit, we may ever obey thy Godly motions in righteousness, and true holiness, to thy honor and glory, which liveth and reigneth, &c.


Like the Collects of Advent III and St. Stephen's Day, this prayer is addressed directly to Our Lord Jesus Christ. The reason is clear: Hebrews 4:15. This is an original composition for the 1549 Prayer Book. Our Reformers eliminated the medieval Collect which stressed fasting and good works as a means to earn merit, a notion completely out of line with the New Testament.


It is clear from this Collect that we cannot obey God in the direction of "righteousness and true holiness" until we are "subdued." What is in mind is the self-control of a person as St. Paul commends it in II Timothy 1:7: "For God hath not given us a spirit of fear; but of power and of love, and of self-control" ("of a sound mind" in the Authorized Version). ... The older or medieval model in commending self-control was the model of warfare, the war between the "flesh" and the "spirit." It was as if we were divided between a good "spirit" and a rotten "flesh." ... What Cranmer intends here, in place of the old model of warfare between "flesh" and "spirit," is the discipline exercised upon the whole person by the Spirit of God. Through the Spirit it becomes natural rather than against nature to restrain the evil impulse for the sake of love. The "godly motion" of the Collect is the spirit of a man or woman that has been aligned into the ways of goodness by the virtue of God's grace preceding. We are not understood here as being divided in some schizoid or dualistic manner, but rather as persons to be realigned or integrated by the rod of God exercised from love and hence for love. Remember the old saw, "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak"? Cast out that thought, like the sad rag it is! Exchange it for the glad rag: "Love subdues the spirit, and the 'motions' follow and follow and follow."**


A Great Lent Makes Much of Christ

So here's what I'm thinking, friends. Liturgy and the Church Calendar are in vogue right now. And praise God for that. I happen to think the Church Calendar is much more than extra-biblical "dead traditionalism." It is rooted in a Scriptural understanding of annual Christ-centered cycles of worship, and it is therefore a quite lively tradition. Perhaps, though, we Protestants need to think more carefully about how we re-engage and appropriate these traditions, and Lent is case in point.

Lent is a wonderful season that can go all wrong if we don't, in the Spirit of the Reformers, maintain a stubborn commitment to the very Gospel that drove them to edit, redact, and overhaul their received liturgies. Lent is one of those places where works-righteousness likes to sneak in, where the Old Adam tries to reassert himself and gain a place at the table. For in a season of fasting and repentance (both thoroughly biblical ideas), we're always tempted to make it about us and what we do for God. Lent can become far more about what we give up for God and far less about what Christ gave up for God the Father on our behalf. Lent is ultimately about Christ's fasting, not ours...Christ's earning God's favor, not ours...Christ's victory over the world, the flesh, and the devil, not ours.

Jesus fasted for forty days to secure the favor of the Father, and he did this, in the words of the Nicene Creed, "for us and for our salvation." Jesus fasted in His Lenten wilderness so that our Lenten fast could be completely freed from any sense of securing the favor of God. We fast and repent from out of the favor of God, not for it. This does a marvelous relativizing work on our works, for it puts our fasting completely on the horizontal plane (between us and our fellow human beings), not the vertical (between us and God). It means that we fast for our neighbor. How is this so?

God doesn't need one ounce of our good works. He's got the King's chest...a big pile of merit secured by His Son and placed in its overflowing, eternal storehouse.  The Father looks at the Son's spoils from His war on earth and is satisfied. But though God doesn't need our good works, our neighbor does. We fast, therefore, that we may be freed up toward the types of "Godly motions in righteousness" that bless our neighbor. When I am self-controlled, my wife and my children are blessed. When I am not self-controlled, I hurt them. Though God doesn't benefit one ounce from my good works, my neighbor does a whole lot. So, we might say that a truly Gospel-centered Lent "horizontalizes" the works of the season. 

Furthermore, a truly Gospel-centered Lent understands with Cranmer, Luther, Calvin, Bucer, and the other reformers that it is only in focusing on Christ's work for us (our justification) that enables our work for the sake of our neighbor (our vocation). Therefore, Lent in the light of the Gospel remains, just like all the other seasons, all about Jesus. 

