This is the second of a two-part series on the church year. Part 1 presented a general context for the use of the church year and a brief introduction to the Christmas cycle. This installment will discuss the Easter cycle—the most ancient of the church’s celebrations—as well as the twentieth-century developments that have pointed us back toward this useful tool for telling the good news.
While Easter is certainly the oldest celebration of the Christian church, Lent, a time of fasting and penitence leading up to it, also has ancient roots. Early second-century authors spoke of two or three days of fasting. By the time of the Council of Nicea in 325, some parts of the church practiced a forty-day season, a practice that quickly spread to other churches. The number forty was probably chosen because of its resonance with the story of the flood (Gen. 7:12); with the number of days that Moses spent on Sinai (Ex. 34:28) and that Elijah traveled to Mount Sinai (1 Kings 19:8); with the Israelites’ forty years in the wilderness (Num. 14:34); and with Christ’s forty days of temptation (Matt. 4:2).
At this early point in the history of the church, Lenten observances were tightly tied to the sacrament of baptism. Lent was a time of preparation for new Christians, who were typically baptized during the Easter vigil. For baptized Christians, Lent was an opportunity to reconsider and renew their baptismal vows.
Over time, as the church’s practices of inducting new Christians changed, the emphasis of Lent also changed. Rather than being tied closely to “dying and rising with Christ” in baptism, Lent took on a more narrowly penitential cast; believers were encouraged to consider their sin and repentance in relationship to the great sufferings of Christ.
Thus, by the eighth century, the church had extended the imposition of ashes, previously reserved for those preparing for baptism, to all members of the congregation. This became Ash Wednesday. By the twelfth century, the practice of using ashes made from the burnt palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday procession was common.
Since the liturgical renewal movement of the mid-twentieth century, many Christian churches have worked to recover the original baptismal emphasis of the earliest Lenten observances, tying our need for repentance more clearly to our need for continual conversion in Christ.
The last week of Lent is called “Holy Week”—a name that goes back to the fourth century. It begins with Palm Sunday, includes Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, and concludes with the Easter Vigil.
Originally, the church had concentrated on just Saturday and Sunday—the vigil and the Easter celebration. But by the end of the fourth century, the major events of Christ’s passion were being commemorated on the day of the week during which they originally happened: Judas’s betrayal and the institution of the Lord’s Supper on Thursday, Christ’s crucifixion and death on Friday, and his time in the tomb on Saturday. All these events, though, are not ends in themselves. Their purpose is to point us to the most important event of Christian history: Easter.
Easter is the apex of the liturgical year and the central event of our faith. Essentially the church year boils down to just two seasons: “Easter” and “Easter’s coming.” As the feast that commemorates and celebrates the heart of the gospel message—Christ’s resurrection from the dead—it is the earliest of all the celebrations of the church year.
While there is some textual evidence to show that early Christians celebrated Christ’s resurrection weekly, the practice of one yearly celebration emerged over the course of the first two centuries of the church.
Sadly, disagreements over when to celebrate Christ’s resurrection became the cause of one of the earliest controversies in the church. Because Easter is related historically and theologically to the Jewish feast of Passover, its date is calculated according to the lunar calendar. Arguments quickly grew up over how precisely to place the celebration of Easter relative to Passover: should Easter always be celebrated two days after Passover? Can the day fall on any day of the week, or should Easter be celebrated only on a Sunday? The debate grew so heated that the bishop of Rome (briefly) excommunicated the bishops of Asia Minor. It wasn’t until the Council of Nicea in 325 that a common formula for calculating the date of Easter was determined.
An additional complication arose later, after the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in the sixteenth century in Western Europe. Even using the same formula, the differences between the Gregorian calendar and the older Julian calendar produce different dates for Easter, which is why the Eastern and Western churches rarely celebrate Easter on the same Sunday. Though many churches, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox alike, have accepted in principal the establishment of a fixed date for Easter (the second Sunday in April) no church body has taken practical steps in this direction.
Easter, however, is not just one day. Early in the history of the church, and certainly by the fifth century, Easter was connected to the celebration of two other events that tie Christ’s resurrection to the life of the church: Ascension and Pentecost.
