Celebrating the Christian Calendar, Part I: Why Start Now?

A few years ago, I was asked to return to my alma mater, Abilene Christian University, to give a 2 day series of lectures entitled “Redeeming the Time” in which I urged those in Churches of Christ and those of similar traditions to adopt the practice of observance of the Christian Year. I had been observing the Calendar in my own devotionals and at observant churches since 1994, but I didn’t realize then how so many of the churches in my own tradition had not experienced the blessings of living on God’s rhythms. For many of them, they had just begun observance of “Christmas” (commonly mistaken for Advent), and so a discussion about Lent or Good Friday was quite out of the ordinary.

Since that time, I’ve been excited to see many in my Restoration tradition discover the joys and meaning of the liturgical year. Most of our churches at least do acknowledge Christmas these days, and little by little, we are learning the value of sacred time. Just this morning, I worshiped at a Church of Christ in Nashville whose preacher urged the church to observe Lent this year — and admitted that he will be going to Ash Wednesday services just down the street at the Presbyterian Church. I will be right at the 7am Ash Wednesday service too because I wouldn’t dare miss it. I need it.

For the last three years, I’ve been honored to experience the Christian Year guided by the Episcopal tradition, and it has become an incredibly meaningful ritual for me. In fact, I don’t know what I’d do without it. I think that those who first experience the Calendar tend to focus on the worship services surrounding the holy days. But as I’ve discovered, these days are not just devoted to special worship services; they are devoted to a change in lifestyle and the adoption of new rhythms of life set in motion by the narrative of Christian faith and not the Roman calendar and American government holidays. I now get a lot more excited about the arrival of Pentecost than I do the arrival of Veterans Day or Labor Day — and you will too if you give yourself over to the experience.

This series of articles this week are designed for the beginner. Some of my non-believing readers won’t understand or relate to these articles, and I invite you to come back and read soon. I promise I’ll return to some other topics of interest. Some of my believing Episcopal and Catholic friends will find this series to be old hat. Please do return here soon! But this series is for those people like me until 1994 who have never experienced the Christian calendar and don’t really understand why or how. This is for you. Lent arrives in two days — so go ahead and have some white carbs, or fried food, or a beer, or a cigarette — and go with me on this journey for this week and throughout the 40 days until Easter.

I believe that the celebration and observance of the Christian calendar in the worship and life of the church will lead to a renewal of Christ-centered worship, to a new opportunity for evangelism, and to the deliberate formation of Christian spirituality that is anchored and rooted in the story of the Gospel. By the Christian calendar, I mean the systematic and planned observance of the major events of the Christian story as recognized by the historical and universal church since at least the 4th century C.E.

The Christian Year is divided into two parts of 26 weeks each. The first half of the Christian Year remembers the historical events of our Christian faith: Advent, Christmas, the Baptism of Christ at Epiphany, the Death of Jesus on Good Friday, the Resurrection of Christ at Easter, and the birth of the church at Pentecost. These seasons are known as Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter and Pentecost. The second half of the year is known as Trinity and is reserved for the proclamation of the doctrines of Christian faith.

As I see it, there are three benefits of observing the Calendar. First, we are witnessing the renewal of worship throughout Churches of Christ today. Responding to a deep hunger for meaningful worship, many of our churches are adding PowerPoint presentations, worship teams, contemporary songs or a blend of traditional and contemporary songs, congregational readings, movie clips experimenting with various methods for taking the Lord’s Supper. While some of the contemporary worship practices have brought renewal to our worship, they often also proceed more out of a need to be like the local evangelical community church or to model some “successful” church in another town than from a solid foundation rooted in Scripture and the very nature of the Christian story. These often prove to be divisive rather than unifying. The root disease it seems to me is a failure to provide meaningful and substantive worship that is spiritually transforming to the believer. We have looked for help in all the wrong places sometimes. We often could receive help by returning to the practices of the church for two thousand years.

Neville Clark, a minister from a tradition of worship simplicity much like our own, wrote in the 1960’s that the desire for simplicity and flexibility of worship in his tradition “constitutes at one and the same time our problem and our opportunity; our opportunity because we have freedom to improve, to experiment, to advance; our problem because sheer ignorance often makes our innovations disastrous.” (from Stanton H.Wilson’s The Use of the Church Year).