Worship planners and leaders, a great Lent makes much of Christ. 

*Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer: A Life (New Haven: Yale, 1996), 417.
**C. Frederick Barbee and Paul Zahl, The Collects of Thomas Cranmer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 34-35. 

On the Assumption that the New Testament is Vague on Worship Practices Because God Wants Freedom

A Great New Worship Book

I've been plowing my way through what I think is one of the best worship books to come out this year, Robbie Castleman's Story-Shaped Worship: Following Patterns from the Bible and History. In her introduction, she helps dispell a myth that I long believed--namely, that the New Testament is vague on worship practices so that post-NT-era worshipers would not unnecessarily codify the contextualized practices of the early church into hard and fast rituals.  Castleman says:

Because Paul and all the New Testament writers, with the possible exception of Luke, assumed their readers were familiar with the worship practices of Israel, the foundation of God's people upon which Christian congregations were built, there is very little descrption in the New Testament of corporate worship. When descriptions do emerge in the earliest documents of the Christian church, it is not surprising that they reflect the influence of Jewish patterns for the worship of God. In addition, Luke, whose first readers were predominantly Gentile, often includes details concerning Jewish customs to aid early non-Jewish Christians in understanding the Jewish foundation for fthe faith and practice of the church. And this is as it should be. God has, in fact, given his people in the context of his story of salvation, the shape of worship designed for God's own pleasure and blessing. It is this great story that God employs as the basic shape for worship that is, indeed, biblical.*

In conversations about a "biblical theology of worship," evangelicals, even pretty heavy-hitting scholars, too easily downplay the patterns of worship assumed and incorporated from Jewish practices that would have been etched into the doxological habits of the first Christian worshipers.  Once that valuable piece of knowledge is forgotten, we start to miss the countless ways the New Testament displays, teaches, and informs both the theology and the practices of Christian worship.  Let me tease out just one example.

John's Theology of Worship

The first chapters of the Gospel of John are loaded with implications for a theology of worship.  In fact, one could argue that John's goal in chapters 5-10 is to argue that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Jewish feasts and festival practices.**  Jesus' healing at the pool of Bethesda (5:1-47) was not just to show off His miraculous powers but to make the statement that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Sabbath. John 6 makes explicit that the miracles outlined in that chapter take place in the context of "the Jewish Passover Festival" (6:4) to make the point that Jesus is the fulfillment of Passover. John 7's context is explicitly to proclaim Jesus as the fulfillment of "the Festival of Tablernacles" (7:2). Jesus' altercations with the Jews during the "Festival of Dedication" (10:22), more commonly known as Hanukkah, illustrates Jesus as the true liberator of Israel and the fulfillment of this festival of lights (this is part of the reason Jesus claimed "I am the Light of the World" [8:12]).

Now...if you're a good first-century Jew and you're "reading" this theology here, what is your most natural assumption of the worship practices you engaged in?  In other words, in all the rituals--the annual calendar of feasts, the holy days, the weekly, monthly, and yearly rhythms--what does Christ's fulfillment of them do to your practice?  

So the NT DOES Speak to Our Practices! 

I dare say that many evangelicals (including myself for a long while) assumed that Christ's fulfillment of all this obliterated any sense of an adherence to certain ancient, historic rituals.  But this seems to be neither what New Testament Christians nor the early church thought as God's Spirit moved in them to form the core historic worship practices of Christianity.  

The most natural assumption of a first-century-Jew-turned-Christian is that, "we should keep all the rituals, but re-enact them now in light of Christ."  Interestingly, this is precisely what the Christian Calendar is and does--it re-enacts the life of Christ.  And this insight is largely given to us from John's Gospel (and the book of Hebrews and a few other places).  Suddenly, our categories for what informs "biblical" worship in the New Testament get expanded a bit. (If you're intrigued by this summary, I would encourage you to read my more thorough outline in this post on the Christian Calendar here.)

So hopefully this one illustration shows that the New Testament is not as vague as we think it is on the theology and practices of worship.  Just because it doesn't offer more explicit biblical descriptions of early Christian worship does not mean it doesn't powerfully prescribe patterns and practices for us to follow.  Castleman's book is actually an excercise in this kind of exposition, which you won't find much of in evangelical "theology of worship" resources out there.  I hope you're intrigued enough to grab her book and take a gander through its pages.  It will be well worth your time!

