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The Beauty of the Liturgical Year

Ever wonder why we Lutherans use the form of worship we do? In this series we examine the depth and meaning of the various elements of our worship service, beginning with the history of Christian worship itself.

When the apostle Paul said goodbye to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20, he told them, “I did not avoid declaring to you the whole plan of God.” (v. 27, CSB) His goal had been to preach to them everything he could about Christ’s salvation for sinners. This would have included preaching many doctrines and historical events as they related to God’s purpose and desire to bring the Ephesians to their heavenly home.

Over the centuries, Christian churches and pastors have tried to imitate Paul’s pattern in their own preaching and teaching. Pastors seek to “leave no stone unturned” in declaring to their flocks all the aspects of God’s good news in Christ Jesus. So we hear sermons on Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, Jesus’ birth, His resurrection, Old Testament historical events, New Testament guidance from the apostles, and so on. A pastor prays that he gives his flock the most complete picture he possibly can of the incomparable grace of God.

But how can this be done in an efficient and effective way? One tool used for teaching “the whole plan of God” is the Christian church year. The church year begins in late November or early December with the first Sunday in Advent. Advent is the first “season.” The seasons that follow are Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. These seasons lead us through the life of Christ and give us the opportunity to think about everything He did to win forgiveness for our sins and give us eternal life. We see His birth, learn who He is, observe His march to the cross, reflect on the empty tomb, witness His ascension into heaven, and rejoice in the Spirit whom He sent. This covers about half the church year. During the other half, sometimes called “Trinity,” “Pentecost Season,” or “Ordinary Time,” we study the many different ways Jesus’ saving work impacts our daily walk as Christians.

The liturgical church year is filled with other features to enrich our worship and set our hearts and minds on Jesus. For instance, weekly selections of Scripture readings (Old Testament, Gospel, and Epistle) use Scripture passages to lead us through “the whole plan of God.” The decorative colors in church change with each season to remind us of main themes in the story of our salvation (for example, purple for repentance during Lent). The hymns and music of the church follow the church seasons. Major and minor festivals occur which direct our attention to specific instances of God’s grace in history (see The Lutheran Hymnal, page 3 or Lutheran Service Book, pages x-xiii).

Non-denominational churches tend to ignore the traditional church year, with the exception of Lent (sometimes), Christmas, and Easter. Instead, they take up different topics or studies during the year that don’t necessarily follow a particular calendar. While this isn’t necessarily a wrong way to preach the Word of God, the Christian church year is of great value as a way to present the precious Gospel message in a variety of ways and regularly cover all the key teachings of Scripture.

The liturgical year is beautiful because it is an expression of all the beautiful things our God has done for us. He has taken us poor, lost sinners and raised us to the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus. He has given us, who were bound for eternal death, eternal life instead. May we praise Him with our whole heart all year, every year!

David Schaller is a professor at Immanuel Lutheran College in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.