Marking it down, putting a date on some event is human. We want to memorialize a birth, a wedding, a funeral. We want to remember. Our culture remembers important dates. The end of World War I, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, New Year’s Day, they each have a place on the calendar as they call out, inform, educate, revere, and celebrate something.
Our corporate church life offers a separate list of important dates. They live more as altars to God, much like the altar Jacob built where he wrestled the angel, the one Moses constructed after the Red Sea exodus, or Solomon’s Temple, where God dwelt in more permanence.
What is the real historic church calendar for the approaching holidays?
Though forgotten or ignored by many congregations, these church calendar memorials have a history, sometimes back to the earliest days of the Church, and often as a mirror to feast days on the Jewish calendar. Since we’re just now beginning the Christian new year with the start of Advent, it’s a good time to remember, reflect, and perhaps adopt some of these milestones–these altar moments–that can give a healthy structure to church life. Here’s a chronological listing of key moments, some of which will be familiar and others perhaps less so. I hope it’s encouraging (and happy new year to everyone).
As you know, Advent is the time of expectation. It begins our year as believers and it carries us through to Christmastide. This time was observed at least by the year 480 and likely earlier. It is similar to the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah which marks the beginning of the Jewish year (in September). The Jewish people pair Rosh Hashanah with Yom Kippur ten days afterwards, the high holy day of repentance. During the festival, you blow a shofar (a ram’s horn) which calls the people to attention: “Wake up! Repent! For the Lord is near.” For us, Advent means the arrival, the dawning, the birth. It’s four weeks long and many churches use a wreath with four candles as a way of counting off each week, and a fifth candle, the Christ candle, lit on Christmas. The weeks emphasize hope, preparation, joy and love. Advent is also used as a reminder that Christ will come again, and we stand ready for that day.
The Twelve Days of Christmas are actually the ones just after Christmas day and up until Epiphany (some interpret the song as a memory devise for children to know the Bible stories). It pairs with Hanukkah on purpose, though this is a later festival on the Jewish calendar. Hanukkah remembers the rekindling of the lights in the Temple during the “Inter-testament Period”, as many Christians refer to that time, between the Old and New Testaments. More than simply relighting the candles in the Temple, the freedom to sacrifice was restored. If you read about the Maccabean revolt, you’ll learn about Antiochus IV of the Seleucid Empire (166 B.C.), who prohibited the worship of God and desecrated the Temple by sacrificing pigs to pagan gods on the high altar. Once the Maccabees are successful and restore the Temple’s purity, the candles stay lit for eight days, a miracle, since there is only oil for one day. Thus the menorah is part of the Jewish holiday, and I think too, it is why many churches light candles and fill up a dark sanctuary on Christmas Eve, singing “Silent Night” or another classic hymn. Jesus, the light and life is here! Immanuel, God with us, is made known. The manger scene is a tradition that was started, as best we know, by St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1286), first with live animals as you might expect from a priest who preached to birds.
That’s right. The church knew all along that the wise men arrived pretty late to the birthday of Jesus, perhaps even a couple of years late. Epiphany is that A-ha awareness that God is incarnate and come to seek and to save the lost, even the Far East men of wisdom who were well outside the Jewish frame of comfort. Because, unless we’re of Jewish descent, we are Gentiles grafted into the vine of Jesus, our plight is similar to the wise men who risked their reputation and money and safety to come and surrender to the toddler they knew to be God made man. The Reverend John Henry Hopkins, Jr. gets it right with his, “We Three Kings” hymn, as we sing through each of the gifts and what they mean. Read more about Hopkins, his song, and see a video of Kings College Cambridge performance.
As the oldest sacred time on the church calendar, Lent holds particular significance. In the early church, the 40 days of Lent were fasting days, the only reprieve being the Sundays which were feasting days. Lent starts with Ash Wednesday, a day more readily adopted now by congregational churches. “From dust you began and from dust you will return,” is the teaching as you get marked with an ashen cross. In more liturgical churches, the ash is actually from last year’s Palm Sunday leaves, a fitting way to again begin the pageantry of our walk to Calvary, through our certain denial of Jesus as we join the crowd, and as we fall headlong into the only thing that lasts, his grace. Lent is preparation. For new converts, it meant readying oneself for baptism at Easter. For the church as a whole, it was the dirge to the crucifixion where we will revere Good Friday in a silent procession out of meeting and into Black Saturday where little is done. Jesus is in the tomb and will rise again as the sun rises in the morning. As you know, part of Lenten time is Palm Sunday. How much more enriched would that day be if we began our church calendar journey with Jesus 30 days earlier?
Up from the grave he arose! What a time of both sacrifice and victory. Easter is closely paired with Passover because Jesus purposed it that way. In fact, the Last Supper is the Passover or Seder meal where he exchanges the teaching of one of the glasses of wine (we’re not sure which one) and replaces it with, “This is my blood shed for you”. The Seder meal for the Jewish family is the only festival done in the home, with the father as rabbi. What a testimony! We have hosted a Seder meal in our home for many years. Every year, you’re reminded of the afikoman, for example, which is the bread hidden during the meal, then redeemed and broken for the family. No wonder Jesus uses the occasion of Passover to fulfill the temporal promises of Exodus with his eternal promise. As you may also know, Easter is the historic point where converts wade through the waters of baptism, receive first communion, and come into full fellowship with the church.
It may be new to know that even the coming of the Holy Spirit sides with a Jewish holiday, the holiday of Pentecost or Shavu’ot. It’s the celebration 50 days after Passover of the Law being given to Moses. And here comes the Holy Spirit, swooping in like he did on the waters in Genesis, to bring life into the lungs of men and women and reanimate them according to the living, breathing law fulfilled in Christ Jesus. Jesus tries to teach the religious leaders that the law is not a crutch for our own righteousness, but a way to understand our need for mercy and our want to accept his yoke which is light, his burden which is easy. And the Holy Spirit refreshes and inspires the disciples in the Upper Room as he does for us, in our churches, to endure to the end and live a life free to love and serve the Lord (not by our own merit but his work in us).
Consider adopting these historically rich and biblical festivals of the church calendar year. Consider starting your new year with the Christian calendar feast time of Advent. It will not only educate our congregations, it will also anchor them to the Truth of the Gospel story working in our time, in our midst. As we know, that will have more potency than Santa, Times Square’s countdown, and the Easter bunny, which are entirely empty shells.
Here are a few helpful resources
- Chabad is a Jewish website that’s very instructive for the “back story”
- Find slide presentations (that you can use) on each of the Jewish feasts here.
- The New Advent is a place to turn for a more complete definition of things, whether Catholic or Protestant
- The Book of Common Prayer is a great tool for devotion and one used in and beyond Anglican churches.
There are many other days on the church calendar. For example, Trinity Sunday (in June and inspired by the defense of the Gospel against the Arian controversy) and Christ the King Sunday (in October and a more recent addition that marks the last Sunday of the Christian calendar). The period between Pentecost and Advent is a Normal time in the church calendar. Some churches count the Sundays after Pentecost and up to Advent. There is also a short period of Normal time between Epiphany and the start of Lent.