We all experience time in certain rhythms, whether it's the annual cycle of four seasons or the daily cycle of light and dark, work and rest. Sometimes we establish our own patterns, marking out time to enrich our lives in some way. In my own family, a nightly ritual of bedtime stories helps stir our kids' imaginations (and puts them to sleep). A monthly date night helps my wife and me deepen our marriage and friendship. Our annual vacation with family and friends creates joy-filled memories. In all these ways, the rhythms of our lives make room for beauty and meaning.
Centuries ago, Christians established a way to mark out time called the Christian Year or Church Calendar. It's an annual cycle of seasons that corresponds to key events in the life of Christ. Through Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost, Christians commemorate Christ's birth, ministry, passion, death, resurrection, and second coming.
The Church Calendar developed as a way to aid in spiritual formation. By immersing believers in the story of Jesus and in God's ongoing redemptive work in the world, the Calendar imparts a sacred rhythm to our activities. It helps us to pattern our lives after Christ. And just as with other life rituals, the Calendar is not an end in itself. It's simply an instrument for orienting our hearts and lives toward the Gospel story. It's a way of reminding ourselves - weekly, monthly, and yearly - of God's precious gift of grace in Christ Jesus.
Christ: the content and center of the Church Calendar
If you grew up in a non-liturgical church tradition, you may approach the Christian Year with some skepticism, concerned that "religious observance" may become a barrier to a personal relationship with God. The Calendar, however, is neither arid ritual nor empty tradition. Its very content is Christ. The Calendar is centered on Him, just as our lives should be.
The building block of the Calendar - its most basic cycle - is the weekly Sunday service. Every seventh day, Christians gather to worship, confess our brokenness, repent and receive the grace of God, and be sent back into the world as agents of His reconciling love. The traditional service includes the Lord's Table (also called Communion or the Eucharist), the single, most important observance of the Christian faith. Christians partake of the bread and wine as tangible reminders of the atoning work of Jesus, and to proclaim the mystery of our faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
Every season of the Christian Year is a different chapter in this story, the great salvation story of God. And the weekly commemoration of Christ's death and resurrection through the Eucharist is the cornerstone of the Calendar, the axis on which the rest of it turns. As Robert Webber puts it in his excellent book on the Calendar, Ancient-Future Time, "The church is called to proclaim continually and act out this central mystery of God's reconciling work in Jesus Christ as it journeys through time."
We keep the Calendar as a sign that God is not yet done with our world
As the Church Calendar centers our lives around Christ, it also teaches us see time differently - not as linear happenstance or a series of random events, but as unfolding redemption history. Through the Calendar, we look backward to the redemptive work of Christ at the cross, forward to His promised return, and presentward at ourselves, the Church, as we are being reconciled to God and formed as His people.
Think of the Calendar as refracting time through a spiritual lens. As we remember the past and anticipate the future, we do so in a way that gives new meaning to our lives right now, in the present.
But the Calendar is more than a way to keep time and see time. It's also a sign that the time is not yet fulfilled: God isn't done with our world yet. The Church, the body of Christ, stands between His resurrection and His return. The Kingdom of God is both "now" and "not yet." We live out this tension between present reality and promised renewal as we journey through the Church Calendar each year. The Calendar asks us to order our lives by a different schedule. It invites us to live on "Kingdom time." It stirs in our hearts the prayer that Christ Himself taught us to pray: "Thy Kingdom come."
The Calendar shapes our faith and worship
I don't know about you, but my life is virtually carried along by my calendar. I have appointments to keep and deadlines to meet. If I don't put something on my calendar, either I'll forget about it or the press of life's business, and even trivial distractions, will overtake the best of my intentions. Everything goes into my calendar: family events, friendly gatherings, and even date nights!
I do all this not because I love my calendar. I do it because it orients my life toward good things, like keeping my job, honoring my commitments, and spending quality time with loved ones. I am intentional about my time because it shapes who I am and enriches my relationships.
The Church Calendar functions much the same way, and plugs us into a bigger story. As we recall and participate in history's great salvation events, we are carried along with Christ throughout the year. To quote Webber again, the beauty of the Calendar is that it "brings our everyday experience into union with Christ."
There are, however, two ways the Church Calendar is not like our personal calendars. First, the Church Calendar makes no demands on us. Rather, it is a gentle invitation. It's an opportunity, not a command, to keep time differently, see time differently, and ultimately let our lives to be a sign of God's redemptive work.
Second, keeping the Calendar is not a private act. It is a social habit, a spiritual way of being meant to be lived in and among the community of Christians. We keep the Calendar as the Church, with the Church, because it is we together, the people of God, who are the body of Christ, the physical embodiment of His way of life on earth. When we keep the Calendar as the Church, we join with our fellow believers - historically through the centuries, and today around the world - in declaring the wonderful deeds of God and bearing witness to His Kingdom until Christ's return.
In this way the Calendar shapes us, inwardly and outwardly. It deepens our own walk with Christ and situates our spiritual journey in a larger context, within the body of fellow Christians.
More Church Calendar resources
Pastor Glenn Packiam's "Why the Church Calendar?" is a wonderful introduction to Christian Year spirituality. For a more in-depth (but no less accessible) discussion, check out Webber's Ancient-Future Time. Also see:
- Maxwell E. Johnson, Between Memory and Hope: Readings on the Liturgical Year
- Laurence Hull Stookey, Calendar: Christ's Time for the Church
- Hoyt L. Hickman et al., The New Handbook of the Christian Year
- James F. White, Introduction to Christian Worship
Grace and peace,