In the Worship Arts program at Columbia Bible College, students often encounter the practice of the liturgical year for the first time. Although they are familiar with the rhythm of candlelight Christmas Eve services, somber worship on Good Friday, and the explosion of joy that we experience on Easter Sunday, the rest of the Christian calendar passes by them, largely unnoticed.
Yet, the Christian calendar has been a formational practice of Christian worship for more than 17 centuries.
It is this enduring, “spiralling rhythm” of Christian life that Steve Bell explores in Pilgrim Year. Over seven volumes, reflections meander through the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and Ordinary Time.
To highlight how this liturgical practice can be personally and communally formational, Bell begins each small book with a quote from Joan Chittister’s The Liturgical Year, from which I get these patterns to help us to spiral ever deeper into the life of Christ.
Easter: “I suspect Jesus is as comfortable with our incredulity as he
was with that of Thomas. But – and we need to hear this –
in our understandable doubts, we don’t have Jesus’ rebuke; we have his
blessing…. Jesus has blessed you, with your tiniest seed of faith,
in the state you find yourself in right now, not because it has grown,
but so that it may grow.”
“Like a great waterwheel,” Chittister writes, “the liturgical year goes on relentlessly irrigating our soul, softening the ground of our hearts, nourishing the soil of our lives until the seed of the word of God itself begins to grow in us, comes to fruit in us, ripens us in the spiritual journey of a lifetime.”
Advent: “Mary, the prototypical Christian, who first
received the seed of the Word of God in her womb
and who bore it for the sake of the world, beckons us all
to realize our innate calling to be co-bearers of the seed of God.”
When I teach on the liturgical year, I frequently challenge students to consider what rhythms they follow. We generally come up with a list something like this: the first day of school, Thanksgiving, Halloween, Christmas, New Year’s, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Mother’s and Father’s Day, summer vacation…repeat.
We usually conclude that our patterns are more determined by the decorations and types of chocolate that appear in stores than we are by any larger narrative. We tend to live from one Hallmark holiday to the next.
Conversely, the liturgical year attunes us to a different narrative and a different reading of time. And when we follow its lead to measure time by the rehearsal of Christ’s life, we have the opportunity to consider our daily tasks and our very ordinary movements in light of God’s extraordinary story.
Christmas: “Jesus – light from light, true God from true God –
enters history as a vulnerable victim of Herodian cruelty,
not aligned with the settled and powerful,
but rather with the dispossessed and fleeing.”
“Together, these recurring seasons, with their remembrances, fasts and feasts, retell and reharrow the living story of God and God’s good creation,” writes Bell in his introduction; “a story that has been entrusted to the Church; a story that often runs as a counter-narrative to stories broadly told in the wider culture.”
“Each time we rehearse and reharrow these stories, we unearth something new precisely because there is so much more to receive, but also because our capacity to receive has deepened,” Bell writes.
As the church lives into and rehearses the life of Christ – God incarnate – each year, we learn to become more like him and our capacity to understand increases. The rhythm pulls us deeper into the life of Christ in the Spirit and in communion with each other.
Bell has published this series at the perfect time. There seems to be a thirst for ancientness in our current expressions of worship, and Bell taps into that thirst by revelling in tradition and telling old stories in the words of a poet.
This will resonate with many. But for others, it may create a sense of discomfort. This worship practice leans on an understanding of the transmission of God’s self-revelation through the long tradition of the church.
This discomfort with tradition is part of the reason the practice of the liturgical year eroded and eventually fell away in the practice of many Mennonite communities. The rehearsal of saint days and the adherence to feasts and fasts seemed, perhaps, to claim more authority than a call to simplicity and word-centred faith would allow.
Epiphany: “In the end, light reveals both love and its opposition.
Simeon lowers his eyes to Mary and says, ‘and a sword will pierce
your own soul too,’ as if to say, ‘if you choose to love Love,
it’ll tear your heart out… but do it anyway.’”
Yet, there is richness in this liturgical tradition that should appeal to Mennonite hearts: living through the life of Christ each year as a local body of Christ. My students find the communal practice of the liturgical year compelling.
So, regardless of what you might think about the tradition, there is value in the practice of the liturgical year for the local congregation seeking to discern together what living toward Christ looks like today.
Steve Bell’s Pilgrim Year series is not meant to be read in one big gulp, as I read it, but rather stretched out over the seasons. Bell recommends within each season’s book that his readers should “read in sequence, hop around, read daily or all at once.” Each chapter is accompanied by songs, drawn from Bell’s long career as a musician (pilgrimyear.com), and by poetry, much of it drawn from Malcolm Guite’s excellent book of sonnets: Sounding the Seasons.
These are books that require time for absorption and contemplation; books that will stand up to re-reading because different aspects of a season may yield more fruit in us at different times, depending on our own season of life.
Any believer who is interested in learning more about the rhythms of the Christian calendar would benefit from exploration of Bell’s Pilgrim Year series.
For worship leaders and pastors, however, this series may be of further importance. The introductory chapters of each book, especially, are a helpful way to prepare for the season to come, with the potential to drive a new idea for a sermon series, or a grounding worship practice to help a congregation enter into the season at hand.
Lent: “Jesus identifies with our bewildered wanderings
as we struggle to detach from the allure of those
things that bind us, so that we might attach
to the One who frees.”
Pilgrim Year is more of a taster course than a comprehensive resource for worship leaders, but it has the capacity to spark ideas and raise important questions. I will recommend to my students that, as they start planning for each new season, they read the season’s volume through in its entirety to get an overview of the themes.
The books provide a good jumping off point, a way to dip a toe into the waters of feast and fast and determine where to place weight.
Interestingly, the weakest titles concern the seasons that are most familiar to us: Christmas and Easter. Bell excels at bringing lesser-known seasons and holy days to our attention. You can sense his excitement in unveiling things that were new to him.
Holy Week: “For the way of Jesus will ultimately expose the
dead-end way of resentment, competition, greed,
power and triumphalism. Instead, he will illuminate a
counter-intuitive pathway of humility, mutuality,
servanthood and self-donation as the
way to life itself – indeed, to God.”
With the feasts of Easter and Christmas, however, Bell gets a little lost in trying to find new things to unpack for us. In these volumes, I found myself wishing he had ignored more minor themes in favour of making the familiar strange again.
Ordinary Time: “The whole point of the Christian year
is to come to this moment where we awaken
to the mystery of a daily-ness which,
far from ordinary, radiates back to God’s own beginning.”
Still, there is depth in each book. “Epiphany” and “Holy Week” have phenomenal turns of phrase, as Bell explores biblical narrative and traditional themes through personal story, stunning imagery, poetry, and song.
Now that I have consumed this series in a single sitting, I look forward to returning to each book again as the seasons unfold each year. It will sit beside Malcom Guite’s Sounding the Seasons on my shelf, as a way to continue to be wound deeper into the life of Christ through the spiralling adventure of the liturgical year.
is instructor in worship arts at Columbia Bible College, Abbotsford, B.C. She worships at Fraserview Church, Richmond, B.C., where her husband serves as pastor.
Referenced: Joan Chittister, The Liturgical Year: The spiraling adventure of the spiritual life (Thomas Nelson, 2009).