ADVENT SEASON AND THE CHURCH YEAR
Guest post by Wesley Callihan

The Advent season marks the beginning of the church year. As my pastor once said, one of the most important things we can learn in our celebration of the seasons of the church year is the basic truth that calendars are not silent – they always tell a story. Calendars are not neutral. The question is, what story do they tell? Or to ask it another way, who is the Lord of time and does our answer show in the way we mark the passing of time?

Philip Schaff, one of the greatest of modern church historians, says about the church calendar that it centers on and elevates the person and work of Jesus Christ and His glory. It developed as a yearly representation of the main events of the gospel history; the birth, passion, and resurrection of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, as well as an exhibition of the life of the Christian church, its founding, growth, and consummation, as a whole and in its individuals, from regeneration to the resurrection of the dead. 

 

chronological confession - FB link3“THE CHURCH YEAR IS, SO TO SPEAK, A CHRONOLOGICAL CONFESSION OF FAITH; a moving panorama of the great events of salvation; a dramatic exhibition of the gospel for the Christian people. It secures to every important article of faith its place in the cultus of the church, and conduces to wholeness and soundness of Christian doctrine, as against all unbalanced and erratic ideas. It serves to interweave religion with the, life of the people by continually recalling to the popular mind the most important events upon which our salvation rests, and by connecting them with the vicissitudes of the natural and the civil year.”

Though the Scriptures contain no warrant for the festivals of the church year (neither does it contain anything that would forbid them so long as they are not presented by the church as binding on the conscience of the believer),

the Old Testament patterns of religious practice are a precedent, and the necessity of at least some kind of Christian worship and public life demands that we think about how we mark the passing of time. The Anglican/Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer says in its preface that the church year and other extra-Biblical practices of the church are not binding on the conscience but legitimate uses of the church to promote faith.

Unfortunately, the church calendar became so overlarded with saints days and other festivals in the middle ages that the Reformation leaders felt the necessity of restoring an earlier simplicity, but there was never any question of abandoning the church year entirely, as that would simply hand over the keeping of cultural time to the unbelieving world.

Written by Wesley Callihan, originally appearing in Scholegium, Vol. 1.2

Comments

  1. I would respectfully disagree. I appreciate very much the qualification that the calendar should not be imposed on the conscience; the problem is that according to the principle of worship, we are not authorised to add in worship what the Lord who is worshipped has appointed (Deut 12:29-32, Col 2:11ff). What man or minister or church council has the authority to determine how God is to be worshipped? The church has only been given authority to practice and impose what the only Lord and Head of the church has appointed. Once we begin adding our own rituals and ceremonies and traditions, we begin to draw worshippers away from what God has appointed to our own institutions.

    This error (or the church adding to what God has appointed) can be found in inspired history with complete with divine commentary in the OT where Godly men appointed worship that seemed good to them, but that was not commanded by the Lord. For example, there was the continual problem of worship at the high places. It seemed like a good idea to have sacrifices not only in Jerusalem, but also in local communities. Why not do this at the high places and groves in each community. Perhaps they wanted to show that Jehovah had taken dominion over the high hills and groves that the Canaanites had worshipped at (can’t let pagan culture claim those hills and groves when they belong to God, right?). While many of those who tolerated and/or set up this worship are recognised by the Lord Himself as godly men, mention is made that their well intentioned additions were displeasing to the Lord. Furthermore, these very same places of worship also became the very places where the worship of other gods was introduced, but note well that among the godly who instituted this high place worship, only Jehovah was worshipped in these places. The objection of the worship at the high places was not that other gods were worshipped there, but that Jehovah was worshipped by sacrifices in a place that He had not authorised to be worshipped in that way.

    The prevalence of similar additions today even by godly men (such as the church calendar and the use of musical instruments) should not surprise us or cause us to suppose that these additions must be acceptable. After all, in the OT, worship at the high places was so prevalent that after David, there are only two out of all of Judah’s kings and none of Israel’s kings who prohibited it. This makes it clear that it is in the heart of even godly men to add worship that is not pleasing to God. Those who practice worship instituted by the Lord should not stumble when they find that they are a tiny minority today.

