We are nearing the conclusion of the historic season of Lent, the preparation season for the celebration of Easter. This is Palm Sunday, the day in which we mark and celebrate the Lord’s Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. As we are trying to orient ourselves by and with a Christian year, instead of the secularized civic year, we are certainly taking a step in the right direction. But this does not mean that there are no pitfalls as we move in this direction. We have to remember that the Church has been here before, and we have stumbled before.
“And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, In the seventh month, in the first day of the month, shall ye have a sabbath, a memorial of blowing of trumpets, an holy convocation. Ye shall do no servile work therein: but ye shall offer an offering made by fire unto the LORD. And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Also on the tenth day of this seventh month there shall be a day of atonement: it shall be an holy convocation unto you; and ye shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire unto the LORD” (Leviticus 23:23-27).
In Leviticus 23, the Lord revealed the festivals of Israel to Moses. The weekly sabbath was first (v. 3). The other feasts (Passover/Unleavened Bread, Pentecost, and Tabernacles) were all celebratory in nature—they were feasts. And in our text, we come to the singular Day of Atonement. On this day, the Israelites were commanded to “afflict their souls.” God required this of Moses (v. 23). The day was set aside as a holy convocation, as a high sabbath, and was marked on a particular day (v. 24). Work was proscribed, as on a regular sabbath, and an offering of fire was required (v. 25). The Lord speaks again (v. 26), and He required the Israelites to afflict their souls (v. 27). There were other times of fasting, obviously, but these appear to have been occasional or individual. In the liturgical calendar of Israel, before the advent of the Messiah, one day out of 365 was set apart for the nation to afflict their souls. The rest of the commemorations were gratitude-soaked and celebratory.
A Weekly Resurrection Day:
In the early Church, celebration of the resurrection was instantaneous. From the very beginning, Christians celebrated and worshipped God on a weekly basis, and they did so moving their observance from the seventh day sabbath of the Jews to the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day. This was done because this was the day on which the Lord rose from the dead. “Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first . . .” (Mark 16:9; cf. Matt. 28:1; Luke 24:1; John 20:19). From the pages of the New Testament down to the present, Christians have been observing the first day of the week as a weekly “Easter.” “And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them . . .” (Acts 20: 7). “Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come” (1 Cor. 16:2). “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet” (Rev. 1:10).
There are two striking meanings of this new day, this Day that the Lord has made. The first is the obvious meaning, which is that it marks the day of the resurrection. The Lord came back from the dead on the first day of the week (Mk. 16:9), appeared to His disciples on that same day (John 20:19), and then appeared to them again on the following Sunday (John 20:26). But what is the second meaning? This meaning is that God has recreated the heavens and earth. In the old covenant, the seventh-day sabbath was anchored to the old creation in an everlasting way. That seventh-day observance was clearly going to last as long as that created order did. Nothing would suffice to change that day unless it were a change of the created order, unless it were the establishment of a new created order. And this is just what we find. “There remaineth therefore a [sabbath] rest to the people of God. For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his” (Heb. 4:9-10).
Lent began as a period of preparation for Christian baptism—many of the baptisms in the early Church were performed on Easter Day. Over time, as a system of work-righteousness began to establish a deeper hold on the minds and hearts of many professing Christians, the church calendar began to reflect a false understanding of the nature of the gospel. Now we want to return to an explicitly Christian understanding of our days and years, which they certainly had, but we want to do this without making the same mistakes they did.
Traditionally, both Lent and Advent are penitential seasons—not times of overflowing celebrations. This is not something we have sought to cultivate at all, even though we do observe a basic church calendar, made up of what the Reformers called the five evangelical feast days. Our reluctance to adopt the penitential approach to these seasons of the year is not caused by ignorance of the practice. I want to present three arguments here for a rejection of this practice.
First, if we were to adopt this practice, we would be in worse shape than our Old Covenant brethren, who had to afflict their souls only one day out of the year. Why would the time of anticipation of salvation be so liturgically celebratory, while the times of fulfilled salvation be so liturgically glum? Instead of establishing a sense of longing, it will tend to do the reverse.
Second, each penitential season keeps getting interrupted with our weekly Easters. Many who relate exciting movies they have seen to others are careful to avoid “spoilers.” Well, these feasts we have, according to God’s ordinance every seven days, spoil the penitential mood.
And last, what gospel is implicitly preached by the practice of drawing out the process of repentance and forgiveness? It is a false gospel. Now I am not saying that fellow Christians who observe their church year in this way are preaching a false gospel, but I am saying that lex orandi lex credendi—the law of prayer is the law of faith, and over time, this liturgical practice will speak very loudly to our descendants. If we have the opportunity to speak to our descendants, and we do, then I want to tell them that the joy of the Lord is our strength.
Christmas and Easter:
So as we prepare our hearts and minds, along with our families, for the annual celebration of our Lord’s resurrection next Lord’s Day, one other comment should be made. The Incarnation was a glorious event, and we don’t want any diminution of that celebration. But the resurrection of the Lord was what remade the cosmos, and we should strive over time to have our celebration of Easter far surpass the glory of Christmas. We are currently more than a little lopsided—and we shouldn’t try to fix this by reducing what we do at Christmas.