In many branches of the Christian tradition, including the one I’m a part of, we follow what’s known as a liturgical calendar. This is a rhythm of seasons throughout the year in which various elements of the Christian faith are remembered and celebrated.
Even if you haven’t been part of a denomination that follows a liturgical calendar, you may be familiar with such seasons as Advent (the four weeks leading up to Christmas) or Lent (the forty-day period before Easter).
One of the things that interests me about the layout of the liturgical year is that it divides fairly neatly into two halves. The first half of the year, from Advent through Pentecost, is filled with various holy days that reflect on the life and ministry of Jesus. We remember his incarnation and birth at Christmas; we celebrate his baptism in January; we recall his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, his death and resurrection over Easter weekend, his ascension forty days after, and the gift of the Holy Spirit being poured out at Pentecost.
That first half, jam-packed with teaching on the events of the Gospels, is followed by what is commonly called “Ordinary Time.” In the Anglican tradition, we also call it “Trinitytide,” and during this time we focus on how we are to live in light of what Christ has done for us. There is a great deal of teaching, instruction, and studying of the New Testament epistles during this time. Our sermons focus more on sanctification and righteous living.
This division of the calendar year reminds me a lot of how the apostle Paul commonly structured his epistles. If you look at his letters to the Romans or Ephesians, for example, you’ll notice he spends the first half focusing primarily on the content of the gospel — what Christ has done for us. Then he turns in the latter half to discuss the implications of the gospel — how we are to live it out.
Some scholars describe this pattern as “the indicative followed by the imperative.” Theology precedes and is the basis for our ethics. Grace comes before command. In other words, we need to hear the “What” of the gospel before we move to the “So What?” of applying it in our lives.
The liturgical calendar takes this helpful pattern and shapes our entire year — all our traditions and church services and holy days — around it. We see the life of Christ held up before us for half a year, and then we spend the rest of the year being challenged to live in light of his grace and his commands. The indicative and the imperative of the gospel are thus embedded into our very schedule!
If you yourself are a Christian, no matter what tradition or denomination you are a part of, it’s vitally important to keep these two elements of the gospel before your mind.
They are like two sides of the same coin. We need to constantly remember the truth of who Christ is and what he has accomplished (and is accomplishing) for us. And we also need to remember that Christ’s identity has absolutely critical ramifications for how we ought to live.
If all we ever think about is the indicative, we can fall into the trap of presuming on God’s grace and neglecting to walk in obedience to him in the way he desires. We might think that just because we agree with the doctrines or participate in the routines that that means we’re all good with God. We end up with what theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” which is actually an insult to Christ.
But on the flipside, if all we ever focus on are the imperatives, we can fall into the opposite trap of legalism and works-righteousness. We can start to think that our eternal standing with God depends entirely on our own efforts, which is actually an anti-gospel way of thinking. And this can also turn us into neurotic wrecks, constantly worrying about whether we’ve managed to earn God’s favor or whether we’ve sinned too much to be saved.
It’s vital that we maintain both poles of the gospel. That we embrace grace and work out our salvation. That we depend on Christ completely and seek to walk in greater allegiance to him each day. I, for one, am thankful for things like the liturgical calendar to constantly remind me of these two great poles of salvation.
See you down the path.