They are theologically just as important - so why don't we invest as much energy and creativity into days such as Pentecost and Ascension as we do Christmas and Easter? By Andy Goodliff
More and more I treasure the liturgical year or church calendar as a means of the possibility of faithful discipleship. I was reading this week a wonderful reflection by John Rackley on Pentecost. John was commenting that Pentecost can be the forgotten day in the church year, generally because it falls around the Bank Holiday weekend and so many in a congregation take the opportunity for a quick break or find themselves on grandparent duty!
If Pentecost is the forgotten festival, the feasts of Epiphany and Ascension fare even worse. My comment to John, off-the-cuff, was ‘sometimes I’d be happy just to have a congregation that did the church high days and did them well.’ By this I meant that I think the most important thing for a church is to hear, experience, indwell the story of Jesus.
The gospel story is our manifesto for discipleship and the gift of the liturgical year is the way every year we tell the story of Jesus. In 12 days (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Baptism of Jesus, First Sunday in Lent [temptation of Jesus], Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday, Ascension and Pentecost) we encounter the life of Jesus from promise to birth, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension and the sending of the Holy Spirit.
Theologically Ascension and Pentecost are as important as Incarnation and Resurrection, but the former don’t get the profile of the latter. If we did these days well, as well as we do Christmas and Easter, that is, with as much energy, creativity and intention, we offer our congregations a yearly catechumenate (process of formation). If we could say you could be away any day you like, but you need to be present for these 12 days (plus All Saints day), I wonder what difference it would make?
These 13 days would be full-on occasions to feast and fast, to proclaim Jesus, to hear the full story from beginning to end, (which of course is only a new beginning). An invitation to Christ, in the words of Walter Brueggemann, to ‘occupy our calendars.’
The story told over these 13 days would become a story known deep into our hearts; the story which gives meaning and shape and life to our ecclesial and individual stories. It would be a challenge because these 13 days fall around times when other calendars entice us to other things, but it would be a means of recognising and disciplining ourselves to the confession that Jesus is Lord.
Of course there are other important bits of the story, the 13 days could easily become 15 or 20 days. And this doesn’t need to marginalise the Old Testament for the events remember and rehearsed on these 13 days are ones in which the Old Testament illuminates and deepens their meaning.
I’m not saying that gathered worship should only happen on 13 days of the year, but that these 13 days matter the most. They are the fixed points through the year. They are the dates which everything else fits around.
To do this would be a small resistance to the calendar which encourages us to shape our lives around Christmas, Valentine’s, Mother’s Day, Easter, Summer Holidays and Halloween, each of which are focused on the amount you can spend. Our churches, let alone the wider world, are full of what Brueggemann (again) calls ‘gospel amnesia’: this might be one way to reverse the trend.
The Revd Andy Goodliff is minister of Belle Vue Baptist Church, Southend-on-Sea