Our church body prescribes no specific style of worship, focusing instead on consistent content from congregation to congregation. Our history and heritage fall on the “less structure” side of the corporate worship spectrum. This left me on a 2002 internship in which I wore a robe for the first time and looked at the organist with befuddlement when she asked me if I “wanted the pitch” for prayer time. “A pitch? Whatever for?” responded I. And that was mild compared to my bemusement whilst on a ladder trying to even out Lenten cross-draping at the behest of the altar guild.
I was reared in a vein of Christianity that viewed structure and formality with skepticism, so a less formal worship service suited my natural preferences well. As time has gone on, and as I have aged, I have become ambivalent to form while viewing quality of content as non-negotiable. I have also had experiences that make me understand “Concordia II” as middle of the road rather than the most formal of all congregational expressions: If you can’t smell it, it’s not high church (let the reader understand). Yet my personal preferences and comforts still lead me to content-rich, reverent-but-relaxed styles and forms.
These are confessions of a liturgically-challenged pastor. Most of them contain humor, like the time on internship where the dear old saint who shall not be named figured out that I hadn’t the foggiest idea what a parament was, or when in my first call a member asked me what the color was for the next Sunday. That is the kind of information a young pastor should know– or at least if he does not– should know that colors of the church year are “a thing.”
After a couple years in ministry being either oblivious to or skeptical of use of the Church Year, I experienced pangs of conviction. I observed a year, alright, and was leading my congregation likewise. It went like this:
- The First Sunday After Labor Day– Also known as the first day of the new year, this is the First Day of School, Observed, not the first day of school, mind you, but when all mankind should have the first day of school, AFTER Labor Day, and not before. Children deserve a full summer.
- Mid-October Politically-Sensitive Day– Some combination of celebrating First Nations, European Oppressors or commentary on/against the same, or cleverly-disguised as a teacher in-service (if you’re from Minnesota, you know what I mean). This is noteworthy because nobody, and I mean nobody, will be in Sunday School that Sunday, and no matter what you call it you will be in trouble.
- Deer Opener– Around November 1, this refers to rifle season, which is more popular than bow, and for East River South Dakota Whitetails more than West River South DakotaMulies. Male Sunday attendance is precipitously low.
- Harvest Festival– Also known as Christians Don’t Do Halloween, a festival in which children dress up as Reformers and get candy from our trunks, not our doors. This date is traditionally held the night of Halloween, or for compromisers, shortly before or after.
- (Even-numbered years only) Election Month– marked by topical sermons on various subjects, and especially intense during leap years.
- Thanksgiving–Enough said.Editor’s note: Probably my third favorite service of the year is Thanksgiving Eve, and I’m not sure I understand why.
- Christmas– We get this one right, though those of us who did not grow up in a Scandinavian home don’t understand why everyone opens gifts on the Eve, rather than the Day. Advent is observed by some, and viewed as “too Catholic” by others.
- New Year– The calendar version of the New Year.
- Super Bowl Sunday– It’s a big deal in our culture.
- Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday– Not Martin Luther. See #2, above.
- Presidents’ Day Weekend– see #2, above.
- Lent– really messes with youth group and Bible Study series, as you only have 3-5 weeks between the Calendar New Year and Ash Wednesday, the date of which is ascertained by asking Alexa “when is Ash Wednesday this year?,” after which your Facebook newsfeed will start to suggest flights, hotels, and restaurants for Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
- Easter– Six weeks after #12starts, and we wrestle with how to count 40 days, whether to have Maundy Thursday (for definition ask Alexa) and/or Good Friday services, and the correct color of paraments for this season.
- Mothers’ Day– Whatever you do, do NOT forget this one.
- End of School– This marks a definite shift in family presence at worship.
- Memorial Day– The first of two summer festivals where we ponder the appropriateness of singing national songs in corporate worship (and notice for the first time that “O Canada” made the final cut in the Ambassador Hymnal).Editor’s note: It really is a spectacular song, though it is not mine.
- Arbor Day– We love trees, and John Denver.
- Fathers’ Day– Also known as “The First Sunday After Annual Conference,” I would use this Sunday to harangue fathers in attendance for not doing more, and to criticizein absentiathose who weren’t there.
- Independence Day– See #15, above, and yes, there IS a July 4thin Canada.
Now I don’t think I was sinning, and if this describes your observance, please don’t feel overly chastened. All of these are arguably culturally-important observations, some of which are distinctively Christian, and most of which are not particularly pagan. At the least, they can be leveraged to find an open ear/mind/door to an application of God’s Word. But I began to see that I was missing a golden opportunity to focus myself, my family, and my congregation on Christ’s life and work every single Lord’s Day.
I am still liturgically-challenged, and defer to others who are more experienced. I certainly wouldn’t urge a new pastor to immerse their new congregation in the full treatment of the Church Year if it has not been their practice. In fact, there are probably some omissions in what follows (I determined not to look up anything– my point is not to exhaust, but to focus). But there is a reason that there is a Church year that transcends the school year or the calendar year. Our confession is Christ. We have none other. He is all we have. He is all we need.
