January 17, 2024

New Year, Old You: Do Liturgical Calendars Help?

Bible reading plan be like…

You have to laugh at it right? But for so many people, and I don’t just mean Christians, this is the reality of the decision to lean into a new year and be a “new you”. We all start the year off with a new liturgical goal: A fresh sheet of paper.

So often the “old you” takes over by January 4. Or at the very best, the end of January, which is heading our way at a rate of knots.

Whether that’s exercise, drinking, doom-scrolling, anger, porn, whatever. January 4 rolls around and the press-ups of January 1 are pressing you down not three days later.

It often feels “new year, old you”.And for Christians this is especially disconcerting. This is not just about our Bible reading plans or the like. It’s about the process of sanctification by which we become like Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Rather than a progressive cable car ride up to the top of the mountain, it feels like a roller coaster, as besetting sins kick in, even before January 4!

New year, old you. Launder rinse, repeat. Sounds like an exercise in despair. (Did somebody say “exercise”? That’s so January 3!”)

The Liturgical Calendar: Blessing or Curse?

I say all this in light of the rise in interest among many evangelicals in the liturgical calendar. Time was, if you mentioned the word “liturgy” to many an evangelical who had never darkened the door of an evangelical Anglican church, never mind an Orthodox or Roman Catholic Church, you’d be considered a lapsed Christian, if Christian at all.

But now? If you’re not at least thinking about Ash Wednesday by now and how many pancakes you’re going to make on Shrove Tuesday, well are you even a teeny bit Christian?

It seems that as the Western world becomes more secular, that Christians who never gave a thought to the rhythmic cycle of the liturgical calendar are now often in thrall to it. And in some respects that is no bad thing. It’s a statement to the world that we won’t have our year defined by Black Friday, The End of Financial Year Sale, or Super Bowl Sunday.

We’re going to set ourselves by the pattern that God has given to the church (starting off with meeting every Lord’s Day – Sunday – in commemoration of the resurrection of our Saviour.

We’ve also seen a healthy – and often unhealthy – interest among evangelicals in returning to Rome. And part of the attraction is the ritual and formal calendar stuff that we in low evangelicalism ignored for so long.

And in a sense some of that is good. We all need rhythm. We all need our memories jogged. We all need a reset from time to time.

And as James KA Smith observed: we all embed “cultural liturgies” in our lives that, through practice, shape the ways in which we live.

But here’s a question: Is a liturgical calendar the primary how the Scriptures teach us to think about the way we are to live our lives as Christians? Or more to the point, is it something that is offered to us as a means of leaving sin and leaning into righteousness over the course of a year?

I mean it seems pretty clear from the New Testament that observing signs and seasons and days is low down the agenda when it comes to faith in Christ.

What does Paul say in Galatians 4?:

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods.  But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years!  I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.

Paul, in speaking to Gentiles (their former gods were not gods at all, and Paul would not make that claim of Jewish believers), knew all too well that the pagan world was just as metered out by liturgy as was his own Jewish world. Everyone was religious. Everyone had seasons and patterns by practices that were repeated and repeatable.

But as Paul notes, for those who are now in Christ, an insistence that a return to such patterns is the true path to a deeper spiritual experience or to liberty of faith, is futile. By “weak and miserable forces” he simply means that such things do not have the power to truly transform you. The observation of any liturgical calendar is not the pathway to gospel freedom.

And that’s true today. For all of the evangelical world’s reignited interest in special days and months and seasons and years, these things are not the pathway to godly living, and these things in and of themselves will not empower Christian people to move towards sanctification in this highly unsanctified modern world.

In other words, you won’t avoid old you on January 4 by observing the new year on January 1.

So does that mean that the old you will hold sway? Are we all doomed to playing “catch-up Christianity on December 27th? There’s a lot of promise in committing to the liturgical calendar, but there’s a lot of despair too!

New Epoch:New You

Of course there is gospel hope in the midst of all of this. And what is that hope? It’s this: While we still do live in the old age that is dominated by years and dates, those of us in Christ actually also belong to the new age, the new era, the new epoch.

The Bible is far more interested in the age we belong to than the year or the season we are experiencing. The resurrection of Jesus, and the giving of the Holy Spirit were clear indications that the new Spirit age promised by God in the Old Testament prophets, had arrived. And those who were in Christ were marked by their inclusion in this new age. That’s why we read these words in 2 Corinthians 5:

 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!

Or more literally “Anyone in Christ: New creation!”

And coming back to Galatians, we read these words from Paul in chapter 5:

So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

Paul is not simply talking about two different “types” of walking, but two different “times” in which one can walk. In other words their fleshly behaviour demonstrates that they are living according to the age of the flesh not the age of the Spirit.

And it’s clear from what he says immediately preceding this passage, that the commitment by the Galatians to times and seasons and days and dates, has not empowered them to change their lives. It has not been transformative. They are still riven by backbiting and discord.

The solution is found in remembering and returning.

The same is true of us. I don’t mind the liturgical calendar at all. It does stir our memories. But the power to change is not found in keeping this framework, or somehow in Christians sanctifying a January 1 resolution to be different this year. Again!

Resolutions in the age of the flesh can only lead you to despair as Jan 4 beckons. The age of the flesh cannot empower you to change. The true and lasting change is found in remembering that we belong to the age of the Spirit, even while we live in this age still.

When we sin, when we fall, when we find ourselves spiritually napping on the floor Jan 4 style, the solution is not found in a fleshly reset. The solution is not found in becoming Orthodox or Roman Catholic. The solution is found in remembering and returning.

Remembering that we belong the new age of the Spirit first and foremost. That whatever was true about us in the age of the flesh is no longer true about us. And since it is not true about us then we don’t have to succumb to the sinful patterns of January 4 that beset us every year. Sin doesn’t have to reign in us any longer, so don’t let it! Its jaws has been defanged.

And then returning: Returning to the only time that our Lord and Saviour called us to return to – the time when his body was given and his blood was shed for us. And that’s something we do whenever we gather as His people, not merely as liturgical commemoration, but as relational celebration (as 1 Corinthians 11 reminds us).

For while Jesus gave his disciples these elements of remembrance at Passover, infusing the bread and covenant cup with new creation reality, the Scriptures don’t restrict their use to a Christianised Passover re-enactment as such. If Paul had wanted to play that liturgical card hard he would have done so in 1 Corinthians 11, yet he doesn’t.

Yet it’s as we do this – meeting and breaking bread together constantly throughout the year – that we are empowered not only by the remembrance, but also spiritually fed in the act of sharing with fellow believers. The same fellow believers who by the same Spirit are also God’s good agents of change for our lives.

So in conclusion, maybe you do feel like Jan 4. Maybe, Christian, you didn’t even make it to that date! Maybe you had blanky and pillow – so to speak – by January 2!

Do not despair. Do not double down on your liturgy. By all means use one if it if helpful, but as Paul says to the Galatians, these are “weak and miserable” if by them we think we can change.

Rather, run to Christ and remember the epoch-defining blood shed, body given, and the resurrection power found in belonging to not simply a new year, but a new age, a new epoch, a new era.

Now stop reading this and get on with Genesis 17!

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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