Same Liturgies, Different Year

The next three Sundays at Bethlehem are festivals that are always celebrated on the next-to-last Sunday in October (Confirmation Sunday), the last Sunday in October (Reformation Sunday), and the first Sunday in November (All Saints Sunday).  Some parishes celebrate Confirmation on Pentecost, but that day is so full that the significance of Affirmation of Baptism gets lost.

So this Sunday we will celebrate with several young people as they claim this faith for themselves.  Our youth director has had two or three members of each class preach on this day for many years; this year we’ll hear from three of these remarkable people.  They never fail to amaze me.

Reformation marks the anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing the 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg in 1517 on All Hallows’ Eve (October 31st), which (unbeknownst to him) started the Protestant Reformation.

All Saints’ Day, which is actually November 1st, is a day of remembrance of “…all the saints, who from their labors rest” as the great Ralph Vaughan Williams hymn declares.

We don’t change much at all in these liturgies from year to year.  There is a remarkable concentration of the continuum of human existence in these three Sundays, and we’ve found that minimal changes help the assembly to see that pattern.  And interestingly, the pattern moves backwards.

This Sunday, for Confirmation, we see the present/future of the church.  We are reminded that God is indeed still speaking, and in concrete terms.  I see a lot of trust in the day.  Parents have trusted the church to teach their kids, the church has trusted the parents in turn to be a part of that process, and now we pass that trust to these young people – we trust them to fulfill their affirmation “to live among God’s faithful people; to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper; to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed; to serve all people, following the example of Jesus; and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.”  And one of the best parts of the day is that sitting in the pews will be many of their peers, who have already made this affirmation over the past few years – waiting to affirm their support for their friends.  They understand so completely, so deeply what it means to be the “beloved community.”

On Reformation, we see an intersection of the past, present, and future.  Ecclesia semper reformanda est is the classic phrase – “the church is always being reformed.”  While we are thankful for the events in the 16th century that led to reform, we keep our focus on Christ – “solus Christus”, one of the five “solae” of the Reformation.  The others are sola Scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, and soli Deo gloria.  More on that in another post, another day.

Every year, the second lesson on Reformation is taken from Romans 3 – “for we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”  This was the breakthrough text for Luther.  We use a mixture of old and new music, a variety of styles of liturgy, in order to reflect the semper part of that phrase – ALWAYS.  This year, the ELCA’s 25th anniversary motto undergirds this too:  Always Being Made New.

All Saints’ Sunday brings this sequence full circle:  we now look to the past.  The near past, the distant past, the ANCIENT past.  Individual saints have their own feast days, but All Saints is the day we remember them all, together with those we’ve known who have died.  This is a day when we will hear about “the communion of saints” in more than just the creed.

John Buchanan, editor and publisher of The Christian Century magazine, suggests a great image for the communion of saints:  “balcony people.”  People who have helped form your life and faith, be they known to you (a grandparent, perhaps) or unknown (possibly St. Catherine of Siena).  Think of the State of the Union address each January – the President’s invited guests are sitting in the balcony with the First Lady, and the President highlights their stories in the address.  Think of yourself in such a position, looking up to the balcony to acknowledge and give thanks to YOUR “balcony people.”  Who might they be?

And then think of all those balcony people – yours and everyone else’s – seated at an endless banquet table.  The Feast to Come.  The Communion of Saints.

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast

Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host

Singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:  Alleluia!  Alleluia!

(“For All the Saints”, text, William W. How, 1823-1897)

So within the ancient form of worship, surrounded by ancient words as well as words of today, these three Sundays place us firmly in our present, yet with a part of us grasping the past and the future at the same time.  Alleluia indeed!