Question: If you went to church last weekend, what holiday, if any, did your church acknowledge? If your church is like mine, you acknowledged Memorial Day and, hence, the U.S. military. Across the country last weekend, church projector screens donned digital American flags, choruses of God Bless America filled the rafters, and prayers were uttered thanking God for “those who, like Christ, have given their lives so that we might worship here in freedom today.” For many people and churches, this is standard operating procedure for patriotic holiday weekends, and it would seem strange, even offensive, not to honor those who have served in the military on such occasions.
Here’s my question, though. When we gather together to worship, as whom are we gathered? Are we gathered as citizens of the United States who happen to live in the same area and worship at the same church? If so, by all means let us salute our flag and thank God for our soldiers.
However, if we are gathered as citizens of the Kingdom of God (Col. 1:13-14), a Kingdom that transcends national borders and unites the Church as one people regardless of nationality, socio-economic status, or gender (Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11), we are a new community—a counter-culture—that operates not by power, violence, and coercion, but by humility, meekness, and death and resurrection (Romans 12:14-21). As a people baptized into this new community, we worship God and God alone in our assemblies. Our new identity in Christ supplants prior allegiances, and the King of kings becomes the sole object of our worship (on Sunday and every other day of the week). Any other power of this world, including nations and their soldiers, we choose to honor in our assemblies is, quite simply, an idol.
Honoring a power of this world in Christian assembly detracts from the worship of God and introduces a competing allegiance to that of the Kingdom of God. To honor the United States or any nation in Christian assembly is to lose sight of who we truly are—we are followers of Jesus, baptized into his new community, no longer defined by worldly socio-political boundaries. Thus, when we salute the American flag, sing patriotic songs, and adorn our sanctuaries with red, white, and blue, we divide our allegiance to God and his Kingdom and we make an idol out of the worldly kingdom in which we live. Our Kingdom, however, is not of this world (John 18:33-38).
Now, back to the holiday question. What I find perhaps even more disturbing than the blatant nationalism displayed in many churches last Sunday is the special day most of these churches failed to acknowledge. There was another day, a holy day, on the calendar last Sunday. At least it was on the liturgical calendar (our calendar). Last Sunday was Pentecost Sunday.
Most evangelical churches do not acknowledge or operate by the liturgical calendar (outside of Christmas and Easter), and many would dismiss it as antiquated or too “Catholic.” I couldn’t disagree more. (Well, I guess it is kind of Catholic, but I disagree with that being a bad thing.)
The holy day of Pentecost, which coincides with the Jewish Feast of Weeks (Lev. 23:15-22), occurs 50 days after Easter, and on Pentecost Sunday, Christians celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit in tongues of fire upon those gathered for the Feast of Weeks in Jerusalem after Christ’s ascension.
In more liturgical traditions, Pentecost Sunday is a day of great rejoicing and celebration. Festive, colorful processions make their ways through the gathered people of God as the church universal experiences anew the story of the Spirit descending upon those assembled in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. I worshiped with an Episcopal church on Pentecost Sunday one year, and at a certain point in the service, about twenty people in the congregation stood and simultaneously read aloud a passage of Scripture in different languages to incarnate afresh the coming of the Holy Spirit and the empowering of the people to speak in tongues at Pentecost. This was one of the most memorable and impactful moments of any worship service I have ever experienced.
Calendars carry formative potential. Calendars shape us. Think about how the weeks leading up to Christmas alter your mood (either positively or negatively); so, too, with other holidays. The liturgical calendar is no different. The season of Lent is a time of purging, penitence, and preparation before the celebration of Easter. Holy Week, the last week of Lent, is a time of special reflection and meditation on the last week of Jesus’ life. Advent, the four weeks prior to Christmas, is a time to both remember and give thanks for Christ’s first coming and eagerly await and pray for his second coming.
The liturgical calendar reminds us who we are. It reminds us where we’ve come from and, with God’s help, where we’re going. For some (myself included), it even acts as a subversive alternative to the American calendar. I love Arbor Day as much as the next person, but disciplining myself to observe the liturgical calendar and its special days and seasons helps me further solidify my identity in Christ, my connection to the communion of saints, and my allegiance to the Kingdom of God—a Kingdom whose soldiers carry crosses, not guns.
Almighty God, on this day you opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promised gift of your Holy Spirit: Shed abroad this gift throughout the world by the preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. –A prayer for Pentecost Sunday from the Book of Common Prayer