The Christian Year: Seasons of Discipleship
By Taylor Burton-Edwards
Does the title of this blog surprise you? The Christian Year: Seasons of Discipleship? Had you thought of the Christian Year as instead something more like a few different seasons of commemoration of key moments in the life of Christ and then a big "time out" or "meandering" for the summer (or winter in the Southern hemisphere)?
If you had, you're not alone. And there are historical reasons you might think of the Christian Year that way. There really were two sort of parallel calendar systems developed over time. One was a set of commemorations for particular saints or occasions in the life of Jesus or the life of the church. The other was a seasonal cycle whose logic was intended to underlie the whole of the calendar not simply with the life of Jesus but with the work of the church to disciple persons in his way. In the West at least, the cycle of commemorations had grown so large that it had effectively overrun the seasonal calendar. It took Vatican II, and then the subsequent ecumenically-pursued Protestant reforms of the church year, epitomized in the Order of Readings for the Mass and the Revised Common Lectionary, to restore the seasonal cycles and their discipling focus to prominence.
So what is the discipling focus of each season, and how does this sequence of seasons support the discipling work of the church?
Advent: Beginning with the End in Mind
Advent was originally developed beginning in the fifth century as a means to provide a second season for intense preparation of candidates for baptism during Christmas Season, an intentional parallel to Lent leading into Easter.
The chief difference between Advent and Lent was the biblical and theological focus. Lent and its readings had focused on the teachings of Jesus and learning to live out those teachings in daily life, concluding with the events surrounding the death of Jesus. Advent focused instead on the culmination of all things in Christ, with a strong admonitory tone about the need to prepare for life in the age to come, ending with the lead-up into the events surrounding the birth of Jesus.
Advent can still function as a season of baptismal preparation, much as it did in the early church, especially if Extended Advent (starting with the Sunday after All Saints) is observed.
But the primary purpose of Advent now is about the realignment of the whole church in view of the culmination of all things in Christ at his second coming. To that end, every year, we hear from Jesus himself, from John the Baptizer (for two weeks) and from Mary about the expectation of what the kingdom of God will do among us in its fullest expression. Advent thus prepares us for Christmas not in a chronological sense (a review of the historical events leading up to the birth of Jesus) but in a theological sense (a review of all that has begun and will eventually unfold from the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ).
Christmas Season, bounded by December 25 (Nativity) and January 6 (Epiphany), has been created as a time for intensive celebration and contemplation by the church of the unfolding implications of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, Word made flesh. During this season the saints calendars may actually help us recover the practice of both celebration and contemplation, including lament. For more on the saints days of this season (St. Stephen, Holy Innocents, St. John, and Holy Name, see Christmas Season: Martyrs, Mystery and Magnificat).
Christmas Season remains a fine time for baptisms. Baptism, after all, is both sign and sacramental seal of new birth. The only danger is those baptisms could get lost or overrun within the overall cultural practices of vacations, parties, "Santa-stuff," and New Year's observances.
The chief gifts this season offers are celebration, wonder, and contemplation. The gospel reading on Christmas Eve (the first Mass of the traditional three Nativity Masses) already announces this. The angel host celebrates the birth, the shepherds are awestruck, and Mary ponders all these things in her heart. The church needs this time to take in and dwell in these three gifts to prepare for its work in the season to come, the Season after Epiphany.
Season after Epiphany
The Season after Epiphany is the season of evangelism, par excellence. The church, re-grounded in its destiny, and refreshed with the celebration and contemplation of the incarnation, begins this season where the Christian life begins: at baptism. Remembering Christ's baptism, we reaffirm our own baptismal vows, and take up the journey with Jesus afresh by joining in his work of calling disciples to "Come and see," and "Follow me." Evangelism, invitation, and introduction to the ministry and teaching of Jesus are the core work of this season, which then takes us all-- longtimers and newcomers-- into the next. The season concludes as the Christian life culminates, with the vision of Christ in glory, and the hope of our own transfiguration with him in the age to come.
Lent is the season of baptismal preparation par excellence. While the Season after Epiphany gives the church the opportunity to invite and introduce newcomers to the way of Jesus, during Lent the church becomes midwife to actively form people who choose to undertake such formation in his way. The gospel readings for these weeks correspond to the baptismal questions and vows. Those questions and vows give all in the church the opportunity to examine and improve our own lives, as well as, primarily, to support those who are just learning to live under this new covenant with God. This is a season where patterns not only of prayer, but also of renunciation of and resistance to evil, not only of study of scriptures, but also of serving as Christ's representatives in in the world are most intensively formed. And at the end of this season, novice and mature disciples together wash each other's feet, stand, kneel, and bow as one before the crucifix of our Redeemer, then pray as one in solidarity with all who have died or will die in hope of the final resurrection.