    So the chief issue we ought to have with the church calendar is that it is not authorised. However, with that as a foundation, other objections can be added. One is the artificialness of the whole affair. For many at least, there is a tendency to act as if we are living history all over again each year. Instead of rejoicing in the coming of Messiah each Lord’s Day and coming together to praise Him as our risen Lord, we are in the posture of those who are longing for His coming, then rejoicing that He was “born this day,” then crying beside His tomb and then again rejoicing that He was raised. There is no objection to remembering that He was born or that He fasted in the wilderness (of course), but when it becomes reliving a drama, it ceases to be a memorial. It would be something like a husband and wife sleeping in separate beds for a month or so before their anniversary each year in order to relive the event of their marriage; and then at another time, crying out to God that He would give them children (supposing they had been barren for a time), even though they already have a quiver full, just so they could relive that experience. Instead, they should be thanking the Lord for what He has already done. The fact is, Jesus has come, has died, and is risen from the dead, and the NT worship that God has appointed calls us to constantly rejoice in that reality! We can fast and pray for the return of Christ and for the expansion of His kingdom and for forgiveness of the sins we have committed and for growth in grace; and we are certainly called to give thanks for all of wondrous works including creation and the advent of Jesus, but we do not need to artificially relive these events just because the calendar says so, neither has the Lord authorised this. All the calendar clutter keeps us from the true beauty of NT worship which beauty is in the Lord Jesus who has now completed His work and who leads us in worship as per Psalm 22:22ff where we are told that He gathers His church to declare to us what God has done in accepting His sacrifice and to lead us in praise and thanksgiving for this! The Father did not despise the affliction of the afflicted one (as the bearer of our sins), but when He cried, He heard! The whole world is seen to come alive with this praise with Jesus the Messiah as our head! If anyone is unclear about the fact that Psalm 22 is about our risen Lord leading the church in preaching and praise, see Hebrews 2:10ff where this is made clear.

    A second additional objection would be that once we allow the church to institute worship in addition to the worship He has appointed, we send a message to all that it is not God who determines how He is to be approached by us, but we who determine how we are to approach Him. The consequences of this are painfully obvious in the church today. When it comes to worship, you have things such as the proliferation of saints’ days or silly rituals as mentioned in your post on the one hand, and something such as worship that looks more like a pep rally, a concert, a talk show, a multimarketing testimony event, or whatever else on the other. But the worst fruit of all is the suggestion (which is sadly very prevalent in the church) that man decides how God is to be approached. When such a notion takes a firm seat in the hearts of men, it is fatal to the very gospel itself. Soon, I will be left to decide that God ought not to require a blood atonement by His Son, but should be pleased to accept my good deeds or my good intentions or whatever else.

    A third additional objection is the problem that seems to always occur of elevating our own holy days above the Lord’s Day that the Lord Himself has appointed. One only need look at the mainline churches that focus on the church calendar to see this. They have almost completely forgotten the Lord’s Day, but not Christmas, not Lent, not Good Friday! It has been my observation that in communions where the church calendar is introduced, the Lord’s Day becomes less important to them. The day turns from a day of worship and feasting before the Lord (a holy convocation) to a day where one worships a bit in the morning and then relaxes, watching a movie or playing ball or whatever. This saddens me because the whole day ceases to be a holy day and much of it becomes little more than a day off work.

    I realise, of course, that such arguments can be turned the other way– that it has sadly been the tendency of those who practice regulated worship to go beyond what scripture has said and to make the Lord’s Day not a holy convocation involving joyful feasting, but a day of fasting; but that is not what the Lord instituted either and that is what I am arguing for. And then there is problem of crankiness that can be directed against my position– and I hope that what I have said will not be taken as written in that spirit. I really did not intend for it to be quite this long. I am zealous for what God has appointed. I concur with Calvin’s little book called *The Necessity of Reforming the Church* as well as the Westminster Standards. In any case, I greatly appreciate the service that you are doing for the kingdom in teaching our youth. My children took delight in your teaching, even though they also had to take issue with this church calendar business. May the Lord continue to bless you richly.

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