In “An Introduction to the Church’s Liturgical Calendar,” I gave a brief overview of the major days and seasons in the Christian year. The more that I understand and follow the church’s calendar, the more that I enjoy it and find it helpful. Here are some key reasons why.
It Helps us Remember
First, I love the church calendar because I’m forgetful. My nickname growing up was “the absent-minded professor.” Scripture frequently speaks of the need to remember and to be reminded (e.g., Deut. 5:15; 1 Cor. 15:1; 2 Pet. 1:13; 3:1). The church calendar builds regular reminders of the gospel into our year, helping us to remember the work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for our salvation. Advent helps us to remember the second coming of Christ and Scripture’s witness to his first coming. Christmas calls us to focus on the incarnation. Epiphany reminds us of God’s plan for all nations. Good Friday invites us to survey the wondrous cross. And so on. Without these reminders, we are likely to neglect parts of “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).
The church calendar builds regular reminders of the gospel into our year, helping us to remember the work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for our salvation.
For example, last Pentecost I had a convicting realization that I had written much about the incarnation and atonement of the Son throughout the year, but said very little about the Spirit. This had a significant effect on my preaching and prayer, as I repented for neglecting the Holy Spirit and was gripped by the necessity of his presence and work in our church.
Next to Pentecost, the ascension is probably the most neglected facet of the gospel. Patrick Schreiner recently published a book titled The Ascension of Christ: Recovering a Neglected Doctrine. I used to neglect the doctrine of the ascension; then, I started observing the church calendar. Recognizing Ascension Day and the Sunday thereafter means that I now preach a sermon on the ascension almost every year. Over the course of my ministry, that may amount to dozens of sermons on the ascension and its many implications for Christian hope and holiness.
It Redeems the Time—Literally
The church calendar also provides one concrete way to obey Paul’s command to “redeem the time” (Eph. 5:16). The church calendar claims the whole year for Christ. It disrupts the rhythms of secular life and creates new rhythms—gospel rhythms. Becoming a Christian in a church that observes the church calendar means that your whole year gets restructured according to the work of the Triune God in history. What an amazing tool for discipleship!
It Brings Attention to Neglected Scriptures
Those who follow the church calendar usually use a church lectionary, which provides readings from the Old Testament, Gospels, Epistles, and Psalms for every Sunday of the year. Churches that ignore the church calendar only tend to hear the limited number of Scriptures that their pastor understands or prefers. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable” (2 Tim. 3:16), and the church calendar helps us to pay attention to more of it.
My favorite part of the lectionary is that it helps me to see the interconnectedness of Scripture. New Testament passages about the ascension, for example, are set alongside Psalms or prophecies that I have never before considered as ascension passages. I’m often amazed and excited by the connections I see through the lectionary, and I only started using the lectionary because I first started following the church calendar.
It Marks Our Unity with the Broader Church
I also love the church calendar because I love church tradition. Tradition is not a bad word. A tradition is anything that is handed down. Traditions are good or bad depending on what is handed down. Jesus rebuked manmade tradition that contradicts Scripture (Mk. 7:8), while Paul said that the gospel itself is tradition (2 Thess. 2:15). The church calendar is a nonessential but valuable church tradition—it’s a way of celebrating the gospel and redeeming time that has been handed down to us by Christians over the centuries. Observing it provides a reminder that what we are a part of as the body of Christ far precedes, and will, if Jesus tarries, also outlive us.
The church calendar reminds us that the Church is much bigger than our local church or Christian tradition.
Presently, it also reminds us that the Church is much bigger than our local church or Christian tradition. Perhaps you’ve heard of Christian groups that don’t celebrate Christmas or Easter. To many of us, such groups seem strange or suspect. Yet this is how many other Christians feel about those who don’t celebrate Pentecost, Ascension Day, or Advent. We come across as sectarian or free-wheeling when we ignore days or seasons that are recognized and practiced by the overwhelming majority of the church worldwide. On the other hand, observing these days and seasons is a sign of our unity with the global body of Christ.
It’s Better than Defaulting to the Secular Calendar
I also love the church calendar because it’s so much better than the alternative: defaulting to the secular calendar, which almost always happens in churches that reject the church calendar. The “special days” in the church year end up being Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, and so on—holidays which may be important, but can’t compare in significance to Pentecost, the Ascension, the Descent to the Dead, the Lord’s Baptism, and so on. When churches have boxes of flag decorations for July 4th but nothing for Pentecost, we may need to think more deeply about the meaning of “worldliness.”
It Gives Direction to My Preaching and Our Church’s Worship
As a pastor, the church calendar also helps me decide what to preach week after week. In Bible college, I was frequently warned that, in the weekly grind of ministry, there would be times when this is difficult. Some pastors spend hours of their allotted preparation time just trying to get settled on a text or topic. While preaching through books of the Bible is the heart of my pulpit ministry, the church calendar provides some basic direction to my preaching. If I’m not preaching through a book, there’s not a special day on the calendar, or I don’t feel led by the Spirit to something specific, I default to preaching on one of the passages from the lectionary. This helps to ensure balance in my preaching and forces me to study and explain passages that I would otherwise neglect.
The calendar likewise gives direction to our church’s worship. There are songs we would never sing and prayers we would never pray if not prompted by the days and seasons of the church calendar.
It’s Enjoyable for Me, My Family, and My Church
Finally, for what it’s worth, I love the church calendar because it’s enjoyable. One can find godly joy in decorating the church for the various seasons: changing the overlays from purple to white to green to red, hanging banners with beautiful Christian symbolism, and so on. My wife Lexi and I are also beginning to collect decorations for our home. Our wish list includes palm leaf placemats for Palm Sunday, dove ornaments for Pentecost, an antique Advent calendar, an Epiphany star, and so on. These are beautiful traditions to pass on to children and serve as annual reminders of what we believe and cherish as Christians.