One of the foundational structures of Anglican Spirituality is an interconnected system of liturgical cycles based on the passage of time. Every day, every week, and every year has a spiritual logic to it that enables and equips the community of God’s people to grow, celebrate, mourn, and worship together.
Are there any examples of these ‘liturgical cycles’ in Scripture? Absolutely yes!
- First of all when God “rested from all his works” on the seventh day, he blessed it and made it holy. This account from Genesis 2 predates the Law of Moses, thus reminding us that the concept of the Sabbath is not simply a matter of Old Covenant Law, but something more ancient, rooted in the very works of God himself.
- When the Law of Moses was instituted, not only was the Sabbath Day given a set of rules for its proper observance, but so was a Sabbath Year and a Jubilee Year and a collection of holy feast and fast days throughout the year. Leviticus 23 summarizes the four major observances of the Old Covenant calendar.
- Beyond the Law, the Jews were free to add to their liturgical calendar as appropriate. In the book of Esther a new holiday called Purim was instituted as a remembrance of their salvation from destruction at the hands of the Persians. Similarly, when the Second Temple was being re-purified after its desecration (described in 1 Maccabees 4 and following), the holy oil for the lamps miraculously did not run out, and so the festival of lights (Hanukkah) was instituted.
- And yes, even in the New Testament, there are two separate references to St. Paul celebrating the feast of Pentecost as a Christian: Acts 20:16 and 1 Corinthians 16:8.
Doesn’t the Bible have some harsh words for celebrating holidays?
- Yes, many of the Old Testament Prophets were very critical of the people celebrating Sabbaths, New Moons, and other festivals while practicing works of unrighteousness. Even a number of the Psalms put down the burnt offerings, saying instead to “offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving.” This was not a denigration of the holidays themselves, but of the hypocrisy of people who were simply going through the motions.
- As for the New Testament, there’s a notable line in Romans 14:5 which basically asserts that the observation of holy days is a secondary matter that cannot be dogmatized. Some argue that it asserts flat out that “all days are alike.” But honestly, because the context is more likely a rebuke of clinging to Pagan or Old Covenant festivals, this verse cannot be so easily applied to a Christianized calendar, much less the Sabbath Day which God clearly “made holy” in creation.
So if this is a secondary matter, why is there a Christian calendar at all?
- As any musician or other performer knows, repetition is an effective learning tool. So having liturgical cycles of hours, days, and seasons can be a healthy spiritual discipline.
- These liturgical cycles are also formative in our prayer lives and our spirituality, partly from the repetition, partly from their broad coverage over time.
- By Christianizing our view of time, we move just a little further away from living “of the world.” In particular, this is accomplished by linking times of day, days of the week, and seasons of the year to aspects of the Gospel story.
What are some examples of how these liturgical cycles effect Anglican worship?
- The time of day determines which Office you pray (Morning, noonday, Evening, or compline). These offices have various canticles and prayers which highlight particular aspects of the Gospel (resurrection in the morning, penitence in the evening, and so forth).
- The day of the week determines how you end Morning Prayer: the Great Litany is traditionally to be prayed every Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday.
- The season of the year determines if we read/sing the Gloria in the Eucharist service (it’s omitted in Lent, and often omitted in Advent too).
The Christian Day
Before Christ, Jewish patterns of daily worship were well-established; based heavily upon the cycle of daily sacrifices in the Temple required by the Law of Moses. While the Priests were offering sacrifices every morning and evening, faithful Jews throughout the country (and beyond) would gather in the synagogues to pray. This practice of simultaneous prayer in multiple locations reinforced a sense of unity among God’s people, no matter how far across the globe they’re scattered. In the Christian era, unsurprisingly, this practice has been taken up in various forms throughout history.
The official Anglican form of this tradition is Morning and Evening Prayer (symbolized the innermost colored ring in the picture above), collecting and simplifying preexisting monastic practices (the second ring in the picture above) into disciplines all can participate in.
The Christian Week
One of the most radical cultural changes from the Old Covenant to the New is the shift of focus from the Holy Sabbath (Saturday) to the Lord’s Day (Sunday). So the traditional Jewish fast days of Monday & Thursday were also redistributed to Wednesday & Friday to reflect the Gospel pattern of Good Friday & Easter Sunday. Wednesdays have long been a secondary fast day for Christians, as represented in Anglicanism by the praying of the Great Litany on Wednesdays (alongside Sundays & Fridays). Additionally, Thursdays are sometimes considered with a Eucharistic focus, applying Maundy Thursday to the pattern of each week, though this is not officially noted in Anglican tradition.
The Christian Year
The Christian year is centered around Easter and Christmas. It is a double cycle of preparation (Advent & Lent in purple), celebration (Christmas & Easter in gold), and reflection (Epiphanytide & the-season-after-Trinity-Sunday in green). Overall, the year is constructed around the historic life of Christ and the spiritual applications for us in this & every age. While the days and weeks mostly impact the Office, the seasons of the year mostly impact the Sunday Eucharist.
Although the classical Prayerbooks do not offer very much direction regarding the differences between each season, much of Anglican practice here is based on prior tradition.