I grew up in a faith tradition that did not really follow the Christian calendar. We celebrated Palm Sunday, Easter, and Christmas. We gave a nod to Pentecost, because we’re part of the Wesleyan-Holiness stream of Christianity. But Lent? Advent? Uh, not so much. But here are 4 (or 6) important 2024 dates for your faith journey. (For some ideas on how to strengthen your faith journey in the coming year, see my previous post, “5 Ways to Improve Your Faith Journey in 2024.”)
Thankfully, over the past 20 years or so, our denomination has “rediscovered” the Christian calendar. While we may not celebrate everything that other “tribes” do, I suggest that remembering these five dates will strengthen your faith journey in 2024. These four dates (or six, if you count Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter separately, rather than together as Holy Week) should be prominent in your faith journey each year.
Ash Wednesday (February 14) – Fasting on Our Faith Journey
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, the season of penitence and preparation before Easter. The church that I serve doesn’t have a special service for Ash Wednesday, but I do emphasize the importance of Lent. Technically, Lent lasts for 40 days, although it lasts from Ash Wednesday until Holy Thursday (this year, March 28). (Sundays are excluded from the days of fasting during Lent.)
I think it’s more important to focus on the meaning of Lent, rather than the specifics of what dates “count.” One common practice during Lent is fasting, in remembrance of Jesus’ period of forty days of fasting in the wilderness after His baptism. Different faith traditions approach this time of fasting in various ways. For example, Roman Catholics do not eat meat on Fridays during Lent. While fasting often refers to going without food in Scripture, Isaiah 58:6-7 gives us a different perspective: “Is this not the fast that I choose: to release the bonds of wickedness, to undo the ropes of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke? Is it not to break your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into the house; when you see the naked to cover him; and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”
What Type of Fasting is Appropriate?
I view fasting as a way to heighten our awareness to what God wants to do in our lives. As with all spiritual disciplines, they help to create room for God to work in us. (I think I remember this concept from Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster, but I can’t provide a citation.) The point is that any fast during Lent should be directed toward that end: making room for God to work, to enable him to improve our faith journey. But we should remember that a “fast” in this sense is voluntarily foregoing something that is pleasurable and “good” for the sake of something better – drawing closer to God. Here are some types of fasts you might consider during Lent:
- Food (either a particular meal, or a type of food)
- Social Media
- Particular diversions (last year, I deleted my favorite game from my phone)
Holy Week (March 24-31) – Reflection on Our Faith Journey
Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday, the commemoration of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. It also includes Good Friday (the day Jesus was crucified) and Easter (His resurrection). Some traditions have celebrations or observances for each day of the week, but I think nearly every Christian “tribe” recognizes these three.
Palm Sunday (March 24)
As I said, Palm Sunday is the commemoration of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. In Jesus’ day, His entry took place as people were gathering for the celebration of Passover. The name “Palm Sunday” comes from the fact that people “were cutting branches from the trees and spreading them on the road” (ahead of Jesus; see Matthew 21:8). They were welcoming “the Son of David” in anticipation and hope that Jesus was in fact God’s Messiah.
Whenever I think about Palm Sunday, I’m struck by the contrast between the crowds that acclaimed Jesus and those who five days later were shouting “Crucify Him!” Palm Sunday is a powerful reminder to us that popular expectations and hopes are often at odds with God’s plans. It would have been easy for Jesus (from a human perspective) to accept that acclaim of the crowds, and allow things to proceed along those lines. The fact that He did not reminds us that we should always “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). Palm Sunday is a great time to remind ourselves that our faith journey is directed toward God’s Kingdom, not our own.
Good Friday (March 29)
I’ve always been a bit troubled by the fact that the day of Jesus’ death is called “Good Friday.” I realize that it is “good” for us from a theological perspective. After all, His death made it possible for us to be reconciled to God. “Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is through His flesh, and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let’s approach God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water (Hebrews 10:19-22).
