The four weeks leading up to Christmas are called Advent, and are part of the traditional Christian calendar known as the ‘liturgical calendar’. The liturgical calendar is full of dates when different parts of the Christian story are remembered: Easter and Holy Week, Trinity Sunday, the Annunciation, Feast of the Archangels, and many others. These are accompanied by periods of feasting and fasting, the most famous being the fast of Lent, the 40 days leading up to Easter.
Not every Christian celebrates the liturgical calendar. In fact, some Christians believe it is wrong to do so. In the spirit of helping Christians understand and learn from one another, I’m going to present both the anti-liturgical and the pro-liturgical positions below. It will be clear that my own position is pro-liturgical, but I have tried to fairly represent the anti-liturgical position as I understand it.
The Anti-Liturgical Position
‘Now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again? You are observing special days, and months, and seasons, and years. I am afraid that my work for you may have been wasted.’ – Galatians 4:9-11
In this passage Paul seems to associate ‘observing special days’ with a way of life that is contrary to the gospel message. Didn’t Jesus come to liberate us from outward observance, from calling some days ‘holy’ (what does that say about the other days?), and from anything that would bind us to a righteousness obtained by ‘works’?
The famous A.W. Tozer is a good example of the anti-liturgical position. In his 1948 classic, The Pursuit of God, he worries that the liturgical calendar is a return to a pre-Christian attitude of bondage to legalistic worship, rather than worship ‘in spirit and truth’. This is what he writes:
For four hundred years Israel had dwelt in Egypt, surrounded by the crassest idolatry. The very idea of holiness had been lost to them. To correct this, God began at the bottom. By innumerable distinctions God taught Israel the difference between holy and unholy. There were holy days, holy vessels, holy garments. There were washings, sacrifices, offerings of many kinds. By these means Israel learned that God is holy. It was this that He was teaching them. Not the holiness of things or places, but the holiness of Jehovah was the lesson they must learn.
Then came the great day when Christ appeared. The Old Testament schooling was over. When Christ died on the cross the veil of the temple was rent from top to bottom. The Holy of Holies was opened to everyone who would enter in faith.
Shortly after, Paul took up the cry of liberty and declared all meats clean, every day holy, all places sacred and every act acceptable to God. The sacredness of times and places, a half-light necessary to the education of the race, passed away before the full sun of spiritual worship.
The spirituality of worship remained the possession of the Church until it was slowly lost with the passing of the years. Then the natural legality of the fallen hearts of men began to introduce the old distinctions. The Church came to observe again days and seasons and times.
Tozer believes that the church backslid away from the true gospel when it invented the liturgical calendar. Christians should treat no day as different from any other, and especially should not consider some days ‘holier’ than others.
Not everyone who holds this principle is consistent. Many still celebrate Christmas, birthdays, and wedding anniversaries, and many treat Sunday as a special day, e.g. by avoiding work. But some people really try to practise this interpretation in its purest and most extreme form, as banning all ‘observance’ of any weekly, monthly, or yearly feasts and fasts.
The anti-liturgical position depends on a particular understanding of the discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments, which has a particular interpretation of Galatians 4:9-11 as its foundation. The relationship of continuity/discontinuity between the Testaments is one of the toughest theological questions and has more than one plausible answer. In what follows I will offer an alternative way of understanding Galatians 4:10-11 which will lead to a different way of relating the two Testaments. But we must start further back.
The Liturgical Position
‘Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Write them on the door-frames of your houses and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land that the Lord swore to give your ancestors, as many as the days that the heavens are above the earth.’ – Deuteronomy 11:18-21
Most Ancient Near Eastern religions saw time as a relentlessly repetitive circle, where nothing ever changes. Reality and time were a never-ending cycle of days, seasons, years, and lifetimes, which was always the same and would always be the same into the endless future. Day and night succeeded one another, the seasons rolled round and round, and human beings were born, had children, and died in an unchanging repetition that had no beginning and no end. Like the cylons in Battlestar Galactica, they believed that ‘all this has happened before, and all this will happen again’.
One of the things that makes the Old Testament unique for its time is its belief that God has acted in history, revealing himself, bringing salvation, and changing things forever. Time becomes a line rather than a circle, with real progress, and the possibility that things can get better without getting worse again afterward. God had spoken – he had revealed things about himself and about us that we couldn’t have arrived at just by our own reasoning brains. But what he had revealed about himself wasn’t only true for the time – it was timelessly and eternally true. Future generations need to know what God has revealed to us. Therefore it needed to be remembered. We have to make sure we remember the events that have changed history, because in those events we learn something about ourselves that we can know in no other way.
