Wednesday, December 01, 2004

ADVENT AND THE CHURCH YEAR

This past Sunday was the first of the four Sundays of Advent, the beginning of the church year. Pastor Wilson had an excellent exhortation at the beginning of Sunday's service about the idea of time and Christ's sovereignty over it. He says, "One of the most important things we can learn in our celebration of this is the foundational truth that calendars are not silent—calendars always tell a story." The question is, what story do they tell?

Philip Schaff, the greatest of church historians in modern times, has some wonderful things to say about the church calendar in his magisterial History of the Christian Church (available online here, and better yet, available in glorious hardback for an excellent price here on Christianbook.com). In volume III, chap. 7, section 76, he says:

The peculiarity of the Christian year is, that it centres in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and is intended to minister to His glory. In its original idea it is a yearly representation of the leading events of the gospel history; a celebration of the birth, passion, and resurrection of Christ, and of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, to revive gratitude and devotion. This is the festival part, the semestre Domini. The other half, not festal, the semestre ecclesiae, is devoted to the exhibition of the life of the Christian church, its founding, its growth, and its consummation, both is a whole, and in its individual members, from the regeneration to the resurrection of the dead. The church year is, so to speak, a chronological confession of faith; a moving panorama of the great events of salvation; a dramatic exhibition of the gospel for the Christian people. It secures to every important article of faith its place in the cultus of the church, and conduces to wholeness and soundness of Christian doctrine, as against all unbalanced and erratic ideas. It serves to interweave religion with the, life of the people by continually recalling to the popular mind the most important events upon which our salvation rests, and by connecting them with the vicissitudes of the natural and the civil year.
Here is a very good site with discussions of the church year and the traditions that have accompanied its development, along with readings adapted from the Revised Common Lectionary and the Book of Common Prayer.
Schaff makes two additional points: 1) although there is no warrant for the annual festivals of the church year in the New Testament, there is clear precedent in the "cultus" (as Schaff puts it) of the Old Testament Jews, and the necessity of Christian worship and public life. 2) In the course of the late Roman church and especially the medieval church, the calendar became so overladen with saints' days and other festivals that "the Reformation of the sixteenth century sought to restore the entire cultus, and with it the Catholic church year, to its primitive biblical simplicity; but with different degrees of consistency. The Lutheran, the Anglican, and the German Reformed churches--the latter with the greater freedom--retained the chief festivals, Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, together with the system of pericopes [the Scripture readings selected for each day], and in some cases also the days of Mary and the Apostles (those these are passing more and more out of use); while the strictly Calvinistic churches, particularly the Presbyterians and Congregationalists, rejected all the yearly festivals as human institutions, but, on the other hand, introduced a proportionally stricter observance of the weekly day of rest instituted by God Himself." Even those stricter churches have in the last century and a half begun to use again Christmas and Easter at least, as being valuable to the church and the individual Christian and not contradictory to Reformation principles.