- Advent– The Gospel begins with the incarnation. We celebrate Christ’s coming with weeks of preparation, listening to Handel’s Messiah (he meant it for Easter, but it works throughout),singing “Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates” (Ambassador Hymnal #1), or weeping as contemporary author Andrew Peterson sings “Behold the Lamb of God” to remind us that whatever went before, or whatever lies ahead, Christ holds us.
- Christmas Eve– Unto us a Child is born. I’m a bit of an apologist, and I can honestly say that the most apologetically-useful tidbit in my quiver is that the manger is the best place to start.
- Christmas Day– You don’t have to have a service, but people have and do. Receiving the Lord’s Supper is a consideration here; recall the name, “Christ-mass.”
- Epiphany– The appearing of Christ to the wise men, and the end of the “twelve days of Christmas.” There is some good preaching to be had on Epiphany Sunday. One AFLC congregation has an Epiphany concert instead of a Christmas program. It’s less busy, and focuses them on a portion of the church year that is oft-neglected.
- Lent– Beginning with Ash Wednesday, we mark the season before Christ’s resurrection with a time of observance, lest Easter itself sneak up on us. In a world of rush, we dare not let Christmas and Easter pass us by. Advent and Lent help arrest our attention. One aside, and to my shame, on internship I asked on one of the “Big Sundays” something like, “Where have you all been?” My supervisor gently reminded me that those souls were there, and didn’t need my chiding, but my nurture.
- Palm Sunday– My favorite Sunday of the year, and still some of the best preaching opportunities around. “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” (AH #95).
- Maundy Thursday– The Passover, The Last Supper, and the Lord’s Supper. Exodus 12 and Matthew 26. You’re welcome.
- Good Friday– The Tenebrae service and stripping of the altar were new to me, but I learned it at my first congregation. It really worked for us. If you’ve done one, you won’t forget it. Editor’s note: Blowing out candles in that setting is…uncouth. But if you drive around Sioux Falls, SD looking for snuffer to buy on Good Friday…good luck. Plan ahead.
- Easter Vigil– I’ve never been a part of one, but the silence and darkness following the last words of Christ the night before makes me spend that Saturday thinking deeply of Christ’s work for me. Having been united with Him in His death, so shall I be in His resurrection.
- Easter, or Resurrection Sunday–Christ is risen, indeed! Beauty. Joy. Celebration. Resurrection. Forgiveness of sins. Victory. Embrace it all, whether it is egg bake by the youth group, everybody dressing up for a change, or an abundance of lilies (I’m allergic, and double dose of summer seasonal allergy meds became a practice for me). In most liturgical traditions, Easter Sunday marks the return of the “Alleluia” to the service, absent since the First Sunday in Lent. If you do the same service every Sunday, its exclusion is obvious and stark; its return noteworthy and celebratory.
- Pentecost– One of the Old Testament feasts, Pentecost Sunday observes when God gave His Holy Spirit to the early church. If you don’t know “O Day Full of Grace” (AH #128), try it as a quartet.
- Trinity Sunday– God is three in one, and one in three. It’s not good math, but it is good Scriptural teaching. Every invocations and benediction contains the three-in-one Name of God, and this Sunday is a time for specific teaching on the subject (try John 14:26-27, and “Holy, Holy, Holy).
- Transfiguration Sunday– “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased!” Peter, James, and John saw Jesus, Moses, and Elijah speaking with each other, and heard the voice of God Himself. If nothing else, this should make us listen to what Peter, James, and John wrote to us in the New Testament.
- Reformation Sunday–“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (AH #141) is a good starting point, and the five (or three, or four, depending on your background) solas of the Reformation. Luther isn’t about Luther, but about delivering the Word of God to people. What do we believe, teach, and confess? What is worth dying for? Living for? “Built on the Rock the Church Doth Stand” (AH #294).
- All Saints Day–We remember those who have died in Christ, and are no longer fighting this fight, but are resting in the presence of Christ. “For All the Saints” (AH #164).
- Christ the King Sunday– The last Sunday before Advent, and the new Church Year, try “Crown Him With Many Crowns” (AH #172), which has about a dozen verses.
If you find yourself exhausted by a never-ending news cycle of dubious accuracy and intent, or you can’t keep up with current events or how you are supposed to feel about the flavor-of-the-week woke cause, I invite you to shift your gaze AWAY from cable news, your social media feeds, or your calendar of annual events and TOWARD the finished work of Christ. If you feel this way, you are not alone. Even before 2020 (The Year That Shall Not Be Named) there was a societal trend away from the “relevant and inventive” to the “rooted and established.”
If this past year shook you, I invite you to turn your gaze to One who will not be shaken. I urge you to sharpen your focus: Our confession is Christ. We have none other. He is all we have. He is all we need. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ shall come again. Alleluia.
Dr. Wade Mobley