“As with much of Christianity, the church year can be radically countercultural, a much-needed light showing a better way to live. In a culture that is often too hurried and distracted, the church year helps us pay attention because it draws our focus continually back to Christ.”
-K.C. Ireton, The Circle of Seasons: Meeting God in the Church Year
Worldwide history is always referenced by that watershed moment when Christ came to earth. We mark time as either B.C., ‘Before Christ’, or A.D. Anno Domini, Latin, meaning ‘the year of our Lord.’ It makes sense, then, that we should keep time according to a church calendar, particularly as believers in a kingdom that is not of this world.
The church year or church calendar (used interchangeably) has two parts, like a large circle divided in two. One arc of the circle places the beginning of the church year on the first Sunday of Advent 4 weeks before Christmas. This period stretches until Pentecost in May or June and tells the story of the life of Christ. The second arc of the circle goes from Pentecost until Christ the King Sunday at the end of November, and tells the story of the life of the church.
The word ‘liturgy’ comes from the Greek leitos, of the people + ergon, work: leitourgia, in other words, “the work of the people” or public duty.
As believers in Christ, the work of the people is when we flesh out our roles as light in the world, honoring God with our words and practices. And what better time to do that than at Christmas when a dark world needs this light?
Annual Christmas liturgies are like a glance from a moving train with a view onto the same landscape. The ‘landscape’ is our daily life and the rituals are the reminders to slow down as we travel, giving us a gift of hope. We revisit familiar terrain each year we “pass by” Christmas in the annual traditions that surround the holiday; thus, the liturgies become an icon through which we see God.
The word icon is from the Greek word eikon, meaning likeness, image or picture. How icons ended up being a term for the thumbprint graphics on a computer desktop seems a little odd. But think about it. When you click on a particular icon, a way is opened that takes you to view what’s inside, a window to another place, and widens your vision to something more. This technological use of the term, embraced by all of us who own a computer, is derived from Orthodox Christian theology, where icons are considered a window into the holy. The simple outline of a cross or candle or a drawing of the star of Bethlehem are symbols that help us catch a glimpse of God. They are a part of the annual liturgies of Christmas.
Maybe like me, you shy away from connecting the word “ritual” with anything in the church. The connotation of the word didn’t leave much room for the spontaneity of the Spirit of God—so planned and confined. But I’ve found there is great comfort in the repetition of a prayer, a benediction or psalm, one that engages us with other believers. This reminder of prayers lifted around the world throughout time reminds us we are part of something bigger than ourselves. Whether reciting the Doxology or the 23rd Psalm, taking communion or saying the Lord’s Prayer in unison, these practices bring us back to the center—where God is.
A ritual is simply a custom or practice of a formal kind—formal in the sense that it has a form, something repeated and defined. When we use a form, it makes space for something. Annual holiday practices, rituals if you will, can become a means to seeing God more fully. Simple things like lighting a candle and reciting Scripture tune us to the practice of looking for Jesus in the Christmas season when we intentionally hold a space for Him to come.
Will you join me this Christmas season in doing LESS, not more, and pray about what you might take away from your busy life to make room for more of God?