Many evangelicals are (re)discovering the church (or liturgical) year. The Christian year is both a theological way of looking at time and, in a very practical sense, a way of making our devotional lives, corporately and individually, move with the rhythm of the Gospel, bringing us into contact with Jesus in a special way over the course of the year.
Very briefly on this page, I discuss Jesus and the Church Year, Time, Saints’ Days, Other Feasts, and how you can get into the church year yourself.
Jesus and the Church Year
The main cycle of the church year, East and West, Anglican and Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Greek Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox and Church of the East, is built around the life and work of Jesus Christ. In western Christianity (so not the Orthodox), we start the church year with Advent, recalling the Hebrew Prophets and the longing for Christ’s first coming whilst looking ahead to his second, and end on Christ the King Sunday, the final Sunday before Advent begins, when we reflect on the glory of Jesus Christ as King of the Cosmos and king of our own hearts.
After the reminder of the longing for a Messiah as well as our own longing for His return, we celebrate Christmas, the Nativity, the grand irruption of God into human history as Jesus of Nazareth, fully God and fully man, come for our redemption. For twelve days we revel in the Incarnation of God the Son. And then we are reminded that he was revealed as God for the salvation of the whole world, Jew and Gentile, at Epiphany, when we commemorate the coming to worship Him of the Gentile astrologers.
And so the Church Year goes, each of the most important feasts highlighting a major event in Jesus’ earthly ministry, each season a preparation. Thus the Feast of the Circumcision, the Baptism of Christ, Feast of the Presentation (Candlemas), and then Lent, Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, Transfiguration. Each of these brings us into contact with Jesus’ story, and is a way for us to ‘recapitulate’ his earthly ministry 2000 years ago in our own lives and hearts today.
The seasons and major feasts of the church year, then, are a way to pattern our devotional lives. The church year is a 365-day act of devotion to Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. It is a way to connect with Him.
When Christians consider time, we need to realise that we tend to experience time in one of two ways, sometimes highlighted for us by two Greek words, chronos and kairos. Chronos is the timeline. It is the inexorable flow of moments from one into another, moving onwards day after day after day. It can be visually demonstrated by, say, a late antique chronicle. It is expressed in moving words by Shakespeare’s Macbeth:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 2)
Kairos, on the other hand, is the acceptable time. The fullness of time. The right time. Growing up, one of the Eucharistic liturgies I heard my father pray said that ‘in the fullness of time’ Jesus came among us. We experience time as chronos in its petty pace from day to day. But God’s great acts in history occur in kairos, and the church year calls us from stumbling blindly in the timeline to looking backward and forward, seeing God at work in his own kairos, where Eternity intersects our own finitude.
This is how the fourth-century Syriac theologian-poet, St Ephrem the Syrian, saw time. The great acts of redemption occur in a time of their own, and that time intersects with ours in a powerful way. The cross of Christ cuts both forwards into our hearts and backwards, saving Abraham. In the church year, we open ourselves up to the transhistorical power of God’s acts in our own hearts.
Alongside the Christocentric events of the church year are the saints’ days. Of these, I have no doubt that most evangelicals are wary. It is one thing to prepare for Easter through discipline in Lent. It is another to celebrate other human beings. For me, the saints’ days are an opportunity to see God’s work in history. The Church, the Body of Christ, was born on Pentecost, and Christ is ever at work in our lives, from AD 33 to today. The saints are a reminder of this.
That’s why I have a post category Weekly Saints. Although now long defunct, I keep hoping to re-set that cycle of posts.
Alongside these church history has also bequeathed unto us other feasts, the most famous being:
• Trinity Sunday
• Corpus Christi
• Holy Cross Day
• Feasts associated with the Blessed Virgin Mary (which are like the rest of the Saints’ Days)
These can also be taken as opportunities to enrich our devotional life.
Getting into the Church Year
If you like the idea of the church year, many resources exist. Probably too many. One that I recommend for evangelicals in particular is The Mosaic Holy Bible from Tyndale House. It includes the entire text of the Bible in the NLT, and has, preceding the Bible, readings from throughout Christian history arranged for the church year with set readings from the Bible as well, so you flip between the two portions.
Another option is to buy a Book of Common Prayer and start using the collect (special prayer for the day), epistle, and Gospel for each week as your Sunday devotional time. This will bring you through a selection of Scripture while also highlighting the church year.
A third way, similar to the above, is to look into resources associated with the Revised Common Lectionary. A particularly good place to start is the online resource provided by Vanderbilt here, which gives art and a prayer for each week.
There is also a Roman Catholic website called churchyear.net if that moves you.
Finally, find a community of people who use the church year to fuel their devotional lives and join them. Not all such communities are Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, or Roman Catholic. Indeed, even just using a lectionary at church on Sunday will help you get into the rhythm of the church year.
As of June 25, 2011, the ‘Saints of the Week’ included:
St. Simeon the Stylite, The Venerable Bede, David Wilkerson, Mary and Euphemia of Mesopotamia, Evelyn Underhill, St. John Climacus, Lancelot Andrewes, St. Bonaventure, Dorothy L. Sayers, Charles Wesley, St. Teresa of Avila, Sts. Cyril and Methodius, St. Daniel the Stylite, St. Spyridon, Amma Syncletica of the Desert, St. Kentigern (Mungo), St. Joseph the Carpenter, Pope St. Leo the Great (here & here), St. John of the Cross, St. Ambrose of Milan, St. Andrew the Apostle, St. Albert Lacombe, St. John the Baptist, St. Thomas the Apostle, St. Matthias the Apostle, St. Boniface, St. Augustine of Canterbury, St. Anthony of Padua, Emperor Constantine the Great, St. Athanasius, Dante Alighieri, St. George the Dragonslayer, George MacDonald, Thomas Cranmer, St. Cuthbert, St. Gregory of Nyssa, John Wesley (here & here), St. Polycarp of Smyrna, St. Valentine, St. Antony the Great, St. Jean de Brebeuf, St. Francis of Assisi, Hans Egede, St. Juvenaly of Alaska, Edmund James Peck, St. John of Damascus, Abba Giyorgis Saglawi, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Maximilian Kolbe, CS Lewis, St. Alban the Martyr, Sts. Peter and Paul, St. Basil the Great, and St. Columba (here & here).