*Robbie Castleman, Story-Shaped Worship: Following the Patterns from the Bible and History (Downers Grove: IVP, 2013), 15.
**This insight was first presented to me by Craig Blomberg.



Hallel Psalms - A Joyful New Worship Compilation

Cardiphonia offers up yet another album full of great music, chiseled from the stone of liturgical history.  And this time, the liturgy is not just ancient.  It's from some of the earliest songs of doxological antiquity.  Psalms 113-118 are often called the "Egyptian Hallel":  "Egyptian," because these psalms as a body were used by ancient Jewish singers during Passover, which took place in Egypt; "Hallel," because that is the Hebrew word for for "praise," and these psalms in particular are full of joy and praise.  

Cardiphonia has focused on these songs to aid in the Church's sung vocabulary for this past and all future Holy Weeks.  What I love about Hallel Psalms (March 2013) is that, because the disciples themselves used these psalms during Passover (and therefore during our Holy Week, the last week of Christ before His crucifixion), here the church has a way to more fully rehearse the life of Christ in the Christian Calendar.  I've written more fully elsewhwere about what having a worship-oriented sense of time does to you, but here we have a way to dive even more deeply into holy week, putting on our lips the very same psalms that were on Jesus' and the disciples' lips during those fateful final days.  

Artists from across the Western world contributed to this flash mob project, and I'd encourage you to get it and support this worthy endeavor.  Some of my favorite "ear candy" songs are Nathan Partain's groovy, rhythmic "None But God (Psalm 113)," Rebekah Osborne's quirky, fun-loving "Praise the Lord with Glad Thanksgiving," Bruce Benedict's "When Jacob Out of Egypt Came (Psalm 114)," with its western-meets-70s vibe, splashed with Latin-style horns and Cake-esque guitar riffs, and Castle Island Hymns' electronic, ethereal, "How High (Psalm 113)."  One of my favorite tunes that I hear quite easily transferring into a simple contemporary context like mine at Coral Ridge is Jered McKenna's "Praise the Lord (Psalm 117)," which I could hear at a fast, driving tempo in addition to the mid-tempo version McKenna has recorded.  

Check it out, and support the great local artists and worship leaders who are faithfully serving their local assemblies of Christ's Church.  Finally, be sure to check out Cardiphonia's post about some of the artists, with a few helpful pieces of explanation.



What Having a Worship-Oriented Sense of Time Does to You

James K. A. Smith, in Desiring the Kingdom, exposes how many of the structures of culture have a shaping effect on us, whether we know it or not.  We American Christians are most often used to processing the "negative influences of the world" through the grid of content, rather than form.  We rightly point out that the graphic depictions in movies (violence, sex, etc.) and the lyrics of songs--the content--have the ability to orient our souls toward depraved things. But have we processed how the forms and structures of society shape us?

Think, for instance, about time.  Our sense of time is governed by usually one of two things.  Either we "feel" time according to the January-to-December calendar year, or we "feel" it according to the summer-break-fall-kickoff routine engrained in us from the schooling system.  This sense of time shapes our decision-making and behaviors.  For instance, think of how your sense of work and rest is related to summer and fall.  Summer is a time to relax, and fall is a time to get serious.  Our cultural rhythms have very much shaped how we practice Sabbath, whether we are Jewish, Christian, or "irreligious."

Yesterday, for many Christians, was the beginning of a new year.  Did it feel like one?  For over a decade now, I've been in worship traditions that have oriented themselves around the Christian year--Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost.  I have to say that I think I'm about 25% there when it comes to "feeling" Christian time.  I desperately want the liturgy to sink into my bones so that my very inner annual rhythm is shaped like Jesus.  This advent, I really, really, really, want to feel what it means to long for Jesus to come.  I want to remember Christ's first advent so "hard" that this remembrance (this anamnesis) is actualized in the present and in turn becomes my longing for Christ's second real time.  I want my sense of identity, when Epiphany hits, to be grounded in the joy, wonder, and eye-blinding brightness that the wise men experienced when they saw Christ.  I hope that, during Lent, I actually feel like repenting and fasting, that I might somehow know Christ's own forty-day wilderness wandering in a more deep way.  And it's not at all that I should desire to somehow earn God's favor by orienting myself to "worship time" in this way.  It's that, with every fiber of my being, "I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection" (Philippians 3:10). 

