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Naming the Time After Pentecost

Q

Our church celebrates Christmas and Easter, but not the rest of the year. We are bit perplexed by the long stretch from Pentecost to Advent. Help us understand.

Q

What should we name the season after Pentecost? We debate this every year and never quite arrive at consensus.

A

Reformed Worship readers include some churches that follow the Christian year closely, some that follow it loosely, and others that rarely consider it or even resist it. Some of us are deeply aware of the nuances of the Christian year; others are just hearing about it for the first time.

Personally I am profoundly grateful for the Christian year. The more I have studied its origins and lived into its rhythms, the more I discover its profound pastoral wisdom. At the same time, in a Reformed context it is important that it is that wisdom that commends its use rather than a sense of obligation to what might seem to some to be an arbitrary discipline. When it comes to particular days and seasons we observe, we cherish Christian freedom and seek to glean as much wisdom as we can from the whole church in the spirit of Romans 14:5–6 and Colossians 2:16. This question gives us an opportunity to practice this.

Putting Christ at the Center

The Christian year aims to put Jesus at the center of our calendars. The journey from Advent expectation to ascension, and then to Jesus’ sending of the Spirit, is one of the best ways to sanctify our own profoundly human orientation. The Jesus calendar competes with many other calendars for our allegiance: school calendars, sports calendars, the shopping mall calendar, and more. When well-celebrated, a life-of-Jesus calendar is generative for every ministry of the church—evangelism, faith formation, social witness, and more.

Following our annual journey from the anticipation of Jesus’ coming to the sending of the Spirit, starting with the Sunday after Pentecost, the Christian year invites us into a period of time where there is the most room for creativity, freedom, and improvisation.

This is true even for those who follow the Christian year very closely—those committed lectionary users who rarely deviate from its recommended Bible readings. On the Sundays after Pentecost, readings in the Revised Common Lectionary are selected not primarily because of the obvious ways they relate to each other, but because of the way that each type of reading (Old Testament, gospel, New Testament) unfolds a series of semi-continuous readings over time, exploring parts of the Bible not covered in the rest of the year. Theoretically, congregations could choose to focus one year on the unfolding series of Old Testament readings, one year on the New Testament ones, and one year on the gospels. If congregations did this for each of the three cycles of the lectionary, that would offer nine series of services that explore the depths of Scripture.

Many churches that are more “lectionary-informed” in effect embody the spirit of this approach—following the Christian year closely from Advent to Pentecost, then choosing one or more parts of Scripture to explore with particular focus from Pentecost to Advent. For example, a church might commit to explore one Old and one New Testament book each year, with a series of sermons and services on, say, Exodus in the summer and 1 Corinthians in the fall leading up to Advent.

My own view is that our choices about Bible readings should shape the way we name the season rather than the other way around—and we do have many options for names.

Bible Readings that Inform the Season’s Name

Ordinary Time or Season after Pentecost

Some churches refer to this as “ordinary time.” The term “ordinary” has had a fascinating journey. I often hear explanations that assert it’s about “how God’s grace comes to us in the routine and mundane experiences of everyday life.” That’s a beautiful explanation, but it has little to do with the original meaning!

The term originally had more to do with counting. “Ordinary” comes from the Latin word ordinalis (as in the ordinal form of numbers: first, second, third, etc.). When churches count the weeks after Pentecost (e.g., “the tenth Sunday after Pentecost”), they are marking time with ordinal numbers, organizing the weeks that unfold from Pentecost to Advent. Originally there was little sense of this as a coherent season like Advent, Christmastide, Lent, or Eastertide, which are intentional seasons of anticipation and extended celebration. It was simply the numbered series of Sundays after Pentecost. The numbering system helped churches organize readings and music long before the Internet and computer filing systems.

For churches that use the term “season after Pentecost,” I suggest giving a subtitle each summer that points to the Scripture readings on which you’ll focus. A lectionary church that chooses to follow this year’s (year B) lectionary readings, for example, might add a subtitle like A Summer with Samuel, since this year the lectionary leads us through 1 and 2 Samuel.

Churches can also choose to use the term “ordinary time” with the newer explanation about God’s grace in the mundane. For the sake of honesty, I think it’s prudent to find ways of noting that this delightful, Scripturally-sound vision came along much later, almost as an historical-linguistic accident, because of the two different meanings of the word “ordinary.” My only caution with this term is that it could convey the idea that this time in the year is unimportant or “merely ordinary.” That is not the case. Every Sunday is a little Easter. Every day in the Christian life is Pentecostal.

