What the church calendar is for

calendar illustration
Calendar illustration, Wikimedia Commons

In these final days before Easter, it’s worth contemplating the church year. Why do Christians follow a liturgical calendar? People cannot help but follow some sort of calendar. The question is whether we do it consciously or unconsciously. Our spiritual health can depend on how we answer that question.

Consider the various schedules and agendas set for us; there’s an election calendar, an agricultural calendar, a sports calendar, a work calendar, a commercial calendar, etc.

Focus on the just the last of those. Drive past a shopping mall a week after Halloween. Everything is red and green, peppermint and fake snow. Kids are still working on their haul from Halloween, and we haven’t even experienced Thanksgiving, yet stores are hyping the so-called Holiday-shopping season. Who’s agenda drives that calendar — and how does that affect us?

It’s about priorities and values

We mark time with our priorities. Our calendars represent our values, and we conform our lives to our calendars. That’s why Jesus, as a Jew, celebrated all the Jewish feasts, Holy Days like Passover and Hanukkah. They were integral to the Jewish experience and identity, marking God’s saving activity on behalf of his people. To be Jewish was (and is) to celebrate Passover.

Events of the past compose our present. So to value and honor those events — and to allow them to more consciously shape our present — we make them present to us through observance. When it comes to God’s saving activity in human history, observance is all the more meaningful and spiritually transformative.

We are marked by how we mark time. Celebrating Easter makes present the power of the Resurrection and all of its transformative power in our lives. That’s why the early Christians observed Easter each year, and other Holy Days as well. They were identifying with those events, making them present, and transforming their lives in light of their significance.

Some Christians are unsure what to do with saints’ days on the calendar, days that commemorate the lives of people like Patrick of Ireland or the first Christian martyr Stephen. The key is to look at their lives and examples, the power of God’s grace manifest in their lives, and inventory our own lives. We can use their example as a prod. Am I sharing the faith like Patrick? Am I laying down my life like Stephen?

Redeeming the time

This calendar dynamic works unconsciously as well as consciously — and the results can vary significantly. The agendas that drive our commercial, corporate, or entertainment calendars are not bad in themselves. Neither are they good in themselves. Our priorities must be reordered so they serve our sanctification instead of becoming accidental obstacles to it. If we are not consciously doing that, we often react to the prompts and signals of the world’s many calendars with little awareness of how we are conforming our efforts and energies to their agendas.

I think of two verses when I consider this issue: “teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” from Psalm 90, and “mak[e] the most of the time, because the days are evil” from Ephesians 5. The first tells me that we can number our days poorly or well, foolishly or wisely, by our standards or by God’s, and that our hearts are transformed by numbering our days well.

The second tells me that there’s something at stake here. If we do not redeem the time we’re given, we will suffer the consequences. The evil of our times will get a leg up on us. The church offers us seasons like Advent and Lent, days like Easter and Pentecost, Annunciation and Christmas to help us redeem the time and transform our hearts. That’s what calendars can do.

Calendars not only direct our time, they tell us what our time means. So the vital question for us is: Which calendar do we put first?

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