Tides of the Church Calendar

The Need for a Sense of Ecclesiastical Time

In his article in the April 2004 issue of First Things, “The Church as Culture,” Robert Louis Wilken described how the ancient Christian Church posed an alternative to the surrounding prevailing pagan culture by presenting its own unique counterculture–a culture that in addition to creating its own language and its own sacred spaces, also created a new sense of time, revolving around the ecclesiastical calendar.  Wilken noted that although this culture persisted to the 20th century, it is rapidly breaking down and greatly in need of renewal. His insight is particularly apt. If we are not to “be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2) then we need to recover a sense of ecclesiastical time.

Recovering Use of the Church Calendar

During the Reformation, many Reformers were cool to the idea of an ecclesiastical calendar for at least three reasons.  First and foremost, there was no real Scriptural warrant for any day to receive particular observance other than the Sabbath, which was commanded in the Fourth Commandment.  Second, the ecclesiastical calendar was intertwined with the whole religious system of fasting and feasting, so much so that scrupulousness about keeping the fasts and feasts lent itself easily to a mindset of works righteousness, such as what Jesus condemned the Pharisee for thinking in Luke 18:9-14.  To the Reformers, we are not obligated to a system of fasts and feasts, nor do we gain righteousness by any other means than Christ alone.  Third, almost every day of the medieval church calendar was a holy day dedicated to one or another saint, and if every day is a holy day, then really no day is holy.  Indeed, because every day was a holy day of some sort, then one had to pick and choose what would be observed or not observed, since there was no way to observe everything and still do the work necessary for life.  Thus, ironically, the Church’s emphasis on “holy days” ended up trivializing the notion of a consecrated day, while distracting from Sabbath observance.  For these reasons and others, Reformers–especially the English Puritans and the Scottish Presbyterians–were inclined to dispense with an ecclesiastical calendar altogether.

In recovering a sense of ecclesiastical time, it would be easy to dismiss the Reformers as having “thrown the baby out with the bath water” in their zeal for reform.  The problem with this is that Reformed criticisms of the church calendar are as valid today as they were in the 16th and 17th centuries.  The weekly Sabbath should be the focal point for our thinking about holy days because it is commanded in the Decalogue.  Despite the current vogue among Protestants for “giving something up for Lent,” no one is seriously talking about re-instituting the whole system of fasting and feasting, around which the pre-Reformation ecclesiastical calendar rotated.  Neither is anyone seriously contemplating  re-instituting all the saints’ days, the overwhelming majority of which are for saints no one really knows.  At the same time, the subsequent failure of Puritan and Presbyterian efforts to completely disabolish the calendar in the practice of church life highlight the fact that if one is to change long-held practices, then it is not enough to simply not observe holidays; one has to cultivate new practices in their stead.  There is a rhythm to life–weekly, monthly, seasonally, and yearly–that facilitates godly discipleship.  Indeed, that may have been part of God’s purpose in the Old Testament for instituting the holy days there.  Consistent with the Reformers right emphasis on the centrality of Scripture and with the aim of developing new habits, I suggest the calendar be married up with a regular program of reading through the Bible.

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