What Time Is It? A Defense of the Church Calendar
Why the Church Calendar is Important
Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D. Pastor of All Saints Presbyterian Church
As I was walking down the street one day
A man came up to me and asked me what the time was that was on my watch
And I said
Does anybody really know what time it is
Does anybody really care
If so I can't imagine why
We've all got time enough to cry
(“Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” lyrics by Robert Lamm
from “Chicago's 1968 album “Chicago Transit Authority” Sony)
The Christian faith is dated. It is not timeless. It is historical. The truth claims of our faith require that certain events happened in history. Luke dates the birth of Jesus. He writes, “And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus ...while Quirinius was governing Syria” (Luke 2:1-2). He also dates the John the Forerunner. “Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea...the word of God came to John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness” (Luke 3:1-2). We confess that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate. Time is of the essence, since “when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son” (Gal. 4:4). Moreover, we await a future consummation of Christ's kingdom in which there is a resurrection and renovation of the whole cosmos (1 Cor. 15:26; Rom. 8:21). Unlike the song above, believers must care about time as we await the abolishing of the last enemy, death (“eschatos,” Greek for “last”). This very basic aspect of our faith requires our consideration of the God-created recurring events in time, the calendar.
Time is divided not only into evening and morning, but also into seasons in the Bible. In the eras before Christ came, God's people Israel were given calendar celebrations which foreshadowed Christ, such as Passover, Pentecost, the Day of Atonement, and Tabernacles. In fact, a careful and literal reading of Genesis 1:14-15 will make clear that some seasonal calendar was hardwired into creation. “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs and seasons, and for days and years.” The Hebrew word mo‘ed [seasons] is used over 200 times in Scripture to mean “religious festival.” After the Exodus, the Lord gave his people a festival calendar synchronized with the seasons of the year (Lev. 23).
Given the fulfillment of these festivals and shadows/types in Christ (Col. 2:17), should Christians celebrate Christian holidays? Should we engage in the annual reminders drawn around the major events of Christ's life and work? Should we observe, Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost?
For those who have grown up in evangelical circles, there has been a strong reaction to being Catholic with a big “C.” Many have thrown out the baby calendar with the bath water. The mere reference to historic seasons such as Epiphany or Lent may conjure images of a corrupt Church withholding the cup of gospel wine from the people.
The Protestant heritage is mixed on the question of the Church Calendar. Lutherans and Anglicans never abandoned the Christian timing of time in the calendar and neither did many in the Reformed Church, though it was less robust. I recently received a book on the history of the German Reformed Church in our area (Lancaster, Penn.) and noted that in keeping with the Continental Reformed churches, they celebrated the “five evangelical feast days.” These were Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost. The Reformed churches of Berne, Strasbourg, and Zurich also celebrated these. The Calvinistic, “Second Helvetic Confession” chapter 24, says, “Moreover, if in Christian liberty the churches religiously celebrate the memory of the Lord's nativity, circumcision, passion, resurrection, and of his ascension into heaven, and the sending of the Holy Spirit upon his disciples, we approve of it highly.”
However, in the Reformation, well-meaning Reformers in the Puritan movement sought to purge the Church of excessive ceremony. In the English Reformation, especially, this resulted in the Presbyterian and Congregational movements which condemned all celebrations other than the Lord's Day (called the Christian Sabbath). For example, a great Princeton Presbyterian, Samuel Miller (1769-1850) argued, “We believe that the Scriptures not only do not warrant the observance of such days, but that they positively discountenance it.” He goes on to argue that Galatians 4:8 and Colossians 2 refute the practice of recognizing any holy days, except the Lord’s Day.
How might we address objections from the Bible to the use of Church Calendar? Some specific passages have been used. Galatians 4:10 - “You observe days and months and seasons and years.” And Colossians 2:16-17 - “So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.”
These texts are not addressing the right use of such events as Old Covenant Pentecost. Clearly God gave these festivals in the anticipation of Christ. The apostles themselves were to wait for the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1). Paul used Pentecost in his missionary witness (Acts 20:16). Paul's objection to those in Galatia and Colossae have to do with the superstitious legalism using “days and months and seasons and years” in contradiction to their justification by faith in Jesus. In both contexts it is not mere Old Testament calendar practices being discussed, but practices distorted by a Judaizing distortion and misuse of these practices. In Galatians 4:9, he refers to the “weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage.” Thus redeemed pagans are being exhorted not to return to their false religious practices which have now been shrouded with a Judaistic veil which rejects the consummation of the new covenant. In Colossians 2:18, he goes on to speak of “taking delight in false humility and worship of angels” This may refer to the syncretism of their pagan background which amassed superstitious uses of astrology and everything else but the salvation in Christ alone. More likely, it is simply Judaism without the fullness of Christ. These "elemental spirits of the universe, identified as the 'deities' which preside over individual nations and peoples...Christ is the ruler of all nations...what Judaism might offer to ex-pagan Christians is in fact just another local, and one might say, tribal religion, composed of regulations which function at a purely worldly level.” “Paul emphasizes that the Colossians have already been circumcised, and therefore do not need to undergo the operation again in a physical sense, as would be required if they were to become proselytes to Judaism” (NT Wright, Colossians and Philemon: An Introduction and Commentary (TNTC 12; IVP, 1986, p. 82). They were tempted to accept Judaistic legalism to be approved, rather than being accepted in Christ in whom the OT finds complete fulfillment. Contextually consider, these texts are far from a repudiation of any seasonal considerations of Church Calendar in Christ, celebrating His completed work.
