The church calendar is anathema to our tradition. We wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole.
Except for Christmas obviously. And Easter. And Mothering Sunday (though it’s no longer about Mother Church). But otherwise, yuck. Advent is about chocolate and Lent is the rankest popery.
Ok, I’ve got that out of my system. That’s my context. We draw from a Baptist and Brethen non-conformist tradition that sees the church calendar as belonging to the established church, at best, and a Pentecostal and Charismatic tradition that shrugs its shoulders at them.
The longer I’ve thought about it though, the more I think there’s wisdom to be gleaned from the calendar. We wouldn’t be adopting it in full or part—for a start our people would think we’d fallen off the deep end—but I am keen to do the hard work of thinking through the traditions to see what we’ve lost when we jettisoned them a few hundred years ago.
They patterned the year with fasting and feasting. We’re not very good at either.
My church fasts, typically around three times a year. My last church did this too. We’ve learned some basic lessons about the power and grace of fasting together as well as individually. I’ve personally known Jesus to smile and say, “wouldn’t it be fun…?” as he called me on an individual fast. Spoiler alert: not in my opinion, no. I assumed most churches did this, but I’m coming to see its more counter-cultural than I realised.
Fasting is a good idea: our bellies are our god, we are surrounded by conspicuous consumption, our prayer is lacklustre and ill-disciplined, and most importantly: we aren’t hungry enough.
So, we’re learning to fast. We need to learn to feast. I think in a culture like ours, this is the right way around.
We don’t really feast, we indulge constantly, but we rarely take time to gather with others to a table and eat food that we feel is special and raise a glass of something equally special together. We need to learn feasting.
I think some of the wisdom of the church calendar can help us with that.
I don’t want to lose my tradition by adopting it wholesale, but we can and should mine the calendar for wisdom. There’s also something to be said for participating in the rituals of the rest of the church at the same time they do.
These are some sketches of what we could be learning from each season of the calendar.
Advent is about waiting. We live in an instant society, taking four weeks a year to speak and think about waiting while we prepare for Christmas is good for us. We rarely speak about unfulfilled longing in charismatic church life, it would do us good to do so every year.
It can also help us push back on Christmas creep, where Christmas begins at the start of December rather than on the 25th, and on the Americanisation of our calendar. A feast stretched out is a feast watered down, and we’re exhausted by the time we get there. Christmas is not over on Boxing Day, it’s just started!
Advent is a time to rejoice in a minor key (see this message I preached a couple of years ago), and to focus on waiting for the Lord coming to save us all. It’s a time for corporate repentance, speaking of corporate salvation, considering injustice and longing for the snake-crushing seed of the woman.
If we celebrate Advent well by considering its wisdom more than its form, we will then need to find ways to help our people feast. Christmas is about Family, not just family. Who in your church is at your table over the feast season? Are the single and childless included? How can you get people to stay local where possible, rather than all ship out? Practically, of course, some will travel wherever you are, that’s the modern world, but is each table filled with family and Family together?
For most of us Christmas is about family, but if we’re convinced that water is thicker than blood then we need to consider what examples we can set and how to push back on this.
It’s taken me a long time to get Lent, it doesn’t have the same cultural cache that Advent does—though there is some sense of denial involved for many—and in my church contexts corporate fasting is common.
Lent is about death. In a culture that hides death away, bringing it out for 40 days a year is healthy. Though of course the Sundays are still feast days, because all Sundays are feast days. I love that about the liturgical traditions.
If Advent is corporate repentance and the hope of justice, Lent is individual repentance and the hope of mercy. When we prepare for Easter, we will help to make Easter feel like a feast.
We live in a Christmas culture. Easter Sunday is the highest day of the year, but it doesn’t feel like it. In the most liturgical settings, it lasts for 50 days. There’s probably more scope to win here than at Christmas because your church is less likely to have travelled to see family, though most small churches are going to find they can’t rent their spaces any more than they can at Christmas.
So, how can we make the most of the feast? Our houses should be filled with each other and the gentle aroma of roasting lamb.
When we enter into the pain of Lent and consider death, Easter’s bright surprise should knock us off our feet. The reformed typically say that every Sunday is resurrection Sunday, I happily concur. But there’s something powerful about the high day to remember that the new creation began in a man’s body on 5 April AD33 at just before quarter past five in the morning, and that the face of God left the Holy of Holies for the last time. “He is not here, he is risen”. Indeed.
Learning the wisdom
I think we’re going to try to learn some of this wisdom in our context over the next few years. The pandemic was the first time we had Christmas and Easter meetings, we don’t own a building, and we are unlikely to be able to celebrate a church meeting on the high days in the coming years. We have to remember that feasting and our high days can happen round our tables, where Christianity is practiced.
If you go for this, it will impact on your preaching—in a city context the three series a year Gather/Grow/Rest format serves well, but is shaped around an academic calendar, not a church where the new year starts in December. I’m coming to realise it’s inherently secularised. That isn’t necessarily wrong, but let’s be conscious of the decisions we’re making.
It will also impact on your aesthetics. I’m fascinated by the fact the Church of England has different colours for different times of year. The church is decorated liturgically. I don’t know how we’d adapt that, if you have a communion table you could change the tablecloth, but your graphic design and room aesthetics could in some way reflect the seasons of the year.
But most importantly it will impact our hearts, and our tables, as we learn to fast and to feast, to wait, repent, and consider death, year on year.