Advent is here once again. To my memory (and others I’ve spoken to seem to concur), Advent never used to be “a thing” for evangelicals. However, it’s become resurgent over the last decade or so. Lots of folk from non-liturgical, low-church backgrounds are now big on the “waiting”, “longing”, and “lament” of the Advent season.
This is true of the church calendar more widely. It’s not just Easter and Christmas now; Lent, Ascension, Pentecost all seem to be back. Even Saints’ Days are proving increasingly popular.
Unsurprisingly, there’s a counter reaction to all this. Plenty of folk remain unconvinced. Whether they come from staunch Presbyterians (pointing gruffly to their confessions of faith), or from more generic conservative evangelicals (who just want a good Bible study), the objections to observance of the church calendar seem to amount to this: it either distracts from, or replaces, the ministry of the Word.
And this objection is, of course, not unfounded. I’ll always be the first person to point out that preaching and access to vernacular Bibles in the Middle Ages were not nearly as bad as we often think… but it could still be pretty bad. Teaching of the Scriptures in medieval Christianity often played (at best) second fiddle to observance of feasts and saints days for many people.
And, among today’s “liturgical optimists” (who are usually very vocal about it online), little attention often seems to be given to how Scripture relates to whichever feast day they’re excited about. The “transformative effects” of liturgy and the calendar are often hyped, but this seems to happen at the expense of emphasising the transformative effect of the weekly ministry of Word and sacrament. And it does, to be honest, often just come across as affectation.
The church calendar can, then, often seem thoroughly un-Protestant and un-evangelical. Just this week, at an outreach group for elderly people at our church, a Catholic lady said to one of our staff members: “You evangelicals are big on reading the Bible aren’t you? Us Catholics don’t really do that.” A staunchly Catholic lady in her 60s with whom I worked not too long ago said much the same to me once.
At its worst, the church calendar does replace Word ministry. And yet, I’d count myself among those who would, largely, encourage its use. And that’s because, at its best, the church calendar is not something opposed to Word ministry. Rather, it’s a form of Word ministry.
Church Calendar As Word Ministry
I think we can evidence this by looking at how many of the Reformers treated the church calendar.
As we’ve noted, the church calendar dominated religious life in the Middle Ages. Once the Reformation came around, the narrative usually is that Lutherans and Anglicans stayed much closer to Rome in this regard, retaining the liturgical year and saints’ days. The Reformed and Presbyterian churches, however, supposedly jettisoned the calendar, and put all their focus on preaching and observing the Lord’s Day.
There’s some truth to this, but it’s simply not the case that the Reformed churches rejected the church calendar in toto. Some did – largely the English and Scottish Presbyterians and later Puritans. But surprisingly prominent names and documents within the continental Reformed tradition continued to allow and even commend the church calendar. They did largely do away with saints’ days (seeking to eliminate belief in saintly intercessions and purgatory), as well as the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent (due to concern for burdened consciences). Martyred “saints” were still commemorated on their various days though, with the Reformers determined to remember their sacrifices and stress Protestant continuity with the early church.
What remained prominent among many of the Reformed were the five “evangelical feast days”: Christmas, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Ascension, and Pentecost. These all, of course, celebrate the central aspects of Christ’s life and work, as recorded in Scripture. They are the things testified to as of “first importance” in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, the things which comprise the “mystery of godliness” in 1 Timothy 3:16. On each festive day, relevant biblical texts or doctrinal explanations would be preached on these days. This, then, made the feast days a form of Word ministry – not only by preaching on these things, but by giving them the especial prominence which the New Testament seems to encourage.
In Strasbourg, Martin Bucer (1491 – 1551), said the following:
In like manner must be observed the other festivals and seasons which have been prescribed, with a view to the increase of godliness by meditating upon the great deeds of the Lord accomplished for our redemption and eternal salvation, and to the giving of thanks to God for them. Such festivals are those of the Incarnation and Nativity of Christ, of his Ascension, etc.
Bucer retained the evangelical feast days because they enabled people to meditate upon the great deeds of the Lord – which are testified to in Scripture! For Bucer, the church calendar was Word ministry.
Elsewhere among the continental Reformed, the Second Helvetic Confession “approve[d] of it highly” when the events of Christ’s life are celebrated. The Book of Church Order of the Synod of Dort (1618, not to be confused with the Canons of Dort) stipulated the celebration of the evangelical feasts, and even of the Circumcision of Christ! Francis Turretin (1623-1687) approved of festivals as an aid to “excite piety and devotion”. And there is more Reformed approval to find if you look for it.
I think you even find this logic at work in the more liturgically permissive Church of England. Eamon Duffy (no fan of the Reformation) records Henry VIII’s sweeping abolition of many saints’ days in 1536, under the supervision of Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer:
“All feast days falling in harvest, from 1 July to 29 September, as well as all those occurring in the Westminster law terms, were abolished, excepting only feasts of the Apostles, the Blessed Virgin, and St. George. Ascension Day, the nativity of John the Baptist, All Saints’ Day and Candlemas were also to continue to be observed. The clergy might continue to celebrate the traditional Masses and offices on the abrogated days, but they were not to “do the same solemnly, nor… ryng to the same in the manner used in hygh holidays, ne to command or indict the same to be kepte or observed as holydayes”.
