by Matthew Wireman
One of my favorite memories as a kid was the August 27th. It’s not simply because it’s my birthday, but typically the first day of school would fall either on my birthday or the week of. The excitement. The chills. The nervousness. The heightened expectation. I knew it was coming every year, but the anticipation of what this year was going to be like unnerved me.
As humans we are living in time. That goes without saying. History is marked by time. Our days are marked by hours and minutes and seconds. Our days are counted by weeks and months and years. We look at the fig leaf and discern that summer is on its way. Just as surely as the sun rises, so also we bank on the fact that God will give us our next breath.
We cannot get around the fact that we mark and are marked by time.
I wrote earlier that our church, Christ the Redeemer, follows the Revised Common Lectionary for our weekly gatherings. Instead of being wooden and rote, we have found that the structure provides life to flourish in the expected. This is no less the case with following the Church Calendar.
Some may argue that following the Church Calendar will be like a straight jacket, inhibiting free movement. Analogous to following the RCL, we believe the calendar provides a framework by which we can live our lives. I know that Advent is coming. I can lick my lips and know that Christmas is coming. I can feel the breath enter my lungs as Epiphany reveals itself. I can lower my head as Lent’s crown is unveiled.
Just like my school year starting up, the way we approach the seasons of the Church Calendar has everything to do with what is going on on the inside. Some of my friends couldn’t sleep for fear of what was coming in 7th grade. I couldn’t sleep because I got my own locker!
Just like with all good things and directives in our lives, there is always a danger in missing the message for the medium. It takes a real engagement with what is happening around us. The purple. The myrrh. The lights. The bells.
In the same way we all have a liturgy for our churches’ weekly gatherings, so also we all follow come kind of calendar.
How many churches have you visited that are already celebrating Christmas and Easter? How many more have you seen more reverence and awe for Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Graduation Sunday, Youth Sunday?
The question then becomes: What time will mark your years?
Do Away With Celebrations?
I was a member of a church that did not celebrate the various seasons—even the Church’s seasons. That’s right. No acknowledgement that it was the week of Christmas. In fact, there was a bit of disdain that seemed to be ruled by pride that said, “Ha! We are not like all the other churches that dote on each other. Every Lord’s Day is Resurrection Day now!” Sure. Every Lord’s Day is Resurrections Day. Even more, every day is a celebration of the first fruits of our resurrection. Each day we are pushing against the tide that seeks to drown us in consumerism and temporal charms.
But, anecdotally, doesn’t something seem strange about not celebrating Christmas? Or am I just crazy? Please don’t answer that! I mean these same folks who would not celebrate Christmas at church rushed home to open presents under their Christmas trees and to each cranberry sauce!
Festivals and New Moons
We don’t want to just ground our practice in anecdotes, though. Biblically speaking, there is not only precedent but prescription for following a calendar. Throughout the Old Testament there are lessons that teach and direct the life of the believer.
“This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year” (Ex. 12.2). This is the Lord's words to Israel upon exiting Egypt. The Passover marked the calendar for God’s people. Wherever they sojourned there were competing calendars. Calendars that marked the important days of Dagon and Xerxes.
But they were to be marked to not only remember but to relive the story of redemption. “On this day tell your son, “I do this because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.” Assuredly this was the father who was redeemer from Pharaoh.
YET. We read again in Deuteronomy 16—after that redeemed generation died in the wilderness as punishment for unbelief: "Celebrate the Passover of the Lord your God, because in the month of Aviv he brought you our of Egypt by night” (Deut. 16.1). Was this not the children of those he technically brought out of Egypt? Yes. Technically. But biblically, there is a bringing to the present that which has passed so that redemption is made real. Is this not the same way of speaking we hear from Jesus with “this generation” not passing away—both the hearers and the readers? Is this not the way the author of Hebrews speaks when he says that the believers of the old convent are intertwined with us (Heb. 11.40)?
So it is when we celebrate the various seasons provided by the Church Calendar. We are both reminded of the generations before us who sang “Once in Royal David’s City” and we sing the same words with the same tune in the same time, at a different time.
What we have found as a church is that our lives are slowly being shaped by the Church Calendar. We start our year in hope-filled, repentant expectation of Christ’s Return at Advent. We celebrate God’s faithfulness by his sending of Jesus at the first Christmas—knowing that if he made good on his promise in our past he more assuredly will do so in our future.
We experience the awe and gratitude of YHWH revealing himself to the Gentiles at Epiphany. We are reminded of our sin as is in our boats and calms our storms and cry, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinner”. This is Lent. Our triumphant King rides on his beast of burden and peace at Holy Week. He is crucified for our transgressions at Good Friday. Rises again at Easter. Grants us his Holy Spirit at Pentecost. And we, as his Spirit-imbued people learn what it means to live as the church in Ordinary Time.
What a year! What a gift and reminder of God’s in-breaking. God’s initiative. God’s condescension and indwelling. We march to the beat of a different Drummer. He marks us with his time and timing of redemption.
Anticipation and Humility
As a church we know Christmas is coming. We know Epiphany is on its way. We know that we will have to reckon with our sin at Lent. We relish the divine light of hope at the Resurrection. We know we can’t do it so we tarry until his Spirit descends. We mark week after mundane week as we consider our call as his disciples.
Not a straight jacket. Not a coercion. Not a drip of guilt. The Church Calendar provides anticipation and expectation and prepares our hearts every season as we wait and continue to wait for our redemption.
And just like our decision to follow the Revised Common Lectionary is for our autonomous, local church, you can make the decision for your autonomous, local church. Isn't voluntary and friendly association great?
Editor’s Note: For another perspective on Baptists and the Calendar, read this article.