Why Bother With The Church Calendar? Five Reasons
The first is tradition, plain and simple. Epiphany, the Lenten fast, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday and so on have been part of the practice of the Church for a very very long time, and for those of us whose denominations do not have deep historic roots—in some cases, our roots are so shallow that we deny we are denominations at all—aligning with that tradition can have substantial appeal. Others of us may see an appeal to tradition as a pretty flimsy reason, and perhaps it is, but it’s worth noting that we all do it, whether we are questioning the Church calendar (“When I was a kid, we didn’t do this ...”) or observing it (with Christmas carols, Good Friday devotionals, Easter baptisms, Pentecost sermons, or whatever). Ask for the ancient paths, and where the good way is, and walk in it, that you may find rest for your souls.
The second, which is related, is catholicity: the desire to share things in common with the global Church. This is no doubt fuelled by social media, in which we are instantly able to hear about (and often see pictures of) Christian friends from other traditions and countries participating in historic practices; depending on the diversity of our friendship circle, we may even conclude that more people are participating than are not. This may foster a weird variety of FOMO (they’re all doing it, so why can’t I?), but it may also serve to highlight a sense of solidarity with our global brothers and sisters, and that, too, can be appealing.
Thirdly, there is narrative. Calendars are not neutral; they narrate a particular vision of the world (which is why revolutionaries try to change them). The tax year tells a story about money. The academic year tells a story about work and rest (which, interestingly, is almost Sabbatarian in shape: six 6-week half terms, followed by one 6-week holiday). The calendar year tells a story about life and death, at least in Europe, from the first flowers in January to the last fruits of November and then desolation in December. And the Church calendar tells a different story again, one shaped by the gestation, birth, appearing, temptation, death, resurrection, ascension and gifts of the Lord Jesus. If you’re going to use a calendar at all, and most of us are, it might as well be one which holds together around the gospel.
Fourth, there is formation. The Church calendar does not just say things, it does things. When (as I do) you give something up for Lent, you find yourself pining for the resurrection. When you pray or study your way through Advent, you focus on the return of Christ in a sustained way that might well not happen if you didn’t. When you take Holy Saturday as a day of contemplation and quiet, you feel the silence and confusion and sheer weight of the period between crucifixion and resurrection, and notice the connections between that day and the rest of the Church age. When you baptise people on Easter Sunday, you enact new life at the same time as you celebrate it.
And finally, there is discipline. (I don’t mean “discipline” in the sense of “sad thing that happens to you because you did something wrong,” but “happy thing that trains you for a more joyful future”). The Church calendar, emerging as it did in an agrarian context in which the seasons played a critical role, deliberately walks the Church through periods of feasting and fasting, which in turn represents periods of repenting and celebrating, giving and receiving, waiting and inheriting. Clearly, if we practise these in a meritorious or legalistic way—I think of the face-stuffing antics of Alfred Molina in Chocolat, for instance—the whole thing becomes a nonsense; one of my favourite incidents in Church history is the Affair of the Sausages (1522), when the Swiss Reformation began with the breaking of the Lenten fast, on the basis that Christians are free to eat anything. But there is also a place for spiritual practices (or “disciplines”) at particular times, like periods of prayer and fasting, or celebration and feasting, and the Church calendar, by providing a widely-used structure for these, can help with that.
Naturally, we are free not to use the Church calendar, just as we are free to use it; nobody should feel spiritually superior to another person on the basis of observation or abstention, and “each one should be fully convinced in their own mind” (Rom 14:5). For those of us who do, to whatever degree, this hopefully provides some reasons why. For those of you who don’t, I will do my best not to wish you a happy Easter.