Liturgy and the Preaching Roster
Throughout the year the congregation may meet her Lord twice each Sunday. Yet, each service is not the same. Of course, we always meet the same God and the meetings have a similar structure. All these meetings, however, have their own accent. In other words, each service has its own theme, as is the case in any living relationship.
In roughly half of the worship services, because of the Christian feast days and catechism preaching, the theme is known in advance. In many of the other services the theme comes as a total surprise to the congregation. Whether this is an ideal situation is debatable. Is it not better to set the themes of the other services beforehand as well? We will first briefly discuss the pros and cons of an expanded thematization. Next we will examine whether the scheme of the ecclesiastical year offers possibilities for an expanded thematization of the worship services. Finally we would like to make some suggestion to optimize the scheme of catechism preaching.
Pros & cons
The greatest advantage of expanding the thematization of the worship service is the fact that the congregation can prepare herself better for the worship service. This could lead to a better coordination of the various activities in the congregation with the worship services. Bible Study activities and catechism classes, for example, could in part focus on the theme of the worship service. A further benefit is that the task of the minister with regard to the expanded design of the worship service can be supported by the congregation via a liturgy committee. Finally, through an expanded thematization one-sidedness can be avoided. In advance it is guaranteed that the message of the gospel in its full breadth is presented.
As a disadvantage, the fact that the life of a congregation does not simply unfold according to themes set in advance, ought to be mentioned. Furthermore, the minister could feel himself hampered in the interaction with concrete situations in the congregation. One could also get the feeling that the element of surprise disappears from the worship service by setting the themes beforehand.
As far as we are concerned the pros outweigh the cons. Besides, most of the cons can be overcome when there is some flexibility in the handling of themes. For example, a theme can be approached from various texts, as we are accustomed to in the catechism preaching, and the message of the text can be made concrete and tailored to the congregation in various ways.
The church year
Seeing the advantage of setting themes for the worship services in advance, using the themes of the liturgical or church year, in addition to those of catechism preaching, ought to be considered.
The liturgical year consists of a series of liturgical feasts that are divided over the span of a year. In a strict observance of the church year all Sundays have a certain theme that is related to the relevant liturgical high point. In order to understand the development of the liturgical year, we will briefly trace how the early Christian congregation commemorated the acts of salvation and the shift that occurred in these commemorations in the course of history.
The first Christian congregation ordered their worship services after the example of the Jewish synagogues. That means that the weekly Sabbath and the annual feasts for some time played a role in the Christian congregations. Soon shifts began to occur. We are made aware of this already in the New Testament, where we can observe between the lines, that the first day of the week began to replace the seventh day (Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 16:2). The congregation of Christ may begin the week by commemorating Christ's resurrection and celebrate this as the 'day of the Lord' in expectation of His return (Revelation 1:10).
It is understandable that annual Jewish feasts also received a Christian interpretation, or began to lose that significance. So an ecclesiastical life developed in the first centuries that — apart from the Jewish community — celebrated these feasts in their own way. That does not, however, mean that one can speak of a liturgical year in which the life of the church was organized around a number of liturgical highlights. That development took place in the fourth century.
At that time, during the reign of the emperor Constantine the Great, the church changed from being persecuted to being favoured. The masses entered the church and the church became a people's church (volkskerk). This resulted in efforts by the church to meet the perceived religious needs of ordinary people, who were still very much influenced by heathenism.
This accommodation was particularly expressed in the liturgy. The accent shifted from the proclamation and commemoration of the acts of salvation to the realization of such acts in the ritual. The church no longer commemorated the great deeds of God, but reenacted them before the eyes of the church goers. Every year Christ was born, died and rose from the dead anew.
It is this shift that forms the basis for the liturgical year. The congregation of Jerusalem played an important role in this development. Here all the geographic locations, which strongly appealed to the experience of the believers, were readily available for reenactment. At times the bishop clearly took the place of Christ in these proceedings, as, for example, on Palm Sunday when he was led into the city surrounded by the believers shouting 'hosanna.' From Jerusalem, this form of religious experience spread throughout the Eastern and Western churches and finally became the annual program of the church, a program that was completely determined by realizing God's acts of salvation again and again.
Easter, the first feast, is central to the liturgical year. It is the pivot and high point of the church year. All other feasts are grouped around it. A forty day preparation — characterized by penance and fasting — was observed before Easter. Just prior to Easter, Passion (or Palm) Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday were celebrated. After Easter the fifty days of rejoicing that followed are concluded with the feast of Pentecost. The whole cycle of celebration is called the Easter cycle.
Later a Christmas cycle came into being. It is also preceded by a preparation time, the so-called time of Advent. From the moment that these two cycles were interconnected one can really speak of a liturgical year. Later all sorts of commemorations of martyrs and saints also received a place in the church year.
