About the Church Calendar…

Craig St. John / February 27, 2018
40 Days, Lent

By AC Alivizatos

You’re fully engaged in a conversation, with your attention firmly fixed upon the person with whom you’re intently speaking. You’re right in the middle of making a point, when suddenly, there’s a vibration in your pocket. With the casual speed and ease of a gunslinger in the Old West, you whip out your phone and glance at the screen. Either a text, an alert, or a notification has appeared to remind you of something important that you had forgotten. Your attention toward the person next to you has been broken long enough for your mind to recall something significant and catalogue it in your memory to do something later.

We’ve all been in that type of situation before. It’s commonplace considering the current state of being continually connected to each other by the smartphones in our pocket. These phones have apps and features like Google Calendar, Siri, Todoist, Evernote, and other tools many of us use for some level of effective time management. Though these particular devices and features are new, centering human activities around a method of timekeeping has always been a part of human life in general.

From the Babylonians and Persians, to Zoroastrians and Parthians, and to the ancient inhabitants of China and India, human beings have used some kind of calendar, not just to mark time but to organize agricultural efforts and culturally significant events. Organizing life around a calendar has even been a regular part of the experience of God’s people from the beginning. We see in the Old Testament that the ancient Israelites structured their life around a calendar which featured many annual feasts and festivals, including the Feast of Passover, the Feast of Tabernacles, the Day of Atonement, and several others.

These particular holidays may seem foreign to us, but they were very significant to God’s people in those days because each uniquely reminded them of significant aspects of the biblical story that preceded them. The Feast of Passover, for example, was to annually remind the Israelites of how God had miraculously delivered them out of slavery in Egypt. Built into their calendar was an annual notification to break their attention away from daily life to remember how God had saved them from spiritual, economic, political, and social oppression under the tyrannical rule of Pharaoh. Without the celebration of Passover every year, there would be a danger of God’s people forgetting their origin story and failing to live up to their unique calling.

The early church and other Christian traditions today also attempt to replicate this effort to use holidays on a calendar to remind themselves of their formative story. If you’re anything like me, you may have come from a church background that didn’t really talk about or pay attention to a church calendar that much, aside from Christmas and Easter. But think about it. We already intentionally plan or reflexively react to an ordered system of timekeeping. Why not infuse gospel intentionality into what we’re already doing? What if we, like the ancient Israelites, had a calendar with built-in notifications to remind us of our formative story? What would it look like to recognize significant days and weeks throughout the year to remind ourselves of different parts of the gospel?

As previously mentioned, there are many segments of the global Christian community who already do this (e.g., Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans). But there also many churches, particularly here in America, where the idea of a church calendar is a completely foreign concept. So, let’s take a look at something basic—just a little something to whet our appetites for Christ in the way we think of time. This isn’t the official, liturgical calendar for Eastern or Western Christianity; it’s just a place to start the conversation. First, let’s briefly run through a quick timeline, and then we’ll tie it all back into how these events can help us live out the biblical story in our normal lives.

Four weeks before Christmas is the beginning of Advent, a period spent preparing for the coming of Christ. What do I mean by that? Well, think back to the biblical story. God had a created a good world and gave humans the capacity to develop his creation to soaring heights. We’ve experienced that good potential in creation with things like airplanes, the Internet, and the Winter Olympics. Unfortunately, we’ve also been subject to humanity’s potential to harness the power of creation to harm others. Hearts are ripped out of our chests as we wrestle through things like cancer, racism, and school shootings.

The very humans placed here to use the potential of God’s creation for human flourishing have used it to bring about human tragedy. God didn’t leave his world to be crushed under the weight of sin, however. He promised Abraham that through his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed and that the curse of sin would be reversed. We believe that that promise was fulfilled in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. We believe that the kingdom has already come in part, and one day will fully come, and all traces of evil, suffering, and death will be eradicated.

Until that day, however, we long for the return of Christ. And what better way to remind ourselves of this true story of the world and of our place in it that to set aside four weeks of Advent to point our hearts toward a deep desire to be fully united with the lover of our souls. Then after those four weeks, Christmas comes, and many believers set aside not just one, but twelve days of celebration. Whereas the previous four weeks were marked by a humble expectancy, these several days feature joyous celebration of the incarnation of our King amongst his people.

From the time after Christmas until right before the time of Lent is a little-known (to “low church” Christians) part of the church calendar known in many circles as the time of Epiphany. Although there are differences of opinion on the significance and interpretation of this time, those who do observe it say that it represents the time in the gospels when the magi came to visit the young child Jesus. Since these mysterious men came from another part of the world, a major theme in Epiphany is often said to be the revelation of Christ to all nations. What if a notification popped up on your phone a few times during the season of Epiphany to remind you that you are blessed to be a blessing for the sake of the entire world? How might that momentary break of attention from your busy week remind you that every second of your busy week is supposed to be centered around making Christ known to the world around you?

Of course, we know that the way Christ was able to accomplish the task of restoring blessing to the entire world was only through the cross and resurrection. Therefore, the time of Lent is the period after Epiphany and before Easter where we humble ourselves in remembrance of the ultimate sacrifice Christ made (and if you’re reading this, you’re probably already aware that this blog is one part in an entire series about Lent, so I won’t waste any space here writing about it). Lent culminates in Holy Week, which leads us to Easter (or Resurrection Sunday in some circles), which is sort of like the Super Bowl of the Christian calendar. This is the biggest event in all of human history and has had the most impact on all of creation. It is a time when we can gather together to celebrate Christ’s victory with the same passion and exuberance (minus the drunken rioting) seen on the streets of Philadelphia after their Eagles vanquished the Patriots earlier this year.

Then from the fifty days between Easter Sunday and Pentecost Sunday is the period of Eastertide. This is a time to really zero in on the resurrection of Christ. It has been a critique from some of our brothers and sisters from the East that in the West we pay so much attention to the death of Christ and so little to his resurrection. How might you experience more of the power of God in your life if you set aside some time each year to prayerfully reflect on the implications of the Savior’s resurrected life flowing through your veins?

Of course, when Pentecost Sunday arrives, immediately what may come to mind is the outpouring of the Spirit on that day in the book of Acts. Consequently, on this day and the season after, many in the global church focus on the fact that the Spirit has been given to us so that we can live out the life of the gospel in communities that preview the coming kingdom. In a sense, the book of Acts is still being written as our lives lived in mission are written on new pages every day. Again, what would it be like if an alert popped up on your calendar every year to remind you of the great and precious gift you’ve been given in the Holy Spirit to be able to live out the life of Christ in your context?

We already live in a world where we use apps, notifications, and calendars to remind us of what’s important to know and do in our everyday lives. The most important thing to know is who we are in Christ and the story we are living out of as a result. These divisions of the year into time periods that highlight and emphasize different periods of the story of Christ can help us along in our journey of transformation into his image.

If an entire year feels overwhelming, just pick a single day from each of those major time periods to set aside 15 minutes of reflection on that part of the gospel and its implication in our lives. What would it look like to add a few notifications, to jot down a few things on the calendar, that would serve as a vibration to shake our attention from day to day life to remember the story of the victorious King who came down to earth, gave his life a ransom for many, rose from the dead, ascended to the right hand of the Father, and then poured out his Spirit on his people to make him known to all the nations? Might it help us to live all of life all for Jesus?

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