With the start of another liturgical year this week on the First Sunday of Advent, I'm again anticipating receiving messages wondering why we begin the church year with Advent rather than January 1. The reason, of course, is that in the church, we count time according to the life of Jesus, beginning with Advent to prepare us for Christmas and Christ's coming, followed by Epiphany and the manifestation of Christ to the world. We then move to the series of seasons around Easter, beginning with Lent's preparation, Holy Week, and Easter, followed by Pentecost, celebrating the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birth and mission of the church, and the long season of Ordinary Time until Advent. (For information on the Sundays after Epiphany and Pentecost — Ordinary Time — see The Book of Worship, p. 409.)
We set our year with references to the Trinity and as a reflection of the full message of the Bible. Setting the start of the new year as January 1 is a secular, civil practice that governs our lives outside the church. It even has an impact on us in the church with our church budgets, employment contracts, and sometimes other observances and practices, including worship. The church has never really had a problem with recognizing the place and influence of the civil new year.
It is the same with other secular/civil observances. Many have found their way into the life and the calendar of the church.
Christmas. Jesus' birth was not regarded as significant enough to be officially observed in the church until the fourth century, when it began to be observed around the time of already existing festivals of the winter solstice. Two of the Bible's four gospels don't even mention Jesus' birth, and some traditions and faiths still do not observe it. The English Puritans succeeded in outlawing it in 1644 through an act of Parliament. Today, even in the church, we include distinctly un-Christian trappings of Christmas: Santa Claus, Rudolph, Frosty, reindeer, elves, the North Pole, the Christmas tree, and perhaps most of all, the commercialization of the sacred event to the point where even the USA Supreme Court has ruled that Christmas is a SECULAR and not a SACRED holiday. (Easter is probably better dealt with in an article all its own. From bunny rabbits, eggs, butterflies, fertility rites, and even the very name of the Holy day, there is much of the secular in our observance.)
New Year. As mentioned, the church begins its year on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day. January 1 is the start of the civil or secular calendar.
Family. We have a number of observances in the church that grow out of our recognition of the family and its central place of importance: Mothers' Day, Fathers' Day, Grandparents' Day, Children's Day, Children's Sabbath, National Family Week, and Festival of the Christian Home. Curious that we don't have a Singles' Day.
National Observances. We often include celebrations of the nation in the USA Church: Independence Day (July 4), Flag Day, Veterans' Day, Patriot Day, Armed Forces Day, Thanksgiving.
Days of Remembrance. Many churches observe Memorial Day, Presidents Day, John and Charles Wesley's birthdays, Aldersgate Day, Martin Luther King Day, and various feast days, such as St. Patrick's Day and Valentine's Day — as well as All Saints' Day.
Ethnic and Gender Observances. We include Native American Ministries Sunday, Black History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Cinquo de Mayo, Juneteenth, Kwanzaa, Asian American Ministries Sunday, Korean Ministries Sunday, Women's History Month, Women's Day, Men's Day.
General Days. There is a host of other days, some even with General Conference-mandated special offerings: Peace with Justice, National Day of Prayer, Human Relations Day, United Nations Day, United Methodist Student Day, Heritage Sunday, Laity Sunday, Brotherhood/Sisterhood Week, Sundays for Boy and Girl Scouting, Labor Day, Arbor Day, Christian Education, Reformation Day, Halloween, International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, Bible Sunday, Golden Cross, Disability Awareness, AIDS Awareness Day, Rural Life. There is even an official Organ and Tissue Donor Sunday. The Book of Discipline specifically authorizes the Central Conferences (those outside the USA) to establish their own special days unique to their history and heritage.
All these and others are observed and celebrated in the church, even though we have no biblical command to include them in the church calendar or in our worship. We recognize the importance of rites, traditions, remembrances, and heritage that primarily come from our culture and our history. By incorporating these into the church calendar and life, we enrich and inform the faith of the entire church. We also imbue the secular with the sacred — we Christianize or make sacred that which was secular or even profane.
The work of the church is not to ADMIT the secular and profane, not to APPROVE it, ACCOMMODATE it or SUCCUMB to it, but rather to REDEEM it. It is great work. It is holy work. Do it! Celebrate it! Happy New Year!