Today is Palm Sunday, that Sunday before Easter when we remember our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem to die on the cross for our sins. Historically, much of the Christian church has observed this day as the beginning of “Passion Week,” which includes Maundy Thursday (commemorating the day when Christ instituted Holy Communion), Good Friday (when Christ died on the cross), and culminates in Easter Sunday.
These days, along with other days such as Christmas, Ascension Day, and Pentecost, are part of what we call the church calendar or liturgical year. Why do we observe this seasonal schedule? Where did it come from, and what benefit does it have for the believer?
The Church Calendar is Historical
It is an indisputable fact that the early church observed certain days of the year in commemoration of our Lord’s earthly ministry. For example, we know from an extant Easter sermon preached by Melito (d.180), the bishop of the church at Sardis, that Easter has been celebrated since at least the 2nd century. The writings of John Chrysostom (c.349-407), the bishop of Constantinople, reveal that, in addition to Easter, the church celebrated Christmas, Theophany (Christ’s birth), Ascension, and Pentecost as festive days of worship and feasting. The collected sermons of Augustine (395-430), the bishop of Hippo, include a whole series on the liturgical year. We find more evidence of the church calendar in the early church in the writings of fathers such as Irenaeus (130-202), Eusebius (260-339), and Jerome (c.347-420).
During the Middle Ages (the period between the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century and the Renaissance in the 15th century), the number of feast days in the liturgical year swelled to an all-time high. Many of these holy days were not in commemoration of Christ’s earthly ministry, but in honor of saints. The Roman Church required people to attend Mass on all of these days and do penance in order to gain merit with God. The church calendar became a checklist for the believer to accomplish if he hoped to have salvation.
During the 16th century, the Protestant Reformers sought to reform worship and the liturgical year according to Scripture. They emphasized the importance of the Lord’s Day as the primary Christian holiday. This day, above all others, is the day for the church’s worship and community life. Nevertheless, the early Reformers did not disparage or discard everything in the church calendar. The liturgies of the Palatinate (the region of the Holy Roman Empire in which the Heidelberg Catechism was published in 1563), Strasbourg (where the reformer Martin Bucer labored), and those prescribed by the Synod of Dort included Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost.
Instead of observing these days as a superstitious and legalistic checklist for the Christian to accomplish for his salvation (see Gal 4.8-11), the reformers saw them as an opportunity to celebrate the finished work of Christ and remember what he accomplished in our place. Although many English Puritans of the 17th century sought to remove the entire liturgical year from the church’s worship, the early Reformers saw it as a matter of Christian liberty (Rom 14.5; Col 2.16) and recognized its usefulness for our instruction and increase in godliness.
The Church Calendar is Helpful
The liturgical year has several benefits. First, it helps us remember the events of Christ’s ministry and reflect on his most important acts that save us: his Incarnation (Christmas), his obedience (Lent and Palm Sunday), his death of atonement (Good Friday), his resurrection (Easter), his ascension (Ascension Day), and his sending of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost). Celebrating these days reminds us that our faith is in an historical Person who accomplished our salvation through real historical events.
Secondly, the liturgical year provides us with an annual rhythm that help us mark time as we look forward to the return of our Lord and the consummation of his kingdom. The festive days of the church calendar are like signposts for the universal church as we make our way to our heavenly homeland.
Finally, the liturgical year is evangelistic. Western culture is rapidly becoming more pagan. Basic knowledge of the Bible is no longer a norm in society. Christianity is moving into cultural exile. All of this makes the church calendar worth observing. For Christians to make worship a top priority on holidays such Christmas and Easter, as well as attending church on weekdays like Good Friday and Ascension Day, speaks volumes to a dark and dying world. It shows that we belong to Christ and not to this present evil age. Moreover, Christmas and Easter can often be times when unbelieving family members or friends are more open to attending church and hearing the gospel.
Since God has given us the freedom to observe these days with reverence and joy, let us keep the feast as we look continually to the finished work of Christ and anticipate his return.
~ Pastor Brown