“Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” (Ps. 90:12)
Humans are temporal creatures bound in time. But time should not be viewed as a prison; it should be seen as the progress of potentialities—momentary movements from glory to glory. This relentless succession of minutes and months becomes a drudgery when we fail to regard it, like everything else, as an opportunity for discipleship. When we speak about time we tend to speak in terms of management: how to get the most from our days. However, the Bible speaks of time in terms of redemption: how to make the most of our days.
When God placed Adam in the Garden, he hedged him in within the confines of space and time. Our first father was called to take dominion over the whole created order until every square inch and every single second was alive with praise and glory. In grace, God gave Adam a garden of sacred space from which to start the expansion outward. He also gave him a day of sacred time for the same purpose. Time is no less the domain of the rule of God and the responsibility of God’s people than is space. If we take only our Sundays, while burying every other day that should be made fit for holy use, then we are left with little to distinguish us from unfaithful stewards who bury other gifts.
Humans were made to bring order out of chaos; to agonize and to organize until we, like our Maker, can happily pronounce a benediction over that which is in our charge. We should remember that the refrain, “And it was good,” was a statement about the days of creation as much as the acts of creation.
We organize our respective worlds by organizing our time. We have schedules for rising, working, eating, playing, sleeping, and the rest of it. Our weeks follow the rhythm of appointed responsibilities punctuated by moments of leisure and pleasure. Our years are composed by birthdays, anniversaries, and various holidays to mark important occasions. Like our father Adam, we take these days and we name them.
This is usually a corporate affair. Every society, consciously religious or not, has a liturgical calendar. Everyone punctuates time, underscoring this moment and italicizing that one. In our country we observe national holidays like Independence Days and Veteran’s Day. Most Americans celebrate Christmas whether they are Christians or not. While other countries may not recognize our peculiar holidays, they invariably have marked moments of their own. The UK observes Guy Fawkes Day, Mexico celebrates Cinco De Mayo, and all of the nations of the British Commonwealth recognize the birthday of the monarch.
Such holidays are moments representing institutional memory, for memorializing heroes, for remembering and reconnecting with our history, and for rededicating ourselves to those things that make us the people that we are. This backward look has a forward emphasis. This “remembering” of our yesterdays reshapes our tomorrows.
Every culture has a calendar, and every calendar is a catechism. The question is never between observing a pattern of time or not. The question is which pattern will we adopt? What will the standard be?
In many American churches, Independence Day is a bigger celebration than Easter. As we look at how we order and name our days we should begin to ask ourselves difficult questions. Are we more American than Christian? Are we transforming the world or are we being conformed to it?
In sharp opposition to this, the historic Church has long maintained that time should be stamped with seal of Christ. The Church’s calendar should be a cruciform calendar where every day is transfigured by the words and works of Jesus. Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, writes in Faith in the Public Square, “The calling of the human person is to name the world aright, that is, to acknowledge it as God’s gift and to work so as to bring to light its character as reflecting God’s character, to manifest its true essence…” This is true particularly of the gift of time. There is a sense in which we are to sow seeds of sabbath into our workaday worlds, cultivating those tender plants through prayer, making every day holy by offering the fruit of our labors unto God. Williams reiterates this when he says, “Human beings orchestrate the reflection of God’s glory in the world by clothing material things with sacred meaning and presenting the world before God in prayer.” Those of us who desire to see our cultures transformed by the gospel should not be reticent to see our calendars transformed by it as well.
Israel, the Church of the Old Testament, observed a liturgical calendar that commemorated various festive occasions such as Passover, Sinai, the wilderness wandering, the deliverance from Haman, and the dedication of the second temple. Taking their cues from their fathers, the early church developed a liturgical calendar organized around the life of Jesus. There is a sense in which the whole world set its clock by the “Christ Event”, dividing time into two great epochs—before Christ (B.C.) and everything since his incarnation (A.D. in the year of our Lord). But the Post-Apostolic Church, following the customs of the “Church in the Wilderness”, saw the wisdom of marking our various days of feasts, fasts, and festivals as both times of commemoration and tools of spiritual formation.
According to the Christian Calendar, the Church Year begins at Advent, with the coming of Jesus. Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ while anticipating his future coming in glory. This is followed by the Feast of the Epiphany, which recalls the manifestation of Jesus’ glory to the Magi, at His baptism, and again on the mount of transfiguration.
