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Tuesday
Mar062012

Is the Christian Calendar a Biblical Idea?

I’m a latecomer to the church calendar year.  I didn’t grow up in a “liturgical” context.  The worship of my youth was dynamic, free-church-style evangelical worship—a block of songs, special music accompanying an offering, and the sermon, in a nutshell.  The first time I was exposed to the Church year was in college.  It seemed foreign and unbiblical.  (Well, maybe not unbiblical, but at least extra-biblical.)  It seemed to be “unnecessary tradition” with little to no value. 

My conversion to being an observer and proponent of the Christian calendar (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost) initially came not through biblical arguments but through experiencing it.  Its fruit began to bloom in my life and spirituality.  However, it’s still important to ask if there is a biblical case to be made.  There is no explicit command to observe the Christian year, nor does the Bible, at first glance, seem to give us much of an outline for worship, either weekly or annually.  Still, I now believe that the biblical evidence strongly compels us to consider the Christian year as something consonant with the heart of God for our worship.1

The Old Testament Roots of the Christian Year2

When God first established the formal worship of His people (there were hints and glances prior, but worship was more informal and not necessarily “cultic” then3), He revealed a desire for there to be an annual cycle of worship.  In seeking His people’s holiness (Lev 11:45), God established a Law that would help them, on an individual level, to be personally set apart (Lev 17-22).  He established a sacrificial system to help the people see that personal holiness meant that atonement had to bridge the fellowship-gap between God and humanity (Lev 1-7, 16).  But God also made clear that He desired time to be set apart as His.  Leviticus 23-25 records God’s prescription for annual time-keeping:4

  • Feast of Unleavened Bread / Passover – remembering and reenacting God’s salvation; a pilgrim festival
  • Feast of Firstfruits – dedicating and celebrating the harvest as God’s
  • Feast of Weeks / Feast of the Harvest / Pentecost – recognizing that God is provider of all things; a pilgrim festival
  • Feast of Trumpets – call for a solemn assembly to prepare for the most sacred month, which includes the Day of Atonement
  • Day of Atonement – a holy convocation where the people of God afflict themselves, seeking and receiving atonement through sacrifice
  • Feast of Booths / Feast of Tabernacles – remembering and reenacting God’s redemption from Egypt, with special attention to Israel’s time in the wilderness

One other important piece to point out is how Sabbath covers over all these feasts and festivals as a meta-concept, which is why it is mentioned first in Leviticus 23.  As we look at the calendar, notice here the rhythms of preparation and fulfillment.  Notice also that the “high points” of the year center around sacrifice, atonement, salvation, and redemption (Passover, Day of Atonement).  The goal of the liturgical year in the Pentateuch appears to be to have the people of God retell, reenact, and even relive their salvation history.  Not only is it a symbolic recollection of past events, but also God intends that the people imbibe the year in such a way that the past becomes their present, their life.5  So, for the people of God in the Old Testament, worship not only had weekly rituals but annual ones. 

The New Testament Fulfillment of Old Testament Worship

It would seem to make sense, then, that if Christ is the fulfillment of all Old Testament worship and longing, if Christ is the substance to which the shadow pointed, worshipers would seek the continuation of such an annual worship-cycle through a Christological lens.  The question that is always debated is, Does Christ’s fulfillment mean the cessation of all these practices because they are fulfilled in Him, or does it mean that these practices are carried on reinterpreted and re-practiced now in Christ?  Ultimately, we probably can’t come down with a clear biblical “should” one way or the other.  There is gospel freedom to be shared here.  Still, let’s entertain an often understated motif in the Gospel of John that may nudge us toward the validity and benefit of observing an annual worship cycle centered around Jesus Christ.

