Lesser Festivals: To Observe or Not to Observe

by Craig Mueller


With one of my best friends, we often discuss the service from the preceding Sunday. What hymns were sung? What was the sermon about? Occasionally we find out that different liturgical days were celebrated in our respective ELCA congregations. My parish observed (The Birth of) John the Baptist on June 24 and his did not; a church he visited on July 22 celebrated Mary Magdalene while mine did not.

What gives? Don’t we have a common calendar? What about lesser festivals? Do we welcome or resist these interruptions to the long green season? For one thing, Lutheran Book of Worship took a different approach than Evangelical Lutheran Worship. According to the Notes on the Liturgy in LBW, lesser festivals took precedence over Sundays in the green season and on Sundays after Christmas. Though I’m also pretty sure that before 1988 bulletins and inserts published by Augsburg (the old ALC) did not include lesser festivals and ones by Fortress (the old LCA) did.

The lesser festivals provide some interesting variety to the church year. But they are not all equal. All Saints Day and Holy Cross Day are arguably more significant than days commemorating Barnabas or Simon and Jude. The Notes on the Services in ELW emphasize the importance of Sunday and the continuity of the lectionary readings throughout the season. For example, when a congregation celebrates Reformation and All Saints Sundays back to back, a chunk is always taken from the autumn readings through the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

There is flexibility with ELW. So what ELW suggests or I am writing about are some principles to consider; there is still freedom for local congregations in these matters. But here are a couple things to think about:

1. ELW suggests that in general Sunday takes precedence over lesser festivals. However, when these festivals fall on a Sunday they are observed: Name of Jesus (January 1), Presentation of Our Lord (February 2), Reformation Day (October 31) and All Saints Day (November 1).

2. The following lesser festivals are rather important and often Roman Catholics and/or Episcopalians observe many of these when they fall on a Sunday: John the Baptist (June 24), Mary, Mother of Our Lord (August 15), Holy Cross Day (September 14), and Michael and All Angels (September 29). ELW suggests that they “may” be observed when they fall on a Sunday. I like these first two principles and think they are good balance between an all or nothing approach. The above festivals are wonderfully rich and I welcome their periodic occurrence on a Sunday.

3. Even if not the primary observance and lectionary for the day, other lesser festivals can be included in other ways: mentioned in the intercessions, as a sermon illustration, or with a bulletin note. At the same time, a local congregation named St. Matthew may choose to observe that festival every year on the Sunday nearest September 21. Because of her importance in the Christian story (and to give some gender balance to our scriptures and theology), some Lutheran congregations transfer Mary, Mother of Our Lord to the nearest Sunday.

4. What shall we do with Reformation and All Saints? Most of our congregations have a tradition of transferring them to the last Sunday in October and first Sunday in November respectively. Reformation Day, though thoroughly Lutheran, is not much observed in the ecumenical community. One option for that observance is to use the assigned Sunday lectionary texts, and then add some Reformation touches such as singing “A Mighty Fortress” and having the preacher tie the texts with some comments related to continued reformation, renewal, and church unity. Since All Saints is a more common ecumenical occasion, it might be appropriate to always observe it on the first Sunday in November. However, the texts in year C (lectionary 32) point to the resurrection from the dead and could be easily used while still observing All Saints Sunday.

5. One of the reasons sometimes given for observing lesser festivals is that if one is not in a seminary, college, or monastic community with daily services, a congregation never gets to celebrate them. This is a good point. However, another option is for pastors and staff members to make more use of lesser festivals (and don’t forget the commemorations) in brief worship experiences at parish meetings, staff devotions, and other midweek events, not to mention church newsletters.

Whatever the case, give your decisions careful thought, not only to local custom and creativity, but also to ecumenical practice. For more information see Keeping Time: The Church’s Years (Using Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Volume Three), pp. 67-71.

Posted on Sep 17, 2012 8:52:27 AM
Filed Under: Potpourri, Filed Under: review-prelude,

Craig Mueller

Written by Craig Mueller

Craig Mueller has served as pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Chicago since 1999. He has a master of divinity from the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago (LSTC), a degree in music education from Gustavus Adolphus College, and a certificate in spiritual direction from the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. He is working on a Doctor of Ministry degree in liturgical studies through the Ecumenical Doctor of Ministry program in Chicago. Publications include Soli Deo Gloria: Choir Devotions for Year A; preaching articles for Homily Service; and liturgical texts and materials for Augsburg Fortress. In addition, he was primary compiler for Indexes for Evangelical Lutheran Worship, which includes a list of hymns for each Sunday and festival in the church year. A member of ALCM, Mueller has led workshops on liturgy and spirituality, chaired worship committees for several national conferences, and for three summers served as chaplain for the Lutheran Summer Music Academy.