Cranmer and Cromwell’s reasons weren’t entirely spiritual: harvest feast days kept peasants from working, meaning food rotted in the fields and the poor went hungry; and perhaps they didn’t go further for fear of too much uproar. However, take note of the feasts which were permitted to remain: with the exceptions of St. George (the national saint) and (arguably) All Saints’, those remaining feasts all relate to biblical figures. They may not relate directly to the life and work of Christ narrowly considered, but they are all part of the story of Scripture, and so ultimately part of salvation history. For Cranmer and Cromwell, the reformed church calendar was a form of Word ministry.
Keeping First Things First for Pastors and Parents
Many Reformers, then, viewed the church calendar as Word ministry. Specifically, it was a way of ensuring an annual focus on the most essential teaching of Scripture: the life and work of Christ. Even the more permissive Church of England made movements toward a reformed calendar which focussed its festivals on Scriptural events and characters, rather than historical saints (whether this was ever successful or fully realised is a different question).
This is where I think the church calendar is of most value to evangelical Protestants today: it helps us keep the main thing the main thing. This seems counterintuitive at first. The church calendar seems rather like a distraction from the main thing (i.e. teaching people the simple Gospel). How exactly does it do this?
Bible loving evangelical pastors and teachers often struggle with striking the balance between preaching the simple Gospel regularly, and ensuring they teach “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). How do you keep your flock “gospel-centred” whilst also helping them become biblically literate? In our preaching, where we’re pushed for time in both preparation and delivery, we’re constantly forced to make judgement calls on whether we serve the mature Christian who needs to plumb the depths of the Scriptures, or the baby Christian (or unbeliever) who just needs a simple articulation of the Gospel. It is a hard, hard, thing to try and feed people both spiritual milk and solid food at the same time.
Parents struggle with this too. How do we help our kids to grow in their knowledge of the Scriptures, whilst also ensuring that they never move on from the centrality of Jesus? How can I help them develop a brain for typology, as well as a lifelong wonder for the simple Gospel?
There are various ways of trying to do both of these things. Perhaps you achieve that deeper study for mature Christians in adult Sunday school, or midweek groups or courses, and that leaves you free to keep things fairly simple in your preaching. But the church calendar is, I’d propose, a time honoured way of striking this balance, for both pastors and parents.
In weekly preaching or daily family devotions (if that ever happens – we struggle!), you can roam through the riches of different parts of Scripture throughout the year; but the church calendar allows you to keep returning to the life and work of Christ as found in the Gospels. Across five years, you might go through Genesis, Colossians, Romans, some Psalms, and Hebrews – all once. But observing the church calendar in some way (and I make no stipulations) can mean that you go through the life of Christ five times.
This, I think, retains the broad Reformed attitude to the calendar. Life has changed a great deal since the ancient and medieval times in which the calendar first began, as well as since the Reformation. The kind of mass corporate observances which originaly brought it into being, with festivals and ceremonies and village merriment, are (in most contexts) lost to us. But we can retain and reform the calendar in our own way, whether at home or in church, as a way of keeping the person of Jesus Christ at the centre of our spiritual life.
I lifted the phrase “liturgical optimists” from this excellent North American Anglican piece: https://northamanglican.com/against-the-liturgical-optimists/ ↑
Good summaries of this can be found in Worship: Reformed According to Scripture, Revised and Expanded Edition by Hughes Oliphant Old (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 29; and Daniel Hyde, “Lutheran Puritanism? Adiaphora in Lutheran Orthodoxy and Possible Commonality in Reformed Orthodoxy” in American Theological Inquiry 2.1 (January 2009), 77-83 (available here). ↑
Quoted in Hyde, 80. ↑
“THE FESTIVALS OF CHRIST AND THE SAINTS. Moreover, if in Christian liberty the churches religiously celebrate the memory of the Lord’s nativity, circumcision, passion, resurrection, and of his ascension into heaven, and the sending of the Holy Spirit upon his disciples, we approve of it highly. but we do not approve of feasts instituted for men and for saints. Holy days have to do with the first Table of the Law and belong to God alone. Finally, holy days which have been instituted for the saints and which we have abolished, have much that is absurd and useless, and are not to be tolerated. In the meantime, we confess that the remembrance of saints, at a suitable time and place, is to be profitably commended to the people in sermons, and the holy examples of the saints set forth to be imitated by all” – Chapter XXIV of the Second Helvetic Confession. ↑
“The Churches shall observe, in addition to Sunday, also Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, with the following day, and whereas in most of the cities and provinces of the Netherlands the day of Circumcision and of Ascension of Christ are also observed, Ministers in every place where this is not yet done shall take steps with the Government to have them conform with the others” – Article 67 of the Book of Church Order of the Synod of Dort ↑
Quoted in Hyde, 82. ↑
Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580, (London: Yale University Press, 1992), 394. ↑