But while we’re remembering how “good” that day is for us, we should be careful not to forget how much it cost Jesus to redeem us. The movie The Passion of the Christ graphically depicts the pain and suffering Jesus went through – physical, emotional and spiritual. I always recall Mark’s account of Jesus’ prayer in the garden: And He went a little beyond them, and fell to the ground and began praying that if it were possible, the hour might pass Him by. And He was saying, “Abba! Father! All things are possible for You; remove this cup from Me; yet not what I will, but what You will” (Mark 14:35-36).
He prayed that the hour might pass Him by. When He said, “All things are possible for You,” I believe that Satan was “firing his last bullet” of temptation. “God’s your Father. Of course it’s possible! Why wouldn’t He let you out of this?” But Jesus resisted, just as He resisted every other temptation: yet not what I will, but what You will. Good Friday reminds us of Jesus’ complete obedience to God (see Philippians 2:5-11). Our faith journey needs to move us toward the goal of “having the same attitude as Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5).
Easter (March 31)
Easter and Christmas are the two most familiar dates of the Christian year. The joke is that we see a lot of “CEOs” on those dates – “Christmas and Easter Only” Christians. But that doesn’t diminish the importance of Easter. When the early Christians talked about the gospel – the “good news” – they summed it up in the phrase, “He is risen!” That was the good news with which the angel greeted the women at the tomb on that first Easter morning (Matthew 28:5-6).
Our worship services on Easter are celebrations – as they should be! But I’d encourage you to take some time on Easter, away from the celebration of the worship service, to reflect on what this good news means. Put yourself in the position of Mary Magdalene. Hear the angel say, “He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said.” Imagine being one of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, walking with Jesus (Luke 24:13-35). Read John 11, and listen as Jesus tells Martha, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.”
Enjoy the Easter celebrations. Spend time with your family. Eat the chocolate bunny! But in the midst of it all, spend time with the One who made it all possible. Easter has to be a time of growth and reflection on our faith journey!
Pentecost (May 19)
Pentecost takes place seven weeks after Easter. Our commemoration of Pentecost looks back to Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit came upon the believers in a powerful way. Jesus had promised his disciples that God would send the Holy Spirit (John 14-16). The coming of the Spirit is the key to Jesus’ statement: “Truly, truly I say to you, the one who believes in Me, the works I do, he will do also; and greater works than these will he do; because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12).
But your view of Pentecost, and the importance you place on it, may differ widely depending on your “tribe.” For some believers, Pentecost is just a day on the Christian calendar; no special observance, no emphasis, just a reminder. For others, Pentecost is the day; the gift of the Holy Spirit is so important that it overrides almost everything else.
In our “tribe,” Pentecost is important – but it is important because of Good Friday and Easter. God did not send the Holy Spirit to dwell in us until after Jesus’ death and resurrection. John’s Gospel makes this connection explicit: “But He said this in reference o the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet give, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:39). My suggestion is to spend time on Pentecost reading Scripture: John 14-16 and Acts 2, for instance. Reflect on the promise of the Spirit, and the fulfillment of that promise. And allow the Spirit to show you how He is at work in your life today! We need the Spirit’s guidance on our faith journey – and God has given Him to us!
Advent (December 1-24)
It seems strange to end with Advent, because the fact is that the Christian calendar begins with Advent. But since this is a “New Year’s Resolution” sort of article, for the beginning of a new calendar year, we finish with Advent.
Advent is another of those observances that I missed out on growing up. We didn’t “do” Advent; we celebrated Christmas. Now, of course, I understand better what Advent is all about. The word “advent” basically means the “coming” or “arrival” of someone or something. In this case, of course, it’s Jesus! But what we may miss about Advent is that we’re not just preparing for the coming of Jesus at His nativity. We’re also preparing for his Second Coming.
There are any number of ways to reflect on God’s presence and His work during Advent. The typical Advent candles represent hope, peace, joy, and love; one candle is lit each Sunday during Advent. We can also consider prophecy and fulfillment: the prophecies of His birth and their fulfillment, and the prophecies of His return. One popular way to observe Advent is to read one chapter of Luke’s gospel each day, and then to read the Christmas story from Luke 2:1-20 on Christmas day. But however we observe Advent, finding a way to intentionally embrace it will strengthen our faith journey throughout the year!