The church year and the lectionary aid our worship of Jesus.
“What am I going to talk about in worship on Sunday?”
In 21 years of planning congregational worship, I have never asked myself that question. The reason is simple. We have inherited a tool from generations of Christians who came before us. It’s called the church year. It is a set of seasons, Sundays, and festivals with prayers and a series of Scripture readings (called the lectionary) for weekly public worship.
When the church gathers around Word and sacrament, it does so in the freedom of the gospel. A congregation can use any Scripture readings it wants. However, for centuries the church across the world has used the church year and lectionary as the basis for its proclamation and as the foundation on which its services, seasons, and songs are built.
The path for Sunday worship
When the lectionary sets the path for public worship, my congregation is protected from my whims and wants as a worship planner. It means I don’t pick out the parts of Scripture I want to talk about and ignore the parts I don’t. It offers a balance adopted by God’s people over the centuries. The church year instills a pattern to congregational worship life, reminding us that there is a time and season for everything under heaven: a time to prepare, to celebrate, to anticipate, to mourn, to grow.
The development of the new hymnal provided an opportunity to revise these tools. The new Christian Worship offers an updated church year, a three-year lectionary, a one-year lectionary, and a daily lectionary.
Most WELS churches use the three-year lectionary, a set of readings arranged in a series over three liturgical years. Each year features one of the gospels. So, in Year A, we hear the gospel of Matthew; in Year B, Mark; C, Luke. John’s voice is heard in Year B and in the time of Easter in all three years. This presents most of the content of the gospels to God’s people over a three-year span and then repeats the cycle.
The church year is an annual cycle of seasons and Sundays that sets the tone for public worship. For half of the year, we focus on the great events in the life of Christ, following Jesus from birth to the cross to his glorious resurrection.
The liturgical year begins with Advent, a time of repentance and preparation for the coming of the Messiah. Christmas celebrates the Father’s gift of his Son to us. The 12 days of Christmas end at Epiphany where the readings invite us to worship the newborn king with the Magi. Epiphany culminates with Transfiguration, where Jesus displayed his true glory before turning his face to Jerusalem and the cross. It is the last Sunday before Lent.
Ash Wednesday’s remembrance of our mortality marks the beginning of another penitential season. With words from the funeral rite that will someday be spoken over us all, some will receive ashes, but all will hear, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” The 40 days of Lent focus our attention on the suffering and death of the Son of God. Lent culminates in the great events of Holy Week: Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday.
And then the church bursts forth with joy on Easter—a joy so great that we celebrate it for a week of weeks. For 49 days the church remembers the resurrection of the Son of God. Then, on the 50th day, the half year that focused on the great events of Christ’s life closes with the festival of Pentecost, when Jesus, as he promised, poured out his Spirit on his church.
The second half of the year we spend listening to the great teachings of Christ. Jesus wants the church he saved and called to learn and grow. So we spend 26 weeks of the summer and fall listening to Jesus’ words about what he wants for his disciples, for us: what he wants us to be and how he wants us to live. As the end of the church year draws near, Jesus’ words focus on the end of his ministry and the end of this world. He urges us to be ready for him to come again. Then Advent returns, and we begin the cycle again.
An age-old pattern for God’s people
One blessing of the lectionary and church year is that they remind us that we are not alone as a church body; the holy Christian church is much broader and bigger than WELS. We follow the same seasonal patterns of worship as Christians did in 9th-century Rome and 16th-century Europe.
Our pattern of worship also connects us to wider Christianity today. For example, on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, we celebrate that Jesus is our Good Shepherd, and we read John 10:1-10. But did you know that if you attended a different denomination on that Sunday, you’d hear the same Gospel reading? It’s the same in Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Anglican, and Episcopalian churches. We are not alone in the holy Christian church. Of course, there are plenty of legitimate reasons for us to be separated from those denominations. However, such commonality in our worship is a reminder that while there are reasons for denominations to be divided now, all who call on Christ as Lord are united in the holy Christian church and will one day worship undivided before the throne.
A new feature of the three-year lectionary in Christian Worship is thematic Sundays. In the past, on many Sundays our lectionary had readings that didn’t have much connection to each other. That will change in the new lectionary. Each Sunday will be themed around the message from the Gospel reading appointed for the day, providing a cohesiveness to worship on a given Sunday or festival.
The new hymnal also will provide resources for the lectionary and church year to help your congregation plan worship. Readings and appointments will include commentaries. The lectionary will flow into bulletins and service folders through the Service Builder digital platform and be integrated into the Logos Bible Software system. WELS Congregational Services will provide worship and outreach plans tied to the lectionary. All of these have been designed to make worship planning easier and to help congregations see the wisdom and blessing of the lectionary and church year.
The new hymnal will offer these tools that bring wisdom from the past and new features for the future. We know exactly what we’re going to talk about in worship this Sunday and every Sunday: Christ and him crucified.
Learn more about the new hymnal here.
Author: Jonathan Schroeder
Volume 108, Number 08
Issue: August 2021