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Evangelizing with the Calendar

In evangelization, an under-used resource is the Church’s calendar. That may seem an absurd comment. How can a calendar be useful? Booklets, tapes, person-to-person conversations, conferences, debates—but a calendar?

I mean, of course, the Church’s annual calendar of feasts and seasons—Advent and Christmas, Epiphany, Candlemas (Presentation), Lent and Easter, Ascension and Pentecost, summer saints and harvest thanksgiving, All Saints and All Souls.

A hundred and fifty years ago, no self-respecting Protestant church would have dreamed of having a candlelit carol service, much less a midnight communion on Christmas Eve. Such things smacked of popery. Now they are standard fare. Many Baptist and Evangelical churches proudly advertise “Carols by Candlelight,” and almost all will mark Christmas by a number of major services. Good Friday will see special services, too, possibly including the use of a large cross and even an outdoor procession. Easter Sunday sees the churches in celebration mood with flowers, often in the Easter colors of white and gold. All this marks a dramatic change from the days—which in some areas continued into living memory—when any marking of the Christian calendar was seen as dangerous, popish, idolatrous, or downright pagan and superstitious.

It is worth stopping to ponder this for a moment because it holds a number of implications. Not all the reasons behind the change have been obviously of God. Commercialism has played its part. As Christmas and Easter were adopted by manufacturers of greeting cards and gifts, they impinged more on more on everyone’s lives, even those of stern anti-popish campaigners with eyes averted from any mention of major feasts. Farther back, we can note the rather more spiritual influence of the High Church movement within the Church of England, which through a number of prayerful and dedicated people did much to revive old customs, which spread to other denominations. We should note too the influence of the modern ecumenical movement, which started in the late 1960s. Although not without its dangers, this at least has had the effect of breaking down some (not all) old prejudices and opening up non-Catholic communities to an appreciation of different approaches to worship.

How, then, can we use the calendar to evangelize? We need to understand that the Church’s liturgical year is meant to be used this way. It developed over the years because we are human and need to be reminded of the truths of our faith in ways that we can understand. The Bible speaks of the importance of time and seasons: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die, a time to plant, and a time to reap . . . a time to weep, and a time to laugh.” Our ancestors used not only books, stained glass, music, and pictures, but also the seasons of the year to commemorate the drama of Christ’s Incarnation, death, and Resurrection. This is our salvation story. It is at the very core of all our lives.

Today, all sane people recognizes we face a collapse of culture, of family structures, and of community bonds. Among Christians, especially those of the Evangelical tradition, there is a healthy growth of pro-family campaigning. In recent years there has been an increasing recognition—born out of sometimes painful experience—that Christians themselves need to look to their own family lives, and a spate of books, tapes, and videos has resulted, tackling issues such as discipline of children, fostering of family traditions, and the importance of the family meal. Here Catholics and Evangelicals can unite in swapping useful pastoral material and ideas.

The Church’s calendar fits into this scene. How do we give Christmas back its true and authentic Christian meaning amid the spending orgy? How can we use Good Friday and Easter to teach children about Christ’s death and resurrection? Can the tradition of Lent teach us something about fasting? (Many Evangelicals have rediscovered fasting in recent years—again a topic emerging in the tape cassette and paperback market.)

Many modern Christians are, to use T. S. Eliot’s phrase “a people without history.” They are struggling to revive family culture, to limit the addiction to TV, to ensure family meals with grace beforehand or family prayer times—but in a historical and cultural vacuum. They mark Christmas and Easter, but see these feasts as somehow hanging in the air, unconnected to the other great biblical events in a calendar fostering the spiritual life of their family.

The Catholic lay apostle who tackles this issue will be doing a genuine service to the local community by giving it back something of its own culture—and its soul. It’s not just Catholic children who have a right to know that the original Santa Claus really existed. Adult Christians have a right to know about St. Nicholas too—a bishop of the early (undivided) Church, a cheerful and good pastor who stood up for basic Trinitarian and biblical truth during the time of the Arian heresy. He is not just a “Catholic saint,” but someone whom all Christians could commemorate. It is not just Catholic children who can take pleasure in lighting candles on February 2 and thinking of Christ, who came to be a light to all the nations. It is not just Catholics who can know what it is to fast and repent of sin on the day when we ponder Christ’s death on Calvary—or feast with chocolate and decorated eggs on the day he rose from the dead.

As history and traditions are my hobby, I have been invited to local church organizations, Rotary clubs, etc., to speak on “Old Festivals and Customs.” People enjoy discovering the origins of customs and traditions and the meaning behind nursery rhymes and bits of folklore. They are intrigued by the way the early Church successfully “inculturated” Christianity into a society that already had its own pagan rituals for observing the passing of the seasons.

