Robert E. Webber, arguably more than any other individual, was “instrumental in the awakening of American evangelicals to their ancient Christian heritage. Today, one can witness the use of ancient liturgical practices by many evangelical churches across a remarkable spectrum of denominations. Webber’s broader ancient-future orientation has been adopted by many younger evangelicals and churches. And a steady stream of evangelicals continue to follow Webber on the road to Canterbury and the Anglican tradition” (The Robert E. Webber Center for an Ancient Evangelical Future).
Having read his landmark book, Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World, I am now motivated to read another title in his “Ancient-Future Series” by Baker Books: Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality through the Christian Year. Besides the Book of Common Prayer and its ordering of worship, nothing has given more style, shape, and substance to my faith than practicing “Christian-year spirituality,” which is alternatively called the “liturgical year” or “church year.”
What is the Christian year? Webber defines it as “A discipline of personal and corporate worship through which we are formed into Christlikeness. We intentionally enter into Christ by living in the pattern of his saving deeds and anticipating his rule over all creation” (33). More simply, he defines it as “life lived in the pattern of death and resurrection with Christ” (21). Webber writes:
This spiritual tradition was developed in the early church and has been passed down in history through the worship of the church. It enjoys biblical sanction, historical staying power, and contemporary relevance. Through Christian-year spirituality we are enabled to experience the biblical mandate of conforming to Christ. The Christian year orders our formation with Christ incarnate in his ministry, death, burial, resurrection, and coming again through Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, and Pentecost. In Christian-year spirituality we are spiritually formed by recalling and entering into his great saving events (21-22).
Webber reminds us that Christian-year spirituality is a means to the end of union with Christ, “If we see the Christian year as an instrument through which we may be shaped by God’s saving events in Christ, then it is not the Christian year that accomplishes our spiritual pilgrimage but Christ himself who is the very content and meaning of the Christian year” (24). Put differently, “Without Christ there could be no Christian time.”
Here are some salient passages in my reading so far.
On Christian-year spirituality
The very heartbeat of time, the source of meaning and power for the cycle of all time, derives from and returns to the death and resurrection of Christ in which God was uniquely active reconciling us to himself (2 Cor. 5:18). It is Christ in his saving event who is the source, the summit, and the very substance of both objective and subjective spirituality (24).
Christian-year spirituality is nothing less than the calling to enter by faith into the incarnation, the life and ministry, the death and resurrection of Jesus. God’s saving action is not only presented to us through the practice of the Christian year, it also takes up residence within us and transforms us by the saving and healing presence of Christ in our lives. As we enter the saving events of Jesus and especially the paschal mystery in faith, Christ shapes us by the pattern of his own living and dying so that our living and dying in this world is a living and dying in him (26).
How can we as members of the church participate in a present spirituality that is rooted in past events and anticipates a future event? The answer to this question is that we are shaped and formed spiritually by Christ in the church through a worship that continually orders the pattern of our spirituality into a remembrance of God’s saving deeds and the anticipation of the rule of God over all creation (27).
“The Christian year is the Word proclaimed and enacted” (28).
On the cycles of light and life
The emphasis of the cycle of life is on the incarnation, whereas the central motif of the cycle of life is the death and resurrection. However, there is fundamental unity between these cycles. Both have to do with the paschal mystery and the salvation of the world. One dwells on the incarnation while the other enters into the death and resurrection. One accents God coming among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth; the other recalls the purpose for which he came – the self-giving sacrifice of his life to free the world from the domain of Satan and thus secure forgiveness and healing for the peoples of the world. Consequently, as we reflect on both the cycles of light and life, we are drawn into the inescapable fact of how the birth and death of Jesus are of a single piece, a garment that cannot be rent into two without doing violence to the Christian message.
There is also another way the cycles of light and life are brought together; both follow the pattern of expectation, fulfillment, and proclamation. Advent is expectation, Christmas is fulfillment, and Epiphany is proclamation; Lent is expectation, Easter is fulfillment, and Pentecost is proclamation. Thus there is a historical progression into both Christmas and Easter as well as spiritual procession from each. When we recall and relive the experience of God’s people who pilgrimage into and out of the incarnation or into and out of the death and resurrection, we mark our own spirituality with expectation and fulfillment (95).
On the special nature of Sunday
“Sunday . . . is the foundation and kernel of the whole liturgical year” (30).
Historically Sunday is the day of God’s re-creation, the day that promises that God will renew the face of the earth. Historically Sunday worship expresses three truths: It remembers God’s saving action in history; it experiences God’s renewing presence; and it anticipates the consummation of God’s work in the new heavens and the new earth (169).
For the individual (as opposed to corporate) dimension of Christian-year spirituality, a devotional work can help walk you through the current season. Here are some recommendations:
Cycle of Light: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany
- Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Plough Publishing House)
- Sarah Arthur (ed.), Light Upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany
- N. T. Wright, Advent for Everyone (A Journey Through Matthew; A Journey with the Apostles; Luke)
- Rowan Williams, Choose Life: Christmas and Easter Sermons in Canterbury Cathedral
- Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God Is In the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas
- Edwin H. Robertson (ed.), Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Sermons
- Walter Brueggemann, Names for the Messiah: An Advent Study
Cycle of Life: Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost, and Ordinary Time
- Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter (Plough Publishing House)
- Sarah Arthur (ed.), Between Midnight and Dawn: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Lent, Holy Week, and Eastertide
- Sarah Arthur (ed.), At the Still Point: A Literary Guide to Prayer in Ordinary Time
- N. T. Wright, Lent for Everyone (Matthew Year A, Mark Year B, Luke Year C); The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion
- Rowan Williams, Meeting God in Paul: Reflections for the Season of Lent; Meeting God in Mark: Reflections on the Season of Lent; The Sign and the Sacrifice: The Meaning of the Cross and Resurrection; Choose Life: Christmas and Easter Sermons in Canterbury Cathedral; Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles Our Judgment; Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel
- Augustine, Sermons for Christmas and Epiphany; Sermons to the People: Advent, Christmas, New Year’s, Epiphany
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God Is On the Cross: Reflections on Lent and Easter
- Stanley Hauerwas, Cross-Shattered Christ: Meditations on the Seven Last Words
- Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ; The Seven Last Words from the Cross
- Walter Brueggemann, A Way Other Than Our Own: Devotions for Lent