The Church Calendar

Series: Question Box

by Rick Phillips June 25, 2000

Tonight is our first installation of the Question Box for 2000. I want to invite and even encourage all of you to submit questions to me all through the summer months. You can use the visitor cards in the pew or leave a note in my box, or better yet, send me an email at [email protected] I look forward to addressing all kinds of questions related to the Bible and issues like theology, worship, and church life. Some weeks I anticipate doing more than one question. But tonight I am going to begin with a single question, having to do with the church calendar.

Let me read the question for tonight: "How much emphasis and attention should the church give to the church calendar - days like Pentecost Sunday and Ascension Day - and should they be elevated to the level of Christmas? We have a better idea when Pentecost occurred than when the birth of our Lord was."

Let me begin by saying there are many good things to be said about the observance or at least recognition of the various days of the church calendar. There are many such days, beginning with the annunciation, then Christmas, and various other days associated with Christ's birth. Then, of course, you have the Lent season which culminates in the Passion Week, with Good Friday and Easter. Afterward you have Pentecost and Ascension Day. Those are just a few of the days observed on church calendars.

There is a biblical precedent for this, namely the feast weeks of Old Testament Israel. These feasts related to specific redemptive events and theological themes, and they had their own appropriate forms of observance. There was Passover week, the feast of weeks, the feast of trumpets, and the feast of tabernacles, all of which are described in Leviticus chapter 23 and Numbers chapters 28-29. The feast of tabernacles, for instance, remembered the wilderness wanderings and God's provision to the people Israel. During this week every year the people lived in booths to remind themselves of their pilgrim status in the world. This was also the harvest feast, celebrating the abundance of God's harvest.

The value of these observances, of course, is in teaching and observing the great redemptive events in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ. There are spiritual principles that can be taught at each occasion. It is always a good idea to teach history, and advocates of the church calendar cite this motive. Others will point out that such observance provides a rhythm to the year. In many traditions, the church calendar is linked to a lectionary - that is a prescribed calendar of Scripture readings and homilies to correspond to the day of the calendar. In more well developed systems, like the Roman Catholic Church, you throw in the multitude of saints' days and you have something to keep track every Sunday and more.

As the writer of this question took note, there are a good many instances when we do know the date, such as Good Friday, Easter (which is linked to the Jewish Passover), and Pentecost. For others, like Christmas, we are not so sure.

Despite those positive reasons, I think there are also important reasons for caution, and these would be the reasons why we do not take great notice of the church calendar in this church.

First, there is a practical reason - namely, that you can't do everything. In our 11:00 worship service we deliberately have items such as the responsive reading of the Psalms, which is important, and the New Testament Scripture reading. We affirm our faith using the Apostle's Creed, thus recalling our communion with the saints of all ages. The point is there are many valuable things you might do, and you can't do everything - at least you can't do it well.

Second, there is a historical reason. The church calendar no doubt has long roots in church history, but it is primarily associated with the medieval Roman Catholic Church. During the time of the Reformation, the various new bodies took a fresh look at the matter of worship as a result of the theology they had received from the Bible. There were two main approaches to this. One approach, typified by the Lutherans, was that so long as something was not forbidden in Scripture it might be employed in worship. Thus Lutherans often continue to use the old church calendar and even the lectionary. The other approach held that we must not include an element in worship unless it is commanded in Scripture - this would be the Reformed or Calvinist view. God determines how He will be worshipped; any human innovation, no matter how wise it may seem to us, is an intrusion into the realm where God alone has the right to authorize.

I would not be fair if I did not point out that one historical motive of the Protestants was to distance between themselves and Roman Catholicism. That is not necessary a good thing and no doubt many Protestant churches have thrown out the baby with the bath water when it comes to liturgical forms and worship. But I think it also fair to say that most Protestant churches - at least evangelical Protestant churches - do not follow the church calendar not merely because it is linked to Catholicism but to the religious formalism that is also linked to Roman Catholicism, as well as to other "high church" liturgies.

I am not saying that it need produce this, but that it is historically associated with churches that followed the outward forms without much inward enthusiasm or real belief. Therefore, rightly or wrongly, evangelicals have tended to shy away from overt liturgical forms of all sorts - in many cases going so overboard as to produce a liturgical vacuum into which even worse items have flowed. Personally, while I believe liturgical form and structure is important and valuable, I also find that the liturgical calendar does tend to promote formalism of an unhelpful sort. Our attention is drawn to the festival at hand, and thus the festivity, with the inevitable religious show, instead of the spiritual reality set forth by the Word of God.

Third, there is a biblical reason. While it is true that Old Testament Israel followed strict outward forms, all this is changed in the New Testament. The whole religious system of Old Testament Israel has been subsumed into personal faith in Jesus Christ. There is a massive simplification at work in the New Covenant, with only the two sacraments of baptism and communion. The outward forms have given way to inward reality. The Book of Hebrews emphasizes this much. I think this change is behind the Apostle Paul's warning in Colossians 2:16-17, "Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ."

Fourth, there is a methodological reason. We do very much want people to learn religious truths, and particularly the redemptive-historical events in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. But we do not do this by means of a calendar, but by the expository teaching of the Bible. We do not want to talk about the resurrection only on Easter Sunday, nor Pentecost on Pentecost Sunday for that matter. Indeed, this morning in my sermon from Hebrews 9 I pointed out the significance of Pentecost - not because it was a certain day in the year but because of teaching of Scripture within its own context. We want to let the Bible set our agenda and schedule, teaching the truths of our faith according to the context of God's own revelation in Scripture and not according to a church calendar that nowhere is exhorted to us in the New Testament.

Those are all reasons why we do not follow the church calendar, much less any prescribed lectionary, in this church. While seeing some of the benefits of such a system we think it more important that we be a people whose agenda is set by the on-going, expository teaching of the Word of God. While the goal of learning the history of our Lord and His redemptive work is a worthy one indeed, I think it far better achieved by the thorough, on-going teaching of the Bible.

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