Note from CM: For many in evangelical traditions, the celebration of a special season around Christmas leads into a long period before the next special season of the church around Holy Week and Easter. There is little appreciation for seasons such as Epiphany. In my opinion, this is a great loss, for it is in seasons such as Epiphany that we focus on emphases that are sorely lacking in much American Christian religion. Our focus on “truth” and dogmatic theology rather than on narrative theology and the power of story betrays our lack of acceptance of the Bible as it is actually written and given to us as God’s people.
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Living in God’s Story
Spiritual theology, using Scripture as text, does not so much present us with a moral code and tell us, “Live up to this,” nor does it set out a system of doctrine and say, “Think like this.” The biblical way is to tell a story and invite us, “Live into this – this is what it looks like to be human in this God-made and God-ruled world; this is what is involved in becoming and maturing as a human being.” We don’t have to fit into prefabricated moral and mental or religious boxes before we are admitted into the company of God. We are taken seriously just as we are and given place in his story – for it is, after all, God’s story. None of us is the leading character in the story of our lives. God is the larger context and plot in which all our stories find themselves. (Eugene Peterson)
God created humans, so the old Jewish saying goes, because he loved stories so much. What we have in the Bible is His Story; as Peterson calls it, God’s “immense, sprawling, capacious narrative.”
How did God make the world into a place fit for humankind? People may want to analyze and come up with scientific models, but God tells stories. Why is the world in the shape it’s in, filled with selfishness, conflict, and trouble? Social scientists study data and develop social theory and then policy. God tells us stories about people — people who hide from God in shame, people who refuse to accept that they are their brothers’ keepers, individuals, families, and nations that live for money, sex, and power. Do you want to know how God works to turn the world around? Look at this gaggle of slaves, set free from the world’s powers, and how God shapes them through a journey home. Stories. About people. About life. Stories that, together, become the Story.
Oh sure, there are sayings too. Commandments. Instructions. Warnings. Promises. Reassurances. Propositional truth is spoken, sages impart wisdom, prophets spout diatribes, psalmists chant inspired lyrics, apostles write Gospels and epistles, but these words are spoken always and ever in the context of what God is doing on the ground, in the lives of people, as the Story plays out.
When the Promised One came in the Story’s decisive act, he too told stories. What is God like? Let me tell you about this father who had two sons. What is his Kingdom like? The kingdom of God is like a farmer, who went out to sow seeds in his field…. What will it be like when the Kingdom comes in fullness? Well, let’s hear a story about a great banquet. His own life, in fact, becomes the greatest story ever told — an unforgettable narrative played out in familiar locales: Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Nazareth, Galilee, Golgotha, the Garden.
And when Jesus disappears from human sight, exalted to heaven, the Story goes on. From Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria, and even to the uttermost parts of the earth.
The simplest answer to the question, “What does it mean to live a Christian life?” is: It means to take our place in God’s Story.
Just like the people of Israel in every generation are taught to view themselves as those who have Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as their patriarchs, as those who have been redeemed from slavery in Egypt, who are cared for by God in the wilderness, made a holy nation at Sinai, and led into the Promised Land, so Christians see themselves as the new Israel, the people of God formed by the Story of Israel’s Messiah. Called by Jesus to follow him, we walk with him among the poor and needy, we scratch our heads and try to figure out his teaching, we receive fish and bread from his hands and distribute it to the hungry, we turn to him when our boat is overwhelmed by the storm, in awe we see him transfigured in glory on the Mount, when he stoops to wash our feet we blush in shame, we sense impending doom in Gethsemane, we weep helplessly and feel all hope leave our hearts as he breathes his last on the Cross, our mouths drop open in bewilderment when he appears alive and transformed among us.
This is our Family Story, our heritage. It is who we are. We are Christ-ians. In each generation, we tell our children the family name and what it’s all about. We recall the stories. We celebrate the family holidays and mark the special occasions. We practice the family rituals. In baptism we relive every Biblical story about how God brought his people safely through the waters, from life to death, from chaos to new creation. At the Lord’s Table, we give thanks for God’s provision and receive sustenance as we feast together in love and fellowship. When we marry, we speak of Cana, remember water turned to wine, and share the joy. At the grave, our grief is tempered by hope of resurrection and new creation — concepts made real by the fact that it happened before — in our family! It is our Story!
Following the Church Year is how we do it. The seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost form our family traditions.
- In Advent, we take our place in the Story alongside the people of the First Covenant, who longed for God to rend the heavens and come down that this groaning world might give birth to a new creation.
- In Christmas, we celebrate the Incarnation of the Promised One, who joined us in our poverty that we might have our Father’s eternal riches.
- In Epiphany, we follow and watch as Jesus is baptized and set apart for ministry. We walk with him through the villages and towns of Palestine, amazed at each word and act which shows the compassion and glory of God.
- In Lent, we learn that following him means taking up our own cross. He bids us come and die with him. We know this death has arisen from our willfulness; we recognize our failures, weakness, our sins, and utter hopelessness apart from him. Without Jesus, our story is “ashes to ashes.”
- In Holy Week, we join him in the streets, in the Temple, in the upper room, in Gethsemane. We stand at a distance in stunned disbelief as Roman soldiers nail him to the Cross. Overwhelmed by the shock of grief, we return home in silence.
- On Easter Sunday, and for fifty days following, it is suddenly and unexpectedly springtime. Light breaks through — Jesus is alive! God raised him from the dead. We see him, we hear him, we touch him — we try to take it in. He ascends to his Father, and bids us wait for the next part of the Story to begin.
- On Pentecost, it does. Fire falls from heaven! Good News is proclaimed to all people, in their own languages! Jerusalem is shaken. The Church is born. No matter who you are, or what you’ve done, you can join the family. Come, take your place in the Story! It’s all about Jesus! For everyone, everywhere.
Practicing the Church Year is one of the best ways by which we can live in the Story.
The concept should not be unusual to us. Our families, communities, and nations celebrate special days and seasons annually. We follow a pattern of life that forms our identity. These commemorations reinforce who we are, what we believe, how we live, and what our values are.
Just so, in God’s family, the cycle of the Church Year has been developed so that we might live in the story of the God who created us, redeemed us, and is making us new in Christ forever.