The Church Calendar
For those of us who live by children’s academic calendar (or the football calendar), the “church calendar” seems strange. Why would we tell time differently? Is this in the Bible?
The Church Calendar beckons us to a new way of telling time that helps us live deeply into the Jesus story, year after year. It is not an “addition” to our salvation – it is walking out our salvation by participating in the events of Jesus’ life that now, mysteriously, are becoming part of our own.
The Greeks had two words for time: chronos and kairos– chronos time comes from the Greek god Chronos who, hearing a prophecy that he would be overthrown by his progeny, devoured his children. From “chronos time” we get chronology, chronometers, chronicle. This is the time that we believe is real, in fact – so real it is like a god to us. We don’t even question it. The myth is also particularly insightful, for who of us does not feel devoured by time?
But there was another Greek word for time that the church latched onto, and that was called kairos. Kairos time does not devour us; it frees us to be present to the real life that we are living right now. Kairos cannot be measured in minutes. Kairos is in Galatians, ‘when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son …’
The Church calendar beckons us into kairos time. Many of us grew up suspicious of “high church” traditions, but the early church was smarter than we think. Like a good parent, the church knew our psychology. Those in the early church knew that the Christ Story needs to be mapped onto our lives gently, regularly, again and again. Although Lent and Advent are not commanded in the Bible, they represent the collective genius of many disciplers who needed a structure to help their (often illiterate) people walk into the Jesus story and claim it as their own. (During the Reformation, there were those who wanted to get rid of any of these “holy seasons,” and who even did away with celebrating Christmas Day because it “wasn’t in the Bible.” Anglicans take a much gentler approach to tradition – declaring that if it is helping people enter more fully into Christ, and if it isn’t forbidden in Scripture, then it stays. Phew!)
An early 5th century Church Calendar, Ravenna Italy
Photo taken by Julie Canlis
ADVENT begins (quite literally) in the dark. It is the darkest time of the year. And Advent, which begins the Church Calendar, begins by helping us face darkness. How do we begin the church’s new year? Rather than inviting us to hectic activity or shopping, Advent starts with an acknowledgement of our humanity – because in the incarnation Jesus takes on our humanity. The only thing we need to enter into the church calendar here is: our humanity, our limitations, our emptiness, and our longings. Advent begins by taking an assessment of the dark – and consciously yearning for light.
After we enter the mystery of Christmas, we walk through the “Twelve Days of Christmas” into the season of EPIPHANY in January, where we bask in the light of the Light of the World. These are the weeks where we celebrate with John’s Gospel that the Light has Come and where we keep our church candles lit. These are all ways that the church calendar can keep us on our toes and honed in on different aspects of the significance of Jesus’ coming to be among us.
Usually beginning in February, Lent originated in the 3rd century as a baptismal rite for new converts (which only happened annually on Easter) during a time of severe persecution. But the church began to realize that everyone needed the days of preparation as much as the converts did. So they all together began to fast and pray and receive the gospel anew, with the new converts – everyone together looking forward with renewed joy to Easter. (How many of us who have been in the Christian life set aside time to reflect on the mystery of our baptism – of our being drawn into the life, death, and resurrection of Christ? So Lent began as a way to remember our baptismal identity.)
EASTER & PENTECOST are a joyful season in which we spend a lot of time meditating on the fact that everything has changed – Christ has risen! Death no longer has a hold on us! And in this light, we “practice resurrection” in our own hearts and lives. Easter beckons us to enter the mystery of our baptism: death and resurrection with Christ, in whom we now live and move and have our being. Pentecost moves us forward into the parish, with another celebration in a local park and a recommitment to local mission.
And finally, ORDINARY TIME is the funny (but wonderfully true) title of the long stretch of time from Pentecost in late spring, all the way back to Advent at the beginning of winter. The Church honors these long seasons of “ordinary” which remind us that Jesus too had thirty years to live and work out our salvation in ordinary ways. And we too, for these seasons, are reminded that ordinariness too is holy ground beneath our feet.
This is why the historic church adopted the liturgical calendar over the centuries. Not to impose legalistic days throughout the year, but to re-order our year according not to the academic calendar, or the harvest calendar alone, but to the life of Christ into whose life we are invited now as participants. The early and medieval Western church began setting apart certain days for all the right reasons, particularly as they were faced with a public religion for a mostly illiterate Europe. They wanted to pull people from being spectator on the life of Christ to full dramatic participants. And because the church grew and expanded from city to city, country to country, continent to continent, they put everyone on the same schedule – to make sure that nothing was missed. The church calendar ensures that we don’t get stuck in a rut, and that we get to appreciate new ways of being with God.
The church calendar invites us to understand our stories as being set within the story of Jesus in a LARGE scale, just as liturgy invites us to do so on a weekly scale.