Why the Church Calendar?
I’m not in love with all things old.
I don’t think then is better than now.
I’m not trying to get back to how things were.
My journey in learning about the liturgy and the liturgical year is not about nostalgia; it’s about spiritual formation.
The people who wrote some of the best liturgical prayers– from John Chrysostom (The Eastern Orthodox’s “Divine Liturgy”) in the 4th century to Thomas Cranmer in the 17th century (Anglican Book of Common Prayer)– were passionate followers of Christ and diligent scholars of the Scriptures and of theology. When the seasons of the church calendar– or the “Christian Year” or the “liturgical year”– developed, it developed as way to aid in the spiritual formation of those who sought to follow Christ.
Easter was the first church-wide event to commerate. (One could say the first Christians began celebrating the resurrection the very next Sunday after Christ’s ascension as a “mini-Easter.”) Lent was the earliest actual season to develop and be adopted by the church world-wide. It became a common Christian practice in AD 330, shortly after Christianity had been legalized in AD 313 at the Edict of Milan. The other seasons of the Church year (like Pentecost, Advent and Christmas) took shape later. By the High Middle Ages, the Church Year was fully developed, complete with special feast days for certain saints.
But why? Why was this developed? Why would anyone today practice these things?
To say it simply, the liturgical year was developed as a way to help the spiritual formation of Christians. How does it do that? Here are two main ways:
1. It Centers Us On Christ As Christianity spread, many of the Church’s members (and for a time in the early Middle Ages, many of its clergy!) were illiterate and ignorant of the Scriptures and of theology. A year that would center them on Christ was a way of helping them, teaching them, placing them in a rhythm of living that helped them reflect on Christ.
You may not have seen this right away (I did not!), but the liturgical year follows the life of Christ. It begins with anticipating His arrival in Advent, celebrating His birth at Christmas, marvelling at His revealing during Epiphany, humbling ourselves in repentance as we join His fasting in the wilderness during Lent, reflecting on His love and sacrifice during Holy Week, remembering our sin and the weight of all the world’s evil that He carried on the cross on Good Friday, embracing the silent emptiness of Holy Saturday, celebrating the breakig forth of new life at Easter and Eastertide, rejoicing at His giving of the Spirit and His work in the Church during Pentecost, and trusting that His presence is with us still during Ordinary Time. The liturgical year helps our lives revolve around Christ.
2. It Connects Us to The Body of Christ Many of you began the new calendar year with a period of prayer and fasting. It’s an excellent way to start the year. One of the benefits of celebrating Lent is that you’ll be fasting along with millions of Christians all around the world at the same time! We talk all the time about wanting the Church to be in unity, but then dismiss traditions as empty ritual. But what if these sacred traditions can be a way for us to walk in unity together?
The bottom line is: no, you don’t need to care about the Church Calendar. You don’t have to celebrate Lent or participate in Ash Wednesday. These are not requirements or laws. But then again, you don’t need to have a date night with your wife; you don’t need to have family vacations. But rhythms and routines are ways of reinforcing a desire. It’s because I want to nurture my relationship with my wife that we have date nights; it’s because I want our family to be connected that we take vacations together, and have family traditions. In the same way, it’s because I want to nurture my relationship with Christ and because I want to be connected to the Body of Christ that I am embrace the “family traditions” of the liturgical year.
So, the liturgical year is not a requirement, but neither are they “empty rituals.” They are sacred rhythms, routines that reinforce our desire to follow Christ and become like Him. They are helpful ways to center our lives on Christ. They create the space for His Spirit to shape us. And they are a powerful rememinder that we are not the first to follow Christ, nor are we the only ones attempting to do so. (For more on this, read my post written a few years ago called “Sacred Rhythms: Preparing for Lent, 2011.”)
We are joining a great company of saints and sinners– the people of God!– travelling up this mountain together.