But how do we make sure we remember them all? You might say: just write them down and tell everyone to read them. Then they’ll know. Nothing more need be said. A very logical way of thinking: you learn something once – say, that Jesus rose from the dead – then you know it, and from then on you will act on the basis of that knowledge. The trouble is that the human mind doesn’t really work that way. We don’t simply remember everything we’ve ever learned once, let alone fully recognise all the implications of it! Do you remember the content of every sermon you’ve ever heard preached? If you do then your memory is better than mine!
So how did they make sure not just to ‘remember’ God’s revelation in a flat intellectual sense, but ‘keep it in mind’ as the passage in Deuteronomy 11:16-21 instructs? The solution was to create special feast and fast days which took place at the same time each year. In this way they recognised the obvious truth that there is a circular aspect to time – we don’t simply deny what these ancient cultures taught – but they tied this circular aspect of time to the linear aspect. They had feasts to commemorate the Passover, Purim, the feast of weeks, the day of atonement – and as new things happened in their history, they created new feasts to celebrate those things. Purim, for example, celebrates the Jews’ rescue from annihilation recorded in the book of Esther.
Now when Christianity came along, Christians wanted to emphasise how Jesus was the fulfilment of all these things – the whole law and the prophets was taken up and brought to perfection in him. They wanted to signal a decisive break with the ancient customs of Judaism. This wasn’t because they weren’t Jewish – on the contrary, all Jews recognised that when the messiah came it would signal a whole new order as significant as the founding of the people of Israel under Moses at Mount Sinai. To continue to practise these old rituals was, within the Jewish way of thinking, to deny that Jesus was the messiah.
That is the reason Paul gets so angry and upset in Galatians 4:9-11. The ‘special days, weeks, months and years’ he was talking about were Jewish ones, which everyone would have understood in context. For those Judaizers in Galatia, keeping the Jewish liturgical calendar amounted to denying the lordship of Jesus and rejecting the gospel.
But there was nothing to prevent creating a new set of Christian feasts and fasts to help Christians remember the decisive events of the gospel, i.e. of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. On the contrary, this is a way of taking up and using the wisdom given in the Old Testament. The liturgical calendar shows a deep insight about how the human mind works. We simply can’t focus on every aspect of the gospel simultaneously. Our brains are limited, and we can only dwell on one or two things at a time. Without the guidance of a calendar, we gradually begin to over-emphasise some parts and forget other parts of what it means to be Christian. We can become obsessed with one or two fragments of the gospel to the neglect of the rest. That is why it’s a mistake to imagine that observing special days is ‘works-righteousness’. Nobody ever thought keeping the liturgical year was a way of earning our salvation. It is not: it is a way of keeping the balance of a healthy spiritual diet. The liturgical year is full of ancient wisdom, making sure we don’t leave anything out that is important for our spiritual health. There is a time of fasting & lament, and a time of feasting & celebration. Both are equally important, and a church becomes spiritually warped if it practices one of these without the other – something that happens easily in non-liturgical churches.
It is a strange fact, but easily observable, that when we abandon the idea of ‘holy’ places, times, and things, we don’t start to treat everything as holy – instead we default to treating nothing as holy, like Rob Bell who said that he no longer attends church services because he ‘churches’ all the time, or the man who stopped calling his wife ‘my beloved’ because it implies he doesn’t love his children. In fact he loves his children best by loving his wife first. And similarly, we need those special ‘holy’ days precisely to remind us that everything is holy to some degree. That is why Genesis 2:3 says that God ‘made the Sabbath day holy’ – not because the other days aren’t, but to help us remember the holiness of all things.
Moreover, the days of lamenting and celebration happen regardless of how the individual worshippers happen to feel at that moment. You may have your own personal reasons to be happy or sad, joyful or grieving, and of course God cares deeply about those things. But in the liturgical calendar you join an ancient worldwide community that is thousands of years old, that commemorates events far bigger and more significant for you than anything that will happen in your lifetime. You are caught up in a cycle of events bigger than yourself: your own personal reasons for happiness or sadness are not what matters here, and there is something liberating in that. To remember that Jesus is risen, and to celebrate, regardless of what’s going on in your life. And to remember the suffering and evil in the world, regardless of your own personal successes. It helps get you out of your own little world and personal worries and concerns, and throws you into the bigger world and all that is going on and has going on throughout.
And that’s really the point of the liturgical year. It takes you out of yourself and brings before your eyes the great events in the Christian story of salvation. It reminds us of the reason we are here, the reason we believe what we believe and live the way we live. It reminds us of the vast story God is telling, of which we play only the tiniest and least significant role. But it also reminds us what that role is and why we are most fulfilled, most fully alive, when we participate in that story with all of our hearts.
 A. W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God, 1948, 124–25. I’ve shortened this quote a bit to make it more readable, but without changing its message.