John is unique among the gospel-writers because he wrote considerably later than Matthew, Mark, or Luke.  His vantage point and agenda are from an entirely different place than that of the synoptic Gospels.  Many scholars have noted that John’s writings, especially in Revelation, are loaded with liturgical content, and we may overlook just how liturgically-oriented John is in the first half of his Gospel.  John 2-4 centers around the them of the newness of Christ’s ministry6 with many worship-metaphors nestled in the text.  When Jesus turns water into wine, stressing the new joy He will bring, He does so with jars used for ceremonial washing (2:6).  He reveals Himself to be a new Moses, but instead of turning water into blood (a sign of judgment), He transforms it into wine (a sign of joy).  The metaphor turns on itself, though, because Jesus would later institute one of the most sacred acts of worship, the Lord’s Supper (the Passover fulfilled), a chief staple of which would be wine.  A few verses later, Jesus speaks rather cryptically about destroying and raising the temple (2:19), the center of worship.

John 3 and 4 are as “liturgically loaded” as the previous chapter.  Jesus has a conversation with Nicodemus about the new birth, immediately followed by teaching and experiences with John the Baptist all centered around baptism and ceremonial washing (3:22-36).  Then, tucked in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman is a theological debate about worship and place (4:19-24), revealing a “new universalism” of the mission of God going beyond the walls of Israel to the rest of the world. 

All this merely sets the stage for the stunning liturgical revelation in chapters 5-10. We need first-century Jewish lenses to clearly see what is happening here, because John is making radical observations about Christ as the fulfillment of Judaism, particularly the Jewish feasts and festivals.  Chapter 5 begins with Jesus’ Sabbath-healing and subsequent tussle with the Jewish leaders.  Just as Sabbath opened up and became the framework for the feasts recorded in Leviticus 23-25, so Sabbath frames what follows in John.  This is not a coincidence. 

Chapter 6 opens with an overt reference to the fact that the events following were taking place as “the Passover, the Feast of the Jews, was at hand” (6:4).  So when Jesus teaches the people, in this context, by saying, “I am the bread of life” (6:35, ESV), this is no mere illustrative metaphor.  He is claiming that He Himself is the fulfillment of the Festival of Unleavened Bread.  Chapter 7 opens by jumping to the reality that “the Jews’ Feast of Booths was at hand” (7:2, ESV).  Part of this festival involved a week-long water-drawing ritual, culminating on the eighth day, when the water ceremony wouldn’t be enacted.7  It is at this dramatic climax of the festival where Jesus makes another stunning proclamation:

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” (7:37-38, ESV)

Similarly, the Feast of Booths also contained a lighting ceremony in which four large lamps were lit to accompany joyful singing.  On the last night, the lamps were purposefully not lit in order to stress Israel’s waiting for the fullness of salvation to come.8  On this night, Jesus stands and says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (8:12, ESV).  Again, Christ is not merely making powerful illustrations; He is claiming His rightful place as the central figure of the worship calendar of the people of God.  Jesus is the One to whom the water and light point.  Christ is the fulfillment of the Feast of Booths.

Chapter 10 moves the reader into the Festival of Dedication (10:22), in which is celebrated the rededication of the temple (164 B.C.) after its desecration during the intertestamental period.  Jesus again plays a trump card on the meaning and significance of this festival by claiming the utmost authority (10:30, 38) as Israel’s true Liberator, above Judas Maccabeus, who was looked at by some Jews as a Messianic figure leading up to the rededication of the temple.  Jesus will soon reveal, too, that He is the true Temple. 

At this point, it has to be acknowledged that while it is probably not John’s intent to unroll for the reader a liturgical map of Old Testament practices re-interpreted in Christ, this conclusion is certainly a byproduct of the discussion in chapters 5-10.  The liturgical lessons contained in here are the “residue,” if you will, of John’s main points.  Here we see Jesus claiming that He must be the center of the annual worship cycle of the people of God. 

The Christian Year and the Centrality of Christ

Putting this all together, several principles can be derived from these biblical passages (and others):

  • God values annual cycles and seasons of worship for His people.
  • God desires that those cycles and seasons ebb and flow to the rhythms of sacrifice, atonement, salvation, and redemption.
  • In Christ, we find all those themes fulfilled.

