Celebrating the Christian Calendar, Part 2: Where Is That in the Bible?

In Part 1 of my series on the observance of the Christian calendar, I laid out some reasons that I have found its rhythms to be beneficial in my own life and in the life of the faith community. While all of these reasons may sound logical or inviting, the first objection some will make from our Restoration and evangelical heritages is that the celebration of the Christian calendar is not authorized by the New Testament. One person from our background objected in this way, “The basis for observing Christmas as the birth of Christ is man’s religious authority (Catholicism and paganism). It started centuries after the time of Christ. It is not commanded in any way in the New Testament.” This objector goes on to say, “While we fully believe in the virgin birth of Christ and thank God for it, God has not authorized us to celebrate the birth of Jesus, and to do so is a violation of His holy will!”

I do not have space here to deal with some of the assumptions of biblical authority and interpretation that inform this argument. I can say that the only New Testament texts which even addresses the issue directly is Colossians 2:16, which reads, “Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what it is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” Notice first of all that the passage does not prohibit the observation of festivals any more than it prohibits eating and drinking. The author most likely was addressing those legalists in the church from some unknown Jewish group or mystical religion that had begun to bind certain practices upon Christians as necessary for salvation. The author here warns that faith in Christ and no other requirement was necessary for salvation, including the observation of religious festivals.

That is a far cry from what I am suggesting – I am not suggesting that the observance of the Christian Year is necessary for the Christian faith but that it is useful for the Christian faith. Even the author of Colossians goes on to say that these festivals are a “shadow of things to come” – and that is my point today as well. The celebration of days and seasons in the church is a “shadow” of true reality who is Jesus Christ, and a “shadow” of the future to come when all the saints worship before Christ.

I believe that the Christian story as understood in God’s acts in the history of Israel and in the historical revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ does “authorize” and even call us to a remembrance and celebration of God’s acts in time. Let me share with you a few reasons I believe that Christian Scripture and theology do call us to the practice of the Christian Calendar.

1. First, and most fundamentally, the observance of the Christian calendar redeems the time as belonging to God.

Christianity takes time seriously. History is where God is made known. Christian worship uses time as one of its basic structures. Our present time becomes the occasion of encounter with God’s acts in time past and future. Even our worship on the first day of the week recalls that it is on a certain day in history that God raised Jesus from the dead, and we redeem that day as “the Lord’s Day.” The New Testament is imbued with the sense of time as kairos, or the right or present time in which God’s Kingdom is breaking into the world (Mark 1:15).

The argument many people have made against the celebration of the Christian calendar is that the holidays being celebrated have their origins in secular practices and pagan worship. I believe that is one of the best reasons to observe these days – for the observance of these days through the lenses of Christian faith and gospel redeems these days from consumerism, pagan practices and fanciful tales. It is on these days that others devote to the gods of their religion or materialism or dreams that we devote to the Lord of history who has acted decisively in history in Jesus Christ. We reclaim these days as belonging to Jesus, and not to the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus. We make a bold claim when we observe these days: that it is God who is the author and finisher of time, the Alpha and Omega, and that we Christians observe His calendar and not primarily the one of American consumerism and civil religion.

2. Related to the first reason, the observance of the Christian calendar roots our faith in God’s salvation history.

The Judeo-Christian faith is one that is historical – it exists beyond history, but God’s decisive acts always have been revealed in human history. God delivered the people of Israel at Passover, and our Hebrew ancestors in the faith celebrated that historical act every year in the feast of Pesach. There were many other festivals and meals which celebrated God’s historical acts in the faith of Israel: the Feast of Tabernacles, the Feast of Fruits, Hanukkah, and Yom Kippur. These were festivals and celebrations kept by Jesus Christ himself, who said he did not come to abolish the Jewish faith or practice but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17; John 7:10). The Lord’s Supper and baptism both find their foundations in these observances of God’s historical acts in Israel and finally in Jesus Christ (Luke 22:7-23).

