Worshiping in Season: Ecology and Christ Through the Liturgical Year
CELEBRATING CHRIST AND CREATION
Every Sunday throughout the year, Christians congregate in the name of Christ to worship our namesake. Every day throughout the year, these same Christians awaken with fellow creatures to a world of God's making. Embodied in this world we see, hear, taste, touch and smell the bounty of blessings brought by God. But we taste bitterness as well as blessing. We spend our moments seeking security in a world of flux. We worry not only for ourselves; we worry for our neighbors—both known and unknown, both near and far—and we worry for the well-being of our fellow creatures and for the earth itself. Increasingly we seek an elusive harmony between ourselves and others, between our species and our planet, between our past and our posterity, between our spirituality and our flesh. How can we connect our worshipful life in Christ with our wonderful/worrisome life in creation?
This book brings our ecological concern and consciousness into consideration of corporate worship during the two great liturgical movements of the ecumenical Christian year—the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany cycle and the Lent-Easter-Pentecost cycle. Both of these cycles revolve around momentous Christic events—Christ's incarnation and Christ's crucifixion and resurrection. How do we view these events and the seasons of worship surrounding these events as ecological beings, as earthlings? How might these Christological dramas pertain to the planet and not only to the people on the planet?
My aim here is to remember the ecological and ecospheric context in which our Christological claims occur—they happen on Earth and with earthly creatures. We are here. So, too, is the gospel of Christ. How might the gospel of Christ be "good news" for the Earth? How is Christ's story Earth's story? How is our earthly reality equally real for Christ? How does the Earth factor into whatever God might be doing in Christ? How does Christ reveal God's activity in the Earth? Moreover, how can we highlight Earth's role in this Christological drama as enacted and remembered in our annual cycles of worship?
This book, hopefully, is in alliance with another approach to incorporating ecological concern into Christian worship. That approach is to designate a particular season as having a theme of creation. The season of creation is a special liturgical season emphasizing creation that has been established with considerable ecumenical contribution. It usually spans five weeks, beginning September 1 on which many Orthodox communities commemorate God's creation of the world as a day of prayer for creation. The season of creation concludes on or near October 4 when the Roman Catholic Church celebrates the feast of Saint Francis. In 2008, the World Council of Churches Central Committee issued a call for such a "'Time for Creation' through prayers and actions."1 Since then, many Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant congregations have observed this liturgical season. The seasonal emphasis has encouraged great creativity throughout the Christian churches in developing creation-oriented worship resources and for encouraging creation-care.
This is all terrific! But what about the traditional seasons surrounding Christmas and Easter with their Christological focus? Christ and creation are intimately linked. We do not have one without the other. Our worship throughout the year can reflect this—and proclaim this! This book is intended to help Christian congregations explore the relationship between Christ and creation—and between our spiritual life and our creaturely life—through our life of worship, especially during the special seasons focusing on the life of Christ. We have the opportunity to integrate the theme of creation with our understanding of the Christological narrative that is celebrated in the most momentous of our liturgical seasons.
It is my hope that this book will be helpful to worshiping congregations on a regular basis as well as on special occasions. A basic framework for this book is provided by the liturgical year which is used in some form in most congregations of ecumenical denominations. The Christological focus of the liturgical seasons of the Christian year and of congregational worship are assumed and proclaimed throughout this book. The realities of our creaturely existence and our ecological dependence, as well as the challenges to a healthy and sustainable natural world, are also assumed throughout and serve as premises for what follows.
The Christian Liturgical Year
The Christian year highlights two magnificent dramas which portray God's relationship to God's creatures in Christ. Chronologically, the first of these dramas in the liturgical year is that surrounding Jesus' birth: Advent-Christmas-Epiphany. The most ancient of these two dramas, though, is that surrounding the death and resurrection of Christ: Lent-Easter-Pentecost. Most Sundays in the Christian year, however, do not fall into these special liturgical seasons. Roman Catholics refer to these Sundays plainly as "ordinary time." Many ecumenical Protestant denominations might refer more cryptically to these Sundays as the "season after Epiphany" or the "season after Pentecost," but they are not really liturgical seasons in the same way as the two great liturgical dramas involving Christ's birth and the paschal mystery.
For each of these two great dramas, there is a time of preparation (Advent and Lent respectively) in which expectations build with increasing anticipation and suspense. At the peak of suspense each respective story climaxes with a great event. This is Jesus' birth in the Christmas narrative. The Easter narrative leads to the momentous events of Holy Week that culminate in the depths of despair on Good Friday and the heights of exultation on Easter Sunday with Christ's resurrection. Then follows a season of celebration and interpretation within each of these dramas. The Christmas season after Christmas Day deepens our reflection on the meaning of incarnation, and it concludes with the feast of Epiphany in which we remember the visit of the Magi to the Christ child. The Easter season after Easter Sunday allows for deepening reflection on the meaning of resurrection and new creation. Following the chronology of the Gospel of Luke, the Easter season culminates on Ascension Thursday (or Ascension Sunday) in which we recognize Christ as glorified. The Easter season concludes with the Day of Pentecost in which the Holy Spirit is given to the church for Christ's continued work in the world.
Bounding the great liturgical seasons like bookends are certain days in "ordinary time" that stand as markers for the special seasons. These are the Reign of Christ Sunday before the start of Advent, Baptism of Christ Sunday immediately following the Feast of Epiphany, Transfiguration Sunday just preceding Lent, and Trinity Sunday immediately after Pentecost Sunday. I refer to these as "warm-up days" that help us enter into the energy of the special seasons and "cool-down days" that help us to integrate the meaning of the liturgical seasons into our everyday creaturely life.
