“Enmeshed Encounter:” why the Christian Year and the life cycle of Jesus matter more than ever before

I am going to say something that you have not often heard in your daily living: I love a good funeral.

Organizations and strategists often begin to define who they are by deciding what they are not. In that same spirit, I say that I love a good funeral because I have born witness to some very bad funerals. Some of these I witnessed from the pews. Unfortunately, the others I experienced as the pastor officiating the service. I have left family members out of obituary readings. I once mispronounced a name . . . over and over again. There was a funeral during which I had to call the police to break up a fist fight. I have attended funerals during which the slideshow lasted more than twenty minutes and neither the presence of God during suffering nor the resurrection of Christ offered to us upon death were mentioned. More than once, I have participated in a funeral where all of the music was “canned” and the disc or drive that the funeral home brought did not work. So, I can quickly identify what constitutes a good funeral by measuring it against my collection of cringe-worthy memories.

Funerals are milestones remembered almost as powerfully as weddings, if not more so. Pastors, wedding planners, and parents often say, “No matter what goes wrong, at the end of the day you will still be married.” It rains on the day of outdoor weddings. Ringbearers and attendants forget the rings. Sound systems fail. These memories often become fond memories. “Remember when the unity candle wouldn’t light?” “Remember when we left the marriage license at home on the counter and someone had to drive all the way back to get it?” These events are endearing.

There is no comparison for a funeral. If the pastor mispronounces the name of the deceased throughout the entire service, that does not become a fun memory for the family. If the music prepared by the funeral home – music selected for its significance – does not play properly, people do not chuckle about it later. A wedding is a “Hello!” to a new life together. A funeral feels as final as the Great Commission’s “to the end of the age” or Kris Kristofferson’s compelling choruses: “Love is the last thing to go,” and “Thank you, for a life that I call happy.” Like re-telling a good story the whole audience already knows, at a funeral you do not want to mess with the formula.

I attended a good funeral (in the UMC, we call it a “Service of Death and Resurrection”) at a church during the second week of Advent. I was there to sing and play the piano on a team with another pastor who led the liturgy for the service from the pulpit. This family’s loved one died in Advent, close to the season of Christmas, and as the Church looked again for the coming of Christ into the world, this family was preparing for their first Christmas with an empty chair.

The service was beautiful. In fact, this service of death and resurrection heavily impacted my desires for my own funeral – later rather than sooner! This was a full-blown worship service. It was clear from the design of the service, the participation of the congregation, and the leadership of the pastor that we were there to celebrate a life as well as celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. We sang congregational hymns. We prayed together. There was call and response. The homily was a home run. Yet, none of this is what I remember most vividly about the service.

During the processional, as the family was seated, an acolyte entered the sanctuary and lit the candles on the altar. The family was seated and I stopped playing the piano. At this point, instead of the pastor beginning what we call The Word of Grace – which is how most services in our tradition begin – he halted the order and walked to the Advent wreath. I was expecting to hear:

Dying, Christ destroyed our death.

Rising, Christ restored our life.

Christ will come again in glory.

As in baptism Name put on Christ,

so in Christ may Name be clothed with glory.

Here and now, dear friends, we are God’s children.

What we shall be has not yet been revealed;

but we know that when he appears, we shall be like him,

for we shall see him as he is.

Those who have this hope purify themselves

as Christ is pure.

“A Service of Death and Resurrection” Copyright © 1979

The pastor lit the first two Advent candles on the wreath and said:

The Christian Year marches on.”

I was stunned. The rest of the congregation may not have noticed or cared. For me, however, this was a profound statement about the life cycle of Jesus Christ. Advent; Christmas; Epiphany; Lent; Easter; Ascension; Pentecost; Ordinary Time; Kingdomtide; and back again. For the Jesus follower, life perennially happens alongside the life of Jesus! Because of this, the Church marking time throughout the calendar year with its Christian Year should impact our attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors.

In Advent, we ask every heart to prepare him room. We trust in tired night-shift shepherds. We consider that the path the Holy Family took is now divided by a wall.

During Christmas, we celebrate the introduction of the infant God in the manger into the world. We consider the words of the prophets of old. We trade in ashes for garland. Joy to the world, the Lord has come.

