Time Touching Eternity
Time Touching Eternity
When I was a college student, I gave up wearing a watch. I would keep track of time by listening to the clock tower near the center of campus that intoned time at fifteen-minute intervals throughout the day. The bells created a rhythm that punctuated my day, giving order in the midst of my classes, relationships, and activities that reminded me of what I was supposed to be doing and where I was supposed to be going. Having a good sense of the time helped me move in the right direction.
The same is true in our spiritual life generally. The men of Issachar in 1 Chronicles 12 are lauded as those “who understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chr. 12:32). The Apostle Paul tells believers to make “the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:16). We want to walk through the chronos of time so that we also understand what is happening and seize the kairos of time.
Certainly, we want to do this as individual followers of Christ, but we also want to journey this way as the community of God. In reading the Old Testament we encounter the annual cycle of festivals—Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles—as well as the high holidays and weekly Sabbath, which served to orient God’s people to the story of his work in their life and history. While not bound to this cycle as followers of Jesus and as preachers, keeping time, both chronos and kairos, with Christ is vital to moving in the right direction. One of the best, time-tested spiritual practices to help us do this is the Christian year.
Understanding the Christian Year
The Christian year, sometimes referred to as the church calendar or liturgical year, is a meaningful way for Christians to mark time not according to secular or political calendars but according to the life of Christ. In a systematic and narrative manner, the Christian year enables us to enter into the life of Christ and the church in a way that is spiritually formative for us. Through the Christian year we literally mold our days to Christ’s days through a series of celebrations and seasons.
The Christian year begins with the first Sunday of Advent (usually late November or early December) and carries through various seasons to Christ the King Sunday (usually mid to late November). The seasons of the Christian year mirror the life of Christ and the life of the church:
-Advent – The four weekends leading up to Christmas as a preparation for Christ’s coming, both in the incarnation and the second coming.
-Christmas – This includes two to three weeks from the Christmas celebration through Epiphany and the Baptism of Christ.
-Ordinary Time 1 – A period of three to eight weeks (depending when Easter and Lent fall) between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. “Ordinary” derives from the Latin word for counting.
-Lent – The forty-day period (not including Sundays) of preparation before our celebration of the resurrection (Easter), beginning with Ash Wednesday and culminating in the Passion (Holy Week).
-The Holy Triduum – The three most significant days of Holy Week, bridging Lent into Easter: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.
-Resurrection or Easter – A fifty-day period of celebration of Christ’s resurrection, including Ascension Day and concluding on Pentecost Sunday.
-Ordinary Time 2 – The longer of the two periods of ordinary time, this period begins after Pentecost and leads to the final Sunday before Advent, Christ the King Sunday.
Depending upon one’s church tradition, some aspects of the Christian year have greater or lesser emphasis, as well as more or less numerous formal feast days or celebrations included. Some scholars simplify this into three major cycles of the church year that include six major festivals associated with the life of Christ and the early church:
-The Incarnation Cycle: the Advent and Christmas seasons through the Epiphany; feasts: Christmas and Epiphany
-The Paschal Cycle: the Lenten and Easter seasons through Pentecost; feasts: Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost
-Ordinary Time or Sundays of the Year after Epiphany and after Pentecost 
Preaching and the Power of the Christian Year
While many churches make use of the Christian year, we may wonder what the value of it is for preaching. This begs the question of what the value of the Christian year is overall. While I cannot go into great depth here, let me simply point out that the Christian year is a powerful tool that utilizes cognitive and non-cognitive means, individual and communal settings, and event-oriented and rhythmic approaches to spiritual formation. Like the bells I heard on my college campus, through the Christian year we are steadily, subtly exposed to the historic patterns of God’s saving activity in Jesus Christ in a way that is conscious and unconscious, natural and intentional.
As preachers, we should understand the value and need for this. We all know that not everyone remembers every word we preach, our stunning illustrations, or even the main point of our sermons. Preaching is many things, but it is not merely a cognitive experience. It is also affective. Preaching is not an exercise in one mind speaking to another mind, although clear thinking is vital. Preaching involves a community gathered to attend to the word of the Lord addressing them together as one part of the larger body of Christ that stretches since the first century to this day and beyond.
The Christian year situates preaching within that bigger context of worship, spiritual formation, and communal pilgrimage with God. On the one hand this puts preaching in its place by reminding us that preaching is only one part of the greater story of worship in which God meets with his people weekly and annually. On the other hand, the Christian year enriches our preaching by surrounding it with the greater story of God within each service and throughout the year.
Preaching the Christian year also rescues us from captivity to un-Christian ways of making sense of our life and keeping track of time. In his lauded work on cultural liturgies, James K. A. Smith addresses the reality that, Christian or not, we exist in cultural environments that shape the goals of life, the characteristics we cultivate, and the activities we celebrate. This happens unconsciously as we unwittingly take in “secular liturgies” that powerfully form our lives. The fact that this is unconscious flies in the face of typical approaches to discipleship, which often focus primarily on cognitive information transfer. The Christian year interrupts this as we enter into the story of God in ways that are both conscious and subconscious, shaped through intentional activity and the power of habit.
As preachers, we can employ the Christian year as a means for interrupting the secular liturgies and their calendars of time by entering into the Christian year not just through decorations, bulletin covers, and readings, but also through an intentional approach to our preaching.
Examples on Preaching the Christian Year
What might it look like to enter into such an approach to preaching that intentionally rings with the conscious and unconscious tones of Christ’s life throughout the year? Let me suggest three specific ways we can approach the Christian year as a powerful practice for community formation toward Christlikeness in our preaching.