One question often asked is, "Did Jesus have a worship-oriented sense of time?"  The answer is, yes, He most certainly did.  We forget that first century Jews were intensely liturgical beings, and therefore Jesus was.  In fact, though the first several chapters of the gospel of John are "liturgically lost" on us, they wouldn't have been so to a first century Jewish reader/hearer.  Especially in chapters 5-10, we see John being a very focused storyteller, proclaiming the message loud and clear that, as Christ participated in the Jewish festivals and practices, He was proclaiming Himself the fulfillment of them:

  • Jesus is the fulfilment of the Sabbath (John 5:1-47)
  • Jesus is the fulfilment of Passover (John 6:1-71)
  • Jesus is the fulfillment of the feast of Tabernacles/Booths (John 7:1-9:41)
  • Jesus is the fulfillment of the festival of Lights (Hanukkah) (John 10:1-42)

Much like it is with the law, Jesus didn't come to abolish believers' sense of liturgical time; He came to fulfill it.  In this sense, then, it's not just a "cool tradition" or a fun option to celebrate the Christian calendar year.  It's actually a biblical idea.  When we have a worship-oriented sense of time, we are claiming continuity of practice with the ancient believers of old.  And I'm not just talking about medieval Catholic liturgy, here.  I'm talking about the family of Abraham, into which we've been ingrafted.  When we engage the Christian year, we claim our worship kinship and lineage with the ancient Israelites who observed time around Christ, albeit cloaked and veiled.  Passover showed them Christ, the passover lamb (1 Cor 5:7).  The festival of booths pointed them of Christ, who would tabernacle with us (John 1).  Hanukkah oriented them to Christ, the light of the world (John 8:12).  So it is with us.  Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost all have the power to tatoo on the wrist of our soul a watch that says "Jesus."  God forms in us an intrinsic daytimer that says "Christ" on every page. 

For many non-liturgical folks, Advent is a gateway drug into worship-oriented time.  If you celebrate Advent intentionally, if longing for Christ starts to become you, you want more.  Advent and Christmas will wane, but you start longing for the centering, clarifying, identity-forming sense of time that was so palpable in December and early January.  That's, at least, how it was for me.  I started celebrating Advent, and soon I wanted all the other goodies.  The world's calendar seemed simultaneously more hyped and hollow, and I wanted something deep, historic, shaping, and meaningful.  

This can be yours.  But it takes practice.


One Simple Reason Why the Ascension is Important

Ascension, Stained Glass Panel (Gothic), Germany, 14th c.Today is what more "liturgically"-oriented Christians in the Western tradition call "The Ascension of our Lord."  Why do we give a special day to that event that seems nothing more than Jesus' travel plans between earth and heaven.  Earth is important.  Heaven is important.  But the flight in between?

Click to read more ...


Is the Christian Calendar a Biblical Idea?

I’m a latecomer to the church calendar year.  I didn’t grow up in a “liturgical” context.  The worship of my youth was dynamic, free-church-style evangelical worship—a block of songs, special music accompanying an offering, and the sermon, in a nutshell.  The first time I was exposed to the Church year was in college.  It seemed foreign and unbiblical.  (Well, maybe not unbiblical, but at least extra-biblical.)  It seemed to be “unnecessary tradition” with little to no value. 

