Humans are temporal creatures bound in time. But time should not be viewed as a prison, it should be seen as the progress of potentialities—the momentary movements from glory to glory. The relentless succession of minutes and months becomes a drudgery when we fail to regard it, like everything else, as an opportunity for discipleship. When we speak about time we speak in terms of management; how to get the most from our days. However, the Bible speaks of time in terms of redemption; how to make the most of our days.
When God placed Adam in the Garden, he hedged him in within the confines of space and time. Our first father was called to take dominion over the whole created order until every square inch and every single second was alive with praise and glory. In grace, God gave Adam a garden of sacred space from which to start the expansion outward. He also gave him a day of sacred time for the same purpose. Time is no less the domain of the rule of God and the responsibility of God’s people than is space. If we take only our Sundays, while burying every other day that should be made fit for holy use, then we are left with little to distinguish us from unfaithful stewards who bury other gifts.
Men were made to bring order out of chaos; to agonize and to organize until we, like our Maker, can happily pronounce a benediction over that which is in our charge. We should remember that the refrain, “And it was good,” was a statement about the days of creation as well as the acts of creation.
We organize our world by organizing our time. We have schedules for rising, working, eating, playing, sleeping, and the rest of it. Our weeks follow the rhythm of appointed responsibilities punctuated by moments of leisure and pleasure. Our years are composed by birthdays, anniversaries, and various holidays to mark important occasions. Like our father Adam, we take the days and we name them.
This is usually a corporate affair. Every society, consciously religious or not, has a liturgical calendar. Everyone punctuates time, underscoring this moment and italicizing that one. In our country we observe national holidays like Independence Days and Veteran’s Day. Most Americans celebrate Christmas whether they are Christians or not. While other countries may not recognize our peculiar holidays, they invariably have marked moments of their own. The UK observes Guy Fawkes Day, Mexico celebrates Cinco De Mayo, and all of the nations of the British Commonwealth recognize the birthday of the monarch.
Such holidays are moments representing institutional memory, for memorializing heroes, for remembering and reconnecting with our history, and for rededicating ourselves to those things that make us the people that we are. This backward look has a forward emphasis. This “remembering” of our yesterdays reshapes our tomorrows.
So the question is never between observing a pattern of time or not. The question is which pattern will we adopt? What will the standard be?
Most Christians live by the calendar of their culture. In many American churches, Independence Day is a bigger celebration than Easter. As we look at how we order and name our days we should begin to ask ourselves difficult questions. Are we more American than Christian? Are we transforming the world or are we being conformed to it?
In sharp opposition to this, the historic Church has long maintained that time should be stamped with seal of Christ. The Church’s calendar should be a cruciform calendar where every day is transfigured by the works and words of Jesus. Those of us who desire to see our cultures transformed by the gospel should not be reticent to see our calendars transformed by it as well.
Israel, the Church of the First Testament, observed a liturgical calendar that commemorated various festive occasions such as Passover, Sinai, the wilderness wandering, the deliverance from Haman, and the dedication of the second temple. Taking their cues from their fathers, the early church early on developed a liturgical calendar organized around the life of Jesus. I can think of no better model than that.
According to the Christian calendar, Church year begins at Advent, with the coming of Jesus. Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ while anticipating his future coming in glory. This is followed by the Feast of the Epiphany, which recalls the manifestation of Jesus’ glory to the Magi, at His baptism, and again on the mount of transfiguration.
With Lent, we enter the period of the Passion of Jesus. For forty days, Christians meditate on the high cost of our salvation, giving thanks that God himself paid the price on our behalf. Holy week commemorates the death and burial of Jesus, and concludes with Easter, Jesus’ triumph over death and the grave. Ascension celebrates Jesus’ enthronement and present session at the right hand of his Father, and at Pentecost we give thanks for the coronation gift of the Spirit that effectively reverses Babel’s curse.
From Advent to Pentecost, we observe the work of the Father sending his Son for his people. From Pentecost to the following Advent, we observe the work of the Spirit who takes us to the Father. Since the work of redemption is a a trinitarian work, those days from Pentecost onward are called “Trinity Season” or “ordinary time.” In this long season, the Church is called to meditate on the God revealed in the life history of the Word made flesh.
The Christian calendar keeps our focus where it should be — on Jesus. Following the liturgical calendar and a lectionary cycle of seasonal readings will allow congregations to read and hear the gospel story each year, and those congregations will thus be “taking their time” from the life of Christ. Thus, it is no longer the government but the gospel that sets the pattern for our times. By following the Christian Year, the Church redeems the times, and claims them for Christ in the name of Christ. As such, these feasts and fasts become acts of faith in the God who hears and answers our prayer, “Thy Kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”