This is the final article in the series on “Christian Standard Time”- looking at how spiritual practices can help reorient our understanding of time itself, so that the reality of our faith can be more deeply experienced in our lives. We have considered the practice of sabbath, which is a way to make our weekly work/rest cycles more open to God. We have also considered fixed-hour prayer as a way to better mark the presence of Christ in our days. We will conclude with reflecting on the liturgical year, and see how observing part or all of it can place the passage of our years within a specific and ancient calendar cycle can help deep our formation and intentional living as Christians.
That we all live within “calendar time” is not a shocking statement. There is the western civil calendar- originally introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582- which governs the passage of months that we are all familiar with. Our various national calendars mark days of special important in each of our countries and cultures. We also have family calendars- birthdays, anniversaries, etc.- and work calendars- which mark the beginning of the fiscal year, important projects and the like. For many Christians, however, a faith calendar is missing. Beyond Christmas and Easter, it can be the case that there is no particular grounding of our Christian lives within the context of the passage of a year. The result? We float along without a concrete grounding of our faith and practices in time, and as a result our marking of time defaults to the common, secular understanding. November- and the consumeristic holiday shopping season- naturally take precedence over the season of Advent; Holy Week gives way to how our educational institutions schedule spring break. Easter Monday may still be a bank holiday, but the understanding of why is lost.
There is an alternative- the liturgical year or calendar. Like the other practices we have considered in the series, it is ancient. Also like the other ones, the liturgical calendar has in recent years seen a renewal of interest across denominations- you can find Baptists observing Lent, free church Christians rediscovering Advent. We will take a brief look at the liturgical year in this article, as well as point to some further resources that can help to engage this calendar in our spiritual practices.
The Liturgical Year
Due to space considerations, what we will consider here is the predominant Western liturgical calendar and its seasons (there are denominational variations, and the Eastern Orthodox churches have their own). Bypassed entirely will be the question of certain feast days, and the so-called “lesser feasts,” wherein the church has observed saint’s days and “mini-seasons" All of this can be valuable and add flavor to our annual observances, but for our purposes the consideration of the main thrust of the liturgical year will have to suffice.
The liturgical year has two focal points: the life of Christ and our lives in his service. Within this larger framework is where the church seasons unfold. It works like this:
The Story of Jesus is found in the “festive half” of the year. It contains the seasons of:
Advent- where we hear of the coming of Christ both in Bethlehem and at the end of the age
Christmas- a twelve day season focused on Jesus’ birth and what it means for us
Epiphanytide- the progressive revelation of the meaning of who Jesus is
Lent- 40 days of following Jesus in his trials. Thus, also a time of penitence.
Holy Week- wherein the events of Jesus’ passion and death are proclaimed.
Eastertide- 50 days of considering the resurrection, ending on the Feast of Pentecost.
As can be seen, this is a comprehensive re-telling of the life and meaning of Jesus, year after year.
The Story of the Church (which is our story) is found in the “common half” of the year. This season, whose length varies depending on the date of Easter has as it focus our lives lived in response to the person and work of Christ. It considers such themes as the call into Christ’s kingdom, what life in that kingdom looks like, and where it all ends- when the kingdoms of this world give way to the kingdom of our God and of his Christ.
This overview is at one level woefully inadequate. It is merely meant to introduce the idea of the liturgical year and to whet one’s appetite for digging deeper. It is important to note here, however, the value of this observance- the “why?” if you will. On the one hand, it has an objective and unifying value for Christians. Joan Chittister puts it this way:
The liturgical year is the calendar of the spiritual life, the epicenter of the soul’s progress through time. It punctuates our civic year with the mystery of who we are really meant to become. It is far beyond anything civic. It is greater than the culture of any single group. It transcends everybody’s nationality. It reminds us of roots deeper than time and stronger than tribe. It never lets us sink into a kind of secular historicism that makes color or nationality or race or politics or gender the ultimate dimension of our lives. Instead, all the undercurrents of our existence are here: what we believe, who we follow, why we do what we do, and—in the end—where we’re going.
In the divided world we are currently dwelling in, could such “common roots” not be a blessing?
There is a subjective and personal dimension as well. The liturgical year can help to guide our personal devotions and practices as life lived in response to the mighty acts of God. Robert Webber sums up this aspect as follows:
Advent is a time to wait.
Christmas is a time to rejoice.
Epiphany is a time to witness.
Lent is a time for repentance and renewal.
The Great Triduum [think Holy Week]… is a time to enter death.
Easter is a time to express the resurrected life.
After Pentecost is a time to study and evangelize.
Want to explore more? Resources abound. In addition to the calendar of your particular faith tradition, you may want to check out:
- The Revised Common Lectionary. The most widely used resource for following the Christian year in the Protestant world. Found at www.commontexts.org/rcl
- A Fixed-hour prayer book. Whatever book works for you, it will likely guide you through the patterns of the liturgical year in some fashion.
- The two books quoted in this article are great introductions to the topic:
Joan Chittister, The Liturgical Year
Robert Webber, Ancient-Future Time
I would argue the Chittister is more conceptual, Webber more practical, but both are great for meditation and easy to read.
- Have kids? Martin’s The Catholic Parent Book of Feasts: Celebrating the Church Year With Your Family is a great resource. It is for Roman Catholics in terms of content, but many of the ideas can be adapted. You can also check out other family-based church year resources online.
Adapting our understanding of time may seem like an odd spiritual practice, but few are more crucial. We are defined by what we pay attention to, and the dominant worldview and its temporal demands unrelentingly pull us away from Christ and from intentional Christian living. Time is God’s, and it is also his gift to us. A change in understanding and practice here can produce so many others, like ripples in a pond. When the sabbath replaces the day off, when the prayer book replaces the appointment book, a new way of living and being becomes possible. Robert Webber, again, states:
I am persuaded that the practice of Christian time—personally and in the church—will establish a rhythm of time that will free us. It will release us from time as an evil power that tyrannizes our lives to a time that frees us to live in the rhythm of the death and resurrection of Jesus—a pattern that will keep us in an unceasing spirituality.
Les Martin is a participant in the A300 program and a long-term missionary in Nigeria. An Anglican priest, he is an Archdeacon and serves in the office of Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of Pankshin, while lecturing at Archbishop Vining College of Theology, Akure. He lives in Lagos with his wife Kate, and he believes that his marriage to her is far more important than anything else mentioned above.
 - Chittister, J., & Tickle, P. (2010). The liturgical year: the spiraling adventure of the spiritual life - the ancient practices series. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.  - Webber, R. (2004). Ancient-future time: forming spirituality through the Christian year (p. 180). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.  - Webber, R. (2004). Ancient-future time: forming spirituality through the Christian year (p. 181). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.