The seasons of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany mark our longing for worldly deliverance, Christ's incarnation within creation, and the manifestation of God's glory on earth. The seasons of Lent and Easter dramatize the passion, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ; during this time we remember that Christ shares our mortal nature, offers victorious life, and claims sovereignty over all creation. Pentecost is the coming of Christ's promised spirit, enlivening creation as well as inspiring the Church. Throughout the Christian drama, creation is centrally involved, not only as the stage on which the play is set, but as the object of Christ's love and the very terrain of salvation history.
Christological emphasis along with ecological concern pervade the chapters of this book. This Christological emphasis corresponds with the Christological emphasis in the special seasons of the ecumenical Christian year and in Christian belief itself. The book is structured according to the seasons of the liturgical year, but the two cycles are presented in reverse order; the Lent-Easter-Pentecost cycle is discussed in the first half of the book, and the second half addresses the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany cycle. In each chapter and for each season of worship, creation and creation's crises are portrayed in their relationship to Christ and to Christ's redeeming love. Earthly life is interpreted Christologically in these pages. Conversely, creation appears as a central paradigm for understanding our salvation in Christ in this age when creation's health and our creaturely well-being can no longer be taken for granted.
Structure and Assumptions
I am United Methodist with an ecumenical heart. Each chapter in this book draws from different lines of theological thought and different strands of ecumenical tradition—actually, Judeo-Christian tradition. This is not intended as a work in systematic theology (though I think people interested in systematic theology will find it suggestive), so I attempt neither to reconcile different theological perspectives nor to clarify the differences between them here. A diversity of theological perspectives receive attention in this book because of their apparent affinity with an ecological hermeneutic as applied to the texts and practices of Christian worship in the liturgical year. Each reader is able to make his or her own comparison between these perspectives and to notice how these perspectives may address his or her own theological tradition, ecclesial affinity, and liturgical practice.
Throughout this book, attention is given to both the Roman Catholic Lectionary for the Mass and the Revised Common Lectionary that is used by many ecumenical Protestant denominations. Both lectionaries assume a nearly identical structure for the liturgical year, and they put forward very similar selections of biblical passages to be read on the Sundays of the liturgical seasons. In fact, the Revised Common Lectionary had its genesis with the Roman Catholic Lectionary for the Mass. In addition, Orthodox thought, particularly a theology of divinization, is highlighted in this book, especially in the first chapter on Transfiguration and in the final chapter on Epiphany. Chapter 3 attends in depth to the agricultural seasons associated historically with the Jewish liturgical year, particularly the festivals of Passover and Tabernacles, and their significance for Christian celebration of Palm Sunday. Occasional reference is made throughout this book to The Book of Common Prayer of The Episcopal Church, the Book of Common Worship of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Lutheran Worship of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and The United Methodist Book of Worship.2 My own Wesleyan heritage is probably most noticeable in Chapter 4 on Christ's Passion where some of Charles Wesley's hymns find voice. Feminist interpretations of the biblical Sophia tradition are prominent in Chapter 7 on Pentecost and in Chapter 8 on Trinity Sunday.
This book attends to the lectionaries but does not address every lection advocated by the lectionaries. In addition to omitting some lections from consideration, this book will add to the biblical material considered for reading in the liturgical seasons beyond that provided by the lectionaries. Often, lectionary passages will be expanded here to bring in the wider biblical context in which Earth participates in the story being told. At other times, entirely different scriptural readings might be suggested for guiding worship, such as for Advent in Chapter 12 on "turning to the children."
Readers may tack into this book from a number of different angles. The most straightforward way is to begin at the beginning and read the chapters in sequence. Material is presented in such a fashion that the earlier chapters inform the ones to follow. This is one of the reasons, as will become clear, for beginning Chapter 1 with Transfiguration rather than Advent. Such sequential order is not necessary however. Worship leaders can simply turn to whichever chapter is addressing the liturgical season that they are planning. The chapters are named according to these seasons in order to facilitate such intuitive access. When chapters refer to material discussed earlier, reference is usually made to assist the reader in locating that material. It is also possible to use the indices to find areas of the book most directly addressing the reader's particular interest or a particular biblical passage. Some passages are discussed in different chapters, so the scriptural index should prove especially helpful in such instances.
While this book is not intended primarily as a collection of resource materials, resources and suggestions for corporate prayer and worship can be found in each chapter. Moreover, each chapter concludes with examples for liturgical use in worship, which I hope will be helpful. Readers are invited to use or adapt these liturgies for their own use in leading worship. Readers are also invited to pause and prayerfully reflect with these concluding materials for worship, and to allow them to inform one's own prayer. Finally, these concluding acts of worship might be used for worship in the classroom or study group, if this is a book being read in the context of a seminary or in the context of a discipleship group in a congregation. I hope and pray, in reading and in worship you are blessed and that you find yourselves recipients of the means of God's grace. I hope and pray further that, through all our moments of prayer—whether in assembly or in private—God will be worshipped and glorified, God's people inspired and sanctified, and God's creation preserved and blessed.
1 World Council of Churches, "Season of Creation," https://www.oikoumene.org/node/6282 (accessed 28 April 2121); see also U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, "The Season of Creation," https://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/environment/upload/WDPCC-Bulletin-Insert.pdf; Anglican Communion Environmental Network; and https://seasonofcreation.org/about/ (accessed 28 April 2021).
2 The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church . . . According to the use of The Episcopal Church (The Church Hymnal Corporation and The Seabury Press, 1979); Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Book of Common Worship (Louisville: Westminister John Knox,  2018); Evangelical Lutheran Worship: Leaders Desk Edition (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2008); The United Methodist Book of Worship (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1993).