A Lay Minister's Guide to the Book of Common Prayer

A Lay Minister's Guide to the Book of Common Prayer

by Clifford W. Atkinson

ISBN: 9780819214546


Published in Education & Reference/Schools & Teaching

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One technical term for the part of the eucharist preceding the Offertory is synaxis It is an important word, because it comes from the same Greek word as "synagogue," reminding us of the source of the ministry of the Word. The synaxis and the Daily Office (Morning or Evening Prayer) come from the same source and share a basic common format: reading of lessons from scripture, a statement of faith, and prayers. Central to a ministry of the Word is the liturgical year, which determines what lessons will be read, what emphasis the service will take. Like the ministry of the Word itself, the pivot of the year is Jewish in origin.

In order to understand the nature of the ministry of the Word, it is important, obviously, to study the structure of the liturgical (Christian) year.

The Liturgical Year

Because the BCP places particular emphasis on the Christian year, it is appropriate to review its nature.

There is a fairly detailed discussion of the Calendar on pp. 15-18 of the BCP. It starts with the statement: The Church Year consists of two cycles of feasts and holy days: one is dependent upon the movable date of the Sunday of the Resurrection or Easter Day; the other, upon the fixed date of December 25, the feast of our Lord's Nativity or Christmas Day" (BCP, p. 15). Since these two cycles, with their seasons of preparation, take up only about half of the year's Sundays, and since those two festal cycles are irregularly and movably placed, the rest of the Sundays must come in two groups of uneven and variable length. There are, then, two classes of Sundays: those associated with the Nativity and Paschal Cycles, which we shall, for want of a better term, call "special" Sundays; those which separate those cycles, which we shall simply call "green" Sundays, after the color used on the altar. The year, then, looks like this:

The Nativity Cycle (Advent through the Feast of the Epiphany)

The Feast of the Baptism of our Lord and the other Sundays after Epiphany

The Paschal Cycle (Ash Wednesday through Pentecost)

Trinity Sunday and the other Sundays after Pentecost

From this are derived six seasons (cf. BCP p. 31ff.):


Christmas and associated feasts


Lent and Holy Week

Easter season

Sundays after Pentecost

Each of these seasons has its own emphasis. In Advent, we are concerned with the preparation for both the first coming of the Messiah, in Bethlehem, and the second coming of the Messiah, as Judge, at the end of all things. (Some of the latter emphasis has been shifted to the Sundays just before Advent, but the thrust remains, nonetheless.) The mood is one of anticipation, a mixture of joy and dread. A careful reading of the Advent hymns in the Hymnal, as well as hymns 462, 598 and 640 will help give a good sense of the season.

The Christmas emphasis is, of course, on the events and the theology surrounding the birth of Jesus. The season proper consists of the twelve days from Christmas to Epiphany. The former concentrates upon the events of our Lord's birth as they are told in Saint Luke's Gospel, the latter on the events as they are recorded in Saint Matthew's Gospel.

The Four Sundays in Advent

Christmas and its associated feasts

The Feast of the Nativity 25 December

The Feast of St. Stephen 26 December

The Feast of St. John 27 December

The Feast of the Holy Innocents 28 December

The Feast of the Holy Name 1 January

The Epiphany 6 January

The Feast of the Baptism of our Lord Sunday after the Epiphany

The Paschal Cycle

The forty days and six Sundays in Lent

Easter and its associated feast

The Feast of the Ascension on the fortieth day of Easter

Pentecost on the fiftieth day of Easter and its associated feast

The Feast of the Trinity First Sunday after Pentecost

Within the cycle of events that might be characterized as "the life of Jesus from shepherds to wise men," there are four other events that are regularly kept. On the day after Christmas, the Feast of Saint Stephen, the first martyr, is observed. Traditionally, he is referred to as a martyr by will and deed, since he wished for martyrdom and received it. On the next day, we commemorate Saint John the Evangelist. He is referred to as a martyr by will but not by deed because, in the tradition it is said that he wished to be a martyr, like the rest of the apostles, but that he was the only one to die a natural death. On the day after that, we keep the Feast of the Holy Innocents, commemorating the Herod's slaughter of the boys under two. They are referred to as martyrs by deed, but not by will because they bore witness to Jesus by their deaths, although they did not will to do so. Taken with the witness of the shepherds, these three witnesses (the word "martyr" means witness) lead up to the Feast of the Epiphany.

On the Epiphany we celebrate the coming of the wise men to the cradle. In the tradition, the Magi came from the three non-semitic races known to the medieval world. Many traditional creche sets, therefore, show the Magi as white, black, and yellow. The tradition says that God called the Magi so that the witness to Jesus could be spread throughout the world.

In addition to the three holy days immediately following the Feast of the Nativity, on its octave we keep the Feast of the Holy Name, which reminds us that the whole event to which we are witnessing is the event that leads to our salvation. As the Book of Acts reminds us, "For there is salvation in no one else, since no other name under the heaven is given to humanity through which we can be saved." (Acts 4:12).

The Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany (which is always January 6), we keep the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord. This is God's witness to Jesus as Messiah. At the baptism, the Holy Spirit personally bore witness that Jesus is, indeed, the "beloved son."

The Epiphany season, which begins with the feast itself, continues after the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord as a green season. Its length is determined by the date of the Feast of the Resurrection. It is to be noted that there is a fixed collect and set of lections that is used for the Last Sunday after Epiphany, regardless of the length of the season. The green portion of the season moves in tone from a reflection of the concern for witness that marked its beginning toward a preparation for the coming season of Lent. The concern of the collects shifts, the lessons deal less immediately with the manifestation of Christ. The lections for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany always include the story of the transfiguration, which was our Lord's own preparation for his final journey to Jerusalem and a foretaste of the glory that would succeed His crucifixion and resurrection. The collect reflects the theme fully. The significance of the day is underlined by the fact that it is the last occasion on which one may use either the Gloria in excelsis or an alleluia until the Easter Vigil. Hymns 122 and 123 in the Hymnal 1982 stress both the fact of the last use of alleluia, and give a reason for it. The rule for use of the Gloria is found in a rubric on p. 406 of the BCP.

The Paschal Cycle begins with the preparatory season of Lent. It is a season of forty weekdays and six Sundays. The purpose and thrust of the season is best described by the BCP itself. In one of the proper prefaces for Lent, it says: "You bid your faithful people cleanse their hearts, and prepare with joy for t(Continues…)

Excerpted from "A Lay Minister's Guide to the Book of Common Prayer" by Clifford W. Atkinson. Copyright © 2013 by Clifford W. Atkinson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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