Would it not make sense, then, that it might be most wise for Christians to embrace these values and ideas in the form of a worship calendar centered around the person and work of Jesus?  Well, this happens to be what the Christian calendar precisely is.  In the Church year, we retell, reenact, and relive the life of Christ.  We walk through His birth and early years (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany).  We journey through his life of ministry, temptation, and prayer (Lent).  We live in His resurrection and ascension (Easter), and we abide in His Spirit’s presence until He comes (Pentecost).  We relive our salvation history in Christ.  This all seems very consonant with the heart of God for worship, and it illustrates in a holistic manner the nature of how the Old Testament and New Testament work in tandem to develop a robust theology of worship.  So is the Christian liturgical year a biblical idea?  Yes, I believe it is.9  

 


1It is worth noting that, in my own Reformed/Presbyterian tradition, there is a tension around this issue.  American Presbyterians claim a heritage from (with a broad brush) two different worship streams: (a) a “low church” Puritan stream, which reacted strongly against its Roman Catholic and Anglican context by arguing that every Sunday is a “holy day” and that no one day or season should take prominence over another (it is this stream of thought that has largely influenced evangelical worship in the United States, well beyond Reformed traditions); (b) a “high church” stream in the Reformed tradition of Anglicanism and “high Presbyterian” worship.  It should be obvious that I’m an advocate more for the latter.  While I sympathize with the Puritan outlook on worship, my contention is that they were overly reactionary, and, in an effort to “purify” the Church from abuses, they threw the liturgical baby out with the bathwater.
2It should be acknowledged here that presupposed in this line of argumentation is a more covenantal view of the continuity of God’s redemptive plan between the Old and New Testaments.  Those who do not share this presupposition will find the argument from the Old Testament as a whole unconvincing.  Because I believe in the continuity of God’s covenants and that they were all unveiling one plan of redemption in Jesus Christ, it follows that there can be value for Christian worship in observing the rhythms and patterns of Old Testament worship. 
3Some scholars speak of a proto- or primitive cult observable in the worship of Abraham (e.g. the altar in Gen 22) or even the animal sacrifice of Adam and Eve for clothing (Gen 3:21), but I am speaking of the overt, formalized worship practice for Israel recorded in Scripture.
4See also Ex 23:10-19; 34:18-26; Num 28-29; Deut 16:1-17.
5This is the rich meaning behind the New Testament word anamnesis, which is often overlooked when we read “remembrance” in English (e.g. 1 Cor 11:24-25).
6The following references to themes of newness are taken from Craig Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1997).
7Blomberg, Jesus, 296.
8Ibid., 297.
9It is crucial, especially in discussions of worship, to be honest about our methodology in the way we arrive at conclusions about what is “biblical.”  Often times, people talk past each other without realizing that some are applying a more literalist or rigidly prescriptive paradigm on how one arrives at “biblical” conclusions, while others assume, as I do, that there exists liturgical merit in exegeting theological values and propositions from the text in such discussions.  A must-read on this subject is Michael A. Farley, “What is ‘Biblical’ Worship? Biblical Hermeneutics and Evangelical Theologies of Worship,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 51/3 (September 2008).

Reader Comments (4)

Zac, thanks for a well-written, concise encouragement to consider using the church calendar to aid in worship. Our church has been dabbling in it recently and this is helpful. Thank you.

March 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterScott Puckett

I think the Church calender is a good idea in that it keeps things in proper perspective for us. The year is centered on and revolves around the events of Jesus' life and death and riisen life, and the life of the Church.

I'm fairly new to it, also...but I like it.

March 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Martin

Great points. Our church is a bit wary of the calender because of cultural baggage associated with certain festivals. (Lent mostly, with things like fat tuesday and mardi gras.)

March 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJered McKenna

There is a LOT of baggage around the calendar, unfortunately. So, it probably means that, for churches that have not engaged in it much, they need to tread with a lot of sensitivity to the broader cultural issues and the specific church-cultural issues. Hopefully this is fuel for education about what IS good about it! Helpful thoughts, Jered.

March 15, 2012 | Registered CommenterZac Hicks

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