We all live with multiple and varied calendars. My work life is regulated by an academic calendar—a schedule of convocations, breaks, exams and class schedules. My national life is regulated by a federal calendar that has declared certain days as “holidays”: Martin Luther King’s birthday, President’s Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Veteran’s Day, and Thanksgiving Day. My family life is flavored by a “Hallmark” calendar: Valentine’s Day (it’s coming boys!), Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, etc.
As part of the Stone-Campbell tradition, particularly Churches of Christ, I grew up with little or no knowledge of a “Christian” calendar. Indeed, we not only neglected it but opposed it, at least those that had any public consciousness such as Christmas and Easter. Galatians 4:10 was almost a rallying cry.
At one level I understand that opposition since all time is God’s time. Is there a need for “special” days or “holy days”? At another level, if someone wants to keep a day to God, let them honor God. Does not Romans 14:5-8 give a person that liberty?
But neither of those considerations really get to what I think is the root value of living within a Christian calendar. Consider Israel (as Paul tells us to do in 1 Corinthians 10:16). The Torah (e.g., Leviticus 23) gave Israel a rhythm of life that rooted their calendar in the mighty acts of God in nature and history. The Sabbath reminded them of God’s creative (Genesis 1-2) and redemptive (Deuteronomy 5:12-15) work for them. The Passover relives the Exodus from Egyptian slavery, the Pentecost celebrates the winter harvest, the Feast of Tabernacles remembers their wilderness experience, and the Day of Atonement receives the forgiveness of sins. Israel’s calendar grounded their lives in the story of God.
The Christian calendar roots life in the story of Jesus. The calendar has “seasons” patterned after the life of Jesus so that a Christian may relive the life of Jesus every year. The Season of Advent (Coming) anticipates the birth of Jesus leading to the Christmas season. The Season of Epiphany celebrates the revelation (appearing) of Jesus, particularly his baptism and transfiguration. The Season of Lent (which means “Spring”) is traditionally a season of fasting (thus 40 days) which prepares Christians for Easter. The Easter season begins with Resurrection day and ends at Pentecost as a celebration of life and new creation. Between Pentecost and Advent is “ordinary time” which focuses on living the life of Jesus in day to day ministry and worship.
The calendar gives Christians an opportunity to liturgically and ritually shape their lives by the story of Jesus. It provides a rhythm that lives in the light of God’s gracious redemptive presence and work for us.
Is the calendar necessary? No, no more than a national calendar is. But calendars do have value. They are tools. They provide a framework for living through seasons—whether they are seasons of nature, or seasons of national life, or seasons of Christian life. The Christian calendar reminds us of what God has done for us, calls us to imitate the life of Jesus and focuses our liturgical energies in line with the historic church through its lectionaries.
Ash Wednesday this year is February 17. That is the first day of Lent. The “ashes,” which are placed on the forehead, is a penitential act by which we remember that we are but “dust and ashes.” Lent, then, becomes a season of seeking God and opening our hearts to God in humble submission.
During Lent, believers following the Christian calendar focus on “letting go and seeking God” out of a hunger for God. We “let go” of whatever hinders us in our union with God and we renew practices in our life—and perhaps focus on particular practices for the season—for the sake of spiritual formation and relationship with God.
Questions for Discussion:
- How is your life “regulated” by different calendars? What “rules” your life in terms of calendars? What do you know about the “Christian” calendar?
- Read Romans 14:5-8 and Galatians 4:10 together. Is Paul confused? Why the difference? What different situations would result in these two polar opposite admonitions? What was the important point for Paul in both readings?
- How is the Christian calendar a tool? What would that look like in your life, or how do you use it as a tool? What have you found valuable or problematic?
- Would you consider attending a Lent “Ash Wednesday” service? What do you think about the potential value of practicing Lent this season? What does “letting go and seeking God” mean to you?