Understanding and Practicing the Christian Calendar
We often say at Third that as followers of Jesus we are called to live differently than those around us. We are called to behave differently. We are called to approach family, friendships and careers differently. We are called to engage with money, sex, and power differently. But have you ever considered that as disciples of Jesus we are also called to tell time differently?
I don’t mean that we refuse to use clocks and calendars. I’m referring to the fact that very early on in the life of the church, Christians made their own calendar that helps us to this day have a different rhythm of life and reminds us of the gospel. When we “tell time” according to this calendar, it can become a powerful tool of Christian discipleship. So, how does this happen?
First, keeping time with the Christian calendar helps us remember and re-tell the story of God’s redemption year after year. The year is divided into two halves. The first half begins with the first Sunday of Advent in late November and runs through Pentecost Sunday, typically in May or June. As we walk through the first half of the Christian year, we tell the story of Jesus. We tell the story not just through our words but also through the distinct music, art, Scripture, prayers, and colors that we use in different seasons to tell different parts of the story.
• Advent is about his anticipation. We imagine ourselves as the people of Israel, hoping and longing for the coming Messiah. In Advent we also remember that his Kingdom is not yet fully come, so we also anticipate Christ’s coming again to restore all things. There are four Sundays of Advent, and the colors of this season are purple and blue.
• Christmas is about his incarnation. We recall the incredible mystery that the Immortal became mortal, that the One beyond us came among us. There are twelve days of Christmas (typically 2 or 3 Sundays), and the color of this season is white.
• Epiphany is about his revelation. Epiphany celebrates the coming of the Magi to honor Jesus, representing Jesus’ mission to bring his good news to all nations under heaven. In Epiphany, we remember Jesus’ earthly life and mission to bring God’s Kingdom among us and to reclaim the world and make it whole again. Epiphany typically runs for 7 or 8 Sundays, and the colors of this season are white with many other accenting colors representing the Kingdom life Jesus brings into the world.
• Lent is about his crucifixion. The long season of Lent reminds us of Jesus’ suffering and atoning death for us, and calls us to renewed repentance. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and runs for 40 days or 6 Sundays, and the colors of Lent are purple, brown and black.
• Easter is about his resurrection. We celebrate his rising from the dead and his triumph over sin, death and hell! Easter runs for 50 days or 6 Sundays, and the colors of Easter are white and gold.
• Pentecost is about his ascension and gift of the Holy Spirit. Jesus now sits at the right hand of the Father and animates the church through his life-giving Spirit. We generally celebrate Pentecost for at least 2 Sundays, and the colors of this season are orange and red.
The second half of the Christian year, which typically runs from May or June through Christ the King Sunday in November, is about 24 Sundays and is called “Ordinary Time.” The color of this season is green, which reminds us of the ordinary seasons of natural change that we experience year by year. Whereas in the first half of the year we focus on the story of Jesus, this second half focuses on the story of God’s people throughout the Old and New Testaments. We are reminded year by year that we are part of the great community of believers throughout time and history that are called together to bear witness to Jesus and his Kingdom.
Keeping time with the Christian calendar not only helps us re-tell the stories of Jesus and his people, it also helps us to live differently as disciples of Jesus. As Jamie Smith writes, keeping time in this way helps us recognize that “Christians are a people whose year doesn’t simply map onto the calendar of the dominant culture.” In December, when everything around us is swirling with consumption and indulgence, followers of Jesus quietly focus on lamenting the state of the world and anticipating the coming Messiah in Advent. In the Spring, when the broader culture acknowledges Easter as a day of candy and bunnies, we celebrate Easter for 50 days, going deep into the implications of his resurrection for the world. Keeping time in this way puts us out of step with the broader culture around us, but reminds us in every single season that we are called to tell the world through word and deed about the true King who has come to save.
As we finish the current Christian year in the next few weeks and prepare for the new year beginning November 27, will you remember that we are called to tell time differently? Will you prepare your heart to anticipate again the Messiah who has come into our space and time to transform it forever? Let’s join the story of Jesus and his people again as we start a new year together.
- Corey Widmer
- You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, by Jamie Smith (Brazos Press)
- A great video that show how the church calendar works