On the basis of this liturgical year a roster of suitable Scripture passages, hymns and prayers was put together. During the Middle-Ages the liturgy was based on these rosters.
With the development of the liturgical year, heathenism had captured a permanent place in the heart of the church. The awareness of God's acts of salvation had become completely dependent on the designated holy seasons and the rituals performed by the church.
The Reformers greatly objected to all of this. It was even a reason for Calvin and Zwingli to abolish all Christian feast days. They considered the Sunday as the feast day par excellence. They were of the opinion that the acts of salvation could just as well be commemorated on this day than on days specially set aside for it. Luther was less radical and maintained the liturgical year and the lectionary that belonged to it.
The civil authorities that joined ranks with the Calvinistic Reformation, in most cases did not want to go as far as Calvin did. So, for example, the most important Christian feast days were maintained in The Netherlands. The churches there in the final analysis acquiesced. That is why we as Reformed churches annually commemorate these feast days. Article 53 of the Church Order prescribes that the acts of salvation which the congregation commemorates on these days ought to be proclaimed. We should be glad that that is so. It is good to commemorate God's great deeds as a congregation. Giving these commemorations a clear place, in our opinion, is a Scriptural given as well.
That, however, is something different from observing a liturgical year in which the whole of ecclesiastical life is dominated by a number of liturgical highlights. The danger is real that we then again become fixated on our own created holy seasons rather than on the holy God. God, indeed, put His stamp on history but He wants to take us along to the completion of that history. He does not want us to be absorbed by the past, nor does He satisfy us with that. The thematization according to the liturgical year has, therefore, in our opinion a darker side.
Yet, that is not a reason to dismiss an expanded thematization. We would not want to miss its advantages. There are other ways than the liturgical year to deal with that. Since the Reformation it was tried with the so-called 'lectio continua.' This meant that the Bible was simply dealt with from cover to cover. That form of thematization is in the final analysis untenable; it inevitably leads to an enormous one-sidedness and an impoverishment of the preaching.
It was not done so much from a need for thematization, but more likely as an attempt to curb any manner of arbitrariness on the part of the minister. That thought is sympathetic, but nevertheless clouded. We must assume that the minister under the guidance of the Holy Spirit is capable of making a responsible choice from Holy Scriptures as starting point for his work of preaching.
On the basis of these choices the worship services could be subject to further thematization, when the minister, preferably in consultation with the consistory, yearly or half-yearly puts together a preaching roster. Such a roster can be an enormous support for catechism classes, for the work of Bible study societies, and further enables each member of the congregation to prepare himself well for the worship service.
When, in such a roster, holidays and feast days are taken into account, and when a number of Sundays are kept 'free,' the advantages of an expanded thematization are optimally utilized, while the disadvantages for the most part are avoided.
The catechism preaching
The Catechism preaching is rooted in the time of the Reformation. You could call this preaching the reformational counterpart of the liturgical year. Over against the rituals and the holy seasons of the Roman church the Reformers placed the doctrine of Holy Scripture as the way of our salvation. By summarizing the message of Scripture in all kinds of catechetical documents, the Reformers tried to win the hearts of the believers for this doctrine. The use of the Catechism in the worship service was the designated means for it. We as churches have maintained the catechism preaching because the summary of the Christian doctrine as starting point has made for a balanced proclamation of the Gospel.
This phenomenon is not without controversy. Various sister churches have difficulty with it. They take the point of view that only a (Bible) text can be used as starting point for the sermon. There are, however, good arguments for maintaining the practice. The Bible is not a succession of single texts, but contains a clear doctrine, as is emphasized by the apostles. A summary of this doctrine can serve very well as a starting point for the preaching as long as its connection to the Bible is clearly shown. The catechism preaching must, however, be Gospel proclamation and not become a doctrinal treatise.
Since we as churches maintain this system, we have themes set in advance for nearly half of our worship services. Yet, we could get much more out of it than we currently do. This, in particular, is caused by the fact that we as churches have not made an agreement about the use of the Catechism, so that each congregation follows its own order. Also the manner in which the Catechism is followed (gone through) makes it almost impossible to make firm connections between catechism classes and the worship service, as well as with the other activities in the congregation.
The most important cause of this is the Catechism's division into 52 Lord's Days, which acts too much as a straight jacket for our present ecclesiastical life. Such a division constantly clashes with holidays, Christian feast days and Lord Supper celebrations. This makes it almost impossible to cover the whole Heidelberg Catechism in the course of one year. Even though a certain congregation may be successful in doing this, there is always a segment of the congregation that will miss the explanation of certain Lord's Days because of holiday time.
We, therefore, support the idea 1of spreading the treatment of the Catechism over two years, and in doing so to take the holidays, Christian feast days and Lord Supper celebrations into account. If such a roster were to be kept throughout the federation, we would, indeed, have a worthy counterpart of the liturgical year. That, in turn, could have great benefits, for the life of the church.