The celebration of the Christian calendar can renew the worship life of the church because it is rooted solidly in the biblical story of God’s salvation in history and in the historical memory of the church universal. You cannot get closer to the gospel than the celebration of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Whether members of our congregations support or oppose this practice, they cannot argue that the foundational events that give rise to these observances are not biblical or respectful of the church’s great traditions, for they are both. It has been my experience that very few if any members complain about the practice of the church year because they sense in it a substantive meaning and theological content that is often void in our technological innovations and subtle manipulations of worship order and practice. It is very hard to argue with the celebration and observance of the gospel.

Furthermore, the observance of the church year gives an ordo or a living order to the worship life of the congregation so that the events of our salvation are held up as the guiding principle of our worship, and not the preacher or the worship minister’s preferences or preferred topics. Those things which are primary for our faith (incarnation, death, burial, resurrection) become primary in worship. Worship is no longer haphazard or by default. There is a certain order that allows for the full range of the gospel story to be heard at least once every year in the life of the congregation, yet there are many open weeks in the calendar that allow for a range of flexibility and variety according to the spiritual and worship needs of the local congregation.

Our traditional response to those who oppose the celebration of Christian holidays in the church is that “we [it often is arrogant in tone] celebrate it all year long.” The truth is: we don’t. When was the last time that you ever heard a preacher preach the birth narratives of Luke during July? When was the last time you sang the great hymn, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing in June? It just doesn’t happen, and that is a tragedy because some of the most beautiful passages of Scripture are contained in the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke, and the resurrection passages of Luke and John. The failure to preach and worship with the nativity texts is like worship on the Atkins Diet – a lot of fat and no dessert.

My essential point here is that the practice of the Christian calendar grounds our worship and congregational life in the gospel story and not in human preference.

I also believe, maybe rather strangely, that the celebration of the Christian calendar has the potential to reawaken evangelistic opportunities. It strikes me as odd that Churches of Christ have taken every opportunity to celebrate secular holidays in the church such as the Fourth of July, Mothers Day, and Fathers Day but have so rarely celebrated those holidays which the public perceives as having their foundation in the Christian story such as Christmas and Easter. I don’t think I have to say it, but there is something wrong with that picture.

Our churches have missed a significant opportunity to reach our neighborhoods and communities because we can’t prove on what day Jesus was born and because we don’t want to be too much like the Catholics. People have visited our churches on these holidays only to find that our congregations avoid all appearances of celebrating these days upon which our visitors have come thirsty to hear the gospel. Some churches of Christ, as reported almost every year in my hometown paper, The Tennessean, even have been proud that they do not celebrate the Christian holidays and launch attacks at those who do. In an attempt to define our uniqueness, I fear that we have missed significant opportunities to communicate the gospel to hungry people who come ready to hear our message at these times of the year.

Finally, I believe that the celebration of the church calendar will present opportunities for the shaping of Christian spirituality and character that is rooted in the historical and spiritual story of the Christian gospel. If we believe that Christian character and ethics are informed and shaped by the Gospel, then the celebration and experience of that same Gospel should give content and formation to the shaping of our Christian lives. Our churches desperately need an ethic that is grounded in the gospel and not in the shifting tides of secular ethics nor in the guilt-ridden ethics of religious legalism. Let me share with you a couple of stories to illustrate what I mean.

The first encounter I ever had with the Christian calendar was during my seminary days at Princeton, a school with Presbyterian roots. I attended the celebrations of Christmas and Easter my first year on campus, and they were enriching times for a Church of Christ guy whose spiritual life had been totally void of such practices. I learned that the rhythms of Advent and Easter gave a certain predictability, assurance and order to my faith. Even I was mired down in work or personal crisis, I knew the celebration of Advent or Easter was around the corner when my spirit would be renewed again in my relationship with God and the promises of the Gospel.

