Timely Preaching: The Church Year

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The church year anchors preaching in God’s historical acts of salvation guarding both the preacher and the hearers from arid rationalism and egocentric flights inward.

Obviously, Christians individually and the Church corporately live within time. Life is marked by days and seasons. Lutherans have inherited the church year and gratefully receive it as a gift which shapes the contours and content of evangelical proclamation. Sermons have as their setting not only a place in the liturgical ordo of Word and Sacrament, but also in the Christian calendar as the venue for preaching the “whole counsel of God.”

Historically and theologically the church year is centered in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (see 1 Corinthians 5:7-8 and Romans 4:24-25). Liturgical scholars refer to the earliest celebrations of the Christian Pascha as a “unitive” festival in that both the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus were commemorated in a single service. The remainder of the church year grows from and revolves around Good Friday and Easter. Hermann Sasse captures this point in his exposition of the theologia crucis:[1]

“The theology of the cross obviously does not mean that the whole church year shrinks to Good Friday. It means one cannot understand Christmas, Easter, or Pentecost without Good Friday. Luther was, alongside Irenaeus and Athanasius, one of the great theologians of the incarnation. He was that because he saw the cross behind the manger. He understood the victory of Easter as well as any theologian of the Eastern Church. But he understood it because he understood it as the victory of the Crucified. The same can be said of his understanding of the activity of the Holy Spirit. It is always the cross which illuminates all chapters of theology because the deepest nature of revelation is hidden in the cross.”[2]

The movement of the church year is either toward the death and resurrection of Jesus or flowing from it. The appointment of the Palm Sunday Gospel (Matthew 21:1-9) for the First Sunday in Advent is indicative of this movement as Jesus comes to Jerusalem to suffer and die. His coming in the flesh to offer Himself as a sacrifice for sin to reconcile the world to Himself gives focus to His apocalyptic coming at the end of history as well as His coming now in the preaching of repentance and faith. John the Baptist points to Christ as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:19-28). John’s proclamation brings us to the threshold of Christmas.

Christmas is necessitated by the cross, that is, without the incarnation there could be no atonement. For God to die for sin, He must take on human flesh and blood. The Word becomes flesh to dwell among sinners and die their death. The imprint of the cross is evident in the Christmas gospels as the infant Lord is born in the midst of poverty, bedded in a manger, and is the target of Herod’s persecution. The first shedding of Christ’s blood takes place on the eighth day, the occasion of His circumcision. His birth evokes death with the festivals of Saint Stephen, the first martyr and the holy innocents, December 26 and 28 respectively, and John the apostle of His incarnation, December 29, who will suffer exile on Patmos.

The movement of the church year is either toward the death and resurrection of Jesus or flowing from it.

If Christmas celebrates the Father’s gift of His Son, then Epiphany is the unwrapping of that gift. It is the manifestation of the gift of the Son to the world. Here the Father puts His Son, true God and true man, on display as the Lord who is our brother and Savior. The visit of the Magi reveals He has come as Savior of the nations. In Him, Gentiles find admission into God’s Israel. The Lord’s Baptism in the Jordan makes Him manifest as the well-loved Son of the Father and anointed with the Spirit where He is openly declared the Christ of God. The changing of the water into wine at Cana is the first of His signs, a manifestation of His eternal glory in time. His preaching and miracles reveal Him as God’s Messiah come to bring Heaven’s Kingdom to earth in the forgiveness of sins. Epiphany concludes with the Transfiguration as it serves as something of a bridge between Christmas and Calvary, His baptism and His resurrection. Here, Jesus is testified to by Moses and Elijah (the Law and the Prophets) and the voice from the cloud echoes what was said of Him at His Baptism.

The Pre-Lent Sundays were excised from some revisions of the church year in the late twentieth century. They have been retained in the one-year lectionary of the Lutheran Service Book (LSB) as well as in European Lutheranism. These Sundays serve as a transition from Epiphany into Lent by focusing attention on God’s grace, His Word, and faith. Some have seen the connection with three of the Reformation “solas.”

Lent draws us toward the heart of the Christian year and the Christian faith, which is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the reconciliation of the world to God. The character of Lent is penitential. It is geared toward repentance and faith, our death to sin and our resurrection to live in the newness of life created by the word of the cross. Lent culminates in Holy Week with the events of Jesus’ passion leading up and including His death as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

The Festival of the Resurrection extols Christ’s victory over sin, death, and hell. The Father raised His Son from the dead, vindicating His atoning work, and openly declaring forgiveness of sins to the world. The Sundays of the Easter Season unpack the fruits of His death and resurrection even as they anticipate His going to the Father at His ascension and the subsequent coming of the Comforter.

Trinity Sunday is the only festival day of the church year which celebrates a doctrine rather than an event. God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God in three divine persons. Coming midway through the church year just after Pentecost, Trinity Sunday gathers up all that has been rehearsed in the first six months of the Christian calendar:

- The Father sends His Son into the flesh.

- The Son redeems fallen humanity by the blood of the cross.

- The Spirit is sent to bring Jesus’ works and words to us in the Gospel, calling us to faith in Him and keeping us in faith until the end.

The Sundays after Trinity Sunday (sometimes identified as Sundays after Pentecost) are an exposition of the reality of Jesus’ words in John 14:23, that “we will come to Him and make our home with Him.” The Triune God abides with His Church in the Gospel and Sacraments. The work of the Son continues as the Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, and keeps sinners with the Father through faith in the Son. This long, green season of the church year concludes eschatologically with its concluding Sunday’s focusing on the last things: Death, judgement, the return of Christ, and the promise of a new Heaven and new Earth.

