When I was a young boy, my mother showed me her worn and tattered childhood Bible. She told me that she had read it many times, and I decided then and there that I would follow in her footsteps. I pursued biblical studies to the highest level I could, becoming a New Testament scholar. 

We can tell someone our occupation, level of education, location and other information, but they won’t know us until we tell them our story. Our story provides context for these otherwise disparate details. One short story is more revealing than a dozen facts.

Scripture presents God to us through story. The writers could have merely listed God’s attributes, but those attributes are best discerned in the context of God’s interactions and relationships with people—from Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Hannah and David, all the way to Mary and Jesus.

The gospel comes to us in the form of “an old, old story,” as the lyrics of the hymn Victory in Jesus say. In Invitation to the New Testament, Bible scholar Ben Witherington explains, “Story is the fundamental organizational principle of the mind.” In other words, we understand ourselves and God through stories. The truths of the gospel are not abstract concepts dressed in stories that can be distilled into theological propositions, nor are they logical statements that are illustrated by stories. The story of the gospel is the truth of the gospel.

The Christian calendar tells a story. Each year, the church follows the life of Christ and his early followers. It starts with the mystery and anticipation of Advent (December 3-24, 2023), which bursts into the joy and wonder of Christmas (December 25, 2023-January 5, 2024), followed by the celebration and hope of Epiphany (January 6-February 13, 2024). After this comes the humility and circumspection of Lent (February 14-March 30, 2024), the power and exuberance of Easter (March 31-May 19, 2024) and the “ordinary” season after Pentecost (May 20-November 30, 2024).

Author and speaker J.D. Walt points out that the contours of the Christian calendar rise and fall with the mood of the observances. Advent is a low point, when the church imaginatively joins “captive Israel, that mourns in lowly exile here, until the Son of God appear,” as the lyrics from O Come, O Come, Emmanuel describe. Christmas and Epiphany are high points of rejoicing. Lent is a low point of grief in reflection upon and identification with the suffering of Jesus Christ, leading to his Crucifixion on Good Friday. With Easter, the church returns to its highest point of celebration. During the Easter season, we recognize and experience Jesus’ Resurrection, culminating in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

As the church tells these stories year after year, it proclaims this gospel to the world. Further, it enacts this narrative as a testimony to the incarnate, prophetic, crucified, risen, exalted and returning Lord Jesus Christ. In seasons of mourning, the church invites the saints to mourn; in seasons of rejoicing, the church invites the saints to rejoice. The Christian calendar is not just a list of special commemorations and liturgical readings. The moods and the actions of the gathered community and of individual Christians participate in the continuous drama of the story that conveys identity, meaning and rescue from sin (see Acts 11:14; 1 Corinthians 15:1-2).

The Lenten season includes 40 days of circumspection interspersed with six Sundays of celebration. Although the season is generally subdued, the celebratory Sundays signal that the memory of Jesus’ Passion cannot squelch the delight of his Resurrection. Lent is not mere sentimentality. The proper observance of Lent is a communion with our brothers and sisters in Christ in bearing witness to God’s passionate and unparalleled love in Christ Jesus.

During Lent, Christians deny themselves something that they usually enjoy—typically a favourite food, though people with dietary concerns often give up a favourite activity instead, such as television. Consider giving up something prominent but unnecessary in your life— social media, candy or meat. Each Lenten season, this practice of self-denial trains our attention on Christ, deepens our prayers and appreciation for God’s passionate love, prepares our hearts for Holy Week and Easter, and opens our eyes to the extent of the distractions we have allowed.

Each year, more Salvation Army corps seem to be learning the benefits of observing the Christian calendar. I hope that you will accept the invitation to enact the story of the gospel in concert with Christians all over the world as a means of bearing witness to God’s grace in Christ Jesus.

For further reading: The Revised Common Lectionary and accompanying resources are available free-of-charge from the Vanderbilt University Library at lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu.

This is the second article in our series on the seasons that shape the Christian year. Read the first article here.

Dr. Isaiah Allen is assistant professor of religion at Booth University College in Winnipeg.

Illustration: pronoia/stock.Adobe.com

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