Thursday, January 1, 2009
I suppose that by now most folks have purchased their 2009 calendar or have had one given to them by their financial institution or auto shop or funeral parlor.
I don't have to acquire one this year or in years to come because at my first meeting with my new ministerial staff they presented me with a five-year planning calendar.
I appreciate their optimism and share their hope.
If you need a 2009 calendar, though, you could visit one of those calendar stores or kiosks that spring up at the mall during the holiday season. There you can find a calendar featuring a picture for each month associated with your particular interest or hobby or sport or television show or celebrity. Speaking of celebrity calendars, if someone were to give me a Sheryl Crow or Rachael Ray or Marilyn Monroe calendar, I'd have to return it because, as I am constantly telling my wife, I think they're all too homely to look at, so I certainly wouldn't want to look at them every day.
She would turn down a Pierce Brosnan or Richard Gere or John Travolta calendar for the same reason, I'm sure.
Calendars are powerful things, given that we order our lives by them. Lest you think I exaggerate, just show up for work each week on Tuesday every week for a while when your boss expects you to report on Monday and see what effect the following of an alternative calendar has on your vocational life. Or, forget your spouse's birthday or your anniversary date or tell people "Happy New Year" in late November or early December and see what kind of reaction you get. You will get looked at funny or you'll get maimed, depending on which one you try.
Speaking of saying "Happy New Year" in late November or early December--that's what set me to thinking about this matter of calendars in the first place. There was a Sunday between my last Sunday as pastor of The Hill Baptist Church and my first Sunday as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald and that Sunday happened to be the first Sunday of Advent which happened in 2008 to fall on November 30. We worshipped that Sunday at Highland Hills Baptist Church in Macon, Georgia. When pastor Jim Dant offered the welcome, he began by saying "Happy New Year." He then went on to explain that while the secular calendar has the new year begin on January 1, the Christian calendar has the new year begin with the First Sunday of Advent so, he said, it was appropriate for Christians to say "Happy New Year" at the beginning of Advent.
So here on January 1, 2009, let me wish everyone a Merry Christmas! After all, while January 1 is on the regular calendar New Year's Day, it is on the Christian calendar the Eighth Day of Christmas and the Season of Christmas does not end until Epiphany which falls on January 6 and which commemorates the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child.
I have come to believe that careful attention by the Church to the Christian calendar is very important and is only becoming more important as time goes by.
Now, some of my readers are from the Catholic or Orthodox or Episcopal or Presbyterian or Lutheran or Methodist traditions (I apologize to whomever I left out, and you are legion) and your church has always paid close attention to the Christian calendar and so you're wondering why I'm making such a big deal about this.
Because I'm Baptist, that's why.
I grew up attending a Southern Baptist church whose pastor and whose members had not, so far as I know, ever heard of Advent or Lent or--well, I almost said Holy Week but surely I'm wrong about that but still, I do know that we never had special services for Palm Sunday or for Maundy Thursday or--and I really find this hard to believe now that I think about it--for Good Friday. I suppose that a Christmas sermon was preached on the Sunday closest to the day but the Advent season--which was never mentioned and I suppose never thought of--consisted of a Christmas play on a Sunday night and a visit by Santa Claus on a Wednesday night.
We did, however, under the watchful eye and the iron fist of the Woman's Missionary Union, observe the Week of Prayer for Foreign (later International) Missions and receive the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, an annual collection which provided and provides much of the funding for the International (formerly Foreign) Mission Board and about which, each time our goal was announced in November, my boyish mind wondered (1) if we would ever pay that thing off and (2) just who this woman was who got so much of our money every year (she was, I later learned, a famous early Southern Baptist missionary to China; to Southern Baptists, William Carey and Adoniram Judson were small time compared to Lottie Moon).
Our participation in the Week of Prayer for Foreign Missions in the winter and our participation in the Week of Prayer for Home Missions (with its Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for Home Missions) in the spring were my home church's nod to the Southern Baptist denominational calendar.
As I entered into my Baptist ministerial career I very early on moved dangerously close to equating faithful Baptist churchmanship and churchwomanship to faithful observance of the denominational calendar which, on a positive note, made calendar planning pretty easy because, between the national convention, the state conventions, the associations, and the various agencies and institutions of the conventions and associations, we Baptists had a special Sunday for just about everything, ranging from Race Relations Sunday to Cooperative Program Sunday to Baptist World Alliance Sunday (these were the old days in Southern Baptist life, now) to Children's Home Sunday to Let's Rally to Get the Preacher a Big Fat Pay Raise Sunday.
OK, I made the last one up.
Now, if we're going to have denominations, and we are, we're going to have denominational program emphases. I understand that. I do think that we err--at least, that I erred--in putting so much emphasis on the calendar that is handed down to us annually by the powers that be in Nashville or Atlanta or Louisville or wherever your headquarters happens to be--rather than on the Christian calendar that has been handed down to us over the centuries and that suffers precious little alteration from year to year.
It's kind of like how, if you are inclined to give credence to creeds, it's really better to give credence to the great creeds of the church that have been the creeds of the church for almost two millenia rather than to give supreme authority to statements of faith that can be altered at any time by majority vote of a few thousand folks--but that's another subject.
I think it was at St. Matthews Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky during my first semester at Southern Seminary in Fall 1979 that I first encountered the Advent Wreath and Advent Candles and Advent readings and Advent, period. That encounter began to move me toward seeing the importance of the observance by Christians of the Christian calendar. The alternate ordering of time that is provided by the Christian calendar reminds us that we Christians live in and bear witness to an alternate way of living--we are citizens of the Kingdom of God and we are in the world but not of the world. Our movement through the seasons of the Christian Year--Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost--reminds us--no, more, recreates in us and for us--the story of Jesus Christ and the story of the Church that is the Body of Christ.
It reminds us, in other words, of who we are. We are the Church. We are Christians. We are the Body of Christ. We are the people of God.
We have a Savior. We have a Lord. We have a calling. We have a mission.
And we have a calendar. Thanks be to God.