What is the Christian Calendar?
A religious ritual rooted in the outmoded traditions of men? No.
The primary strategy for the practice of God’s story throughout history? Yes.
The Calendar is the most ancient practice of the People of God. When God delivered the Israelites from slavery he began to shape them as a distinctive people, a holy nation. This began with establishing a Covenant relationship. From there God gave them a calendar.
Calendars do two big things. 1. They orient us with the movement of time and season. 2. They remind us of important events. They work by teaching us what to remember and training us in what and how to anticipate. Birthdays, anniversaries, national holidays, days of memorial and days for thanksgiving, sports seasons and hunting seasons, spring breaks and summer vacations.
From the very beginning God gave his people a calendar. Six days of work and rest on the Sabbath. At Mt. Sinai, along with the Covenant God gave Israel a calendar. This calendar is the primary strategy for the telling and remembering of God’s Story. Every year, Israel reenacts and reenters the Story of God’s making. Passover re-presents the offering of the blood of perfect lambs and the deliverance through the Red Sea. Pentecost re-presents the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai with an offering of the first-fruits of the harvest. Tabernacles re-presents the wilderness years of Israel’s wandering, the miraculous provision of God’s care and the entry into the land of milk and honey. It also celebrates the end of the harvest. Israel’s sense of time revolves around the mighty works of God. In fact, Israel’s calendar makes no sense apart from the Story of God. As they ordered their existence around this calendar their lives told the world a different story; a story rich with the reality of God’s goodness and packed with the promise of glorious possibilities.
That’s the Hebrew calendar. So what is the Christian calendar? The Christian calendar tells the story of how God, in the fullness of time, sent his Son to fulfill the Law and become the final Passover Lamb. As Israel remembered the slain lambs by which they were delivered from slavery, Jesus became the Lamb slain for the sins of all. He overcame death by dying and reinstituted eternal life by rising from the dead. He ascended into Heaven to reign as the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. At Pentecost, the festival marking the firstfruits of the harvest and the giving of the Law, God sent the Holy Spirit, the firstfruits of the Law’s fulfillment. As has been said, the Law was given so that the Spirit might be desired, but the Spirit was given so that the Law could be obeyed. Finally, in the Feast of Tabernacles, just as Israel remembered their years of wilderness waiting for a land of promise, we wait for the coming of the Lord when the final harvest will be gathered in and the Kingdom of God will come in all its promise.
The Christian calendar is all about following Jesus. As we track him through the pattern of his conception, birth, life, words, deeds, signs, suffering, death, resurrection, ascension, reign and return, our lives become mysteriously woven together into the shape and way of the cross. The Calendar brings us the Word of God in real time. It provides a way out of private religion into communal spirituality. Through it we learn generous rhythms of fasting and feasting, and by it we learn to “…run the race marked out for us, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfector of our faith…” (Hebrews 12:1)
It’s ironic. The more we take charge of our so-called “spiritual lives” pressing it into programs and projects, purposes and the latest forms of “discipleship,” the more our lives become a religious performance, a sideshow of spirituality. The more let go of all that, give up control and simply follow Jesus in the more ancient ways of Word and Spirit, the more we become lost to ourselves and alive to God, and the more our lives become mysterious openings for others into the Story and signposts of promise and possibility.
Tomorrow begins a new year for the Church; the first Sunday of Advent. Though we all will necessarily observe and participate with a lot of calendars over the next year, how might we welcome the Christian Year to be our master calendar?