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In this post I want to pursue a bit further how the Christian year can enhance our worship and therefore our relationship with God.
As Christians we worship in light of the Gospel. Our worship is a response to the God who has reached out to us in Jesus Christ, saving us from sin, death, isolation, and meaninglessness. Thus, Christian worship is consistently infused with joy and gratitude. Moreover, since we worship the King of king and Lord of lords, we approach God humbly as well as boldly. And because God is glorious and majestic, our worship is filled with praise.
At the core and in many of the details, Christian worship from day to day, from week to week, and from year to year, is essentially the same. If we ever stop worshiping the one true God, if we ever stop responding to God’s love given in Jesus Christ, if we ever stop offering ourselves to God in gratitude and love, then we’ve lost the core of worship. But this is not to say that our worship should be monotonous and monochromatic. In a given worship service we might focus on one particular aspect of God’s nature and therefore utilize distinctive expressions. We might, for example, focus on the holiness of God, praising God’s perfection, thanking him for the gift of the Holy Spirit, and asking God to finish in us his work of sanctification (making us holy). In another service we might emphasize God’s grace, praising him for his forgiveness, and seeking help to be gracious with one another. And so forth and so on. When our worship responds to the multifaceted character of God, and especially when it is shaped by the diversity of biblical revelation, it will have different textures and colors, even though the basic fabric is consistent from week to week.
The liturgical year can enrich the variety of our worship. Therefore, it helps us to have a broader, deeper, and more vital relationship with the living God. It keeps us from the possibility of our worship becoming so routine that we cease to wonder at the grandeur of God. To put it bluntly, the variations of the Christian year help us not to become bored in worship.
Bored in worship? Is it possible? Logically speaking, this seems utterly impossible. If we remember that we worship the awesome Creator of the universe, it’s hard to factor boredom into the worship equation. But, sometimes, no matter how wonderful God is, and no matter how truthful our worship might be, if our expressions of worship are virtually the same from week to week, a kind of monotony can set in, and we can become – Heaven forbid! – bored. Perhaps you’ve had the experience of learning a new hymn or worship song and absolutely loving it. As you sing, your mind and heart are truly lifted before God. But, after you’ve sung the same song for the hundredth time, it loses some of its punch. Its tune is still memorable and its lyrics still full of truth, but its power to move your heart and stretch your mind has been diminished. (Photo: The Grand Tetons)
Worshiping in the same mode every week is a little like driving for a long distance through awesome mountains. When I first see the Rocky Mountains, for example, my heart explodes with joy and awe. These feelings continue for quite a while. But, after I’ve driven among the Rockies for a day or more, I must confess that my appreciation begins to wane just a bit. I no longer remark on the stunning scenery, but begin to take it for granted. Of course the mountains themselves are still as majestic as ever. They haven’t changed or diminished, but my own sensibilities have become dull. I need refreshed vision so I can see the Rockies once again in their awesome beauty.
If, however, my scenic menu were to be varied a bit, I’d be much less likely to become complacent in my admiration of the scenery. A few summers ago, my family and I took a driving trip from Southern California, through the southwestern desert, the rangelands of Utah, and the verdant forests of eastern Idaho. We drove through the varied terrain of Yellowstone National Park and alongside the majestic Grand Tetons. Then we returned by way of the stunning redness of Zion National Park. In over two weeks of travel, I was never bored because my world kept changing. There were always new wonders to behold. (Photo: Angels Landing in Zion National Park)
What I’ve just described is analogous to worshiping in light of the liturgical year. We begin in the rising plain of Advent, which leads us to the top of the celebrative pinnacle of Christmas. Then, after a month of travel through the fertile grasslands of “ordinary time,” we enter the parched desert of Lent in which our thirst for God is magnified. Holy Week guides us through the tortuous geography of Jesus’ last week, culminating in the dark cave of Holy Saturday. On Easter morning, the sun breaks forth with glorious light, and we are filled with awe as we gaze upon the towering mountain of God’s victory over death. Throughout the season of Eastertide, the world seems brighter, more alive than ever before. At Pentecost, we remember the our fellow travelers and refuel to continue on through the rolling hills of ordinary time, until we return to where we began at the start of Advent.
I’ve known Christians who have been uncomfortable with certain aspects of the Christian year. They haven’t liked the waiting of Advent or the focus on our mortality in Lent. They want to live each day as if it were Easter. Now, in a sense, my friends are theologically correct. We should indeed live daily in light of the victory of God in Christ. But, speaking from my own experience, the less celebrative seasons of the church year (Lent, Advent) actually prepare me to experience greater vitality and rejoicing on the great feasts of Christian year, Christmas and Easter. Before I paid much attention to Lent and Holy Week, Easter zipped by without making a major dent in my consciousness. Now, as I keep the seasons of Lent and Holy Week, and as Easter has been stretched to include Eastertide, my joy over the resurrection has been multiplied several times over.
Once again I should emphasize that what I’ve been describing here is not a matter of biblical rule. You don’t have to recognize the Christian year to be a faithful follower of Jesus. But the experience of countless believers throughout the centuries should at least encourage you to consider shaping your yearly life by the themes and narratives of Scripture – and this is, after all, what the Christian year is really all about.