Martin Luther helpfully asserts: “The proper subject of theology is man guilty of sin and condemned, and God the Justifier and Savior of man the sinner. Whatever is asked or discussed in theology outside this subject, is error and poison.”[3] Lutheran theology is assertive, not analogical, receptive rather than speculative. There is realism to Lutheran theology as it begins with the human being under wrath (“guilty and condemned”) and ends with God in Christ (“God the Justifier and Savior of man the sinner”). As we look at the articles of Christian doctrine expressed in the church year, we do so from this central and overarching perspective. The church year is not a cafeteria of isolated servings of biblical truth. Rather, through the Holy Scriptures which it serves, it sets our existence as sinners under God’s law-making as subject to His alien work of condemnation and death. His alien work is service of His proper work, namely, the bestowal of the forgiveness of sins so that life trumps death. All this is to say, the church year will remain incoherent without the proper distinction of the Law from the Gospel.

All this is to say, the church year will remain incoherent without the proper distinction of the Law from the Gospel.

Luther’s approach to theology marked by the use of God’s Word in prayer, meditation, and spiritual attack is especially congenial to the church year as the setting for Christian doctrine. The church year is structured for the hearing of God’s Word and answering that Word in prayer, meditation on the scriptural and preached Word, and the life lived in the Word which is now marked by affliction and spiritual attack. In his 1539 Preface to the German Edition of his writings, Luther identifies the “right way to study theology” as anchored in the three rules set forth in Psalm 119: Oratio, Meditatio, and Tentatio.[4] The popular medieval scheme for theology was lectio, oratio, contemplatio,[5] but Luther breaks from this pattern. Westhelle observes:

“Luther’s schema begins with “oratio,” which is more than prayer; it is all God-talk, talk of and to God when one knows that reason will not suffice. Second is “meditatio” – in which he includes “lectio” –which is not limited to meditation in the internal sense but also ‘external,’ hence engaging others in reflection. Luther does not follow the third medieval rule, “contemplatio,” but instead he brings up a very different and original concept, “tentatio,” which becomes the foremost – the ‘touchstone’ he calls it – and the last characteristic of theological reflection.”[6]

Thus, Luther moves away from the speculative theology of scholasticism and the contemplative spirituality of mysticism. The church year anchors preaching in God’s historical acts of salvation guarding both the preacher and the hearers from arid rationalism and egocentric flights inward.

Theology begins and ends with God. By its very nature, it is liturgical, for God is the Lord who speaks, and we are recipients who answer with the “Amen” of faith. Theology comes from God as His Word is received by faith and it returns to God in confession and praise.[7] The church year follows the “cursus evangeli,”[8] the course of the Gospel as its coming is announced in Advent, fulfilled in the humiliation and exaltation of Christ Jesus, proclaimed in the world by the power of the Spirit, and brought to consummation in the Lord’s return.

Martin Franzmann cites Peter Brunner’s statement that “the decisive interpretation of Scripture is the eschatological sermon, not the historical-critical exegesis.” Then Franzmann notes:

“The Lutheran liturgy provides an ideal setting for this ‘decisive interpretation of Scripture.’ Here the movement of the church year is a constant reminder of the eschatological character of our interpretation of Scripture, for here we are continually reminded that God is ‘on the way,’ in movement toward His last goal of judgment and consummation – and we are reminded, too, that we the Church are a wandering people of God, on the way looking toward the city that has foundations. Here the eschatological horizon is perpetually being opened up, in the confession of sins and in absolution, in praise, prayer, proclamation, and confession of faith, in the receiving of the blessing of God, for ‘I will bless thee’ is both the primeval and the eschatological Word of God to His people (Genesis 12:2; Matthew 25:34).”[9]


The church year proclaims Christ Jesus, the Alpha and the Omega from beginning to end, sanctifying our life in time by His Word “the true ‘holy thing’ above all holy things” (Luther’s Large Catechism I:91).[10]


[1] “Theologia crucis” is Latin for “theology of the cross.”

[2] Hermann Sasse. “Theologia Crucis” in Letters to Lutheran Pastors, Volume I (1948-1951), translated by Matthew C. Harrison. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2013. 387-388.

[3] Luther’s Works 12:311. On this point, see the discussion in Oswald Bayer, Theology the Lutheran Way, translated by Jeffrey G. Silcock and Mark C. Mattes. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007. 15-21.

[4] Simply translated from the Latin as prayer, meditation, and temptation, which Luther viewed as the struggle against the flesh and Satan.

[5] Again, from the Latin, translated as reading, meditation, and contemplation.

[6] Vitor Westhelle. The Scandalous God: The Use and Misuse of the Cross. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006. 35-36.

[7] See David Hollaz who describes theology as, “The doctrine concerning God, which teaches man, from the divine Word, as to the true method of worshiping God in Christ, unto eternal life,” cited in: Heinrich Schmid. Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, translated by Charles A. Hay and Henry E. Jacobs. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1899. 16. Also see Edmund Schlink. “Theology as Doxology” in Ecumenical and Confessional Writings, Volume 2: Ecumenical Dogmatics, translated by Matthew Becker. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck &Ruprecht, 2023. 155-157.

[8] From the Latin, this can mean either course or cycle of the Gospel.

[9] Martin Franzmann. “The Hermeneutical Dilemma: Dualism in the Interpretation of Holy Scripture” 36:8 Concordia Theological Monthly, September 1965. 532-533.

[10] For more, see the essay by: Steven Paulson. “Remember the Sabbath Day to Keep in Holy,” Luther’s Large Catechism with Annotations and Contemporary Applications, edited by John T. Pless and Larry M. Vogel. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2023. 203-207.