Christmas trees were banned in our Nazarene Church sanctuary when I was a child. This was Scotland after all. The Reformation 400 years before had repudiated all that was 'papish.'
The pre-Reformation church had been truly corrupt, and therefore everything connected with Rome was rejected - liturgy and prayer books, crosses and candles, fancy dress for the clergy, the 'blasphemy' of the mass, prayers to saints, and with all of that, the church calendar. Every Sunday was a 'Sabbath,' the Lord's Day. So Calvinist Scotland didn't celebrate Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, or anything else in the Church year. That was all 'papish!'
The reaction was completely understandable. To this day it still shapes 'low church' traditions, Baptists, Congregationalists, and others, even still some Presbyterians. But two more 'high church' Protestant traditions, the Lutherans and the Church of England (later called 'Anglicans'), took a different view.
Perhaps they invented the cliché about babies and bathwater. But they believed some traditions that grew up in the early centuries of the church - having bishops, for example, or a prayer book, or observing the church year - were helpful.
John Wesley was of course a member of the clergy in the Church of England, but also learned from many other Christian traditions. So the heritage of Nazarenes is not opposed to anything that helps us to be better Christians. And Christians of all denominations are rediscovering the Church year.
But how does the church year help us to be better Christians? The answer in a nutshell is that it focuses our worship on the Lord.
The old enemy would like us to focus our worship on our own religious selves. But the church year is one of those traditions which help us to 'turn our eyes upon Jesus.'
Advent: The Coming of the Lord
The church year begins with Advent when we join ancient Israel in looking for the Day of the Lord. Of course the Lord has come, but now we look with expectation and hope for his coming again. The King is coming! That spurs us to mission and to evangelism. It galvanizes us to seek his kingdom and his justice for all. 'Maranatha! Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly!' Our Advent hymns and our scripture readings and preaching focus on the coming Kingdom: 'O come, O come, Emmanuel!'
Christmas: The Incarnation of the Word
During the 12 days of Christmas we celebrate the Word made flesh, Jesus our brother. The focus of our worship is (as Charles Wesley put it) 'our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man.' In the midst of all the commercialization today, Christmas gives us opportunities to invite the unbeliever to join with us in worship at his cradle.
Epiphany: The Lord Revealed to the World
On January 6 we enter the season of Epiphany, when the story of the Magi reminds us that the Lord came to the Jew first, but also to the whole world. This is a good season to celebrate our world mission.
Lent: Following Jesus on the way to the Cross
In the 40 days of Lent, we focus on Jesus' life and ministry and follow him on the way. From the Gospels we learn what it means to deny ourselves and take up our cross. Here is the key to Christian holiness, denying ourselves and dying to sin.
Holy Week: Focusing on 'Christ crucified'
Here we learn afresh that our salvation is only through the cross of Christ. We sit with him at the supper where he tells us of the meaning of his death, and we 'go with him thro' the garden, with him, with him, all the way.' On Good Friday we contemplate the dark mystery of the Cross and learn afresh that 'He himself bore our sins in his own body on the tree that we may die to sin and live to righteousness' (1 Peter 2:24, RSV).
Easter: Rising with Christ
The Easter season begins on Easter Day. 'The Lord is risen indeed!' We sing hymns celebrating new life in Christ, new hope for us all. We are already in the new creation even though we are still in the old mortal body, 'Death, where is your sting?' (1 Corinthians 15:55b).
Pentecost: Christ pours out His Holy Spirit
Seven weeks after Easter, we remember that first Christian Pentecost when the Lord Jesus baptized his apostles in the Holy Spirit. So it is by the Spirit that we confess, 'Jesus Christ is Lord' and it is by the Spirit that we say, 'Abba, Father.' Now all may be filled with the Spirit who is Love.
Trinity: This God is our God
The final season of the church year begins on Trinity Sunday, a week after Pentecost. Here we recognize that the whole story we have been tracing, the story of Jesus, is the story of our Triune God. For it is God as Father who, out of love, sent God as Son, Love Incarnate, and poured out his Spirit who is Love to perfect his people in Love.
The season of Trinity lasts until Advent begins again, and our worship during these months may take up other emphases. But retracing the journey each year from Advent to Trinity keeps our worship focused on the gospel, the story of Jesus. In this way the worshiping community finds that his story shapes our story too.
With Wesley, let us keep the church year. It helps us to focus our worship on the Lord.
Thomas A. Noble is professor of theology at Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City and Senior Research Fellow in theology at Nazarene Theological College, Manchester, England.
Holiness Today, Mar/Apr 2012