With Lent, we enter the period of the Passion of Jesus. For forty days, Christians meditate on the high cost of our salvation, giving thanks that God himself paid the price on our behalf. Holy week commemorates the death and burial of Jesus, and concludes with Easter, Jesus’ triumph over death and the grave. Ascension celebrates Jesus’ enthronement and present session at the right hand of his Father, and at Pentecost we give thanks for the coronation gift of the Spirit that effectively reverses Babel’s curse.
From Advent to Pentecost, we observe the work of the Father sending his Son for his people. From Pentecost to the following Advent, we observe the work of the Spirit who takes us to the Father. Since the work of redemption is a Trinitarian work, those days from Pentecost onward are called “Trinity Season” or “Ordinary Time.” In this long season, the Church is called to meditate on the God revealed in the life history of the Word made flesh.
Calendars don’t merely say things they do things. This is precisely why revolutionaries always want to tinker with them. The French tried it during that dark period of history that so many wish to hold up as an illuminating torch. In our own time, we have been upbraided for using the bigoted “B.C.” instead of the more polite pluralistic moniker “B.C.E.” and the like. The revolutionaries understand what the religious often do not—that we are shaped by the ways in which we spend our time. There are no neutral calendars; every one of them has an agenda. Calendars are about cultivating habits so that—in time, by time—they can conform hearts. For instance, “Turkey Day” does not have the same focus on gratitude as does “Thanksgiving Day.” This neither accidental nor incidental. “Black Friday”, with its outlandish displays of greed and discontentment, could never spring naturally from “Thanksgiving.” A subtle distinction? Yes, but a potent one nonetheless. Such examples could be multiplied ad nauseum. We forget that the serpent was the most subtle of all the beasts to our own peril.
I wish that I had the time to “wax eloquent” concerning the peculiar glories of ecclesiastical time. But alas, my word count is far spent and the deadline is at hand. Permit me to simply enumerate a few of its many benefits in sweeping, summary fashion. Perhaps we will have occasion to return and treat some of them in greater detail in the future.
1. Observing the Christian Year helps us to cultivate the virtues and graces exemplified by Christ and vivified by the work of the Spirit. We learn the patience of hope by practicing it during Advent; we learn the art of rejoicing as we sing with the angels during Christmastide; we are taught compassion as we weep with Rachel for her children; etc. The fruits of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance—may be grown year round as we follow Christ throughout the year.
2. It is an expression of solidarity and catholicity. It is a signal way of bringing our own individual lives into conversation with the great “communion of saints” from all times and places.
3. It reminds us that our “times are in his hands” (Ps. 31:15). We are able to view our lives with both eyes on the plotline of Providence. We are constantly reminded of God’s overarching plans, and that beneath us are his everlasting arms.
4. It is a means of quiet evangelism. It is a silent witness to our neighbors that our faith makes us different, and consequently, can make a difference.
5. It relieves us of the oppressive burden of liturgical novelty and religious innovation.
6. It places our lives squarely within the story of Jesus’ own life—right where we truly belong. In this way, our lives gain significance within the greater story of God in Christ reconciling the world unto himself. Self-centeredness is sacrificed upon the cross-shaped year.
7. It allows us to express the full range of human emotions in a thoughtful and healthy way.
8. It grounds us in the gospel by guiding us through it on an annual basis. Often this will involve reminding us things that we may have forgotten, or reinforcing some of those that may have slipped from the forefront of our minds. In this way, it keeps the world of the Bible off of the back burner and makes it present to us.
9. It identifies our priorities. This is sometimes a painful benediction since it involves exposing areas that could still benefit from prayer, grace, and sweat. But following Jesus is about being fashioned into his likeness. This is just the sort of thing that we want to happen.
10. It keeps our focus where it should be — on Jesus.
Following the liturgical calendar and a lectionary cycle of seasonal readings allows congregations to read and hear the gospel story each year, and those congregations will thus be “taking their time” from the life of Christ. Thus, it is no longer the government but the gospel that sets the pattern for our times. By following the Christian Year, the Church redeems the times, and claims them for Christ in the name of Christ. As such, these feasts and fasts become acts of faith in the God who hears and answers our prayer, “Thy Kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
For Further Reading:
The Christian Year by John Keble
You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K.A. Smith