November 2019 Credo
It was but a brief encounter. Due to overwhelming firepower, Team A made short work of Team B. The latter put up a gallant resistance, but, due to the lack of support, succumbed quickly. In the end, Team B was swept into the dustbin of history, to be forgotten for good. Team A, on the other hand, continued to grow from strength to strength.
These lines could describe a typical battle scene in a movie. But it wasn’t a movie I was thinking of. It was a church service.
The date was 13 May 2018. It was Mother’s Day. You really couldn’t miss that if you were in Singapore—the newspapers, television, radio and internet broadcast its impending arrival with ever greater intensity as the date drew nearer.
13 May 2018 was also an important day in the Christian calendar. It was Ascension Sunday—the Sunday where we commemorate our Lord Jesus Christ’s ascension into heaven after spending 40 post-resurrection days with his disciples (Acts 1:1-11).
Mother’s Day vs Ascension Sunday; the secular calendar vs the Christian calendar: Which would prevail in our churches in Singapore? The encounter, as you might expect, was but a brief one, at least for the majority of Protestant churches. Many churches went to great lengths to incorporate special Mother’s Day elements into the service that Sunday: Sermons on mothers (preached perhaps by a lady), prayer for mothers, gifts for mothers, and so on.
What about Ascension Sunday? One can image the typical churchgoer (and perhaps even church leader) asking, “What’s that? How is that ancient bit of doctrine relevant to us today? We really don’t have the time or energy to remember such obscurities.”
It is probably a good idea to clarify at this point that I have nothing against celebrating Mother’s Day. I also love and cherish my mother very much, and think that it is a good idea to set aside one day a year where we can show our appreciation to our mothers in a special way. (The over-commericalisation of this day, however, is another matter.)
The point I am making is this: So many of our Protestant churches today have neglected the Christian calendar and its important festivals that we have almost completely forgotten about the existence of such a calendar. At most, two parts of this calendar are still commemorated: Christmas Day and Good Friday cum Easter. The rest remains an impenetrable mystery.
Look, for example, at a typical calendar issued by our churches or Christian organisations (or those found on their websites). Key events in our national calendar (e.g. the public holidays) are clearly marked. Some might also feature important events in the life of the local church (e.g. our annual congregational meetings). But the seasons of the church year and the major festivals do not often make an appearance.
Is this something we should be concerned about? When the republican revolutionaries overthrew the monarchy during the French Revolution in the 18th century, it sought to eliminate the influence of Christianity on the life of the nation. Amongst the myriad of changes introduced by the new government was a change of the calendar.
The traditional seven-day week was seen to be too reminiscent of the creation account in Genesis, so a week was declared to be ten days. The new government was also unhappy about denoting the year with reference to the birth of Jesus Christ, so it announced the establishment of the Republic to be “Year One” for France. In addition, the entire Christian calendar with its seasons and festivals was abolished, and the months were renamed after the conditions of nature.
This act of overturning an existing calendar is, of course, not unique. After a successful revolution or when a new ruler ascends the throne, the entire calendar is frequently reset and begins with reference to the new ruling authority.
These new rulers take so much care with the calendar because they know something: Calendars provide a rhythm of life, and human beings are profoundly affected by this rhythm. Once this rhythm is established, it shapes to a large extent our outlook and lifestyle.
Think for a moment about how much our lives are determined by the rhythm set by our Singapore calendar. From Mondays to Fridays, most of us have to wake up by a certain time to get our children ready for school and ourselves ready for work. On weekends, we tend to feel quite different, and live according to another pattern. When the school holidays arrive, our lives are again reshaped according to a different schedule. Memorable days in our calendar (e.g. birthdays and anniversaries) have a big impact on how we feel and what we do.
This is why the almost total neglect of the Christian calendar today is such a big deal. This calendar is based on the life of our Lord Jesus Christ. (I don’t have the space to describe how it does so, but a quick search on the internet will give the details.) The Christian calendar therefore exalts Jesus to the centre and invites us to pattern our lives after his.
For example, we enter a state of anticipation during Advent, as we “await” and ponder anew the meaning of God coming to us as one of us on that first Christmas Day. We fast and lament during the season of Lent, in remembrance of Jesus’ sufferings for us sinners in his journey to the cross. We celebrate with exceeding joy throughout Easter, as we recount Jesus’ resurrection and glorious victory over sin and death.
When this Christian calendar is forgotten, what invariably happens is that our lives become governed by other calendars. Our outlook becomes more and more secularised, as we run according to the treadmill of our worldly schedules. The life of Jesus becomes increasingly remote and irrelevant, since it has no impact on the rhythm of our daily lives.
When I was a first-year student at Trinity Theological College, there was a big movement amongst many Protestant churches in Singapore to hold a forty-day fast leading up to National Day, as an occasion to pray for our nation. I remember many of us students being outraged when one of our lecturers shared that he had reservations about such a fast. Now, many years later, I see his point.
What he said was this: There is nothing wrong with praying for our nation. Church leaders also have the right to call for special periods of fasting in situations where God’s intervention is especially sought for. But, in this case, there is already a forty-day fast in the Christian calendar: the season of Lent, which few churches remember or put emphasis on.
Should our priority not be to return to our roots and get our basics right, instead of devoting our energies towards establishing a new period of fasting? Would it not be better to fast together with our brothers and sisters around the world at a common time (when we can pray for our respective nations), instead of being so parochial in our identity as Singaporean Christians? Would locating the reference point of our forty-day fast in our national calendar instead of the life of Jesus not further secularise us already heavily secularised Christians, and allow the national calendar to further overwhelm the Christian one?
Let me end by returning to the encounter between Mother’s Day and Ascension Sunday. Just as it is not wrong to fast outside of Lent, it is certainly not wrong to commemorate Mother’s Day in church. Special acknowledgements, prayers and gifts for mothers are all highly appropriate.
But to allow Mother’s Day to completely overshadow Ascension Sunday is something else. What is the theological significance of Jesus’ ascension? We don’t have the space to go into the details, but, for starters, without Jesus’ ascension, none of us would have a place in heaven (cf. Jn 14:3). Jesus’ ascension is a critical aspect of the Christian gospel. Unfortunately, so few of our churches realise this.
If this trend continues, the fate of our Christian calendar is likely to be that of Team B’s—consigned to the dustbin of history, to be forgotten for good. The secular calendar, on the other hand, with no significant rival, would continue to grow from strength to strength, extending its dominion over our lives and moulding us further in its image.
Dr Leow Theng Huat is a lecturer of theology at Trinity Theological College. He is a member and local preacher of Wesley Methodist Church.