Some of the information in this post has been incorporated into my book, Rekindling Advent: Rediscovering the Season of Joyful Waiting, which you may order by going here.
This post is mainly for the great group of talented musicians we have at our church now, but if the rest of you want to listen in, that’s fine.
Being a liturgical church in a mostly non-liturgical part of the country, visitors usually run into some things that require explanation. On the most basic level, there are usually questions about the mechanics of worship: Why do you have kneelers in the pews? Why do you read prayers in unison? Why is the pastor in a robe? Why do you celebrate Communion every Sunday? etc. But if you stick with us longer than one Sunday, then the questions turn to the ordering not simply of the service but of time itself: that is, the ordering of the calendar.
The way we mark time shapes our view of reality. The calendars we live by circumscribe our reality: they define what is and isn’t important to us. I say calendars–plural–because most of us do live by more than one calendar. We all are subject to some degree or another to the civil calendar, not only the twelve months, but the civil and national “holidays” as well (such as New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, etc.) The civil calendar begins January 1 and ends on December 31.
Students, parents of students, and teachers’ lives are also governed by the academic calendar, which begins in late August (although it’s getting earlier every year, it seems) and goes through late May or early June. Everything from family vacations to dental appointments have to be scheduled according to the dictates of the academic calendar.
Many businesses have their own fiscal year which dictates much of their planning. There are other calendars too, such as the one I call the “Hallmark calendar.” That’s the set of holidays that have been promoted primarily by the greeting card and florist industry: Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Valentine’s Day, etc. These too serve to order and shape our lives.
In the Hebrew Bible, God wanted the nation of Israel to mark time differently from the nations around it, and so he gave them feasts or holy days: special days that celebrated God’s acts of Redemption. Most of us are familiar with Passover (Pesach), one of the spring feasts, that celebrates the Exodus, but also in the spring there is Shavuot (the “Feast of Weeks”)–or Pentecost in Greek–which celebrates the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai. In the fall, there are the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah (the “Feast of Trumpets” or New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of the Atonement) as well as Sukkot (the “Feast of Tabernacles” or Booths). These holy days, to which were eventually added Purim (celebrating the deliverance of the Jewish people by Queen Esther) and Chanukah (celebrating the rededication of the Temple under Judah Maccabee), gave a distinctive shape and rhythm to the lives of God’s people. In the Jewish community, they still do. Celebrating these feasts, marking time this way, is an immensely important dimension of Jewish life.
In the early church, the first Christians looked to this tradition and saw the wisdom of marking time, as God’s people, in a manner different from the nations around them. They first took the spring feast of Passover–Pesach in Hebrew, Pascha in Greek–and reinterpreted it as a celebration of the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ, whom they understood to be the Passover (Paschal) Lamb who was slain for the sins of the world. In the Germanic languages (of which English is one) we call it Easter, but in most other cultures the name of this feast is still simply a derivative of Passover: Pâques in French, Pasqua in Italian, Pascua in Spanish, etc. Soon, a Christian celebration of Pentecost (Shavuot) joined the celebration of Pascha or Easter, for it was on Pentecost that the book of Acts describes the Holy Spirit descending on the Apostles and the baptism of over 3,000 converts to Christianity. The forty-day period of preparation for Pascha, known as Lent in English (from an old word for “spring”), soon followed, culminating in Holy Week, which revisits the events of Christ’s last week on earth, including the Tritumphal Entry (Palm Sunday), the Last Supper and Gethsemane (Maundy Thursday), and the Crucifixion itself (Good Friday).
The grouping of winter feasts in the Church Year developed in the ancient church according to the pattern of the spring feasts. In the spring feasts, there is a season of preparation (the 40-day season of Lent), a season of celebration (the Easter season, which lasts for fifty days, from Easter to Pentecost), and a season of reflection (the Sundays after Pentecost, sometimes called “Ordinary Time”). The date of December 25 was officially established as the Feast of the Nativity in AD 354, although evidence shows it was being celebrated on that date in Rome as early as 336. January 6 was celebrated in the Eastern Church as the Feast of the Nativity, called Epiphany (“Manifestation”) as early as AD 200. The Western church adopted this date in the 300’s, quite soon after the establishment of Christmas as December 25, choosing to celebrate Epiphany as the coming of the Magi, which was the Manifestation (Ephiphany) of Christ to the Gentiles, and which of course did not happen the night Jesus was born. So the period from Christmas (December 25) to Epiphany (January 6) was established by the church in the 300’s as the Christmas Season: the Twelve Days of Christmas (see, it’s not just a silly song). A season of preparation, akin to Lent in the spring, was added around AD 380. This season came to be known as Advent (from the Latin for “coming.”) In the East, the season of preparation was/is known as “Nativity Lent” instead of Advent. As the Sundays after Pentecost served as a season of reflection on Easter in the spring, so the Sundays after Epiphany became the season of reflection on the Incarnation event for the winter feasts.
This is the shape of the Church Calendar that has been in place since the Fourth Century. It not only predates the Reformation of the 16th Century, but it even predates the Great Schism (between East and West) of 1054 by almost 600 years! So this ordering of time, the rhythm of the Christian Year, properly belongs to all Christians. It is the heritage of the unified Church: it is not a “Roman Catholic thing” versus a “Protestant thing,” or even a “Western thing” versus an “Eastern thing.” It is our common heritage, a part of our common life as Christians.