A Year of Signposts’Following the Church Calendar
ADVENT – Fourth Sunday before Christmas
EPIPHANY – 12 days after Christmas
LENT – 46 days (approx. 6 weeks) before Easter
EASTER – First Sunday after the Paschal full moon (a Sunday between Mar. 22 and Apr. 25)
ASCENSION – 39 days after Easter
PENTECOST – 10 days after Ascension
I realize that following the church calendar is not the practice of some churches. It has, however, been effective in many of our churches that have inherited it from ancient practice, and it’s being discovered by others today. It helps to have signposts in the year that focus our attention on the momentous events in the life of the Christ and the founding of his new covenant assembly. It is another way of getting us to orient our church life around the divine drama: Advent (culminating in Christmas), Epiphany (the appearance of the wise men, or, more properly, the appearance of Christ to the Gentiles), Lent (Jesus’ wilderness temptation of forty days, culminating in Good Friday), Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost.
We enter into personal confidence in the truth of God’s word only by growing up into church practice, as we experience it in community as the people of God. Our beliefs are shaped as much by concrete worship practices (such as the songs we sing and the prayers we pray) as they are by the propositional structures that form them.
Paul tells us in Colossians 3:16: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” He is telling us that one of the chief ways of getting God’s word into us, not just in a rote mindless way, but so that it will “dwell in [us] richly in all wisdom”‘is through what we sing. This singing is not only a matter of praise but also of education, “teaching and admonishing one another.” Does our music serve this purpose and fit these criteria? It is ineffective to sing traditional psalms and hymns without thought, but it is surely no better to substitute contemporary “clips” from the Psalms and vacuous phrases about our state of consciousness. A fresh initiative, across the denominational landscape, appears to be emerging that seeks to produce new music with fresh creativity and theological and musical integrity.
A revival of traditional Christian practices whose practical success has the record of impressive centuries of vital witness will not look, should not look, like the first century, fifth, twelfth, or sixteenth centuries. But it cannot look like the twenty-first century stripped of these antecedents. We will, no doubt, find our way back to these resources as people of our time and place. In doing so, we will be surprised at how similar some of our problems are to those faced by our brothers and sisters in past ages. We’ll be lifted out of our snobbery toward the past, as if our generation were the only important one in the history of the church. And we will also encounter new questions that they will help us answer: How can we enjoy the Sabbath in our day of commuter churches? What will regular catechism practices look like in today’s over-committed and often broken homes? Is there an emerging approach to church music that reaches beyond the dead end of traditional-versus-contemporary and contemporary-versus-traditional? If style isn’t neutral, what criteria should we develop so that God’s word may dwell in us “richly in all wisdom”?
These are all exciting questions, if we have already accepted the challenge to move in these directions. We can expect variety as we step up to the plate ourselves, in our time and place, understanding and incorporating, but not slavishly imitating, that which has gone before.
This article by Michael Horton originally appeared in the January/February 2001 issue of Modern Reformation.