Forty-five years ago God called me to be an evangelist, and told me that I would use my guitar to help me to communicate the Christian message.
What followed was folk music with Ishmael and Andy, then punk and new wave music with Ishmael United and Rev Counta and the Speedoze, and finally rock music for children with the Glorie Company.
Throughout those years I either attended or led charismatic free churches where only Christmas, Easter and Pentecost were seriously celebrated. I thought that celebrating other high days and holy days was unnecessary. I questioned why we, as Christians, remember these important events in the life of Christ only on certain days? Surely we should be remembering and celebrating them daily?
In theory: yes. But did I? No. My thinking changed a little over ten years ago, when I began to feel very spiritually stale. The realisation dawned on me that I needed a radical change of church. My wife, Irene, suggested that we should try attending a service in our local cathedral; I was horrified by the idea.
Would it be possible for an evangelistic rock musician to ever feel at home in an Anglo-Catholic cathedral that used choral and classical music in its worship?
Yet, to my surprise, I found a fresh walk with God in this ancient building. A short while afterwards, I was ordained as their missioner deacon. During my training, I had to learn why certain Christians celebrated the liturgical year.
As I listened and participated in the cathedral services, I discovered that following the liturgical year methodically was actually a good discipline for me, and it encouraged me to spend more time appreciating and meditating on Jesus and his time on earth.
If a dyed-in-the-wool, freewheeling charismatic like me could change his mind about the value of Church traditions that go back thousands of years, then maybe others can benefit too. So let me share a few special days and dates that I personally enjoy celebrating, which may reinvigorate your approach to the year ahead.
I’d always considered Advent to be nothing more than a build-up to Christmas Day and a time when small children could open the doors on a cheap cardboard calendar and enjoy eating chocolate.
Sure, the picture behind the flap usually had a link to the nativity story, but was the child really interested in the significance of the image when a far more exciting edible treasure was distractingly placed in front of it?
Advent, I have learned, is made up of the four Sundays prior to Christmas Day, and the word simply means ‘coming’. It’s where the Church year begins.
I now spend these weeks in wonder, praise and self-examination. I wonder at the miracle of the events surrounding Christ’s first coming to earth. I praise God that Christ brought salvation and freedom from sin. I examine my own life to try to make sure that I am ready and prepared for the second coming of Christ.
I find that allowing Advent to lead my thinking into Christmas, and spreading Christmas over a month rather than a day, is not only spiritually beneficial but also gives me more time to think about and praise God for the birth of the world’s saviour.
Twelve days after Christmas comes Epiphany, which marks the arrival of the magi to see the infant Jesus. Some of our European friends make a big deal of it by importing camels and having wise men in costume throwing sweets to children from the back of a carnival float.
According to the Bible, the wise men arrived two years after the birth of Christ and worshipped Christ the toddler in a house, not Christ the baby in a manger, but I still like seeing the wise men in our Christmas nativity scenes. To see both the magi and the shepherds glorifying the Christ-child together is a symbol that the wealthy and intelligent and the poor and uneducated are all in need of the same saviour.
Then comes Lent. An atheistic university lecturer once told me that he thought of Lent as the Christians’ selfish season – when they spend more time thinking about themselves at the expense of those around them. I suspect this is true for some and false for others.
Traditionally, Lent is 40 days of fasting and penitence that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Easter Sunday. In biblical times, fasting was about abstaining from food but today Christians often replace fasting from food with something else that they would find it hard to live without, such as coffee, or alcohol.
I’ve come to appreciate that the church had good reasons for establishing a regular rhythm of prayer
Although this may be a good discipline, I have found it more beneficial to do something proactive that draws me closer to God, rather than giving something up during Lent. I try to spend more time quietly reading the Bible or praying, which for me (as a highly active and rather noisy individual) does not come easily.
As we have daily Communion services in the cathedral, I decided last year that on most days of Lent I would attend these services and spend more time worshipping and meditating around the Lord’s table.
Understandably, Lent tends to be a more sombre season as people reflect on Christ’s suffering. Some churches sing sad hymns, put black bin liners over colourful statues and refuse to let me sing any of my songs that include the word ‘hallelujah’.
Over the past few years, I’ve known my fair share of sadness in life and although I find the sufferings of Jesus horrific, when I think of him, I tend not to be able to feel all that sad because I know the story finishes with the greatest victory the world has ever known.
I discovered that following the liturgical year methodically was actually a good discipline
So, during this season, I may at times be quiet and reflective, but my overwhelming feeling will always be one of gratitude and wanting to shout out ‘hallelujah!’. I do preach Christ crucified, but I can’t help but live my life believing in Christ resurrected. Which brings us to...
