JESUS OF NAZARETH was a person of a particular time and place, whose saving deeds were accomplished in time. The Christian reckoning of time therefore focuses on the events of Jesus’ life – His birth, baptism, ministry, arrest and trial, death, resurrection and promise to come again.
Our calendar is actually comprised of two overlapping and recurring sequences of observances. The temporal cycle consists of Sundays, feasts (days of joy and celebration such as Easter), holy days and the various seasons associated with the life of Christ. e Christmas and Easter cycles and their particular feasts are the two main phases of the temporal cycle. While Christmas is always on Dec 25, the dates of Easter and its related feasts change every year. Two “in-between” spans of time, known as Ordinary Time, occur within the temporal cycle.
The sanctoral cycle, which runs concurrently with the temporal cycle, contains commemoration days for apostles, gospel authors/ compilers, saints, martyrs and other notable Christians.
The first evidence for Christian time -keeping concerns Sunday. All the Gospels report that Jesus was raised on “the first day”. The New Testament indicates that Sunday was a day for Word and Supper, as well as other acts of worship (Acts 20:7, 11; 1 Corinthians 16:2; Revelation 1:10).
The first feast to emerge was Easter. Early second-century Christians held all-night vigils on the Passover, 15 Nisan in the Jewish calendar, to mark Christ’s resurrection. Eventually, the Church decided that Easter should always be celebrated on a Sunday. By the early 5th century, Christians were observing what we today know as Holy Week.
The 40-day preparatory season of Lent began in the early 4th century and quickly became universal. Marking a 50-day period following Easter, including the Ascension and Pentecost, began some time during the late 4th or early 5th centuries. More than a spring festival, the Easter cycle celebrates Christ’s overcoming sin and death that we might be reconciled to God.
Christmas was first observed in mid-4th century Rome. The celebration of Christ’s birth was likely a reaction against a pagan sun-god festival. Christmas was eventually elaborated with a preparator season known as Advent (“the coming”). The themes of Advent – the birth of Christ, self-denial, the Second Coming of Christ – owe to the practices of 4th/ 5th century churches in northern Italy and France. The current four-week long Advent dates from the early 7th century. Advent really prepares the church for Christ’s Second Coming at the end of time, rather than for his first coming in Bethlehem. Even older than the Dec 25 celebration of Christ’s birth is the Jan 6 celebration of the Epiphany (“the manifestation”), which comes to us from early 3rd century Egypt. ere Christians focused on the Baptism of Jesus, which was understood as a manifestation of the Lord’s divine sonship (cf Mark 1:11, Matthew 3:13-17). While the celebration of the Lord’s Baptism was important for churches in the eastern Mediterranean region, Roman churches used Jan 6 to celebrate Jesus’ manifestation to the Wise Men (Matthew 2). Eventually, the Magi feast migrated to eastern Christianity, and the Baptism of Jesus celebration found its way to Rome and other Western European churches.
Today, the entire Christmas cycle consists of the four weeks of Advent, the 12-day long season of Christmas that includes Christmas Eve/Day plus the following two Sundays, the Epiphany of our Lord (Jan 6), and the Baptism of our Lord (the Sunday following the Epiphany). Christmas is less about the birth of a baby, and more about the Incarnation of God in Jesus, who suﬀered in the flesh so that we might be free from sin and death.
The Sundays after Epiphany and Pentecost – Ordinary Time – do not form distinctive seasons and are neither festive nor meditative. The season after Pentecost is bracketed by two major feasts of the Lord: Holy Trinity and Christ the King. While the former celebrates God’s triune identity as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the latter – the last Sunday of the Christian calendar – expresses Christ’s Lordship over all times and places.
To some, the church calendar seems like an outmoded history lesson. But it is more than this. e calendar really makes known the deepest truths concerning our existence as Christians, namely, that we, like Christ, have died and been raised, and that Christ is “born” anew in us through the Spirit that we might bring good news to all the world. Ultimately, the church calendar speaks about what God is doing in us today.
NEXT ISSUE: Baptism
The Rev Dr. Jeffrey Truscott, Lecturer in Worship and Liturgy at Trinity Theological College, is also the Chaplain of the college.