Friday, June 8, 2012

Is It Trinity or Pentecost Season?

Friday after Trinity Sunday
June 8, 2012

The Lord be with you

Most of the congregations in the LC-MS follow a three-year lectionary cycle and a liturgical calendar that designates our current season as the Pentecost Season. A small, but significant, minority follow a one-year lectionary cycle and a liturgical calendar that designates our current season as the Trinity Season. Both lectionary cycles and liturgical calendars have been approved by the Synod so no one is “wrong” by choosing one system over the other. [For those who are not part of the LC-MS, I should point out that we are not mandated to use either of these systems. A church and its pastor may decide to use a different lectionary system (such as the Revised Common Lectionary) or even abandon lectionary systems entirely. If a church should do this, once again, they are not “wrong.” Each local church and pastor determines what is best for them in their local setting.] So, depending on your local church’s practice, we are either in the Pentecost season or the Trinity season. Many people travel during the summer. They, therefore, might attend a church using a different name for the season than their home church. This could be a little confusing. So I thought I’d post something about how this duel name came about. 

The Church/Liturgical Year did not spring into existence fully fleshed out, but developed over the centuries. The first element was the celebration of Easter, then the Easter Season including the season of Lent and ending with Pentecost Sunday. Easter, celebrated beginning at sundown on Maundy Thursday and concluding at sundown Easter Sunday, was (and is) the most important celebration of the Church Year. Pentecost Sunday was the second most important celebration. The Church Year continued to develop, adding first Epiphany and its season and then the celebration of Christmas with the twelve days of Christmas (which begins Christmas Eve), and its season of preparation called Advent. It is easy enough to see that these seasons focus on Jesus, who he is and what he accomplished.

There was a huge chunk of time that did not fall into these seasons. This was called “ordinary time.” There are two prevailing thoughts about why this name came about. The dominate thought is that “Ordinary Time” gets its name from the word ordinal, meaning “numbered,” since the Sundays of Ordinary Time are expressed numerically (Pentecost/Trinity 3, etc.). Of course, this is also done in the other seasons (twelve days of Christmas, Advent 2, etc.). Others suggest the etymology of “Ordinary Time” is related to our word “ordinary” (which itself has a connotation of time and order, derived from the Latin word ordo). The fact that we don’t know for sure about the origin of the name “Ordinary Time” indicates just how old the name and practice is.

The long expanse of time between Pentecost and Advent came to be numbered as Sundays after Pentecost.

During the early 300s a presbyter named Arius from Alexandria in Egypt began teaching false doctrine concerning the nature of God. In other words, he denied the Trinity. His body of thought is called Arianism and his followers Arians. [Arianism should be clearly distinguished from “Aryanism,” which formed the core of Nazi racial ideology during the twentieth century, and which had nothing whatsoever to do with Arius or his teachings.] While it took most of the century to completely stop the spread of Arius’ poisonous teaching inside the Roman Empire, it remained alive much longer outside the empire. This included “barbarian” tribes, like the Goths and the Vandals, which conquered much of the Western Roman Empire.

Probably in response to Arianism, many regions began to celebrate “Trinity Sunday.” The day of the celebration during the year varied from region to region, but most selected either the Sunday before Advent or the Sunday following Pentecost.
The Islamic Umayyad Empire at its peak

Charles Martel at Tours
A new challenge to the biblical understanding of God as Triune arose on the Arabian Peninsula. Muhammad (c. April 26, 570 – June 8. 632) claimed to have visions from God that utterly rejected the Trinity and the biblical understanding of the person and work of Jesus. Through conquest, he united the Arabian Peninsula, demanding that everyone either convert to his new religion (Islam) or die. After his death, his successors made war on any and all in an effort to spread their new religion. To say they were successful would be an understatement. Within a hundred years the Persian Empire was conquered and most of the Byzantine Empire. They had also jumped the Mediterranean Sea and conquered most of the Iberian Peninsula (where modern day Spain and Portugal are). Many of the areas in Europe that were conquered by the Moslems were Arian, so converting to Islam (which had a similar view of God) was not too big a jump. 100 years after the death of Muhammad, and with a century of nothing but military success behind them, the Moslems crossed the Pyrenees into “Gaul” (modern France), and were stopped cold by the king of the Franks, Charles, henceforth known as Martel—the Hammer. The battle of Tours, on October 11, 732, was a major turning point in history. The Franks were “orthodox” or “catholic” Christians who held to the biblical understanding of God as Triune. Slowly the Moslem invaders were driven out of Europe, with the last area re-conquered in 1492. What this means, for our discussion, is that for over 700 years there was a strong anti-Christian, anti-Trinitarian voice in Europe, the followers of Muhammad.