People like to pass on their memories, recipes, or snippets of information: stories of wartime Christmases, memories of childhood songs and games. I often find myself offering to check out detailed information on some local custom or cross-reference some English tradition with a similar one elsewhere in Europe. Research has taken me—and my audiences—into areas of language, history, travel, music, and cookery. Again and again, the biblical origins of some of our old customs emerge. Dates, anniversaries, numbers, and rituals are important in the Bible and so is the whole concept of measuring time. From the early days of the Church, Christians have numbered the years carefully, noted anniversaries, seen parallels between New and Old Testament events, and kept alive memories of the details of Christ’s life by lovingly honoring them at various times of the year.

It has to be said that Catholic groups are among those most in need of teaching on this subject. It is tragic that so few Catholics today know why Lent lasts for forty days, or what Pentecost commemorates and why it is sometimes called Whitsun, or why the Feast of the Annunciation (Lady Day, March 25) is exactly nine months before Christmas, or who the Holy Innocents were, or when the Feast of the Ascension is celebrated.

In using the Church’s calendar as an evangelization tool, we first should teach its basic structure. This commemorates the birth, death, and Resurrection of Christ, his Ascension into heaven, and the coming of the Holy Spirit. We should explain why and how these great events came to be associated with particular times of the year. We should stick with the basic biblically-based calendar first—starting with Christmas. It seems obvious, but we do need to recall that long ago people in Europe marked the central part of winter with a festival, held on the shortest day of the year. With the coming of Christian missionaries, it was only natural that this festival should be seized as an opportunity to celebrate the birth of Christ. (In our own century, this feast is rapidly becoming once again a midwinter pagan festivity. Which would Evangelical Christians rather have?) As we move on to examine Easter, we need to understand its link with the Jewish Passover. We also need to know why and how the Church fixes the date of Easter each year and how richly biblical is the whole concept of Lent (forty days to mark Christ’s time fasting in the desert and echoing too, of course, the Israelites’ forty years there).

Only when we have fully explored this—and there is much more than there is room to discuss in one article—should we then explain about saints’ days. A saint’s feast day is simply the day he or she died and went to heaven. The feast day will often have some custom associated with that saint’s life and work, or manner of death. We do not have to pretend that the Church honors and sanctifies every element of festivity associated with every saint, but many are useful and timely reminders of basic Christian truths.

For centuries one major issue that divided Christians was praying for the dead. The Protestant line was a clear one—it was utterly wrong to do so. The dead could not be helped by any prayers, and any suggestion to the contrary was denounced. In my country, Britain, this was the staple fare of Protestant teaching. Then, four centuries after the Reformation gave the nation that theology, came the great and terrible 1914–1918 war in which our young men were slaughtered on a scale that had not been experienced within recorded history.

The thousands of the dead, and the battles in which they died, were etched into people’s hearts as well as onto the war memorials that went up in every town and village. The war ended at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. In that eleventh month, November, in the vanished Catholic centuries, the faithful had prayed for the dead. Now, in its anguish, the nation returned to that tradition, albeit without realizing it. As the First World War ended, the concept of the Two Minutes’ Silence was introduced, to be observed on November 11 each year.

Anyone visiting Britain in November today would know immediately that this is the month when we remember our dead. There are scarlet poppy wreaths on every war memorial, and on November 11 or the nearest Sunday religious ceremonies are held, dignitaries walk in solemn procession, youth organizations parade. Just recently there was massive national support for emphasizing things still further and reverting to the original tradition of a complete national stoppage at 11 A.M. on November 11—shops ceasing business, radio broadcasts silenced, announcements made on public transport. And this in a nation which for four centuries had been told it didn’t pray for its dead!

I have found that explaining to people the significance of All Saints and All Souls in November is not difficult, and they find the traditional Catholic invocation “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord . . .” simple and moving in its straightforward approach which does not announce that all the dead are in heaven, but allows them to be placed lovingly in God’s care. In both Europe and North America, too, there are powerful natural reasons for thinking of the dead in November, when we see the dying of the year all around us as winter approaches. The early Church saw this too, which is why November became the month of All Souls.

Using the calendar means meeting people where they are—not dumping arbitrary Catholic traditions on a confused populace, but gently explaining things of which they already have some half-formed knowledge. It means renewing the spiritual significance of feasts and seasons that modern commercialism threatens to destroy. It means bringing a biblical and honest perspective to festivals that we as Catholics may have come to take for granted—or to ignore. As long ago the Church did in Europe, as she does today in Africa and Asia, we should seek to inculturate our faith into daily life and into the round of the seasons and people’s own traditions.

In doing all this, we may not only help to share our faith and explain it, but also gain a bonus: the deepening and enriching of it for ourselves and for those in our family circle.

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