The Church Calendar
One of the first acts by God after delivering the Israelites out of Egypt was to institute through Moses the commemoration of the Passover meal and the Feast of the Unleavened Bread as a thanksgiving and worship to God for His redemption of Israel (Ex 12). It was likely that the Israelites, “while working as slaves, were not addicted, or even aware of, calendar watching.” 1 Yet the institution of a new way of celebrating festivals and keeping time was more than just an object lesson in itself – it represented and actualized the transformation of the Israelites from slaves of Egypt to the glorious people of God. By memorializing ordered rituals and ceremonies, Israel is in effect declaring the lordship and rulership of Yahweh over themselves in a real and concrete way (Lev 23:43).
Just as the establishment of a calendar was crucial to the formation of the ancient covenant people, a new way of marking time is critical to the spiritual health of the church today. It is essential that the church, as God’s new covenant community, experiences and expresses the transforming power of the gospel materially and corporately, in radical opposition to the culture and principles of fallen humanity. The Church Calendar thus offers such a platform.
The church calendar helps us experience the power of the gospel.
Within the liturgical seasons of the Church, the Christian faith is not only conveyed through the weekly celebration of the resurrection of Jesus on the Lord’s day, but also through the commemoration of God’s history of redemption in Christ, anchored in the three principal feasts – Easter Day, Ascension Day and Pentecost.2 By observing the liturgical year in such a manner, “the Church rehearses and actualizes the gospel story, which is the history of the triune God in the Church.” 3 Instead of being preoccupied with current fads in society, the Church articulates her truly critical mission of proclaiming God’s mighty acts in Christ in living out a comprehensive set of Christian themes through the liturgical calendar:
- Christians died and are buried with Christ
- Christians are raised with Him to new life
- Christians are filled with His Spirit
- Christians advance the mission of God by the power of the Spirit
- Christians await Christ’s return 4
Further, the spirituality of the Church is enriched through the awareness of her pilgrimage from earth to heaven brought to life by observing the Christian Calendar. Each liturgical season provides a Christ-centred context in which the weekly liturgy derives its meaning and significance. The Sunday service is thus not just a mindless ritual repeated week after week but a high-point of commemoration or celebration of that particular time of the church year in the lectionary. Each weekly liturgy presents a fresh interpretation that brings us deeper into the mystery of Christ. Some examples of how this could possibly work out would be for the worship service to focus on the cost of discipleship during the Lenten season or the importance of being continually filled with the Spirit during season of Pentecost. 5
From a macro perspective of the rhythm of the festivities (high points) and ordinariness (ebbs) within a liturgical year, different elements of the Christ-life dynamics are heightened and celebrated. For instance, the Church enters into an expectation and celebration of the coming of Christ during the Advent/Christmas/Epiphany cycle, and repentance and rejoicing during the Lent/Triduum/Easter cycle. These two high points in the Calendar are interspersed by two periods of Ordinary time characterized by a focus on church teachings woven within its sense of continued mission to the world within the active presence of the Spirit. In all of this, a sense of “the already and not yet” kingdom of God within the continuing journey of the Church is brought out acutely.
Established liturgical practices are not our inventions but are the Spirit’s concrete works. Furthermore, the Church as the temple of the Spirit, distinguished by certain core practices, reminds us that established liturgical practices are not our own inventions but are the Spirit’s concrete works. It is the Spirit that makes these distinctive practices possible – practices that form the Church. If we believe that the Holy Spirit directs the Church in her growth throughout the centuries and the liturgical year an integral part of her life, then observing the Church Calendar facilitates the continuing work of the Spirit in forming the Church.
