Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God by Bobby Gross

Gross divides the liturgical year into three cycles: Light, Life, and Love.  These were helpful divisions, although there is overlap in the seasons of the Church year.  But, it gives a general theme by which the seasons are organized.  The Cycle of Light is Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany.  The Cycle of Life is Lent and Easter, ending in Pentecost.  The Cycle of Love begins with Pentecost and goes through Christ is King Sunday (Ordinary Time).  The point of the liturgical year is to enter into God’s story.  Gross notes that we are not looking for God in our story but coming to understand our story in light of God’s Story.  Gross likens the church year to a dance.  As you learn the rhythms, you concentrate less on the steps and learn to enjoy it as a means of grace.  As with any dance, it is helpful to know that there is room for creativity and adaptation.  It is not a rigid form but serves as a helpful guide to following Christ through the year.  In addition, the Church year helps us to “mark time because it has marked us.”  There is something significant that happens in amnamnesis besides mental recollection.  We are being formed as people.  In fact, that is the heart of liturgy – the work of the people – which is offering our time as a sacrifice to God to transform us!

            Gross notes that there are 7 seasons in the Church year (as opposed to 8 seasons in Kimberlee Ireton’s work).  The main difference is not counting the time between Epiphany and Lent as a season.  7 seasons could be counted as the “fullness” of time, in some sense.  This would be double in meaning – the fullness of the life of Christ and the fullness of eschatological time.  Gross moves to a four-fold pattern for encountering God throughout the Church year: reverence, repentance, inviting God’s presence, and responding. 

            Advent is the season of waiting and “enlarging.”  It deals with both first and last things – “looking back and leaning forward.”  I really appreciated both of these concepts, especially in considering the story of Mary as a model for this season.  Anticipation, waiting, and enlarging.  We long for Christ’s coming, for God to right all things, and for God’s presence with us.  Christmas focuses on incarnation.  It is a season of celebration where we consider the mystery of “eternity in the womb.”  God becomes everything that we are so that we might become everything God is by nature.  God is with us in every way.  We wait expectantly for God to be birthed in us.  Epiphany looks toward the magi, Jesus’ baptism, and the miracle at Cana.  It is about the manifestation of God’s life in our midst.  It is the journey from baptism to transfiguration.  This can be a significant time for discipleship, especially in regard to baptism.

            The next Cycle moves us to Lent where we are confronted with our “mortality and moral culpability.”  We are confronted with death, beginning with Ash Wednesday.  Lent leads us to sojourn and journey, both as individuals and communities, through the wilderness.  This culminates in the Triduum.  During these three holy days, we journey through the Pascha with Christ – our Paschal Lamb.  We walk the way of sorrow and pain with Christ.  We see the Light extinguished.  We begin by remembering the new commandment to “love one another.”  We live this out by serving one another, by washing each other’s feet.  We eat the Last Supper with Jesus and hear his gut-wrenched prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane.  We see his betrayal, trial, and crucifixion.  Saturday, we feel the heaviness of silence.  Gross emphasizes the “spiritual” dimension about Lent, but it should be noted that this time must also be embodied. 

            Easter focuses on resurrection of the body and a transformed heart.  It is resurrection of the whole person.  Thus, we celebrate the victory of God over all.  It is the “euchatastrophe” – the good God brings from what is catastrophic.  Easter is a season of 50 days, which is seven weeks of seven days.  This seven seven’s points toward fullness of time and the fifty days point toward the salvation of Jubilee, the year of the Lord’s favor.  The emphasis on Ascension Day was also helpful, as it helps us remember the completion of Christ’s work.  In other words, Christ has given us every good gift through which we might draw close to God and have victory over sin and death.  This comes to fullest light in Pentecost – the Spirit’s empowerment of God’s people, the Church.  Pentecost also marks the beginning of Ordinary Time and the Cycle of Love.  God’s love embodied in us to God’s world.  Thus, our focus is discipleship.  Three didactics are helpful to consider: world and church, neighbor and self, and work and rest.  We wrestle with the tension between each of these poles.  Gross suggests “receiving the day and releasing the day” as helpful spiritual disciplines to guide us during this season.  We receive God’s mercies each morning and release each day, both our successes and failures, to God’s care.

            Overall, I thought this book was a fantastic guide through the Church year.  Although no guide can be entirely comprehensive, Gross’ work does a fantastic job of providing a solid foundation for understanding and entering into the Church year.  I look forward to using this as a personal and ministerial resource through each Church year.