An Orthodox Christmas
What is the Orthodox Church?
It formed following a Church split in the fifth century into Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Roman Catholic). Today it is represented by denominations such as the Russian and Greek Orthodox, Coptic and Assyrian churches.
Why does Christmas Day fall later in the Orthodox Church?
Due to use of a different calendar, Christmas Day is celebrated on 7th January by Orthodox churches worldwide. The Julian calendar has a 13- day difference from the Gregorian calendar adopted in the West.
How do Orthodox believers celebrate Christmas?
Different branches of the Orthodox Church follow different traditions. Bishop Angaelos, the General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK, says preparation for the the Feast of the Nativity begins with 43 days of fasting. On 6th January (Christmas Eve), an evening liturgical service concludes with a midnight Eucharist. Families will then break their fast with a fellowship meal. Christmas Day is spent with family and friends.
Holy Week and Easter
For a large part of my adult life I spent every Easter at Spring Harvest, held at Butlin’s holiday camp.
I will never forget the American preacher Tony Campolo exclaiming at one Spring Harvest Good Friday service, ‘Friday’s here – but Sunday’s coming!’ Brilliant as it was, I was left thinking that Good Friday was just a sort of warm-up act for Easter Sunday. I think that’s why some churches don’t feel the need to hold any services on Good Friday and simply concentrate on Easter Sunday instead.
But now Holy Week, leading up to Easter Sunday, is very special for me. I like to take time out to ponder on each day of this week and try to imagine what Jesus was thinking and doing. On the first Saturday he relaxed with friends, and then on the Sunday (Palm Sunday in our calendar) the excitement erupted with an enormous crowd shouting ‘hosanna!’ as he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and upset the religious leaders.
On the Monday Jesus kicked the moneychangers out of the Temple, and on Tuesday and Wednesday Jesus taught and met up with friends. On the Thursday, the painful journey to the cross began with a very serious final supper after which, in Gethsemane, Judas the betrayer identified Jesus to a murderous mob.
On Good Friday Jesus stood alone as he faced the rigged trial, the torture, the lashes and death by crucifixion. On the final Saturday, all is quiet. The disciples thought that their world had ended. But then... Easter Sunday and an empty grave!
Some churches and Christians tend to skip from Palm Sunday straight to Easter Day, but I’ve increasingly realised that we need to walk through Holy Week and Good Friday to truly appreciate the joy of the resurrected Jesus. Death is defeated! Our sins are forgiven! He is risen indeed, hallelujah!
Ascension and Pentecost
Forty days after the resurrection, Jesus ascended into heaven. How many people have ever been born, lived, died, resurrected and ascended back to heaven while promising to return to earth again? For me the ascension must warrant a special day of remembrance and celebration.
Then, ten days later comes the day of Pentecost. Being an ex-pastor from the Pentecostal movement, celebrating Pentecost has always been a must for me. It’s a time to celebrate God’s Holy Spirit coming down to earth to live within the believer and fill the believer with God’s power.
The One True Light: Daily Advent Readings from the Gospel of John
Tim Chester (The Good Book Company)
Someone to Believe In: An Advent Course Based on Miracle on 34th Street
Sheila Jacobs (Darton, Longman & Todd) (The Good Book Company)
Gardening the Soul: A Spiritual Daybook Through the Seasons
Sister Stanislaus Kennedy (Simon & Schuster)
For all who followed Jesus from that first Pentecost onwards, the Holy Spirit would be their teacher and comforter and give them the ability to use supernatural gifts while gently encouraging them to love Jesus more. This is a wonderful day of joyful celebration.
All Soul’s Day
I have no time for All Hallows’ Eve, or Halloween as it is now known, on 31st October. Jesus taught that to be delivered from evil requires prayer, not pumpkins!
But I do have time for the bittersweet day of 2nd November: All Souls’ Day. This is a day of both sadness and thanksgiving. I remember and thank God for my faithful departed friends who, when alive on earth, encouraged and influenced me so much. As time passes I still miss them and wish they were here, but at the same time I rejoice in the fact that they are now safe and in a far better place; in the arms of Jesus.
There was a time in my Christian walk when high days and liturgical seasons would have sounded like dead traditionalism to me. But I’ve now come to appreciate that the Church had good reasons for establishing a regular rhythm of prayer and celebration through the year. Perhaps you have never considered the celebration of the liturgical year as important. This year, can I encourage you to take time to reflect more deeply on these days that remind us to dwell on the significant elements of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection – and the message of truth and grace that he taught?
Ishmael is a songwriter and author, and missioner deacon at Chichester Cathedral