The text of Colossians 2:16 teaches what I have already indicated is necessary in a Christian Calendar: that Christ fulfills any legitimate anticipations in festivals and seasons of the Old Testament. It is also interesting that this is not a condemnation of any celebration, per se. He writes, “let no one judge you.” Romans 14:5 would seem to be a parallel, “One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind.” Calendar considerations are a matter (like others in Rom. 14) of culture, maturity, and bearing with one another through differences.
The Puritan reading of these texts, requires a prohibition of any feast days other than the Lord's Day. But if these texts and principles refute days like Christmas, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost, then they refute the Lord’s Day (Sunday - the Christian Sabbath) just as much. In fact, Colossians 2:16 says nothing about Christmas, but expressly mentions the Sabbath!
The basis for annual events in Christ in the Church Calendar is drawn from the very same principles as the Sunday-Sabbath: tradition of the early church, theological principle, and a very thin example (Acts 20:7). Let me be clear, I believe that the first day of the week is the Lord's Day and it is the new Sabbath to be celebrated in light of the Resurrection. But in the same way that we commemorate rest from our labors in a risen Christ weekly, all the Old Covenant calendar may be renovated in Him. This would lead us to a very similar pattern as we find in the historic Church cycle of Advent, Easter, and Pentecost.
The basic Puritan argument is that the people of God may not legitimately add to a previously revealed calendar. Since there is no revealed Christian Calendar, thus our only celebration is the Lord's Day. The basis of this is a strict adherence to follow in worship only what is expressly prescribed in Scripture (the so-called Regulative Principle of Worship). This argument, augmented by past abuses of the Church Calendar (such as excessive feast days where saints are venerated), seems to be the primary basis for denying the use a Church Calendar and the associated celebrations.
However, the main premise is faulty because it overlooks much biblical information. Is it true that the people of God may not legitimately add to a previously revealed calendar? The Jews added many calendar events and we have evidence that Jesus Himself participated in at least two such added festivals. He attended the Feast of Dedication (Hebrew word, “Hanukah”), instituted in 164 B.C. by Judeas Maccabeaus who cleansed the temple (John 10:22). And He attended the Feast of Purim instituted in Esther’s day (Est. 9:22) (see John 5). We have no evidence that Jesus disapproved of these. Beyond this the Jews added fasts, for example on the 17th of Tammuz, repenting for the day the Israelites made the golden calf. They added a fast for the day Jerusalem was sieged by Nebuchadnezzar, and another when the Second Temple was destroyed by Titus. There were local observances, such as the Feast of Acra, the Feast of Nicanor, the Feast of Woodcarrying, along with a “New Year for trees” (“Feasts” in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia). In other words, the Jews never thought that their Mosaic festivals were the only legitimate celebrations or commemorations.
Even the minor premise overlooks some important biblical examples. Is it true that there is no revealed Christian Calendar? The apostle Paul at least used Pentecost, if he did not celebrate it – “Paul ... was hurrying to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the Day of Pentecost” (Acts 20:16). He even marked time with it saying to the Corinthians that he would “tarry in Ephesus until Pentecost” (1 Cor. 16:17). Paul's calendrical categories included this festival. Actually, Christians do have a revealed Christian Calendar, since we are the heirs of the “covenants of promise” (Eph. 2:12). We have a model from the fulfilled Old Covenant Calendar, as is evidenced by the apostolic example and instruction (Acts 2:1, 20:16; 1 Cor. 5:7, 16:17). Of course, this does not mean we do exactly what pre-Christ, Old Covenant Jews did. Pentecost cannot be the same after the pouring of the Spirit. Passover cannot be the same since Christ is our Passover (1 Cor. 5:7). The Day of Atonement certainly cannot be the same. The Church historically has seen the value of renovating these events in light of Christ.
Many who believe they are more spiritual and biblical than saints in history object to the Church Calendar, while being swept away into a secular view of time. Remember the calendar has political and world-shaping significance. Think of the French Revolution - what did they do (beyond thrusting upon us the devilish Metric System) - they tried to undo the seven day, Christian Calendar with a ten-day week. The Bolshevik Revolution forming the USSR required atheistic, political holidays. In China there is the birthday (July 1) of the Chinese Communist Party and National Day (October 1). In the light of this, I cannot see how Christians can object to Christmas or Ascension.
A biblical use of the Church Calendar including the highlights of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost does not introduce new ceremonies or rituals to bind up men's consciences. Rather, it organizes and directs our Scripture readings, prayers, hymns, and sermons according to the life of Christ. Such an organization must take place in any case. To organize this by a Calendar gives us celebrations of redemptive significance and the potential of more unity with other Christians (something Jesus was concerned about, John 17). By this we enjoy a redemptive calendar which marks time under the Lordship of Christ. Jesus is Lord of Time!
Does anybody know what time it is? Do we have a Christian view of time or is our calendar no better than communist statism - with independence day, labor day, memorial day, veterans day, and presidents day. Do we know “IRS day” (April 15) better than Ascension, Easter, or Pentecost? Do dates set by our tax-men loom larger than Jesus ascending to the right hand of God the Father? Probably so. This is an indication that we are toddlers in Christian thinking about the significance of time and calendar.
Rev. Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D.
Twenty-Third Week of Trinity Season
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