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The Heidelberg Catechism and the Church Year

Reading schedule for this year

Christian churches all over the world use the festivals of the church year to help them reflect on and celebrate God's mighty acts of redemption in Jesus Christ. It is a practice that harks back to the annual cycle of feasts of the ancient Hebrews. It recalls also the words of our Lord in the institution of the Lord's Supper, "Do this in rememberence of me." The yearly cycle of lectionary reading follows the pattern of the church year. Like the ecumenical creeds , the festivals of the church year and the readings from the lectionary transcend the boundaries of denomination. These are ancient treasure shared by all of the family of God.

The churches that count the Heidelberg Catechism among their confessions have another way of reflecting on and proclaiming throughout the year the saving acts of God. The 129 questions and answers of the Heidelberg Catechism were early on divided into fifty two Lord's Days. The Catechism is fundamentally a teaching tool; dividing it into fifty two Lord's Days provided an ready means for instructing the faithful throughout the year. The minister could expound on one Lord's Day of the Catechism on each Lord's Day of the year, typically in a Sunday evening worship service.

The cycle of the Heidelberg Catechism does not match the cycle of the church year and lectionary. There is no provision for considering the birth of Christ during Advent, his death and resurrection during Lent and Easter, nor the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Part of this was merely a side effect of the numbering; part of it was probably an intentional countering of the superstitious observance of the festivals of the church year that was prevalent at the time of the Reformation. Even today it is often worthwhile to consider the birth of Christ without the distraction of the secular observation of Christmas.

Yet as the Reformed Churches have been rediscovering both the native treasure of the Heidelberg Catechism and the shared treasure of the church year, many have been distressed (or at least jolted) by the clash of the two systems. The annual preparation of Heidelberg Catechism reading schedules is my contribution to bringing the Heidelberg Catechism and the church year closer together in order to encourage the use of both.

The key to the scheme is noting how well the opening Lord's Days of the Catechism fit in with the observation of Advent (though we have to begin on the "zeroeth" Sunday of Advent), and how appropriate the questions and answers on the Apostles' Creed are to the seasons of Lent through Pentecost. The teaching concerning the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer then fill up the majority of "Ordinary Time", the long stretch in the church year following Pentecost up to the beginning of Advent. The questions and answers on the sacraments are taken up out of order during the intervals before and after the Lent-Easter cycle. Since the date of Easter is not fixed, the exact placement of these questions varies from year to year. This rearranging seems to cause minimal offense to the integrity of the Catechism.

Not everything fits in perfectly -- the Heidelberg Catechism was not designed with that in mind -- but all in all it works out pretty well.

The Tryon family uses the schedule for Sunday noon readings from the Catechism. It would also be appropriate for personal devotions or for a preacher who wanted to preach or teach through the Catechism in a year. Others may wish to work through different sections in different years. The reading for the week is posted on the Welcome and Devotions pages .

To God alone be the glory.

Steve Tryon , November 1997