Why is there a church calendar?

Posted by Alice L. Camille
Tuesday 03, December 2013 | Category:   Prayer and Spirituality,Liturgy,Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs

Liturgical Calendar
Calendars are about time and the human need to harness it. Starting in the ancient world religions employed calendars, but you didn’t have to be a Mayan priest or a Stonehenge druid to care when the sun and moon were in this phase or that. You just needed to be a farmer—or to depend on one for your survival.

Ancient Israel’s calendar traced the turn of the seasons and celebrated their influence on the natural world. Sowing was an occasion for intercessory prayer and harvesting the time for praise and thanksgiving: “Those who sow in tears will reap with cries of joy” (Psalm 126:5). The feasts of Unleavened Bread, Pentecost, and Tabernacles were all originally harvest festivals.

Calendars, however, do more than note predictable, cyclical events. They also commemorate significant past events, such as battles won or important goals achieved. So Passover became the ultimate commemoration, remembering the signature victory over Pharaoh’s armies and captivity itself. Hanukkah, a more minor feast, reminisces about another victory regarding religious liberty. It should be noted that none of these events were considered secular occasions, because God was understood to be the source of all movements in the created order.

Christianity, with its roots in Jewish thought and practice, adopted its sense of the sacred character of time from Israelite history. Jesus grounded the meaning of the first Eucharistic ritual in the liberation event of Passover; as a result the celebration of Easter is configured each year with the Jewish Passover, and the entire liturgical year conforms backwards and forwards from that date. The need to embrace the sacred character of all of life’s seasons, both tearful and joyful, remains evident in the longing of Advent, the penitential nature of Lent, and the alleluias of Easter.

The church continues to acknowledge divine victories won over sin and death in both the Incarnation and the Paschal mysteries celebrated at Christmas and Easter. It honors the harvest of the church reaped at Pentecost and the long season dedicated to growth—both seen and unseen—in Ordinary Time.

Today’s religious calendar commemorates mystical events and spiritual victories rather than agrarian events and military battles, but it still assists in harnessing time and organizing it for optimal use. Liturgical cycles help us remember our story and the identity we bear as heirs to this history. It acknowledges the sacred character of time in witnessing to the goodness and faithfulness of God. Most of all it reminds us of the many reasons we have to give thanks.

Scripture
Leviticus 23; Deuteronomy 16:1-17; Isaiah 9:2; Hosea 8:7; Matthew 13:37-43; John 4:35-38; 1 Corinthians 9:10-11; Revelation 14:15-20

Online
• The Roman Catholic calendar for A.D. 2014

Book
Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God by Bobby Gross (InterVarsity Press)

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