A Beginner's Guide to the Christian Calendar

A Beginner’s Guide to the Christian Calendar

How we measure time has a way of shaping our souls. The way we count and anticipate days, weeks, months forms our human-being-ness. The Christian calendar provides one means of training us in the story of Jesus. The calendar is a tool for discipleship.

“To have any hope of resisting the worst elements of Western consumer culture, we Christians will need an arsenal of rituals to keep us alert to the story of the world that really matters,” writes Craig Bartholomew. This is what makes the calendar such a compelling tool. It offers an alternative way of telling an alternative story shaping us to be alternative citizens in the world.

A calendar shapes your identity, whether you’re aware of it or not. If you count the days till Spring Break, graduation, and summer vacation, you’re likely a student. If you celebrate Opening Day, the Super Bowl, and March Madness, you live a sports story. If you buy turkey and cranberries in November, fireworks in July, and don’t work on a day called “Labor Day,” then you’re a citizen of the United States.

Measuring time matters. Behavioral economist Richard Thaler writes, “First, never underestimate the power of inertia. Second, that power can be harnessed.” We can mindfully count time as a tool for spiritual formation. In the Scriptures, the opening creation account in Genesis records how God calls time holy. In Israel’s desert wanderings, God establishes three annual holidays. These were more than single-day holidays. They were multi-day festivals. These served as three points on the calendar that shaped the identity of the nation, reminding them of God’s commitment to them.

As the early church developed after the resurrection of Jesus, these holy seasons were infused with new meaning centering on the work God had done through Jesus. Christmas, centering on the doctrine of the Incarnation, and Easter, centering on the Resurrection, anchor the seasons of the calendar.

Advent

Advent marks the beginning of the calendar. It begins on the fourth Sunday leading up to Christmas. In Advent, the Church remembers that in the darkest days of Israel’s history, God entered human history in the person of Jesus. And in Advent, the Church anticipates that even in our current dark days, God has promised to return and finally put everything right. Isaiah, John the Baptist, and Mary are voices from the Bible we listen to in Advent.

While the world around us, soaked in consumerism, starts announcing its version of Christmas in mid-October, the Church waits. It sits in eager anticipation, hanging on the hope—though it seems so absurd to a watching world—that God is going to make everything right in the world. The darkness around us is real, but we get ready, knowing that the light is coming.

Christmas

Christmas season begins on December 25 and then lasts for twelve days (hence the song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”). At Christmas, we celebrate the Incarnation, the idea the Almighty God entered time and space in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. As the gospel of John puts it, “The word became human and made his home among us.” All the powers of darkness melt away at the presence of Jesus. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.

We often read the stories in Luke 2:1–20 during Christmas. If we’re not careful, we can fall into a lazy familiarity with them. But these are shocking, earth-shattering words. I imagine the words of the angels sounded something like this to the shepherds.

We interrupt this existence of suffering, restlessness, and death to bring you the news that the all-powerful God of the universe has infiltrated time and space on a solo reconnaissance mission of humankind in the form of a helpless, powerless baby. All of our hopes for a better tomorrow are now born in this manger. This is the season the tide turns. The promise to Eve, to Abraham, to Moses, to David will be fulfilled. The longing of all creation will be satisfied. Death will indeed be broken. The dragon is conquered. Hope is here.

Epiphany

Epiphany concludes the Christmas season. It is celebrated twelve days after Christmas on January 6. It commemorates the story of the three wise men who visit the young Jesus. Again, our familiarity with the story in Matthew 2:1–12 often blinds us to the deep significance of it.

Epiphany services are often marked by candlelight, symbolizing Jesus as the light of world, piercing the darkness of the winter around us (at least those of us in the northern hemisphere). Epiphany extends the grand hospitality of God that salvation is for the entire world. Isaiah 60:1–3 foreshadows the worship of the three wise men and reminds us that the story of Jesus is also for every “outsider” we can imagine.

Lent

Lent begins the cycle of seasons focusing us on the death and resurrection of Jesus. Ash Wednesday begins Lent, 40 days prior to Easter, and Lent marks a 40-day journey to the cross. It corresponds to the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness being tempted. It offers us time to self-reflect on the unexamined sin in our own lives and in the world around us. The season is marked by repentance and fasting or abstaining from certain activities or foods. It’s like weeding the garden.

I want to know Christ… I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death,” writes Paul. This is Lent. Previously in Philippians, Paul records the descent of God in Jesus as a man, a man who dies, a man who dies in the most humiliating way possible on a cross. This is a journey of humility that we walk with Jesus, and we identify Simon the Cyrene who carries the cross of Jesus.  Texts associated with Lent include Joel 2:1–2, 12–17; Psalm 103; 2 Corinthians 5:20–6:10; and Matthew 6:1–6, 16–21. Lent culminates in Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.

Easter

At Easter, we party. At Easter, we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. While the fast of Lent lasts 40 days, the feast of Easter lasts for 50 days. At Easter, we celebrate that Jesus is risen, that Death is a toothless foe, that life beats Death. It is so much more than a one-day event. Paul continues the thought in Philippians 3, “I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death, so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection from the dead!

With the resurrection, we remember God’s ultimate victory over Sin and Death. The risen Jesus is making everything new. Everything is joy. If it doesn’t get you jumping out of your seat, the back of your neck tingling out of excitement, you’re not doing it quite right.

N.T. Wright says, “We should meet regularly for Easter parties. We should drink champagne at breakfast. We should renew baptismal vows with splashing water all over the place. And we should sing and dance and blow trumpets and put out banners in the streets. And we should invite the homeless people to parties and we should go around town doing random acts of generosity and celebration. We should be doing things which would make our sober and serious neighbors say, ‘What is the meaning of this outrageous party?

Pentecost

Pentecost occurs 50 days after Easter. At Pentecost we remember the beginning of the Church with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2:1–13. This is God’s next great movement in the story. With Pentecost, the Church is God’s answer to “Now what?” after the resurrection.

For the Jewish people, Pentecost was the Feast of Tabernacles, one of the three holidays, and it commemorated the giving of the Law at Sinai 50 days after God’s victory at the Red Sea. Like that moment, that formed the nation, Pentecost forms the Church as the people of God bearing witness to God’s story in the world, for the whole world.

Ordinary Time

Ordinary Time, in some traditions “Kingdomtide,” is the months between Pentecost and Advent. Far from “boring time” or “nothing happens here time,” Ordinary Time propels the church into mission. Because God has acted in the Incarnation (Advent/Christmas/Epiphany), and because God has acted in the Resurrection (Lent/Easter/Pentecost), now the Church gets to participate with God in the world. This is Christians’ choose-your-own-adventure season.

Again, Thaler writes, “People have a strong tendency to go along with the status quo or default option.” We can choose the status quo, but the status quo is already shaping us toward a story that does not include Jesus. Or we can give ourselves to the rhythm of the Christian calendar and annually be reminded of the God who turns darkness to light and death to life.

To go deeper, be sure to check out:
Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality through the Christian Year by Robert Webber

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