Since creation, humanity has noted the passing of time as the earth completed revolutions around the sun — even when we didn’t fully understand what was happening in terms of planets and stars. In the dance of the seasons, we mark time as we live through the lengthening and shortening of days, cycles of planting and harvest, and dry and wet seasons.
Annual celebrations remind us of the larger cycles of life beyond days and seasons and the larger reality of God the creator who made the earth, its cycles and seasons, and us. These celebrations give us pause for reassurance that the ongoing cycle of life beyond our control continues to dance through our lives eliciting our response of grateful thanksgiving and reminding us of God’s promise of hope. Thanks be to God that we’ve made it through another year, and God be with us as we lean into the next!
It is no wonder the church lived into an annual cycle of worship seasons — moving from Advent anticipation to Christmas incarnation, to Lenten fasts and Easter celebration — that mirrors the marking of the year. And it is no wonder that we mark the dates of significant events in the life of the congregation and in our lives, as we personalize and make meaningful the passing of each year.
The congregation marks annual observances: the founding date of a congregation; ordination, consecration, commissioning and installation dates of church staff; and anniversaries of ministries within the congregation. Each one of us has a yearly calendar of observations that weaves into the life of the congregation: birthdays, anniversaries of baptisms, anniversaries of the death dates of loved ones, anniversaries of relationship commitments, marking the time free from addiction, the anniversary of moving into a home, and much more.
Congregational anniversaries and significant personal anniversaries may be recognized easily in the weekly worship of the congregation. The congregation may also provide resources for more personal and family celebrations of anniversaries that will help people give voice to their thanksgiving to God, to recognize God’s presence in our lives and to pray continued blessing on the person or relationship.
In whatever way your congregation chooses to recognize and celebrate anniversaries and annual observances of your shared lives, care should be taken not to clutter the primary worship services of the congregation with too many observances. The anniversary of congregational baptisms, wedding anniversaries and anniversaries of death may be honored once during the year publicly, but individually through prayers and blessings shared through cards, phone calls, emails, visits or other means.
Significant congregational anniversaries are often celebrated in a special worship service that brings together the current congregation and leaders, past congregational leaders, and founding members. The “Anniversary of a Congregation” section in “Evangelical Lutheran Worship: Occasional Services for the Assembly” that begins on page 122 includes prayers, Scripture options, hymn suggestions and a blessing that are especially appropriate for such an occasion.
Anniversaries of tragedy or disaster
In some communities, the anniversary of a tragedy warrants recognition in worship as a way to honor the continuing prayers and cry for the grace of God in the wake of loss. Historian and theologian of Christian liturgy, Gail Ramshaw provides six laments that may be used in the gathering time of worship. They provide voice to our cry and remind the community of God’s presence.
Congregations may recognize the milestone anniversaries of their leaders. “Anniversary of a Ministry” in “ELW: Occasional Services” provides a unique prayer to be used after Holy Communion for pastors, deaconesses, diaconal ministers, associates in ministry and other lay professionals. Each prayer gives thanks for the service of the individual and prays for their continued ministries.
A congregation may also bless and pray for on-going ministries within the congregation on the anniversary of their start date by using the “Continuing Service” options within the rite for “Recognition of Ministries”” in “ELW: Occasional Services,” page 93.
Anniversary of baptism
At home, families or individuals may choose to celebrate the date of baptism each year. “ELW: Pastoral Care” provides an easy-to-follow, child-friendly service for the “Anniversary of Baptism” on page 128. The congregation may choose to send this service to the children on their rolls who are celebrating anniversaries. The congregation may choose to celebrate all baptisms for the year on an appropriate baptism festival, such as the Naming of Jesus or the Baptism of Our Lord, both in January.
Anniversary of death
“Remembering Those Who Have Died” in “ELW: Pastoral Care” (page 267) and “ELW: Occasional Services” (page 344) provide gathering words, Scripture and prayers especially appropriate for marking the anniversary of a death. These resources may be used at home, in pastoral care situations or in the public worship service. The congregation may recognize all who have died with these resources on All Saints Sunday, observed the first Sunday in November each year.
Other annual celebrations
Wedding anniversaries are often celebrated in the midst of the congregational community which vowed to support a couple in a service of marriage. “Affirmation of a Marriage” (“ELW: Pastoral Care,” page 318, “ELW: Occasional Services,” page 378) provides prayers, the renewal of vows and blessings appropriate to anniversary celebrations.
The “Blessing of a Home” (“ELW: Pastoral Care,” page 337) may be observed annually on a move-in date or in the season after Epiphany according to church tradition. This service blesses the people and everyday care-taking activities in the home and may be used as an annual reminder of God’s activity in our everyday lives.
“ELW: Pastoral Care” also provides readings and prayers for birthdays (page 380) and the anniversary of sobriety (page 191).