The Circle of the Seasons: Meeting God in the Church Year by Kimberlee Ireton

Ireton notes that the Church year is split into halves – the story of Christ and the story of the Church.  But, the Church year really is about the story of God.  It begins with the long anticipation of God’s coming, moving through the Incarnation.  Through Lent and Holy Week we journey with Christ toward the cross and his resurrection on Easter day (but which is celebrated for several weeks leading up to Pentecost).  Pentecost is the story of the Holy Spirit empowering the Church to live like Christ.  Finally, the Church year concludes with Ordinary Time (the daily grind of faithful living) that culminates in Christ is King Sunday in which we look toward Christ’s second coming.  It is a cycle of preparation and celebration, fasting and feasting.  Ireton concludes, “The church year has seasons of darkness, of light, of sorrow, of rejoicing, of just getting through.”[1]

            Time is sacred because God is present in it all.  The Church year calls us to remembrance and reflection and re-enactment of this reality.  The Church year orients us to God’s way in this world and invites us into participation with God’s redemptive, salvific work.  It “helps us embrace the church’s telling of time instead of our culture’s.”[2]  As Ireton notes, the “secular” calendar is centered upon consumerism.  It is designed to make us consumers.  I would go further and say that it is (at least in the American culture) centered on nationalism, militarism, individualism, and consumerism.  There is a vested interest (generally a concern for power) for the world to shape us into its own image rather than the image of our Creator.  The Church calendar allows our whole lives to be oriented around God’s story and thus transformed by that story.

            The Church year is communal.  This goes against our rampant individualism.  We are the gathered community living out the story of God together.  And, we are also re-presenting the faith that has been handed down to us from the apostles.  We recognize that we are part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church that has but one faith, one baptism and one Lord.  There is a unity that is embodied in journeying together through the story of God in our world.  This is a faith that is not novel, yet encounters the Living God anew.  And, it does so by helping us to tell the whole story.

            Advent initiates the Church year.  It is a time of anticipation and waiting.  I was unfamiliar with the first two Sunday themes being “wait” and “prepare.”  In my experience, we have generally made the themes: hope, joy, love, and peace.  Then, the overarching theme was about waiting.  Henri Nouwen’s “active waiting” is an important concept.  I think of it as “hopeful anticipation” in which we are living in the now-and-not-yet kingdom.  To that end, we wait with anticipation while living into God’s future.  The fasting and feasting aspect of Christmas is important in this regard.  The fasting prepares us for Christmas and the Incarnation.  Our culture is impatient.  Following Advent can bring us back to a sense of waiting and the building anticipation of the Incarnation.  An Advent tree can be a helpful symbol that is then replaced by the Chrismon tree – barren death to evergreen life. 

I appreciated the Feast of St. Stephen and the Feast of Holy Innocents.  Incarnation is about humble servanthood (St. Stephen).  And, we are reminded that much violence and pain are still in our world.  The Incarnation is God’s identification with that suffering, by which God walks with us (Feast of Holy Innocents).  The Christmas season concludes with Epiphany, or the “showing.”  It is a season of light, where darkness is scattered.  This is available to everyone (as indicated by the Magi).  It is God’s redemptive work for all of Creation. 

Ordinary time, which makes up the majority of the Church year, reminds us of the daily grind of life.  It is the counting of time (“ordinal”).  But, the manner in which we count is important.  It is not merely marking off days (kronos) but each day is filled with potential because of God’s presence (kairos).  God is at work, even in ordinary moments.  Green is the color of the season representing “growth.”  We don’t typically think of growth in the ordinary moments.  Ordinary time helps us remember that all of time is interwoven with God’s prevenient grace.

Lent is often associated with “self-flagellation.”  Ireton does a good job pointing out that Lent is about creating intentional space (through fasting and repentance) so that we might be filled with what God has for us.  Beginning with Ash Wednesday, we are confronted with our mortality and our need for God.  That is the beginning of the wilderness journey, where we walk with Israel and Jesus through the desert, learning what faithfulness is along the way.  Lent is also about charity – divulging ourselves of our excess so that we might share God’s good gifts with others.  Lent, going into the Triduum, is also a time of increasing darkness.  This culminates in Jesus’ death and entombment.  This season reminds us, we are called to die with Christ.

Easter is a celebration of seven Sundays which ends with Pentecost.  Easter is connected with Passover while Pentecost is connected to the giving of the commandments.  It is about both salvation from oppression and deliverance and empowerment to live in the world on God’s terms.  Easter and Pentecost are parallels to these Jewish holidays, for we both experience salvation from death and empowerment through the Spirit to embody Christ to the world.  Pentecost ends with Trinity Sunday, which reminds us that God is community and also that God’s salvific work is the work of the Triune God – Father, Spirit, and Son.  All of God is made available to us and we are joined to God as the Body of Christ.  Ireton digresses into a conversation about speaking in tongues.  Unfortunately, she does not take into account that the surrounding crowd (of many nationalities) could understand the gathered disciples in their own language.  It was not some special language.  It was prophetic (truth-telling) speech in the language of those gathered.  It was a reversal of the division at Babel.

Ireton’s treatment of Ordinary time is very sparse.  She focuses on mystery in mundane moments, but doesn’t go very deep with this insight.  It seems that the cultural liturgies of the Church, the rhythms and practices of daily obedience, would be helpful to focus on through Ordinary time.  We are not saved by those practices, but we are habituated into a way of life.  After all, most of our lives are spent in the ordinary moments.  And, it is in the ordinary moments that character is developed and established.  Although mountain-top experiences are wonderful, they are fleeting moments that then move us to walking in the valley.  Christ is King is the end of this season.  We anticipate Christ’s second coming and proclaim him as King.  Then, we begin the journey all over again.


[1]  Kimberlee Conway Ireton, The Circle of Seasons: Meeting God in the Church Year (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 12.

[2] Ibid, 13.