This Moslem voice would certainly be one of the reasons Trinity Sunday continued to be celebrated, and slowly it became customary to celebrate it on the first Sunday after Pentecost. This was made official in 1334 by Pope John XXII. In doing so, John made it clear that the orthodox understanding of the Trinity was under attack and having a special day to celebrate the Trinity, and a season numbered from it, was to strengthen the faith of the people in this biblical understanding of God. Therefore, the days following Trinity Sunday became known as Sundays after Trinity and the time period was now called the season of Trinity.

We skip forward now to the 16th century and the Protestant Reformation. The Christians who broke from the Roman Church can be divided many ways. One way is in reference to their attitude towards Church Tradition. Some rejected almost all of it while others retained that which could be used with profit once they eliminated elements believed to be objectionable. Members of the first group went so far as to reject the celebration of Christmas because it has the word “mass” in it. They also rejected the Liturgical/Church Year, traditional worship practices, and much more. Lutherans, however, felt from the very beginning that much of the tradition had great value, and set about removing late additions and returning it to an earlier form, which was then used. This included the Church/Liturgical Year. As already said, the practice at this time was to number the “Ordinary Time” following Trinity Sunday as Sundays after Trinity. The Lutherans retained this practice in their Liturgical/Church calendars.

Skip forward again to the 1960s. There was a growing interest in what is called “Liturgical Renewal.” This interest continues to this day. Many new and valuable resources were, and are, being produced. This movement focuses on all aspects of the liturgical life of the Church and Christians, including the Church Year. In 1970 the Roman Catholic Church returned to the older name Pentecost Season and Sundays after Pentecost. Part of the reasoning for returning to the older name was that the threat, posed by Arianism and the Moslems to Christians understanding God as Triune, was past. (This was not the only argument.) Most liturgical protestant churches followed the lead of the Roman Catholic Church. The LC-MS did so with the introduction of the hymnal Lutheran Worship in 1982.

Another aspect of the Liturgical Renewal Movement was changes in the lectionary. For centuries the Church had used a one-year lectionary. Rome, and the Protestants that followed their example, introduced a three-year lectionary. The old one-year lectionary had only two readings assigned to each Sunday (usually a Gospel and an Epistle lesson) and a Psalm (or Introit based on the Psalm of the Day). The changes introduced in the later part of the twentieth century included a third reading from the Old Testament.

Both systems have much to commend them. In recognition of this, in the LC-MS, both options are made available. This is why some of our churches have Sundays after Trinity while others have Sundays after Pentecost.

You can see, and even download, a three-year and/or a one-year LC-MS calendar by going to the following link:

Another happy result of the Liturgical Renewal Movement is that many churches, who once rejected such things as a Liturgical Calendar, are now embracing the Church Year. Many Baptist congregations gladly celebrate Christmas (or at least Christmas Eve) even though 100 years ago most Baptist thought it was too “Catholic.” There are “non-liturgical” churches that celebrate Advent, Lent, and Holy Week. Many “non-liturgical” pastors now gratefully use lectionaries. This is just the “tip of the iceberg.” It would certainly be interesting, if possible, to come back in a hundred years and see where this all is going. Right now, I’m just glad to see large portions of Protestantism accepting practices that have for century after century nourished the spiritual life of believers.

One final thought. Those who use the one-year lectionary get to keep those cool old Latin names like Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima. That is because those names are based on the first words in the old Introits. The three-year lectionary introduced different Introits, so the old names no longer fit.

Blessings in Christ,
Pastor John Rickert

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