Most Christians would be horrified if a ban were placed on the celebration of Christmas—as some claim happened in Boston many years ago. Yet many are reluctant to celebrate other holy days from the Christian church year. Seasons like Advent, Epiphany, and Lent seem to have a Roman Catholic or Episcopalian aura about them.
In this article Jones cuts through some of the mystery about these seasons by tracing the development of the Christian church year from its origins in Old Testament worship. Seeing how our current Christian holy days are related to Old Testament worship and how they grew in the early church can help us understand the pattern of these days and seasons and can make our celebration of them more meaningful.
When the Israelites stormed into the land "flowing with milk and honey," they were richly blessed with a haloed memory and a knapsack full of expectations. Instinctively the Israelites knew that the exodus was the most significant event in their history. The exodus defined who the Israelites were before their covenant–loving God. It helped them understand how they were to relate to friends and foes alike. For Israel the exodus was the beginning of a new age.
But Israel faced one major obstacle: the promised land already had tenants, an advanced and somewhat sophisticated mixture of people generally called "the Canaanites." The biblical books of Joshua and Judges tell of the extended campaign the advancing Israelites waged against the retreating Canaanites. More important than the battles won or lost, however, was the resulting confrontation between Israel and her "times" and the Canaanites and their "times."
Like the Israelites, the Canaanites had an assortment of cherished notions that gave meaning to their lives and made their gods (Baals) come alive in their farm–to–market kind of world. But the two systems were on a collision course. Canaanite religious practices were tied to the rotating seasons, the fertility of the ground, and a sacrificial system that might force the gods to hear their petitions. The four seasons and the constellations in the heavens were the natural ingredients for their "natural religion." Every "Canaanite year" the cycle was repeated.
But for the Israelites time was never merely a natural cycle of repetitions. It was a series of progressive revelations that defined and directed Israel’s walk before God. To them as a nation it began with the exodus. The exodus was the linchpin of faith for God’s Old Testament people. Out of this central event grew the "Israelite year," a calendar of historical remembrances of God’s interaction with his people, a calendar that included such events as the Passover and the Feast of Booths (a time of recalling the years of wandering in the wilderness).
In the New Testament, when the covenant was renewed by Jesus and Christianity was launched, some thought the fledgling movement was merely a "denomination" within Judaism. It’s probable that the early Christians initially gave others this impression by honoring the worship traditions of Judaism with its calendar of festivals and celebration of memories. But as the movement grew and parted company with Judaism, the young church began reforming its calendar to celebrate the high points of the second exodus in which Christ redeemed his people.
However, Christians inherited from Judaism a distinctive way of looking at time, an understanding that God condescended to take our time seriously and that we should mark these times of special insight and revelation. And since Jesus was at the center of Christian faith and practice, it was natural that the new Christian year highlighted those red–letter moments that brought God "in the flesh" into our human arena.
Our Salvation Events
The Royal Feast of Feasts: Lent/ Easter/Pentecost Though the season of Lent precedes Easter, the origins of the observances are to be found in just the opposite order. The resurrection was the one event that gave shape and substance to the faith of the early Christian community. So it’s not surprising that in the early church Easter was the only fixed festival other than the weekly celebration of the Lord’s day (which was also a commemoration of the resurrection).
Over the years a Lent and Easter cycle of observances developed gradually. The closeness of the Passover to the death and resurrection of Jesus and the concept of promise and fulfillment of the Old Covenant by the New Covenant all merged as Christians began to celebrate the second exodus of Calvary/empty tomb, just as the Israelites had celebrated the first exodus from Egypt/Red Sea.
Initially, since Christians viewed the cross and the empty tomb as one act of God’s redemption, they celebrated only one feast of redemption. For the first three centuries of its history the church celebrated this single feast on the fifty days before Easter. During that time four events were highlighted: the passion of Jesus, the resurrection, the ascension, and the giving of the Holy Spirit. Not until later did the church divide the season up into Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost.
The Feast of the Word Made Flesh: Advent/Christmas/Epiphany As interest grew in the observance of events associated with the passion and resurrection, people inevitably became interested in other details of Jesus’ life. Those who wanted to know what the "real Jesus" was like were often disappointed in the Scripture’s meager record of his early years. Only the evangelists Matthew and Luke expressed any interest in the origins and birth of Jesus and even their information is sparse. Nor does the Bible suggest that the early church celebrated the nativity of our Lord.
