GRANADA HILLS, Calif. (BP) — We’ve begun the holiday marathon. With Halloween behind us, Thanksgiving in the past, and Christmas and New Year’s just days away, this time of year can seem like a never-ending cavalcade of festivity: jack-o-lanterns give way to turkeys which give way to decorated evergreens which give way to fireworks and confetti. It can be a bit overwhelming.
But, at the same time, it’s wonderful; it’s a way for us to invest the passage of time with both grandeur and significance. After all, who in his right mind would really prefer a calendar stripped of all the holidays, a calendar in which the variegated seasons of our lives were flattened out into a bland and changeless uniformity? No one, that’s who.
Still, as enjoyable and meaningful as holidays can be, we have let many a holiday season slip by — sometimes without even knowing it.
Consider that for centuries, Christians observed something called “the Christian year” or “the Christian calendar.” Followers of Jesus would structure their entire year around the various episodes of Christ’s life, reflecting the themes implicit within them in different seasons of devotion with all sorts of special days meant to emphasize important biblical truths about God, man and the relationship between the two. Now, this isn’t merely some historical relic, it’s an on-going practice in many parts of Christendom to this day, including my church.
Indeed, in countless congregations — Catholic and Protestant, Reformed and Arminian, traditional and even contemporary — the Christian calendar remains a very present aid in the process of Christian discipleship. But other than Christmas and Easter (and just maybe Good Friday), many Southern Baptist churches have overlooked the traditional Christian calendar. And in doing so we’ve not only impoverished our understanding of time as a vehicle for God’s grace and a servant of His Word, we’ve missed out on a lot of holiday fun, too.
Maybe, then, it’s time for a change. As Malcolm Yarnell, a professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, has asked in reference to this topic, “might it be of some value if we Baptists were to make more of the specifically Christian holidays, literally treating our ‘holidays’ as ‘holy days’?”
The first step in reengaging with the Christian calendar is to know what it is, and to that end here is a brief summary of its seasons and major holidays:
— Advent. It’s not just modern retailers that want us to think about Christmas for a good long while before the day actually arrives. The season of Advent, which covers the four Sundays preceding Christmas Day, is intended to bring Christians into the same sort of expectancy regarding the coming of Christmas (and, further, the second coming of Christ) as the ancient Jews felt as they longed for the arrival — the advent — of the Messiah. To this end, churches which observe Advent may focus on prophetic passages from the Bible.
— Christmas. Well, this is pretty self-explanatory. Only that traditionally, while Christmas begins on Dec. 25, it also includes the next 11 days in its focus on the birth of Jesus. (Remember the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas”?) This extended period is sometimes called “Christmastide.”
— Epiphany. This is one of the traditional holidays/seasons Southern Baptists may be less familiar with. Epiphany is from the Greek word epiphaneia, which means “manifestation.” During Epiphany, which falls on Jan. 6, Christians reflect upon Jesus’ “manifestation” before the public, sometimes with an emphasis on the visit of the Magi from the East. After Jan. 6, this thematic focus is maintained for a while, giving Christians a chance to reflect on the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and His rise to prominence — an arc that climaxes on Transfiguration Sunday when the Transfiguration is front and center.
— Lent. Lent gets its name from the old English word for spring. During this time, the 40 days preceding Easter, Christians reflect on the growing opposition to Jesus during His ministry, His own personal self-abnegation, and finally His self-sacrifice which culminated on the Cross — an event commemorated on Good Friday. Lent is a chance, then, not just to remember some of the most important episodes in Christ’s life, but also to ask ourselves how we might sacrifice to the glory of God and the furtherance of His Kingdom.
— Easter. This is another of those days that we already know and love. But just as with Christmas, traditionally speaking, Easter Sunday was just the tip of the iceberg; the season of Easter lasts for another 49 days after that. That’s a full 50 days to celebrate Jesus’ victory over sin and death.
— Pentecost. Pentecost marks the close of the main, tightly packed sequence of observances in the Christian calendar. It’s a day that closes out the Easter season and marks the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the fledgling church in Jerusalem. As such, it’s a chance for us to consider all that God has given us to enable us to live the Christian life. It’s also a chance for us to remember just how awesome a responsibility rests on our shoulders: being Jesus’ witnesses throughout the world.
It’s my hope that many of you will join with me in re-digging these old wells, embracing a calendar that doesn’t honor just fathers, mothers, veterans, and Presidents — as worthy as these things are in their own right — but which also recognizes and celebrates the fully orbed life that Jesus lived for your salvation and mine.
Eugene Curry is pastor of First Baptist Church of Granada Hills, Calif.