Time is a mysterious quantity that we are constantly affected by, sometimes ruled by, and often fighting with. There is a natural rhythm to human life, with tiny cycles of seconds like heartbeats, embedded in larger body of minutes, hours, and days. There are months and years, a constant tick-tock of change. And there are seasons of life, with our birth and childhood, young adulthood, marriage for some and parenthood, and on and on. There are golden seasons of peace and rest and challenging seasons of pain and sorrow. There are moments in which the most appropriate thing in the world to do is to celebrate, to feast, and to enjoy ourselves. There are moments of sorrow, moments of reflection, and rites of passage. Life is marked by times and seasons which ebb and flow. The secular calendar is the calendar that marks our daily lives and provides a touchpoint of connection with other people. The cycle of days and months with the seasons and holidays is shared by those around us and is an important and vital part of our culture. The secular calendar is in not threatening to the Church calendar at all – it is merely a way to mark time in sync with those around us.
But the Church has its own particularly Christian way to mark time. This Church calendar has developed, changed, and been reshaped over the centuries but its main high points have remained remarkably the same. It is a calendar based on the celebrations surrounding the events of the salvation story, the Gospel of Jesus Christ as told in the pages of the Gospels. It is a cycle of seasons, feasts, and fast, which comprehend the life of Christ and the Christian life in response to Christ. And it is an ecumenical calendar, not always in the details (or Easter’s date for that matter!) but in the overall sense of Gospel time.
This post will explore the Church Year and describe how it serves as the overarching structure of all that we do. But before discussing the Christian calendar, I want to focus on the benefits of the Church Year. They are the ordering of our time around the Gospel, the unifying affect of a shared system, the balance provided by a cycle of seasonal emphasis, the connecting of Monday – Saturday with Sunday worship, the discipleship and learning aspect of the calendar, and the experiential benefits.
First, the calendar orders our time around the Gospel. The principal feasts of the year are Christmas and Easter. Everything in between and around these two great feasts is related to an aspect of the life of Christ, his teaching and ministry, as well as the saving acts of God through Christ. In following this calendar, our churches are ordering the everyday life of the parish around Gospel themes. The rhythm of church life then becomes a drumbeat different than that of the secular world around us. Christian Time does not destroy secular time, but it does order our lives in a Gospel way that supersedes and is larger than the other patterns in our lives. And there are many, many attractive interests pulling churches and people away from the Gospel, aren’t there? The calendar keeps pointing us back to Christ and the important aspects of his life and work, as if turning a diamond to reveal different facets. This system keeps the Gospel at the center of our parish, family, and personal lives.
Second, the calendar unifies us. We are sharing time with millions of other Christians. We are sharing time with those who have gone before us. We are sharing time with others in our church. When we kneel and receive the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, we know that we are reliving an experience of many Christians before us. What we are doing becomes timeless; we are not doing something traditional or contemporary, young or old, in or out. We are both following in the footsteps those before us, and walking the path of the year ourselves. We can pick up a memoir of some Christian of the past and can relate to their repentance in dust and ashes, despite the many years of time in between. And we can likewise share our experiences with each other, using our common ordering of time as the bridge of understanding.
Third, the varying emphasis of the Church Year balances our spiritual lives. There is a constant balance of reflection, repentance, celebration, and learning that can prevent us from “getting stuck” on one channel. The Church Year flows into preparation phases that make celebration so much more celebratory. It slows down and rests during “ordinary time,” creating an ebb and flow of special and ordinary time which makes special times even more so. If an individual Christian or pastor is overly focused on repentance and has overlooked celebration, the calendar will correct that. If a parish becomes overly focused on feasting and forgets that we are dust, Ash Wednesday will intervene. Instead of attempting the unhappy task of “balancing oneself” the Church Year provides this balance as a source outside of ourselves. This is a paradox in that freedom from staleness is found in a ready-made cycle.
Fourth, The Church Year connects Sunday with the rest of the week. Each week of the year is a part of a larger season, whether Easter, Christmas, Advent, Lent, etc. So when we walk out of worship on Sunday, we walk into a week which has its own Gospel emphasis and tone. The Church Year helps prevent us from thinking of Sunday as God’s day and the rest of the week as our time. The whole of the year is marked out by the Church, each and every day have a part to play in our feasting and fasting.
Fifth, we learn a lot by using the Church calendar. It is hard to think of any major Christian theme that the calendar does not focus on at some point. And this is learning that is subtle. It is not “in your face” learning. But it is a slow and steady kind of learning that builds in our minds and hearts over time as we experience the re-ordering of our lives around Jesus Christ in the Gospel.
Finally, the Christian calendar is experiential. You just have to walk through it to fully understand it. If a person regularly attends worship, she will slowly but surely begin to experience the major themes of the Gospel, just simply by following the flow of the year. She will learn of the incarnation, of the story of the birth of Christ, and of his naming in the temple. She will worship him at the manger, and then hear the announcement that the light has come. She will follow this same Christ through his ministry and teaching. Walk through Holy Week; hear the Passion Narrative. She will reflect in silence. And then she will stand and shout on Easter Day: “Christ is Risen!” The experience changes us, and it change us together in community as we walk through the life of Christ, year after year.