The Christian church year is the story of what God has done for us. It is our story to repeat and remember.
At the Passover table when generations of Jewish children asked, “What does all this mean?” generations of Jewish fathers took their cue. Even after centuries had passed, they answered: “We were in Egypt.” We were. The pronoun matters. “This is our story. This is the story of us.”
Old Testament church year: the promise of Christ, the Messiah
That redemption story lived on in their annual remembering and reenacting. This constant telling and retelling forged a community and an identity that spanned generations. In fact, a whole Old Testament church year revolved around this same divine purpose. Passover, Pentecost, the Day of Atonement—these all came together in a brilliant system of remembrance, a yearly heartbeat of reenactments creating a people of memory and hope.
Their rituals pointed beyond themselves to a better redemption story yet to come. Amidst the blood and dead bodies of the Old Testament sacrifices, these festivals were a saving grace. A secret ingredient flavored their feasts. “I’m tasting something else here,” the soul wondered. “What is it?”
It was the promise of Christ.
He would step from eternity into time. In glory unimaginable, the Son had always offered his pure adoration and his perfect song to the Father and the Spirit. Only now, he would do it from here.
Why? Because Israel failed to be what it was always supposed to be. When its worship was not a shamble of neglect, it was a sham of outward performance. They were meant to be a people living out the very dream of God, the shimmering light in his eye and a beacon beckoning the world. But talk about a train wreck. Only one ever lived up to all that expectation. Jesus was “Israel reduced to one.”
Whether as a Jewish boy at Passover staying behind for his Father’s business or the Lion of Judah flipping tables in the temple courts, he is the one who sent holy worship perpetually skyward while every other human voice failed and fell away. Beneath all human skin twisted a radical evil, a fist shaking insanely at the sky. The Messiah met it with a yet more radical grace. As horrors beyond all telling were gathering up like a storm, descending like night, your Jesus prayed, “Father, let them know that you have loved them just as you have loved me.”
Just as. Only two words, but I “scarce can take it in.” In an act of beauty and self-sacrifice to stop a heart and start it again, this Jesus laid his body down.
There stands Christ: the Lamb of God, our true Priest, our true Temple. Truly he lives again, and truly he casts his light backwards over the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms.
All the lines of the Hebrew Scriptures meet in him. The Old Testament is the riveting story of how God made for himself a people, found them a place to live, and raised up for them a King.
Christian church year: God’s promises fulfilled
He has done so again, and it is all Jesus. He is the true meaning and grand fulfiller of the whole Old Testament church year as well, that holy wineskin, and all its festivals and feasts. The thing just burst. As you can imagine, it was the most natural thing in the world that a new church year shaped itself around this new mystery, this God in flesh.
It happened virtually from the start. It came from freedom, not compulsion.
From the cross and empty tomb of our Lord, grace and truth poured like new Cana wine into the chalice of ancient liturgy. From the Holy Land has emanated the annual reenactment of the life of Jesus known as the Christian church year. To have our worship—and through it our life—formed to its pattern is a gift our fathers prepared for us. I, for one, would be a poorer man without the annual rehearsal of all God has done for us through our Savior.
Advent stillness and waiting. The warm reaching for one another in that divine Christmas light. The “aha” of Epiphany. The dimmer lights and muted rejoicing of Lent. The shock and weight of Holy Week. The kingly dignity and gift of Good Friday. Easter? There are no words, except to say what those Jewish fathers told their children: “We were there.” We were baptized into his death and resurrection. We are sustained in this new life by his own body and blood. In the readings selected for the Pentecost season we learn how to live with what we saw in ancient Jerusalem and with the news it could not contain.
Welcome to Lutheran theology poured into the brimming vessel of liturgical worship. These are the shifting moods and atmospheres, tunes and colors of the church year. In these days of fractured attention —when time is broken into bits and the self is mediated into distant, strange devices—it is a relief to slip into the cool stream of “Christian time” Sunday by Sunday, each one a little Easter.
The Christian church year. The Nacherzählung. The great retelling. It can serve as a symbol of deepest mystery: We have really hidden ourselves in Christ by faith. After all, this life of Jesus, the one we rehearse in the well-worn path of worship, is our true life.
His dying and rising—our true subject whenever we gather in his name—this is us dying. This is us rising. This is the story of us.
We are in him now, to pray and praise from here.
Author: Mark A. Paustian
Volume 108, Number 1
Issue: January 2021