My conversion to being an observer and proponent of the Christian calendar (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost) initially came not through biblical arguments but through experiencing it.  Its fruit began to bloom in my life and spirituality.  However, it’s still important to ask if there is a biblical case to be made.  There is no explicit command to observe the Christian year, nor does the Bible, at first glance, seem to give us much of an outline for worship, either weekly or annually.  Still, I now believe that the biblical evidence strongly compels us to consider the Christian year as something consonant with the heart of God for our worship.1

The Old Testament Roots of the Christian Year2

When God first established the formal worship of His people (there were hints and glances prior, but worship was more informal and not necessarily “cultic” then3), He revealed a desire for there to be an annual cycle of worship.  In seeking His people’s holiness (Lev 11:45), God established a Law that would help them, on an individual level, to be personally set apart (Lev 17-22).  He established a sacrificial system to help the people see that personal holiness meant that atonement had to bridge the fellowship-gap between God and humanity (Lev 1-7, 16).  But God also made clear that He desired time to be set apart as His.  Leviticus 23-25 records God’s prescription for annual time-keeping:4

  • Feast of Unleavened Bread / Passover – remembering and reenacting God’s salvation; a pilgrim festival
  • Feast of Firstfruits – dedicating and celebrating the harvest as God’s
  • Feast of Weeks / Feast of the Harvest / Pentecost – recognizing that God is provider of all things; a pilgrim festival
  • Feast of Trumpets – call for a solemn assembly to prepare for the most sacred month, which includes the Day of Atonement
  • Day of Atonement – a holy convocation where the people of God afflict themselves, seeking and receiving atonement through sacrifice
  • Feast of Booths / Feast of Tabernacles – remembering and reenacting God’s redemption from Egypt, with special attention to Israel’s time in the wilderness

One other important piece to point out is how Sabbath covers over all these feasts and festivals as a meta-concept, which is why it is mentioned first in Leviticus 23.  As we look at the calendar, notice here the rhythms of preparation and fulfillment.  Notice also that the “high points” of the year center around sacrifice, atonement, salvation, and redemption (Passover, Day of Atonement).  The goal of the liturgical year in the Pentateuch appears to be to have the people of God retell, reenact, and even relive their salvation history.  Not only is it a symbolic recollection of past events, but also God intends that the people imbibe the year in such a way that the past becomes their present, their life.5  So, for the people of God in the Old Testament, worship not only had weekly rituals but annual ones. 

The New Testament Fulfillment of Old Testament Worship

It would seem to make sense, then, that if Christ is the fulfillment of all Old Testament worship and longing, if Christ is the substance to which the shadow pointed, worshipers would seek the continuation of such an annual worship-cycle through a Christological lens.  The question that is always debated is, Does Christ’s fulfillment mean the cessation of all these practices because they are fulfilled in Him, or does it mean that these practices are carried on reinterpreted and re-practiced now in Christ?  Ultimately, we probably can’t come down with a clear biblical “should” one way or the other.  There is gospel freedom to be shared here.  Still, let’s entertain an often understated motif in the Gospel of John that may nudge us toward the validity and benefit of observing an annual worship cycle centered around Jesus Christ.

John is unique among the gospel-writers because he wrote considerably later than Matthew, Mark, or Luke.  His vantage point and agenda are from an entirely different place than that of the synoptic Gospels.  Many scholars have noted that John’s writings, especially in Revelation, are loaded with liturgical content, and we may overlook just how liturgically-oriented John is in the first half of his Gospel.  John 2-4 centers around the them of the newness of Christ’s ministry6 with many worship-metaphors nestled in the text.  When Jesus turns water into wine, stressing the new joy He will bring, He does so with jars used for ceremonial washing (2:6).  He reveals Himself to be a new Moses, but instead of turning water into blood (a sign of judgment), He transforms it into wine (a sign of joy).  The metaphor turns on itself, though, because Jesus would later institute one of the most sacred acts of worship, the Lord’s Supper (the Passover fulfilled), a chief staple of which would be wine.  A few verses later, Jesus speaks rather cryptically about destroying and raising the temple (2:19), the center of worship.

John 3 and 4 are as “liturgically loaded” as the previous chapter.  Jesus has a conversation with Nicodemus about the new birth, immediately followed by teaching and experiences with John the Baptist all centered around baptism and ceremonial washing (3:22-36).  Then, tucked in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman is a theological debate about worship and place (4:19-24), revealing a “new universalism” of the mission of God going beyond the walls of Israel to the rest of the world. 