The entire season is seven weeks long, with Ascension Day occurring on the fortieth day and Pentecost on the fiftieth day after Easter. During Eastertide, the church continues to celebrate Christ’s resurrection by following the accounts of his post-resurrection appearances, his charge to his disciples, and the stories of the growth and vitality of the new community of believers.
All three Eastertide themes—Christ’s resurrection, his bodily ascension into heaven and continued presence there, and the coming of Christ’s Spirit among us as his church—are themes that we do well to ponder and observe more intentionally.
Why Pay Attention to This Today?
Many of us will recognize that within our own churches, observance of the church year has changed over the last decades. In the church where I grew up, we recognized no church seasons but we did celebrate Christmas, Easter, Ascension Day, and Pentecost. Ascension Day was always memorable because that was the only time we went to church for worship on a Thursday night!
Some time in the late 1970s or early 1980s, my church began using an Advent wreath. Over the course of the 1990s, we gradually began to observe Lent. Though we by no means observe a full-blown liturgical year, today we are much more aware of the general ebb and flow of the church seasons. On occasion, we use some of the lectionary readings associated with specific Sundays.
Interestingly, though many Protestant churches have begun to be more intentional about Advent, Lent, and Holy Week, we haven’t generally been as intentional about Ascension Day and Pentecost! This is a loss, because commemorating these events is equally relevant for the ongoing life of the church.
Nonetheless, the fact that these changes took place at all in my Reformed denomination, with its deep pietist roots, is quite remarkable. Earlier in the century, the mere placement of flowers in the sanctuary for Easter morning could be viewed as the first step on the slippery slope to “popery”!
The gradual reintroduction of the liturgical year, or parts of it, into traditionally “low church” congregations is a sign of two changes: (1) a growing appreciation for symbolism and the opportunities for the use of symbols that the church year provides, and (2) a greater appreciation for learning from other churches and their experiences. The major engine for these appreciations was the liturgical movement of the mid-twentieth century.
The most striking manifestation of the liturgical movement was the Second Vatican Council, which instituted far-reaching reforms in Roman Catholic worship. At the same time, currents of reform were at work in many other Christian communities. The movement as a whole was characterized by the recovery and study of ancient liturgical texts, a renewed appreciation for the centrality of Scripture and the proclamation of the Word in worship, and a renewed appreciation for the pastoral dimensions of the sacraments. Catholic and Protestant churches began working together in the 1960s to develop a common English language lectionary; this, in turn, sparked widespread interest in the connections between the lectionary and the liturgical year.
What About the Christian Reformed Church?
The journey of the Christian Reformed Church is in some ways typical. Though too small to have had a major presence in the worldwide dialogue, it is clear that the national and international conversation on worship launched by the liturgical movement resonated with many in the denomination. Worship could no longer be taken for granted.
In 1968, the denomination’s governing body adopted a report on worship that fully engages the questions of worship and liturgy raised by the movement as a whole (see www.calvin.edu/worship/about/crc/crc_rprt_lit_com1968.php). Treating the history of worship, biblical warrants for worship, and distinctives that should characterize Reformed worship, this report not only gives evidence of the Christian Reformed Church’s involvement with this larger movement, it also remains an important and helpful document today.
In 1997, the basic contours of the 1968 report were reaffirmed in a small booklet called Authentic Worship in a Changing Culture (Faith Alive, www.faithaliveresources.org): “In Christian worship we participate in the broad redemptive story God is writing. The structure of the church year—Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Eastertide, Pentecost—is narrative in orientation. It simply tells the story of the mighty acts of God in Jesus Christ.” Most recently (2004), The Worship Sourcebook (Faith Alive, www.faithaliveresources.org) further emphasizes the potential of the church year to aid our worship by subsuming it under the sections of the Nicene Creed and by providing numerous resources for every season.
Though the church year is by no means the sole focus of any of these documents, all of them acknowledge its usefulness in helping us comprehend and live out the narrative character of God’s story as we encounter it in worship.
As I emphasized in part 1 of this essay, the church year isn’t necessary, but it may be helpful. Held loosely, and used in service of the gospel, it is also a beautiful tool that connects us with our brothers and sisters in Christ who, throughout time and space, have ordered their worship with its gentle and penetrating rhythm.