During Advent and Christmas we retell and reorient ourselves around the reality that God put on flesh and walked among us. Throughout Epiphany we tell about his manifestation to the world. We recall the Magi who came to see him, his baptism in the Jordan River, and his transfiguration.
On Palm Sunday we sing and shout "Hosanna!" to the King of kings; however, we also remember the irony of this day as Jesus wept over Jerusalem for her blindness and hardness of heart. We walk through the sobering events of his arrest, trial, and crucifixion on Good Friday. We rise on Easter Sunday to celebrate Christ's resurrection and the hope of new life.
Though it is definitely the forgotten festival among many evangelicals, many congregations recognize the Ascension (either on a Thursday or the following Sunday) and the reality that Christ is now at the right hand of the Father interceding and advocating for his people. We remember the day of Pentecost, celebrating the coming of the Holy Spirit in power to the church. Pentecost is a time to remember the third person of the Trinity who empowers, comforts, fills, and guides us, the people of God. As we tell God's Story we are formed and transformed, year after year, by the spiritual realities of a living, sanctifying God.
Rediscovering the Ascension as a Major Festival and Doctrine of Our Faith
Before discussing the weekly rhythm of the Lectionary, I would like to focus on the Ascension in an effort to rediscover the riches of this neglected doctrine and festival. I have devoted a page on our website for Ascension Resources where you can read and discover even more on this topic.
Since 2005 I have been intentional about celebrating the Ascension at the churches where I have served. In Augustine's day the Ascension was seen as the crown of all Christian festivals. Augustine declared that it was:
"that festival which confirms the grace of all the festivals together, without which the profitableness of every festival would have perished. For unless the Saviour had ascended into heaven, His Nativity would have come to nothing... and His Passion would have borne no fruit for us, and His most holy Resurrection would have been useless." 1
Our recognition and understanding of the Ascension is much different in our present time. Today, the Ascension goes by virtually ignored in the evangelical world. I think this is really unfortunate. In his book He Ascended into Heaven, Davies writes:
"There are those who claim that the Cross is the heart of the Gospel; others that the Resurrection should occupy this position. It is not my intention to seek to displace either of these two by the Ascension, but to add the Ascension to them, so that this triad in unity is recognized as forming the heart of the Gospel." 2
I resonate with this statement wholeheartedly and long for the day when the Cross, the Resurrection, and the Ascension (this "triad in unity") are recognized as forming the heart of the Gospel.
Engaging our Artists During Ascension and Pentecost
In hopes of gaining a more robust celebration of both the Ascension and Pentecost at my current church in Florida, I issued a Call to Artists in 2016 on the theme, God Is For Us: The Ascension and the Outpouring.
The purpose was to invite the artists among us to engage with the event or the present realities of Christ's Ascension or the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. In doing so, my hope was that all of our hearts would be encouraged and edified, and that our imaginations would be stirred by the advocacy of our ascended Lord and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Once the deadline for submission arrived, we had just over a dozen artists who participated and twenty different works that were on display for the two weekends of Ascension and Pentecost that Spring. The exhibit exceeded my expectations and was a successful event for our congregation through the means of community and creativity. I hope the Church will, once again, recognize the Ascension as a major festival and vital doctrine of our faith.
Celebrating the Weekly Rhythm of the Lectionary
In addition to the annual rhythm of the Christian Year, I also seek to tell God's Story through the weekly rhythm of the Revised Common Lectionary (henceforth, the Lectionary). 3 Over the years, I have utilized many of the Lectionary-based resources available through books, journals, and liturgical planning calendars. I have found it creative and edifying to incorporate Lectionary readings and prayers within the flow of a worship service. Utilizing these resources throughout the Christian Year is a way to tell God's Story and offer our people a healthy diet of Word and prayer.
Most recently, I have been inspired by a book by F. Russell Mitman entitled, Worship in the Shape of Scripture. In this book Mitman describes an organic liturgy - one in which the sermon and liturgy organically arise out of the shapes and forms inherent in the Scriptures themselves so that the whole worship service aims, through the Holy Spirit, at becoming an event of the Word of God. Mitman's basic paradigm is "from lectionary to liturgy."
This idea has deepened my appreciation for the Lectionary at multiple levels and has motivated me to begin to craft my own prayers, affirmations of faith, and other elements as they organically flow out of engaging with the Scriptures for that week. (Mitman's book was a major impetus for creating The Lectionary Journey).
My church is not one that follows the Lectionary in its preaching. However, I have found that by engaging with the Lectionary readings each week, personally and as a family, I usually find one or two texts that I can weave into the flow of worship in a natural and intentional way. Typically, after singing a couple of opening songs, I (or a vocalist on the worship team) will read one of the Lectionary passages. Then, we will have a worship element that flows out of the reading (e.g., a prayer of confession or renewal followed by an assurance of forgiveness, a prayer of intercession, an affirmation of faith, etc.). That element is often followed by an appropriate song of response. All of this is part of the Gathering portion of the traditional four-fold pattern of worship which I have followed for years: Gathering, Word, Table/Response, Sending. 4
Incorporating Lectionary readings and original or readily available Lectionary-based resources has become a natural and intentional way to follow the seasons of the Christian Year and incorporate Scripture and other worship elements throughout the service. In remembering these cycles and seasons, we tell the whole Gospel story (God's Story), stirring our hearts, minds, and imaginations around the realities of our triune God. In doing so we are heeding the call, mentioned earlier, to let the word of Christ dwell in us richly.
1. J.G. Davies, He Ascended into Heaven (Cambridge: James Clarke and Company, 1958) 170.
3. The Revised Common Lectionary is a collection of readings from the Bible for use in Christian worship, making provision for the liturgical year with its pattern of observances of festivals and seasons. The Lectionary is organized into three-year cycles of readings. The years are designated A, B, or C. Each yearly cycle begins on the first Sunday of Advent (the last Sunday of November or first Sunday of December).
4. I plan to write about the four-fold pattern of worship in another series of articles.