Happy New Year!
With the beginning of Advent we begin a new church year. Starting the church year in the growing dark before the winter solstice (at least in the northern hemisphere) is an evocative way to mark the waiting time before the coming of the Light. It is no secret that the church adapted the message of the coming of Jesus, light of the world, by turning to already existing images and holidays. (As a note from your resident religion scholar, this is what all religions do—and what we do naturally in our formal and informal interactions with one another as we reach out to make connections with people we’d like to know better and with whom we share what is important to us. It is “translation” in image, in action, and in resonance and shared meanings.)
I mentioned the “new year” a few weeks ago and that our scripture focus would change—a few people asked what that meant. The new church year, and new scripture focus, is connected to the pattern of readings that we follow called the Revised Common Lectionary, or “RCL.”
In the 1980s, the Episcopal Church along with numerous other mainline church communities including Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, some Baptists, Lutherans, Catholics, and several others—formulated a three year cycle of Bible readings through the church year. We just finished Year A, which uses primarily readings from the Gospel according to Matthew, and are now in Year B, which features readings from the Gospel according to Mark. In Year C we draw primarily from the Gospel according to Luke. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are the “synoptic” Gospels—they shared common sources and share many parables and accounts of Jesus’ life. The Gospel according to John is the fourth gospel, and is very different from the other three. This Gospel does not have its own year; instead selections from John placed throughout all three years, especially in the seasons of Easter and Christmas. Other readings—the Hebrew Bible, the Psalm, and the Epistle readings—are chosen to coordinate with the Gospel passage for each Sunday of the three-year cycle.
There are some drawbacks to the RCL. It does not invite “sermon series” which are often a deep dive into a longer section of the Bible. The RCL jumps around from theme to theme, and we can lose important information about sequence and context that are essential to understanding Jesus’ teaching, life, and work. (That’s why that I spend some time each sermon giving context for the day’s lesson.) Another problem is that it is impossible to have every verse of the entire Bible included in a sequence of three years, unless we were committed to much longer Sunday services. Thus there are some parts of the Bible that you only read if you read them on your own. And the RCL often selects from here and there, not starting at the beginning of the Gospel or Book or Letter and going straight through. For the Gospel reading, which is the center of Christian scripture, this can be a problem. I think this is why Mark Allan Powell, one of my seminary professors, said that once a month we should plan to read the Gospel of the Year beginning to end so that we could become familiar with the larger theme and trajectory of each particular Gospel.
The RCL is a great gift, though, for many reasons. First, we can’t just pick and choose our favorite parts, and ignore the other parts. This is important to me personally: there about six years when I was not a church goer and did not consider myself Christian, in part because I had become aware of parts of the Bible that challenged and troubled me. It was only when I came to see the Bible as a conversation with the Holy One, as a way to foster a relationship, that I came back to the church. There’s stuff to work on in this relationship! The RCL helps me live into a commitment to engage all the Bible. I don’t get to pick my favorite parables and encounters and sentences to preach on. One of the great gifts to me of my time at St. Andrew’s that that many difficult and previously cringe-inducing passages that I would have avoided have opened up to me in beauty and in meaning because they were part of the RCL and I had to engage them fully to prepare for Sunday.
Another great gift of the RCL is that so many Christians around the world share it. It is quite common for my Methodist, Presbyterian, UCC, and Lutheran friends to ask me what I’m preaching on and how I approached the Word this week. There is a wealth of commentaries, meditations, past sermons, and resource books based on the cycle of the RCL, and these sources are enlightening and inspiring. The RCL creates a world wide ecumenical Christian community: you are hearing the same scriptures that your friends in many churches in Greencastle are hearing. [Note: I have not yet been able to preach someone else’s sermon, even when I have a tough week and am pinched for time. It just doesn’t work that way! Sermons are highly personal, both in terms of what I have discovered through study and prayer, and because while I prepare and write them I am thinking of you. I see individual faces of parishioners at St. Andrew’s in my mind’s eye who may have reason to respond to a particular way of understanding the week’s scripture. Other preachers I know all feel the same way—it is a weird but wonderful thing about being a priest and preacher.]
The RCL also works particularly well for the Episcopal church and its specific liturgical flavor, which has deep roots in the movement of the church’s seasonal calendar. We live and relive the times and the stories we find in the Bible in the seasons of the church that don’t always map onto the secular calendar. The seasons at their most basic are:
- Advent and preparation for the coming of Christ as a baby in a particular time and place by God coming in human flesh
- Epiphany, the celebration of the light of Christ in the world and key moments of what the light of Christ brings
- Lent, another time of preparation, but this one that has us looking at the brokenness of humanity and being called to be honest about ourselves so that we can grow closer to God
- Holy Week, especially Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, when we relive Jesus’ “Passion”—that is, the great challenge and trial with religious and political leaders who were threatened by his message of peace and acceptance of all
- 50 Days of Easter—Easter Sunday and the seven weeks or 50 days that follow—delving into the mystery that from death and apparent failure came new and abundant life in seeing the astounded disciples find Jesus in the midst and themselves utterly transformed
- The Feast of Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit and launching of the church after Jesus’ time on earth
- The Season after Pentecost, a growing time when we dig into key stories, when our church finds its growing time and its faith in the everyday outside of Christmas and Easter.
Our sanctuary speaks the language of church season through colors that coordinate with these times. The colors you see in the sanctuary are another language:
- Blue/purple for times of preparation (blue for Advent, echoing the traditional portrayal of Mary; purple for Lent as a color of royalty to remind us of Jesus’ unique kingship)
- White for times of feast and celebration (feast days like All Saints, Epiphany, Transfiguration and Trinity, the season of Christmas and the season of Easter)
- Red for the Feast of Holy Spirit, Pentecost, to invoke the tongues of flame that appeared over the community as people began hearing the Bible in their own languages. Red is also used to observe the feast day of a martyr, the red symbolizing blood
- Green for the growing times—the season of Epiphany after Christmas and the day of Epiphany, and the long season after Pentecost until the beginning of Advent.
If any of this—Years A, B, and C; church calendar, RCL, liturgical colors—is news to you, let me encourage you to make a New Year’s resolution to make this the year that you lean into the seasons and the lectionary. Mark is the shortest Gospel—this could be the year to spend one day each month reading all of Mark. You will likely begin to see patterns and rhythms that weren’t apparent with the bite-sized passages heard on a Sunday. Pay attention to the moments of the church year through its seasons. Since we live in the Northern Hemisphere, where the church first took root, note the way the symbols and readings connect to what is happening in nature. It is no accident that our long “growing time” coincides with the growth of crops in the fields during the late spring, summer, and early autumn.
When the Bible encourages us to “taste and see that the Lord is good” it is more than figurative. It is an invitation for our worship and our walk in faith to use all that we have and all that we are: our intellect, our emotions, our bodies and five senses, our inspirations. The Christian walk is a Way of life that can be integrated into every moment of our lives and of the life of the world.