As some noted historians point out, while Christian-year festivals and seasons beautifully call attention to single aspects of the Christian faith, the Sundays that unfold outside of festivals and seasons call attention to the whole, integrated vision of the faith. The focus is not primarily on a single line in the creed, but the whole creed. Perhaps we should call them “whole-creed Sundays”!

Pentecost Season or Trinity Season

Despite the Christian year historically not including any coherent season after Pentecost, some churches have developed a vision of the entire year as a series of seasons. This could potentially help congregations communicate the significance of worship during this season, ideally explaining that this is a newer improvisation on ancient practices.

But in a season-oriented church, the phrase “season after Pentecost” can feel a bit hollow. It doesn’t really convey a vision for the season for the simple reason that it never was designed to do so.

So some churches refer to this as Pentecost Season, reasoning that, like Christmas and Easter, Pentecost is something to be savored. Why not extend the celebration? After all, the Holy Spirit is essential in either obvious or hidden ways in every Bible reading preachers might choose to explore during this season, from the lectionary or not.

This has merit. Most of us need a richer vision of the Holy Spirit. It is so tempting to remake the Holy Spirit into our own image, turning the Holy Spirit into an introvert or extrovert, emphasizing reason or emotion, surprise or habit. It can be very helpful to have an extended season in which we are alert to all the ways the Holy Spirit does not fit in our simplistic either/or categories.

On the other hand, this choice could also obscure the Pentecostal character of the entire Christian year. The Holy Spirit was a main character in the Christmas drama, and it was the Holy Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead on Easter. Without due caution, calling the time Pentecost Season could reinforce our tendency to split our attention on persons of the Trinity (the Father in autumn, the Son starting with Advent, and the Spirit starting with Pentecost)—a risk that, admittedly, is also found in the structures of the Nicene and Apostles’ creeds. What we want instead is Trinitarian concern all year long: proper attention on the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, always aware that they are three in one.

This is why some churches refer to the weeks after Pentecost as Trinity Season, not only celebrating Trinity Sunday during the week after Pentecost, but extending this focus on Trinitarian themes for a longer period of time. The strengths and weaknesses of this name are similar to those of the name Pentecost Season: It’s ideal to call attention over a period of time to God’s triune character (what an inspiring vision this is!), but it can unwittingly suggest that Jesus’ birth, life, and death were not fully Trinitarian when they certainly are.

The Kingdom Season or Season of Creation

In 1937, the Federal Council of Churches proposed that the Sundays from the end of August through the end of the church year be called “kingdomtide.” Many lectionary readings during this time already address key social concerns, and the Council wanted to promote the way that the gospel of Jesus leads to profound social engagement. At its best, this name highlighted how pervasive the kingdom of God is throughout the gospels. But this works only when the Bible readings for the day do actually focus on the kingdom theme, and when this name is used every year then either some key readings are left unexplored or the name ceases to be as meaningful.

More recently, other voices have proposed celebrating a season of creation in autumn, taking time to savor key Bible texts about creation: Genesis 1 and Psalm 104, Job 38 and Psalm 8, Proverbs 8 and Acts 17, John 1 and Colossians 1, and many more. With this adaptation, the shape of the entire year follows the Nicene and Apostles’ creeds, and thus also follows many beautiful, creed-shaped discipleship and faith formation resources (e.g., the Heidelberg Catechism’s section on the creed (Q&A 23–58)).

Questions for Continued Reflection

While not arriving at an answer that fits every situation and context, through my rereading of several histories of the Christian year in preparing to respond to this question, I have found the following questions helpful in shaping the conversation. Whichever decision your congregation arrives at, I hope we all can continue to pursue these together:

  • How can we avoid a narrow judgmentalism that asserts there is only one “correct” approach?
  • How can we compellingly communicate that every Sunday during these seasons is a “Whole Gospel of Christ Sunday” or “Every Line in the Creed Sunday”?
  • How can we embrace the value of semi-continuous or continuous readings and sermon series through particular portions of Scripture during this time—and how can our names for the season reflect that each year?
  • How can we ensure that our worship throughout the year is fully Trinitarian, affirming creation and the beauty of Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God, by using portions of these weeks between Pentecost and Advent in conjunction with our choices of lectionary or non-lectionary Bible readings to call attention to these themes (or any other theme at risk of neglect)?