All this merely sets the stage for the stunning liturgical revelation in chapters 5-10. We need first-century Jewish lenses to clearly see what is happening here, because John is making radical observations about Christ as the fulfillment of Judaism, particularly the Jewish feasts and festivals.  Chapter 5 begins with Jesus’ Sabbath-healing and subsequent tussle with the Jewish leaders.  Just as Sabbath opened up and became the framework for the feasts recorded in Leviticus 23-25, so Sabbath frames what follows in John.  This is not a coincidence. 

Chapter 6 opens with an overt reference to the fact that the events following were taking place as “the Passover, the Feast of the Jews, was at hand” (6:4).  So when Jesus teaches the people, in this context, by saying, “I am the bread of life” (6:35, ESV), this is no mere illustrative metaphor.  He is claiming that He Himself is the fulfillment of the Festival of Unleavened Bread.  Chapter 7 opens by jumping to the reality that “the Jews’ Feast of Booths was at hand” (7:2, ESV).  Part of this festival involved a week-long water-drawing ritual, culminating on the eighth day, when the water ceremony wouldn’t be enacted.7  It is at this dramatic climax of the festival where Jesus makes another stunning proclamation:

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” (7:37-38, ESV)

Similarly, the Feast of Booths also contained a lighting ceremony in which four large lamps were lit to accompany joyful singing.  On the last night, the lamps were purposefully not lit in order to stress Israel’s waiting for the fullness of salvation to come.8  On this night, Jesus stands and says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (8:12, ESV).  Again, Christ is not merely making powerful illustrations; He is claiming His rightful place as the central figure of the worship calendar of the people of God.  Jesus is the One to whom the water and light point.  Christ is the fulfillment of the Feast of Booths.

Chapter 10 moves the reader into the Festival of Dedication (10:22), in which is celebrated the rededication of the temple (164 B.C.) after its desecration during the intertestamental period.  Jesus again plays a trump card on the meaning and significance of this festival by claiming the utmost authority (10:30, 38) as Israel’s true Liberator, above Judas Maccabeus, who was looked at by some Jews as a Messianic figure leading up to the rededication of the temple.  Jesus will soon reveal, too, that He is the true Temple. 

At this point, it has to be acknowledged that while it is probably not John’s intent to unroll for the reader a liturgical map of Old Testament practices re-interpreted in Christ, this conclusion is certainly a byproduct of the discussion in chapters 5-10.  The liturgical lessons contained in here are the “residue,” if you will, of John’s main points.  Here we see Jesus claiming that He must be the center of the annual worship cycle of the people of God. 

The Christian Year and the Centrality of Christ

Putting this all together, several principles can be derived from these biblical passages (and others):

  • God values annual cycles and seasons of worship for His people.
  • God desires that those cycles and seasons ebb and flow to the rhythms of sacrifice, atonement, salvation, and redemption.
  • In Christ, we find all those themes fulfilled.

Would it not make sense, then, that it might be most wise for Christians to embrace these values and ideas in the form of a worship calendar centered around the person and work of Jesus?  Well, this happens to be what the Christian calendar precisely is.  In the Church year, we retell, reenact, and relive the life of Christ.  We walk through His birth and early years (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany).  We journey through his life of ministry, temptation, and prayer (Lent).  We live in His resurrection and ascension (Easter), and we abide in His Spirit’s presence until He comes (Pentecost).  We relive our salvation history in Christ.  This all seems very consonant with the heart of God for worship, and it illustrates in a holistic manner the nature of how the Old Testament and New Testament work in tandem to develop a robust theology of worship.  So is the Christian liturgical year a biblical idea?  Yes, I believe it is.9  