"This is the night when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death and rose triumphant from the grave." So the church has sung for centuries at the Great Vigil of Easter, the first of the three Masses of the Resurrection of our Lord. And so the church has baptized on this night, or early on the next morning, since at least the second century. And so the church keeps singing all Easter morning: "Christ the Lord is risen today. Alleluia!"
But Easter Season only starts here. During Lent the church forms persons in the habits of discipleship. During Easter, the church forms people in the key doctrines of the faith and prepares persons to claim the gifts of the Spirit for their ministry as Christ's disciples and apostles to the world. We spend seven weeks on this critical work each year, culminating, at Pentecost, with a celebration of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, a commissioning of all the newly baptized or confirmed into the ministries into which they have been called and equipped during these weeks, and the recommissioning of all of us to continue to live out our baptismal callings.
Season after Pentecost
Having become reoriented during Advent, having become grounded in the implications of the incarnation during Christmas Season, having been sent forth as evangelists and companions during the Season after Epiphany, having then functioned as midwives for new birth during Lent, and then teachers and coaches toward ministry in Christ's name and the Spirit's power during Easter Season, the church refocuses again, shifting its energies from all this work of preparation toward an extended season of supporting one another in the body of Christ and witnessing through our Spirit-given ministries to the kingdom of God in the world during the Season after Pentecost.
Like the Season after Epiphany, this period of Ordinary Time has "bookends" which mark our beginning and our destiny. For the Season after Epiphany those bookends are Baptism of the Lord and Transfiguration. For the Season after Pentecost the bookends are Trinity Sunday and Christ the King (or All Saints, if you observe Extended Advent). Having been baptized into the Trinity, we walk with each other through this season, indeed through all our lives, toward the hope of that day when Jesus Christ shall be all in all, and all things are renewed in him.
For this season -- or any season, but perhaps especially this one -- to do its intended work requires more of us than simply to attend worship each Sunday. It requires ongoing working systems of accountability and support. These are most likely small groups with whom one checks in regularly, small groups (such as Covenant Discipleship Groups) whose purpose is to help each other watch over one another in love and grow in holiness of heart (personal growth) and life (growth in ministry in the world). The three independent streams of lectionary texts through this season (Old Testament, Epistle, and Gospel) are intentionally different in focus, so pastoral and discipleship leaders can collaborate with worship leaders to focus on those streams of texts over these weeks that are likely to be most helpful for each particular congregation to fulfill the mission of this season-- accountable discipleship and transforming ministry in Christ's name and the Spirit's power-- as effectively as possible.
The Christian Year as Guide for Intentional Focus on all Stages of Discipleship
And then, having been in the fields for a time of service and growth, it's time to "come home again" to Advent for re-orientiation to our destiny, Christmas season for re-grounding in the mystery of Incarnation, the Season after Epiphany for evangelizing and inviting newcomers, Lent to form them and strengthen our own formation in the practices of discipleship and to face together the reality that discipleship to Jesus means death to self, Easter to learn more of the mystery of resurrection, the doctrine of the church, and what it means to be gifted by the Holy Spirit for ministry in Christ's name in the world, and the Season after Pentecost to send us forth to keep growing in personal and social holiness and in our Spirit-given ministries.
Of course life and discipleship are both messier than the ordered pattern of congregational life for discipleship given to us in the Christian Year. We may well invite people to "come and see" during July. We may be working with some individuals in intensive formation in the way of Jesus during May or November. Nothing stops the church or any of us from engaging whatever activities for discipling are needed at any time of the year. Indeed, it behooves us to do just that!
What the Christian Year provides, with the Revised Common Lectionary that supports it, is a coherent plan that can give strong focus to the program ministries of the congregation so that the core discipling systems of the congregation (worship, evangelism, formation, deployment) get focused time in the congregation's life together. When we spend time each year focused on each of these core activities, we're more likely to accomplish all of them, and leave none to chance or the vagaries of changing programs or leaders. We provide a steady undercurrent of the call to discipleship, and support it with worship and other ministries, an undercurrent that keeps us moving forward throughout the year, and year to year. In short, even if we do nothing else, when we live out the Christian Year faithfully and attentively, we are likely to find ourselves becoming increasingly effective at "making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world."
I invite you to "come and see" what a full and faithful observance of the Christian Year can do for you and your congregation if you haven't already.