Art and the Church
Laurel Gasque: The Christian Calendar
The Christian Calendar: The Church’s Perennial Companion
by Laurel Gasque
Christmas celebrates the true light that has come into the world, the ‘sun of righteousness.’ It links the great motions of creation with redemption and its on-going story.
Everyone knows that the year will end on 31 December, but perhaps not everyone is keenly aware that a new year already began on 27 November with the first Sunday of Advent, the commencement of the Christian calendar. Even most who come from a church tradition where the seasons of the Christian year are evident have only a vague notion of when and how this plan of events came to be. Why is Christmas always fixed on 25 December, while Easter’s date changes from year to year? Or why do some churches avowedly committed to being biblical celebrate Mother’s Day en Father’s Day in the spring and early summer, but not Pentecost, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (50 days after Easter)? Yet other churches know no other season but Pentecost!
The origins of the Christian calendar are ancient and venerable, directly traceable to the calendar celebrations of the Hebrew festivals of Passover and Pentecost. Its ultimate source and pattern, however, is the life of Jesus Christ, his birth, death, resurrection, ascension, and continued living presence through the Holy Spirit.
Expresses the connection
Paul movingly and creatively expresses the connection between the two when he urges the Christians at Corinth to ‘celebrate the festival’ and refers to Christ as the ‘Passover lamb’ who has been sacrificed for us (1 Cor. 5:7-8). Equally influential is the fact that the Church arose in the context of the Roman Empire, which used a solar calendar and divided the year into twelve months. Thus, when the festival of unique importance to the Church emerged, such as the celebration of the birth and incarnation of the Messiah, these were observed on dates in the Roman calendar. Celebrating Christ’s birth on the fixed date of 25 December (the date of the winter solstice at that time) in the midst of a pagan mid-winter festival to overcome gloom reflected a deep desire on the part of the Church to proclaim to a dark world, as days became gradually longer and brighter, that the true light had come into it, the ‘sun of righteousness … with healing in its wings’ (Malachi 4:2).
Points to Christ
The rhythm of the seasons – Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost – of the Christian calendar act as ‘a compass whose needle always points to Christ.’ The genius of it is to link and integrate the great motions of creation with redemption and its on-going story. The calendar is anything but static. Variations of its basic cycle are celebrated by Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, and many Protestants. Also, many less liturgical churches are using a modified and unadorned form of it as a corrective to lack of balance and variety in ministry. (See, for example, Robert E. Webber’s two books, Worship Old and New (Zondervan) and Worship is a Verb (Word). Three reasons for consciously following even a simple form of the Christian calendar seem especially compelling.
Saves from individualism
First, the use of the Christian calendar saves the local church from excessive individualism in the pulpit, because ‘it arranges the whole biblical message in yearly sequence, as the Church in many ages and many lands and many branches has best learned that nothing essential to the Christian witness be overlooked’ (W.F. Dankle, Values in the Christian Year for Evangelical Protestantism, Abingdon, 1959, p. 121). Ministers who don’t follow a lectionary (plan of Scripture passages appointed to be read at public worship throughout the year) would find it instructive to compare their sermon texts with it for the course of a year. They would see whether indeed they preach the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27) or rather particular portions of Scripture and topics. The Christian calendar can help save a church from fads and ensure that a local congregation is nurtured steadily from the Scripture.
Secondly, the Christian year undergirds and expresses our spiritual union with the Church historically and with a much wider body of believers who are our contemporaries than merely those in our immediate congregation or even in our own denomination. The experience of our communality in the Christian family can go a long way towards encouraging understanding and charity among brothers and sisters, even if it can not instantly heal old wounds or overcome political divisions.
Thirdly, the use of the Christian calendar encourages personal spiritual growth. Just as children thrive and feel secure in families that have a regular routine balanced by spontaneity, so does the believer in a church where a pattern is played out that gives consistency and freshness. All of Christmas isn’t loaded in one day. Different aspects of what is meant for God to become Man can be considered and contemplated. Moral and spiritual preparation can be made for what it means that this God-Man dies and rose again. Each season gives me an opportunity to mature in Christ and to be more inwardly prepared to worship collectively.
Furthermore, active, individual and inward participation in the seasons of the year is an antidote to an insidious securalism that insinuates its way into life even in church. Who sets the agenda for the focus of worship each week in the church? The makers and sellers of greeting cards and gifts? The declarers of public ‘holidays’? Or, the church herself? In short, the Christian calendar is a companion to help believers ‘be urgent in season and out of season’ (2 Tim. 4:2)!
Published in Christian Week, Winnipeg