The Church Calendar

Recently someone I know who worships in what we generally call a “non-liturgical” church, asked me why “liturgical” churches make all this “fuss” about the “church calendar”.  To them, yes it is important to “observe” Christmas because it is the celebration of the birth of Christ, and Easter, because it is the Resurrection of Christ, but why do “we” spend all this time on Lent, or Epiphany or for that matter, Advent or Pentecost.   I’m not sure I did a very good job of talking about it off the cuff, but I am writing this today to see if I can explain

First of all, we as human beings are a “’time” people.  We live by the calendar.  We all have at least one calendar we live by.  Most of us actually have more than one.

  • If we are families with kids, we live by the school calendar –the school year with its planned day offs (or unplanned-“snow” days), spring break, winter vacation (what we used to call Christmas break), and summer vacation.
  • If we are sports nuts, we mark time by the ESPN calendar – we’ve just finished the NFL playoffs and the Super Bowl,  baseball spring training is beginning this month, “March Madness” is just about to start – and we have a special addition in 2014 – the Winter Olympics.
  • Then there is the retail calendar – the observance of “holidays” for the purpose of selling us something – Valentines Day, St. Patricks Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Presidents Day, Thanksgiving, July 4th , Memorial Day, Labor Day, and the granddaddy of them all  – “Christmas-Hanukah-Kwanza”.
  • There are multiple other types of calendars by which we mark time:  Family calendars with birthdays, wedding anniversaries, “personal memorial days”; Leisure calendars with vacation days, weekends, cultural holidays when we get a day off work; the “Gardener’s” calendar with the Philadelphia Garden Show, the days we begin to prepare the ground for our gardens, days we plan to first plant, times to mulch or fertilize, and of course “harvest”.

The Christian Calendar is about hard-wiring us to the life of Christ.  It also helps us to think counter-culturally to our society.  We think about Christmas – not because of society which tells us to go into debt to give stuff to each other, but because it teaches us about “Incarnation”.

Christian worship is rooted in history.  It is offered to a God who is conceived and named as an agent involved in particular historical events.  So the Christian year is a valuable liturgical structure, because it highlights the divine economy (what God has done in history) in the consciousness of the Christian community.

The reason for this practice is just as important as the practice itself.  The Christian year is not primarily valuable for the sake of maintaining an ancient liturgical practice, nor because it lends an aesthetic balance to the annual rhythm of liturgical celebrations.   Its primary value is theological.  It focuses the attention of the worshiping community on God’s actions in history, primarily in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.  This reason, in turn, affects the way in which the Christian year is celebrated.  For example, it calls for celebrations that focus on the historical events commemorated instead of on extraneous liturgical practices that have grown up around a given celebration. . . Christianity is not merely about a set of ideas or emotions, it is about real historical events which feature the interpersonal encounter between God and God’s people.

The Christian Year also helps us to understand the attributes of God through Jesus Christ.  It is about having the “why” shape the “how”.   The main goal is to put Jesus at the center of life. The Christian year is anchored in the main salvation history events described in the New Testament.  Its anchors are celebrations of Jesus’ birth, death, resurrection, ascension, and the coming of the Holy Spirit.  The Christian year retells the story of these earth-shattering events.   Thus, the Christian year is a memorial to key events in salvation history.  The Christian year ensures that worshipers will be fed a balanced diet of biblical themes.

The secondary goal is to provide a way of understanding the Christian life.  These events are not just about Jesus, they are about us.  We are united with Christ through baptism into his death and resurrection (Romans 6).  We experience each of these events with different emotions.  The Christian year also ensures that worship features a balanced diet of Christian affections or emotions.  We focus on hope during Advent, adoration or wonder during Christmastide, penitence during Lent, and celebration during Eastertide.

Like any institutional arrangement, the Christian year can be abused. And indeed it has been. The 16th century Reformers and the 17th century Puritans protested the Christian year because they felt it was being treated as an end it itself. They feared that worshipers were more concerned with the correct observance of certain days, rather than focusing on the events to which those celebrations pointed.   Observance of the Christian year is not prescribed in the New Testament.  It is one of dozens of devotional practices that Christians have developed as helps to their public and personal prayer life.  It is helpful to think of the Christian year as devotional guide, like any other you might purchase at a Christian bookstore.

But Christians follow this calendar because it points beyond itself to the main events in salvation history.  It is a means to hold before us these crucial events and to challenge us to orient our lives around these events.   So as we move from Advent to Christmas, Epiphany to Lent to Holy Week and then through the Easter season to Pentecost, think about how the Christian Year helps to hardwire you into the life of Christ.  And remember that the point of the entire Christian Year is nothing less than “to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith.” (Heb. 12:2).