Preaching on Festival Sundays, Part 2

In the previous article, I took up two matters that shape the way we preach on church holidays and festivals:

  • the way in which the church’s calendar of festivals offers believers an overarching story by which to make sense of their lives;
  • the way our interpretation of any biblical passage is shaped by many things “outside the text,” including where it falls in the church year.

In this second article, I’ll explore the distinct opportunities festivals offer preachers to render vividly the Christian story. I will look at three opportunities, in particular, each tied to a specific challenge.

I. Festivals that are not well known must be reclaimed.

The pattern of festivals we observe is not set in stone. This is as true of our national holidays as it is for our church ones. Some years ago, Armistice Day was a significant holiday, though few observe it today. Similarly, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day has taken shape as a significant holiday in our own generation. In the history of the church’s celebration, Christ the King is a relatively new festival, Palm Sunday has been transformed to the Sunday of the Passion, and Ascension Day rarely draws the attention it once did.

For those festivals that are infrequently kept or not well known, the primary task for the preacher is to teach the significance of the day. The point is not simply to give more information. Rather, it is to make the festival, and the larger pattern and story it points to, three dimensional enough that worshipers may hear through this festival the proclamation of God’s action in Christ for us and the entire world. Which festivals are not well known will vary from context to context, but the opportunity to teach the faith (precisely because of the novelty of the festival) remains the same.

For instance, All Saints Sunday offers an opportunity to focus attention on our congregants “saintliness” in that they have been sanctified, made holy, and set apart for God’s work in Holy Baptism. Similarly, we might reclaim Ascension Day as a chance to extend the call of the original disciples to become witnesses to today’s disciples. Ash Wednesday, with it’s odd ritual of imposing ashes and even odder pairing of biblical text (arguing against imposing ashes), may lead us to reflect more acutely on our mortality. Thereby, we might focus on the significance of Christ’s journey to the cross we will observe during Lent.

Each day holds its own unique possibility for telling the Christian story so that hearers can imagine themselves a part of the ongoing story of God’s work to love, bless, and save the whole world. The key to rendering this story vividly is to offer just enough background, just enough history, or just enough of the back story for this particular day to serve as a marker or milestone to the larger pattern and story the church year presents.

II. Well known festivals invite renewal.

When the festival is well known, the challenge is almost the opposite. Worshipers are more likely to be too familiar with the holiday to have it be anything but routine, or worse, have its churchly significance lost among the cultural overlays attending it. In this case, the preacher’s task is to find a new angle, a different perspective, on the festival at hand. Then, the sermon and celebration might burst through our expectations to speak the old word in a fresh way. so that we might perceive God’s activity in Christ for us and all the world.

Paying attention to the details of the biblical text is often the homiletical key to achieving this goal. Martin Luther, for instance, once shaped a Christmas sermon around the angels’ proclamation of good news “for you,” noting that their message is not that Christ is born, but that Christ is born “for us.” By paying attention to this detail, he went on to say that the “news” that God exists, or that God has come in the flesh in Christ, makes little difference to us (indeed, may be threatening to us) if we do not hear that God is essentially “for us.”

Other details offer a similar promise. The significance of Mary recognizing Jesus when he calls her by name in the Easter reading from John might lead a preacher to reflect on the intimacy by which God calls us. Or the herald’s word to the terrified women to tell the disciples and Peter, the one who denied his Lord, about the resurrection offers a chance to acknowledge God’s particular concern for those who are in deepest turmoil. These and other details may provide the key to opening up the evangelical message of a particular passage and festival so that it can speak the mercy and goodness of God anew.

III. Secular holidays are not beneath the preacher’s attention.

Finally, preachers should not be afraid to claim other days as worthy of the attention of the Church. Labor Day provides an excellent opportunity to lift up the vocation of all the baptized to serve God through their labor. Thanksgiving, while offering a complicated mixture of national and ecclesial concerns, nevertheless orients us to confess that God is the giver of all good things. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day present an opportunity to highlight the role and responsibility of parents as God’s representatives on earth.

This last example deserves further consideration on two levels. First, I realize that some pastors resist the incursion of such “secular” celebrations into the church calendar. But if everyone is giving attention to mothers or fathers on these days, does it not seem odd that the church would ignore offering any perspective or insight into a Christian view of parenting? At the very least we can pray for mothers and fathers and all who exercise care for our children on these days.

Second, I also realize that these can be painful days for those who did not have very good parents or who very much wanted to have children but could not. In this case, simply acknowledging the complicated, and at times painful, elements of the day for some hearers will help them not feel overlooked and assist them in hearing the message.

While not urging inclusion of every day being lifted up in the culture, I would suggest that capable preachers are always on the lookout for ways by which to communicate the gospel, and that the popular culture offers means by which to do so.

Festivals, both sacred and secular, contain pieces of a larger story that speaks to identity. Whether well known, obscure, or complicated, such days invite our careful attention to how they might speak again and anew of the ultimate identity God offers us through Christ. By telling the Christian story and teaching the faith through such festivals, we might provide a celebration that is, to borrow the old words, meet, right, and salutary.