The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us (John 1:14). In doing so, God acted once and for all in history in the coming of Jesus Christ. The author of Colossians wrote in Col. 1:17, “He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” In other words, Jesus existed before history, through Him God created history, and all of history is moving toward Him. In other words, Jesus Christ is the central focal point of historical existence. That is the proclamation of the Christian Year – that our year revolves around the act of God in Jesus Christ and not around mothers, fathers, presidents and Santa Claus.

3. The observance of the Christian calendar restores the whole message of Holy Scripture.

While I certainly cannot make a direct argument from the New Testament that Christians should observe the Christian calendar – the earliest celebrations of Easter date to the second century and the earliest celebrations of Christmas to the fourth century – I do feel that the observance of the church year holds the possibility of taking our congregations deeper into Scripture, and not away from it. The Christian Year guarantees that our congregations will be exposed every year to incarnation, death, burial, resurrection and the presence of Jesus in the church. The last half of the year, or Trinity, provides the opportunity to teach the doctrines of the Christian faith. I promise that if you follow the Christian calendar in your worship, your congregation will read and hear more Scripture than ever before.

Our congregations will begin to develop greater knowledge of Scripture and theological minds that see the relationships between the core doctrines of the Christian faith. The great landmark days of the Christian Year establish the central themes of the Christian faith to which worship ministers, worship leaders and the preacher must return. The Christian Year presents us with an opportunity to preach the whole gospel and the whole of Scripture. It also keeps us preachers accountable for the proclamation of all of the gospel, and not just the part we like. The church year is a theologically and biblically grounded structure to the worship and practice of the church that is based in Scripture and not in the whims, trends or fads of secular culture, church growth or pet subjects.

4. The observance of the Christian Year provides the opportunity for the intentional practice of spiritual disciplines in the church.

The systematic and regular rehearsal of the Christian faith through the Christian Calendar naturally lends itself to the systematic practice of the Christian faith. These seasons reinforce attitudes, disciplines and service that form the Christian ethic and person. Easter and Christmas teach us the discipline of celebration and joy. .” Lent teaches us self-control and the discipline of waiting. Maundy Thursday calls us to the service of God and neighbor. Good Friday presents us with the place to grieve our losses, to find meaning in our suffering, to hear the words of Christ from the cross, “Father, forgive them.” The season between Easter and Pentecost provide opportunity for prayer. Pentecost empowers us to consider the gifting and calling of the Holy Spirit in our lives for ministry. Epiphany reminds us of the power of our baptism and the new wine that Christ brings to our lives.

5. Finally, the observance of the Christian Year unites us with the saints of every age through the participation in the historical memory and tradition of the church.

The Church Year reminds us that we are not alone – that Christians for thousands of years have returned to this ordo time and time again to find their Center in Jesus Christ, to rehearse the acts of God in that Story, and to find faith for the days to come. The practice of the Christian year unites us with past, present and future. We look back at All Souls Day and Good Friday to the “great cloud of witnesses” before us, we look to the present at Pentecost as the church gathered in every place observes the core of our faith and ministry together, and we look to the future at Easter where we see the hope and destiny of our resurrection faith.

It should come as no surprise that a tradition that has largely seen itself as existing outside or above history should fail to celebrate and observe a calendar rooted in the acts of God in history. Our Restoration tradition long assumed that our faith and practice was more influenced by the church of 50 A.D. than the church of 1950 A.D. In fact, we have repudiated tradition and history at the great expense of now finding ourselves without a living memory of history or tradition to guide us in these times of confusion and crisis.

The celebration of the Church Year can recapture our tradition and history from which we have come by giving us an opportunity to see that tradition in the light of the Gospel we proclaim, to remember and celebrate the faith of those who have gone before us, and to then to intentionally find ourselves again in the ongoing works of God in our day.

Coming up:

Tomorrow: Ash Wednesday
Thursday: How the Grinch Stole Christmas in the Church of Christ (Holy Days and the Restoration Tradition)

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