During my last year in seminary, I went through a period where I found myself in a great depression. I am not sure of all the reasons, but I felt cut off from people that I loved. I was lonely. There were theological divisions that had given way to strained relationships. I was unsure of my future. I decided to attend the Maundy Thursday service that April, on the Thursday night before Good Friday. I listened to the story of how Jesus washed feet of the disciples whom he loved. We then sat in a circle, and as we sang, people were invited to wash the feet of someone they loved. A friend of mine with whom I had experienced some estrangement that had led to my loneliness came over to me, got down on his knees, and began to wash my feet. Tears began to roll down my face as I felt the love of God through the hands of my friend who took up the towel and showed his love for me. All over the room, I sensed a great healing of relationships, the act of forgiveness, and the demonstration of compassion. It would not have happened without the opportunity presented to us by Maundy Thursday. That just doesn’t happen when you pass trays down the pew.

My point is that spiritual formation does not happen haphazardly in worship and congregational life. Sometimes it does as the Spirit moves our people to great acts of repentance, confession, forgiveness and healing. But generally, I believe it is necessary to create intentionally the contexts in worship and fellowship that predictably allow for these expressions. That is the beauty of the church calendar. In the words of Christian author and preacher Tony Campolo, it may be Friday in our world but Sunday’s coming! When I know it’s Friday, and I know Sunday’s coming, then my ethics and character begin to be shaped by the redeeming of the times.

Since my time at Princeton, I had cherished the Good Friday service as a time of repentance, confession and forgiveness. When I came to my church as a minister in California, this was one of the first things I asked that we do. Around 6:00 p.m. on Good Friday, we darkened the church auditorium, placed a cross and candles at the front of the room, and played soft acapella chant in the background. The service consisted of Scripture readings about the arrest and crucifixion of Christ, interspersed with the great songs of Christian faith about that day including My Jesus I Love Thee, Amazing Love, and The Old Rugged Cross. After every reading, we extinguished a candle. As the room became increasingly dark, we became more and more attuned to the sufferings and passion of Christ. There was nothing fancy about this worship service – a few readings, a few songs, and we were done. At the end of the service, I carried the candle down the aisle and out of the room as one of our members sang solo Were You There? People were kneeling in their seats. The service ended in silence. Not a person moved. People were looking at the cross, others were kneeling and confessing their sins, others prayed with tears. A man with whom I had experienced several disagreements came out of the auditorium, and in the stillness of that night, hugged me without words. Another man told me that he had never been so moved to confess his sin and to see the love of God as he was that evening.

That is how the observance of the Christian calendar shapes us – it gives us a planned and predictable opportunity to practice the whole of the Christian gospel. Through meditation, prayer, the reading of Scripture and worship our characters are challenged and transformed in light of the good news of Christ.

Tomorrow: The Biblical and Theological Foundations for Observance

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Comments
8 Responses to “Celebrating the Christian Calendar, Part I: Why Start Now?”
  1. Tina Parker says:

    Thank you. How did you know I needed this?

  2. Troy Stirman says:

    Todd,

    I remember that set of lectures. The speaker was good! But that idiot who introduced you needs to work on his public speaking skills…

    😉

    -TMS

  3. toddbouldin says:

    His speaking skills are outstanding. We just need to work on his politics. haha I do remember how honored I was that you introduced me, and still grateful.

  4. Mark Malloy says:

    Your old church in socal still has a Good Friday service every year, and it’s a very special evening…

  5. I’ve found it meaningful to bring these observances to my own family. During advent, we talk about anticipation; during lent we talk about loss. It’s amazing how easily my kids get it. It is experiential, real, and tied to the rhythms of our lives together.

  6. Scott F says:

    I hunger for this. Thank you for expressing with words that I can’t. Sandy and I have made Christmas Eve service a part of our tradition since our marriage. And Easter services as well. I have participated in Lent, but not fully. I don’t have the Advent, Good Friday, Palm Sunday, and Pentecost celebrations yet hunger for them. I have hope for my fellowship’s future and for the continuing path toward unity of all Christ followers.

  7. heavenbound says:

    I find lent to be with the tradition of the Catholics. To separate us from the idol worship of saints and Popery, was it not the reason for the reformation?
    When the pagans were forced to join Christianity, wasn’t one of the holidays, celebrated worshiping the Fertility god Ishtar, hence Easter for the Catholics. Col. 2:8-9. Its my opinion that celebrating, the traditions of men takes away from the salvation of the blood. It doesn’t enhance it at all.

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  1. […] a post in favor of observing the Christian calendar. Todd Bouldin has written a whole series: Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, Pt. […]



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