Why I don’t do Lent but still love the liturgical calendar

If you grew up in a low-church Evangelical tradition like me, you probably celebrated two Christian holidays: Easter and Christmas (maybe even Advent).

If you’re even more like me, you had a time where you discovered that the historical church has a whole calendar’s worth of Christian days and seasons out there, and you thought, “Have I been missing out?”

Lent more than any other season seems to bring out the Evangelical world’s ruminations on the liturgical calendar, because it’s the liturgical-Church season that’s 1) most observed by otherwise-non-liturgical folk and 2) most biblically contentious. On the one hand, churches that make little to nothing of Ascension Sunday and Pentecost hold Ash Wednesday services. On the other hand, writers like Carl Trueman remind us in curmudgeonly fashion that Lent is not, strictly speaking, found anywhere close to anywhere in the Bible.

And in response to people who say it’s traditional, low-churchers like myself can make the argument that, since Lent isn’t anywhere in the Bible, the tradition of not observing it is technically older than the tradition of observing it.

I also have to say that, as far as I can understand it, Colossians 2:16-7 sets all Christians free from forced observance of any traditional ritual:

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.

In Christ, Christians are in the Sabbath rest every day. We’re in the joyful substance that the former festivals anticipated, and we’re not bound to still keep any of them. In these matters, we are totally free.

Having declared myself free and non-Lenten, though, I still find the idea of a liturgical calendar very compelling. And that’s almost entirely because of Allen Ross’ book Recalling the Hope of Glory: Biblical Worship from the Garden to the New Creation (Kregel Publications, 2006), and his Ecclesiology and Worship class at Beeson Divinity School.

Aside: Few books have provided me with as much ongoing insight and food for reflection as this one; Ross isn’t the liveliest writer, but he is profoundly well-read and thoughtful and clear. To borrow from Acts, his work makes me say, “In such a short time would you persuade me to be high-church?”

I would never forcibly bind myself, my family, or a congregation to a liturgical calendar. But Ross makes several arguments for seasonal worship that I find compelling:

  1. Seasonal worship helps people subordinate all experiences of life to God (Ross 223).

The Old Testament had provision for daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly worship-markers. These reminded worshippers that all time belonged to God and that God was sovereign over every season of time. Appropriately marking “chapter breaks” in life or putting a season to bed before God reminds us that every portion of our life is his gift to us.

This is a little foreign to industrial societies, because our lives aren’t obviously tied to agricultural rhythms. But for an example at least of how we can meditate on weather-seasons and connect them to life in God, check out N.D. Wilson’s Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl.

  1. Scheduled worship services preserve the heritage of the faith (Ross 224).

Israel’s festivals were each connected to a major event in their history: the Exodus, the wilderness wandering, the people’s liberation under Esther. Rehearsing and dramatizing these events kept the people’s memory of them alive and allowed them to celebrate God’s deliverance all over again. Just as some Christians celebrate a Passover feast and enjoy how the ritual is fulfilled in Christ, Ross argues that other Jewish festivals can inform our understanding of Jesus’ work and our response as well (234).

In Advent and Easter, we already do this. Churches reflect on the yearning for salvation and the birth of Jesus in Advent. At Easter, we remind ourselves again of the importance of Jesus’ resurrection. Are these the only times we talk about these events? I certainly hope not. But setting aside special time for them gives us more space to meditate on them.

  1. A liturgical calendar helps make the believing community distinct from the world (Ross 224).

Young American Evangelicals are at least … conflicted over the American church’s adoption of secular American holidays on Sundays. Should we commemorate the Fourth of July, Veterans’ Day, and Memorial Day in American churches? What about President’s Day? Arbor Day? Each culture has its own seasons and festivals; everyone follows a calendar of some sort.

A church that follows a liturgical calendar proclaims that life is governed not by human conventions, but by God. Rather than matching the rhythm or following the lead of our human cultures, we can fix our patterns of thinking and acting according to God’s acts so that when outsiders come into the church, they see a culture distinct from the world.

Ross lists more reasons, but these are the three I find most compelling. I love the idea of consecrating each season to God, just as my family tries to do with each week and each year. And I love the idea of grounding our family worship at least partly in the significant salvation-historical events of God’s people over time: not just the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus, but the Ascension and Pentecost and even Old Testament events.

In light of these things, I’m currently thinking through a personal “liturgical calendar” that incorporates these major events and is also, I think, more tied to the rhythm of Scripture than Lent. Ideally, this would affect my family worship time each Sunday, and it might influence my personal Bible study plan. It’s still in rough format, but here’s what I’m thinking of:

December(ish) – Advent, leading up to Christmas

  • Scripture: Old Testament Messianic promises, birth of Jesus
  • Prayer focuses: longing for the Second Advent, anticipation of the coming Kingdom, gratitude for the New Covenant, celebration of the gift of God’s Son

January-Easter – the life of Jesus

  • Scripture: The Gospels
  • Prayer focuses: the joy and power of the Kingdom, the humanity and divinity of Jesus, Jesus’ teachings and works

April-May – Easter, Ascension, Pentecost – the foundation of the Church

  • Scripture: End of Gospels, some New Testament epistles
  • Prayer focuses: Jesus’ work as our King and Priest, the work of the Holy Spirit, God’s grace in creating the Church

May-Autumnal equinox – the Church

  • Scripture: Acts, New Testament epistles
  • Prayer focuses: What it means to live as the Church, God’s mission in the world today

Equinox-December(ish) – Israel (yes, my “year” starts in autumn; I told you, it’s a bit arbitrary)

  • Scripture: Old Testament
  • Prayer focuses: God’s electing and saving history, gratitude for his covenants and his mighty acts, the fulfillment of Old Testament shadows in Christ

As to exactly how we’d celebrate these seasons (apart from reading relevant passages), I’m still thinking – but this is what I’m noodling on. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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