Time waits for no man, and it is already June. In the Western liturgical calendar, we have just passed the Feast of Pentecost, leaving only Trinity Sunday ahead of us before we return to ordinary time, and the slow and quiet growth of ordinary Christian life. Of course, that is the Western ecclesial liturgical calendar — in the Western secular liturgical calendar, June is conspicuous for the festivities of Pride month, and for that reason, I thought I’d jot down some thoughts I’ve been meaning to write for a long time about why I think all churches and Christians should observe the traditional liturgical calendar more fully (I’ll explain what I mean by fulness below). After all, none of us live outside time, and all of us are forced to keep track of time according to someone else’s priorities, values, and culture. So why not thoroughly baptise your calendar this year? Here’s how and why.
What is the Liturgical Calendar, Anyway?
The liturgical calendar is the way in which the church structures the year. There are seasons of fasting and penitence, which prepare us for seasons of feasting and joy, which are followed by seasons of… well, we just call it ordinary time, and so it is. The details below pertain to the Anglican calendar, which differs a little from other church traditions.
There are two basic turns of the cycle, with the year starting with the season of Advent, a season of penitence and expectation, reflecting on the first and second comings of the Lord. This is followed by the season of Christmastide, with its three principal feasts: Christmas, celebrating the birth of the Lord; Epiphany, celebrating (principally, but not solely) his manifestation to the Gentiles in the visit of the wise men; and Candlemas, commemorating his presentation in the Temple on the fortieth day. After Candlemas, we enter ordinary time until Ash Wednesday.
The second turn of the cycle begins with Lent, a longer season of penitence and fasting in preparation for Easter, commemorating and imitating the forty days that Christ was tempted in the wilderness, and climaxing in Passiontide and Holy Week, in which we enter into the drama of the final week of Christ’s life. Easter, of course, needs no introduction, and Easter Sunday introduces the longest period of feasting, the Great Fifty Days of Eastertide, celebrating the Resurrection of the Lord. During this period, we also celebrate the Ascension of Jesus, on the fortieth day after Easter, before the climax of the season: the feast of Pentecost and celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit on the fiftieth day after Easter. The Sunday following is observed as Trinity Sunday, and then we return again to ordinary time until Advent.
Most evangelicals observe a truncated calendar: Christmas and Easter are the only feasts celebrated, perhaps Pentecost as well. In the Anglican tradition, we observe nine Principal Feasts (though there are a lot of other festivals), and three principal Holy Days, and the fulness that I am commending is observing all of them. If you want to add the festivals, lesser festivals, and commemorations as well, you could have something every week.
The feasts, in order, are:
Christmas Day (25th of December)
Epiphany (6th of January)
The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, or Candlemas (2nd of February)
The Annunciation of Our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary (25th of March)
Easter Day (moveable)
Ascension Day (moveable)
Trinity Sunday (moveable)
All Saints’ Day (1st of November)
The Holy Days are:
Good Friday, all of which are moveable.
That all sounds nice, but why bother paying attention to it? Here are four reasons.
It is Evangelical
I do not mean ‘evangelical’ in the sense that it is clearly and demonstrably rooted in Scripture. If someone asked me to prove that we ought to celebrate Christmas from some verse in the Bible, I could not do it. But then 99% of people who claim to be Bible-only Christians whose religion is unstained from the traditions of the Papists celebrate Christmas as well, so maybe proof-texting isn’t really that decisive. What I mean by ‘evangelical’ is that the liturgical year recapitulates the gospel, the evangel, in our lives every year. Every year we retell the story of the major events of Christ’s life: his birth, baptism, temptation, death, resurrection, ascension, and the pouring out of the Spirit. It is evangelical in the truest and most important sense: it tells us the gospel.
It is also, importantly, entirely focussed on what God has done for us in Christ. Many evangelical churches have their own liturgical calendars with their own special Sundays: Mission Sunday, Giving Sunday, Vision Sunday, Commitment Sunday, and so on. I am not opposed to any of those ideas, and I think they can be highly beneficial in the lives of individual congregations. But my observation is that most of the events that churches add to their calendars focus more on what we ought to do than on what Christ has done already. The traditional liturgical calendar is all about what Jesus has already done. Some may think it is too Catholic, too Romish for good True Reformed™ types — but what could be a better expression of sola gratia, sola fide, and solus Christus than basing your whole year around the completed work of Christ?
It is Balanced
The second reason the year is beneficial and worthy of full acceptance is the balance and depth it brings to the Christian life. We cannot contemplate all the mysteries of the faith at one time, as much as we might think we ought to. The liturgical calendar breaks the gospel up into digestible chunks. Focus on the return of the Lord for four weeks in Advent, and, prepare yourself for his coming by repenting. Focus on the resurrection of the Lord for fifty days at Easter, and celebrate his triumph with joy. Take one day in early November to dwell upon the Communion of the Saints, and to celebrate what Christ has done and still is doing through his body. Take things one at a time, and dwell on them deeply.
The Church’s calendar also prompts us to think about things that we might not be inclined to think about otherwise. Take the four last things, which are often a theme of reflection in Advent: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Or the words of the priest on Ash Wednesday: ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ We all know that we should think about these things, and the calendar gives us structure and space to do so.
The calendar is broad and balanced, and yet the calendar always tips the scales in favour of the Good News, as it should, and fasting always precedes feasting, rather than vice versa. We may be penitent for twenty-five days or so in Advent, but we are joyful for forty days in Christmastide; we may fast for forty days in Lent, but we feast for fifty after the Resurrection. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning, and our light and momentary afflictions are preparing for us an eternal weight of glory.
It is Fun
Perhaps it may seem at first to be only a certain type of fun for a certain type of person, but my guess is that most of my readers don’t celebrate nine different feasts throughout the year. One of the messages of the liturgical calendar is this: you should have more parties. There’s more to celebrate than we are currently celebrating. But then I’ve already written about that here, and there’s no need for me to repeat myself.
You Have to Use Someone’s Calendar
All of us will have to use someone’s calendar to make sense of time. I, for one, quite like the Gregorian calendar, and will continue to use it as my primary way of ensuring I know when my appointments are. And I have nothing against many of the civic holidays and observances, such as the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations this past weekend. But there are other observances that Christians cannot endorse at all. I decided to finally write down all these thoughts during Pride month, which has become the high holy month in the progressive calendar. If Christians are to survive in this culture, we will need a more robust alternative for our ways of conceiving of time, rather than just leave a vacuum. It is not Pride month, but rather the month in which we celebrate Pentecost and Trinity Sunday. Or, if you’re Roman Catholic, it is the month of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. But we cannot leave it empty.
All of history revolves around Christ. A few years ago I visited the national museum in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and was amused to see that they listed all of the dates according to the hijri calendar (Saudi Arabia being the only nation that primarily uses the Islamic calendar) and BC/AD, rather than BCE/CE. Perhaps unwittingly and without the knowledge of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, they had admitted that all of us are really living in the year of our Lord. And as we should continue to count the years in AD, rather than CE, in our day to day lives, the liturgical calendar is an effective way of remembering and expressing Christ’s lordship over all of history, and over all of time as well as space.