1It is worth noting that, in my own Reformed/Presbyterian tradition, there is a tension around this issue.  American Presbyterians claim a heritage from (with a broad brush) two different worship streams: (a) a “low church” Puritan stream, which reacted strongly against its Roman Catholic and Anglican context by arguing that every Sunday is a “holy day” and that no one day or season should take prominence over another (it is this stream of thought that has largely influenced evangelical worship in the United States, well beyond Reformed traditions); (b) a “high church” stream in the Reformed tradition of Anglicanism and “high Presbyterian” worship.  It should be obvious that I’m an advocate more for the latter.  While I sympathize with the Puritan outlook on worship, my contention is that they were overly reactionary, and, in an effort to “purify” the Church from abuses, they threw the liturgical baby out with the bathwater.
2It should be acknowledged here that presupposed in this line of argumentation is a more covenantal view of the continuity of God’s redemptive plan between the Old and New Testaments.  Those who do not share this presupposition will find the argument from the Old Testament as a whole unconvincing.  Because I believe in the continuity of God’s covenants and that they were all unveiling one plan of redemption in Jesus Christ, it follows that there can be value for Christian worship in observing the rhythms and patterns of Old Testament worship. 
3Some scholars speak of a proto- or primitive cult observable in the worship of Abraham (e.g. the altar in Gen 22) or even the animal sacrifice of Adam and Eve for clothing (Gen 3:21), but I am speaking of the overt, formalized worship practice for Israel recorded in Scripture.
4See also Ex 23:10-19; 34:18-26; Num 28-29; Deut 16:1-17.
5This is the rich meaning behind the New Testament word anamnesis, which is often overlooked when we read “remembrance” in English (e.g. 1 Cor 11:24-25).
6The following references to themes of newness are taken from Craig Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1997).
7Blomberg, Jesus, 296.
8Ibid., 297.
9It is crucial, especially in discussions of worship, to be honest about our methodology in the way we arrive at conclusions about what is “biblical.”  Often times, people talk past each other without realizing that some are applying a more literalist or rigidly prescriptive paradigm on how one arrives at “biblical” conclusions, while others assume, as I do, that there exists liturgical merit in exegeting theological values and propositions from the text in such discussions.  A must-read on this subject is Michael A. Farley, “What is ‘Biblical’ Worship? Biblical Hermeneutics and Evangelical Theologies of Worship,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 51/3 (September 2008).

the christian calendar for modern worship?

Let me talk about the Christian calendar, and then discuss how worship leaders in modern settings can utilize it without compromising what makes modern worship so beautiful. Why use it Not every church follows the church year, also called the “liturgical cycle.”  Why does our church spend time doing so, observing seasons such as Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost?  For one thing, it links us to practices of Christ’s church which are very ancient.  We know that primitive forms of the church calendar were emerging as early as A.D. 57.  Secondly, observing a uniquely Christian calendar reminds us that we are a peculiar people set against a world that doesn’t necessarily follow “God’s time.”  The January-December / Sunday-Saturday calendar we follow ultimately has roots in the pagan Roman empire, and the use of a Christian calendar within the church reminds us that all our time and living revolves not around what the larger world has to offer, but around Christ Himself.  Notice that all the seasons symbolically center around Christ.  Advent refers to Christ’s advent on earth.  Lent refers to Christ’s time of fasting and humiliation.  Pentecost refers to the outpouring of Christ’s Spirit on all kinds of people.  In Christ spin all the gears of time, and we acknowledge that when we worship through a Christian calendar. How it can be used in modern worship You don't have to be a "liturgical" church to incorporate and observe the Christian calendar.  You don't have to change your service's structure to walk through the church seasons (though some change might help!).  First, I'd suggest just becoming educated about the Christian calendar.  The least expensive, most accessible, and generally reliable way to start is wikipedia.  They have a decent article on the liturgical year which will branch you to other articles that help you understand the big picture and the smaller aspects of each season.  Second, once you become aware of the year, cater your song selections (or at least some of them) to the season.  Songs on the Spirit during Pentecost.  Songs of repentance during Lent.  Eschatological songs during Advent or Epiphany.  Third, use your technology to color the ambience of that season.  Each liturgical season has its color.  Maybe you can have a graphic designer create slide backdrops with those colors and dream up icons or thematic symbols to accompany those visuals.   Hopefully some of these suggestions can break the ice.  But sky's the limit when it comes to creative ways to help your people--even in modern worship settings--embrace the church year.  And trust me, when modern worshipers with very little liturgical roots grab onto the church year, they CAN'T GET ENOUGH.  It's balm for the soul (only a slight exaggeration).  Our postmodern milieu cries out for roots.  The Christian calendar can be a start at providing that. Grace & peace.

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