Ask almost any preacher, and she will respond that preaching on festival days is more challenging, more exciting, and sometimes more daunting than on other days.
Why? For starters, there often seems to be higher expectations for the big festivals. With larger than average crowds in attendance on Christmas Eve, for instance, who doesn't want to preach a great sermon?
At the same time, there is often a complicated cultural overlay, and even mingling of meanings, attending our major festivals. Joseph, Mary, and the Baby Jesus keep company with Santa, Rudolf, and snowmen not only on front lawns, but also in the imaginative landscape of many listeners.
Conversely, lesser known festivals have the opposite difficulty, seeming archaic to many worshipers, if not unnecessary.
Keeping in mind two elements will help preachers navigate these challenges to offer compelling and faithful festival sermons.
I. The church year offers a pattern for making sense of our lives in the world. Festivals are the major markers of that pattern.
The church year offers worshipers a particular identity by preserving and bringing into present experience those events that most define who and what we are as disciples of Jesus Christ. Historically, the church year began as the way to immerse would-be converts into the story and mystery of our Lord's passion. Then, it grew over time to encompass all the stories of his life, death, and resurrection. By immersing hearers in the story of Christ, the church orders the events of Jesus' history and seeks to offer a way to interpret all of our history.
There are two main movements in this pattern. The first, called the Season of Christ, runs from Advent to the last Sunday of Easter, and rehearses the significant events of Christ's life. It moves from his birth, baptism, and the beginning of his ministry through his journey to Jerusalem, passion, death, and resurrection, concluding with his Ascension and promise of the Holy Spirit. In a nutshell, the dominant question this half of the church year seeks to answer is: "Who is Jesus?"
The second season, called the season of the Church, runs from Pentecost to Christ the King Sunday. Moving from the calling of the disciples quickly into stories of Jesus' teaching and miracles, it immerses us in the life, teaching, and ministry of our Lord so as to nurture the growth of the community of his followers. This season addresses the question: "What does it mean to be a disciple of Christ?"
Before going any further, it's important to recognize that the Church year is not the only pattern that offers its adherents a way to make sense of their lives. Other patterns compete for the attention and allegiance of our people. Some focus on nationalistic commemorations (recall fireworks at the 4th of July) and others focus on sports and recreation (think of the ritual, pageantry, and anticipation associated with the Super Bowl). But perhaps the most compelling competitor is lodged in our consumer-consumption culture. Along with venerating Halloween (the second-highest grossing holiday) and Mother's Day (a holiday created to sell greeting cards), this culture and pattern also marks Christmas as its most significant season.
The tricky thing is that these patterns overlap. Think not only of Christmas but also of Thanksgiving, as much an American creation-story as it is religious celebration. Matters become complicated for the preacher, who is tempted to scold the congregation for attending to the wrong festivals or, worse, for valuing the wrong things about the festival in question ("Let's put 'Christ' back into 'Christmas'!"). However, the primary question is not whether these other patterns are inherently good or bad -- they are, of course, a mix. Rather, the question is how much weight they can bear. In other words, which of these patterns will offer a narrative of sufficient depth and breadth so as to address ultimate questions?
This is what the church year intends -- to teach the faith so that disciples of Jesus may be drawn year in and year out into the mystery of God's love for the world in Jesus Christ; and in light of that mystery, find a measure of meaning and purpose for their lives in this world. We preach festivals, then, because they are the chief markers, signposts, and narrative centers of this larger pattern. By faithfully rendering these celebrations, we may actually be encountered by the claims and presence of the Christ.
II. Biblical texts offer a different layer of meaning on festivals.
For the last couple of centuries we've assumed that the meaning of a text is identical to what its original author intended to convey, and therefore, the meaning of any given biblical passage is located in the past. Exegesis, from this point of view, is primarily a matter of recovery. More recently, however, that assumption has been called into question, as we've discovered that meaning is larger than intention and cannot be contained in the past. Further, Christian exegetes don't work only with individual documents, but with a collection of writings (canon). These are put to use to specific ends (worship) in light of contemporary situations and concerns (context). For this reason, meaning is located very much in the present, arising from the interaction between a particular biblical passage and an equally particular worshiping community. While exegesis involves a measure of recovery, it is equally, if not more so, a matter of discovery.
Examples of this point are endless. Think of how different Psalm 23 sounds when heard on the 4th Sunday of Easter each year, versus on a June Sunday in Pentecost once every three years, or at a memorial service any time of the year. Consider how we hear Jesus' encounter before Pilate during Holy Week or on Christ the King Sunday. The passages in question mean something different depending on their given ecclesial context and use.
Ultimately, part of what determines what a text "means" is what is happening around it: baptism, the Lord's Supper, a wedding, church dedication, stewardship campaign, anniversary, national holiday, or church festival-- all of these things influence how we hear and understand a text. Are these interpretations the original author's intention? Probably not. But meaning arises from the interaction of text and reader-- otherwise there is no person to whom the passage can mean anything. Discreet passages therefore mean something different when they are read with other passages on a festival day.
Faced with this reality and task, the tried and true homiletical admonishment to "preach the text, not the day" shows itself to be inadequate. The trouble, as we've seen, is that the "day" influences how we hear and understand the text. The real task, then, is to preach the appointed texts in relation to a specific festival so as to render the larger pattern offered by the church year with sufficient depth that hearers are invited into that pattern, and through it, are encountered by the Risen Christ. While this may be a daunting task, it is always a worthwhile one.