The first record of such a celebration comes from the Eastern churches. Early in the third century, Christians in Egypt began observing January 6 as the "Feast of the Manifestation" (Epiphany). They chose this date deliberately in hopes of supplanting the birthday festival of the Egyptian god Osiris. Soon other Eastern churches followed their example. The Epiphany celebration stressed four events associated with the beginning of our Lord’s earthly life: (1) his birth, (2) the visit of the Magi, (3) his baptism, and (4) his first miracle (turning water into wine). The focus of the festival was not on the details of Christ’s birth but on the incarnation.
The observance of Christmas itself came later, in the early days of the fourth century. While the Eastern churches stressed the incarnation, the churches in the West were more interested in the actual birth of Jesus. Out of that interest grew the celebration of Christmas.
By the fifth century the celebration of not only Christmas but also the penitential season of Advent was well established in the Western church. In the beginning Advent was a forty–day period, but it was later reduced to the four Sundays preceding Christmas. During Advent the church looked forward with the prophets to the coming of the Messiah, celebrated his arrival in Bethlehem, and looked to his coming again. Peter of Blois, a famous preacher of the twelfth century, made the following comments in one of his sermons:
There are three comings of our Lord ... the first in the flesh, the second in the soul, the third at judgment. The first coming was humble and hidden; the second is mysterious and full of love; the third will be majestic and terrible. In the first, a lamb; in his third, a lion; in the one in between the two, the tenderest of friends.
The Second Half: Sundays after Pentecost The first half of the Christian year celebrates God’s mighty acts on our behalf in the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of his Son, Jesus Christ. The celebration of these events begins on the first Sunday in Advent and continues until Pentecost. Pentecost Sunday, the fiftieth day after Easter, is the pivot date—the conclusion of the Easter season and the beginning of the season of the Holy Spirit.
Charles Wheatley, in a commentary on the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, writes as follows:
The whole year is distinguished in two parts: the design of the first being to commemorate Christ’s living among us; the other, to instruct us to live after his example.
Broadly speaking, in the first half of the church year the believer commemorates the life of Jesus on earth. We are invited to walk "in his steps" through the time of his birth, baptism, teachings, passion, resurrection, and ascension. The second half of the church year emphasizes Christ’s teachings and the work of the Holy Spirit in applying those teachings.
The Reformed Tradition
When the sixteenth century called for a reform of certain theological convictions and liturgical practices, many Reformed churches threw out the baby with the bath water. For example, the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) abolished all festivals and holy days and laid its exclusive emphasis on the Lord’s day, or the "Sabbath." The continental Reformed churches were somewhat less thoroughgoing than the Scots; they retained the major festivals relating to events in the life of our Lord—the festivals of Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost. But none of these churches had much regard for the seasons of Lent or Advent, which they viewed as hangovers of Roman Catholicism. This traditional Reformed reluctance to observe the church year was probably due to the fear that we, like the Ca–naanites, would fall into a pattern of reenactment.
During the past few decades, however, the Reformed attitude toward the church year has started to shift. Many of our churches are now finding spiritual nourishment and growth in grace through a measured use of the church year.
This shift is important. All Reformed congregations would do well to rehearse the mighty acts of God on their behalf—just as the Old Testament people of God celebrated their deliverance. As the Israelites commemorated, in an annual cycle, the great events of their salvation, so let us commemorate the salvation events attached to Christ’s birth, teachings, miracles, death, resurrection, ascension, and giving of his Spirit. Any person charged with the conduct of public worship should consider carefully the advantages attached to a discerning use of the church year:
- Following the Christian year provides the liturgist/pre–acher with a rhythmic pattern of the great themes of the faith. It delivers the preacher from pet themes and fastens attention on the great drama rather than on individual acts.
- Following the Christian year provides the liturgist/ preacher with a comradeship of colleagues in other church communions. This comradeship offers the opportunity for open dialogue with those of other traditions.
- Following the Christian year provides parishioners with some advance knowledge of projected themes in worship and with an outline of Scripture passages that will be studied.
Yesterday, Tomorrow, and Today
Our Christian church year is not, like the Canaanite year, a cycle of natural repetitions. Rather, in observing the church year we highlight the history of God on our behalf. Like the Israelites, we understand the importance of time, place, and event in our worship. We celebrate what God has done in the past as we anticipate our glorious future.
Emil Brunner, that great Reformed theologian, points toward that profound interaction of our time with God’s times:
We live in the past by faith.
We live in the future by hope.
We live in the present by love.
Faith believes what hope expects. Hope expects what faith believes.
Soli Gloria Deo!