Preaching the Lectionary
One of the easiest ways to bring the Christian year into our preaching is to preach the lectionary. The lectionary is a weekly (and sometimes daily) arrangement of readings for corporate worship. Usually the lectionary is arranged with four readings for each gathering: Old Testament, Psalm, New Testament Epistle, and Gospel. The Revised Common Lectionary, a three-year cycle (labelled A, B, and C) of readings, walks through the majority of the Bible and is organized according to themes and seasons of the church year. While most commonly used in mainline churches or more-structured liturgical traditions, the lectionary is becoming more broadly used in other settings.
If your church uses the lectionary, selecting one of the readings that already reflects the season is a ready-made approach to preaching the Christian year. Some preach stand-alone week-by-week sermons based around the readings, while others may shape sermon series that follow certain groups of readings within the lectionary.
Even though I serve as a pastor in a church that does not formally use the lectionary, I have utilized the lectionary schedule to plan preaching series when I have wanted to follow along with a certain season of the Christian year. The lectionary provides a grouping of readings that readily fit together with the important themes of certain seasons, such as Advent, Christmas, Lent, or Easter. If this is unfamiliar to you, there are many resources that exist to help you make use of the lectionary for your preaching. Along with many helpful articles, two of the most well-liked are the multi-volume series Preaching through the Christian Year: A Comprehensive Commentary on the Lectionary and Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary.
Preaching the Seasons
A second way to utilize the Christian year is to preach the seasons of the Christian year. Without strictly following the lectionary, preachers may dip into the Christian year by planning sermons or series that follow particular seasons of the Christian year.
In our church, which is a non-denominational multi-ethnic context, it has become a common practice for us to develop sermon series that follow along with both Advent and Lent as preparation for celebration of Christmas and Easter. For Lent we have walked through sermon series such as the Upper Room discourse, Job, the life of Joseph, the Minor Prophets, a thematic series on longing, the Ten Commandments, and more. For Advent, we have explored messianic psalms, the infancy narratives of Luke, the psalms of Ascent, and passages from Isaiah that point to Christ. These pairings of preparatory seasons of preaching have year-by-year shaped us as a church who follow not just our political or holiday calendars but are formed by the life of Christ. We have also been well-prepared for the important celebrations of Christ’s nativity and resurrection that are so easily a one-time event.
Preaching Calendars and the Christian Year
Sometimes we can lose the big picture when we only preach certain seasons of the Christian year and a third approach helps us capture the big picture. Just as Christmas and Easter become more powerful when approached through Advent and Lenten preparation, when we put these familiar seasons within the larger framework of the entire Christian year, our experience of the life of Christ is enriched. Many, but not all, preachers plan out a calendar of preaching well in advance to help us with preparation of sermons and coordination with other ministry. The framework we often use for this may be recent portions of Scripture that have caught our attention, the needs of the moment, values of our church, areas of growth we see for our church family, or the political or academic calendar for our peoples’ lives. Let me suggest that bringing the Christian year into that planning process will strengthen the spiritual formation of our congregations through preaching.
We can approach this either pragmatically or foundationally. The pragmatic approach begins with our typical method for sermon series planning and then overlaying the framework of the Christian year upon it. As we do this, we look for ways the seasons or celebrations may augment or emphasize things we already had in mind. This allows us to bring the Christian year into our plans for preaching.
A second, and quite different, approach begins with the framework of the Christian year from Advent to Christ the King Sunday before us. We then prayerfully consider how the seasons might shape our approach to preaching in the coming year. Understanding each season of the Christian year in relation to the life of our church gives us a view into what might best form us toward Christlikeness both consciously and subconsciously.
While I initially approached preaching the Christian year from a more pragmatic approach, I now see the Christian year as my foundation for preaching planning. While not rigid with it, I have found it freeing and constraining at the same time in shaping the way I preach Scripture.
To know who we are and where we are going, it is important to know what the time is. As preachers we always want to have a timely word that speaks to the times. Utilizing the Christian year in our preaching saves us from either being too caught up in the times before or losing a sense of the time that matters. May this way of preaching punctuate our churches with the resounding tones of the life of Christ.
 Frank C. Senn, Introduction to Christian Liturgy (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2012), 101; A. Allan McArthur, The Evolution of the Christian Year (Greenwich, CT: Seabury, 1953), 10.
 For a deeper discussion of the Christian year for spiritual formation see my article “Time to Live: Christian formation through the Christian year,” Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care, Volume 12, issue 1 (May 2019): 25-33, https://doi.org/10.1177/1939790918805430.
 See James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2009), Imagining the Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker: 2013), Awaiting the King (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2017), and You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2016).
 Access the Revised Common Lectionary readings for each month here: http://www.preachingtoday.com/lectionary.
 See also The African American Lectionary here: http://www.theafricanamericanlectionary.org/.
 A couple of helpful articles here at Preaching Today are Mandy Smith, “Kicking the Sermon Series Habit,” https://www.preachingtoday.com/skills/2016/september/kicking-sermon-series-habit.html and Timothy J. Peck, Liking the Lectionary, https://www.preachingtoday.com/skills/themes/sermonprep/likinglectionary.html.
 See my article “Recovering the Wonder of Christmas: Four pathways for preaching during Advent,” for a deeper dive on a specific example of this particular approach, https://www.preachingtoday.com/skills/2019/november/recovering-wonder-of-christmas.html.
 See Ken Shigematsu, “Deepen Your Preaching Barrel by Planning Ahead,” https://www.preachingtoday.com/skills/2017/june/deepen-your-preaching-barrel-by-planning-ahead.html.
Matt Erickson serves as the Senior Pastor of Eastbrook Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.