During Epiphany, we contemplate the fulfilment of prophecy and the change in the course of the history of the world that would come from the life of Jesus, and that a sword would pierce our own hearts, too. We celebrate a light shining that the darkness could not overcome, drawing the wisest of the age and the humblest of servants to his cradle.

During Lent, we consider that Christ’s baptism and temptation in the wilderness was a model for resisting the temptation to sin and the need to fast. We see his transfiguration and full divinity. We see disciples and townsfolk arguing over who Jesus is, who is more powerful, and who is more important. We see Christ continually pulling people back to the basic tenants of his first two sermons.

During Holy Week, we remember a New Covenant and that we must love with the love of Jesus. We remember that to rise on Easter Day we must die with Christ on Friday.

During Eastertide, we celebrate the resurrection appearances of Christ, faith in the midst of doubt, forgiveness in the midst of shortcomings, and the clarion call: “Do not be afraid.”

At the Ascension, the angels in white speak through time and space to you and me and ask, “Why do you stand there looking upward?” This Christ is coming back, and until then we have work to do.

At Pentecost, we remember that the Church began because those gathered in Jerusalem went out into the world and engaged with new people in new places. We recall how fully the early apostles embraced the movement of the Holy Spirit.

During Ordinary Time and the Kingdomtide, we put everything we have learned and embraced into practice. We do good works. Christ is risen, and here’s what I’m going to do about it!

Throughout these major seasons are other events: Crowning Christ with many crowns; celebrating World Communion; honoring All Saints; remembering Christ’s baptism and our own baptisms. What an immense waste for the life cycle of Jesus to remain trapped within the walls of a church many haven’t been in for over a year and to which they may never go back?

Right now it is Ordinary Time. Right now, we are in that part of the life of the early Church wherein people began meeting in homes; breaking bread together; singing and praying; giving to all as any had need; and hearing from the teaching of the apostles. THIS is what the Church should be doing right now. THIS is possible even in the midst of COVID-19, denominational uncertainty, political unrest, and harm done to people whose skin is determined to be the wrong color and whose love is determined to be incompatible. It is Ordinary Time. High time to put your faith into practice, share the love of Christ, and resist the evil, injustice, and oppression in its many forms all around us. It is time to introduce the salvation Jesus offers to people who do not yet know that they were created in the image of God and called very good.

Perhaps what we need right now is a bad wedding and a good funeral!

When you wake up in the morning, and you look at what time it is, you are not merely in the time indicated by your phone or your watch. You are in a particular time in the life of Jesus! If it is Advent, consider who has room and who doesn’t. If it is Pentecost, consider whether or not you are stagnating in Jerusalem while the world is burning. If it is Holy Week, consider if your church’s love matches the love with which Jesus loves you, tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners.

I’m typing this at 2:12 p.m. on June 2, 2021. It isn’t just June 2nd. Right now, in the life of Jesus, people in his own hometown are deciding whether or not he really is who he says he is, really can work the miraculous, or if he is possessed by Satan. That’s what time it is. Ordinary Time. Go out and do good works time.

Church is changing. The liturgy is reviving. The lectionary is being observed. The life of Jesus is getting a heartbeat again as people are asking and trying to answer, “Can these dry bones live?” He died, he rose, he is coming again. The best way to prepare is to jump with both feet into the life cycle of Jesus. To slap the Christian Year on top of the calendar year. To make your plans based on where Jesus is, and not when the Cowboys are playing or the plane tickets are cheaper.

The Christian Year and the Life Cycle of Jesus matter now more than ever before. It is true today. It will be true tomorrow. From insurrection to injustice; from bad weddings to good funerals; from how we treat each other online to how we treat each other face-to-face; from the culture of quarantine back into the toxic culture of busyness . . .

we have been incorrectly counting time.

It isn’t 2:20. It is Ordinary Time. It is time for good works and the apostles’ teaching. Forgive us, we pray; free us for joyful obedience, through Jesus Christ, our Lord.

I hope to eventually die before my church’s Vacation Bible School, during Ordinary Time. I hope the church is wildly decorated to receive the children, and I hope they don’t touch a thing.

The Christian Year marches on.

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