Undoubtedly, the liturgical year has been commonly presented as if it were an effective lesson plan educating about the life of the Church. However, this perspective is secondary in importance compared to the reality of its power in transforming our Christian life. Massey Shepherd states the traditional view with vigour and clarity,
"The Christian year is a mystery through which every moment and all the times and seasons of this life are transcended and fulfilled in that reality which is beyond time. Each single holy day, each single gospel periscope in the sequence of the year, is of itself a sacrament of the whole gospel. Each single feast renews the fullness and fulfilment of the Feast of feasts, our death and resurrection with Christ." 6
Consequently, a real relationship exists between the liturgical celebration and the reality being celebrated, such that the participants in the celebration become participants in the saving reality.7 There is an actual and efficacious grace for new faith and life through the observance of the calendar. Observing the church calendar frees us from keeping up with fads to focus on Christ.
What It Means For The Church Today
Fads tend to drive the liturgical practices of most contemporary churches today. While it is good to incorporate useful practices within the Church, we need to realize that the Church is more than an organization; it is the Body of Christ that is indwelt by the Spirit. The insidious danger of plunging headlong into new methods of gaining membership and remaining “relevant” to society is that at its heart, we substitute the worship of the living God with the glorification of earthly purposes and human ambitions. The consequences of such practices are the subversion of Christ’s gospel and the compromise of the Church’s spirituality.
Without anchoring itself within its living and continuing tradition, the modern church will have no long-term collective memory, and therefore no self-identity, that will enable it to judge the novelties and fleeting fashions of the day in light of the enduring truth of Scripture which it purports to uphold.
Shepherds can concentrate on bringing out the Christ-centred motifs within the liturgical season to feed the flock. Freed from having to adapt to the ever-changing directions and foci of the church, the congregation can be led to contemplate on the revelation of Christ through the calendar. Such an outworking can definitely involve a more deliberate and conscious incorporation of our worship expressions within the larger themes of the life of Christ.
The Church as Christ Embodied
Ultimately, the question of whether or not to observe the liturgical year is tied with the larger perspective of one’s understanding of the nature of the Church. Contrary to popular understanding, the Church should not be conceived as another entity within the larger creation but as one prior to creation. The Church precedes creation in that it is what God has in view from all eternity and creation, and is the means by which God fulfils His eternal purpose in time. Scripture testifies to the logical priority of the Church over creation by referring to the Church as the chosen in Christ before the creation of the world (Eph 1:4). The central implication of such a view is that the Church, rather than existing as a means for the salvation of the world, is the fulfilment of God’s creation and exists to bring glory to God.
The implication of the Church as the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:27) is that the Church as the embodied Christ is to be “Christ” for the world. The Church by her faith and life and by being true to its calling as Church makes clear the gospel in the world.8 Such an understanding liberates the Church from the pressures and expectations of the world, to be faithful to what she was created to be. And her received liturgy provides a powerful affirmation of her identity, as well as counter-narrative, to modern societal trends.
Therefore, instead of outliving its usefulness, the Church Calendar is still very relevant in our contemporary situation where God’s presence is unveiled, encompassing both joy and longing in our hearts. It truly is akin to “a rich feast.” 9
1 Victor P. Hamilton, Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 179.
2 Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy, no. 102 states, “Within the cycle of a year… [the church] unfolds the whole mystery of Christ, from the incarnation and birth until the ascension, the day of Pentecost, and the expectation of blessed hope and of the coming of the Lord.”
3 Simon Chan, Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community (Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 164.
4 Ibid., 164-165.
5 Robert E. Webber, The Worship Phenomenon: A Dynamic New Awakening in Worship is Reviving the Body of Christ (Nashville, TN: Abbott Martyn, 1994), 114.
6 Massey H. Sheherd, Liturgy and Education (NY: The Seabury Press, 1965), 99.
7 Leonal L. Mitchell, Praying Shapes Believing: A Theological Commentary on The Book of Common Prayer (Harrison, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2002), 14.
8 Chan, 39-40.
9 Joyce Ann Zimmerman, Liturgy as Living Faith: A Liturgical Spirituality (Scranton: University of Scranton Press, 1993), 126.