I thought I would say something this morning about the church calendar, about the seasons of the church. We have just finished with Advent and are in the middle of Christmas. And now we’re on to Epiphany. Where did these seasons come from and why separate the year into these periods?
You are all familiar with the term liturgical year. The most important day of the year is of course, Black Friday, followed closely by Cyber Monday. Then we have tonight New Year’s Eve, a celebration of getting rid of the bad old year, a night of champagne to welcome a much better new year.
Another month away is that ceremonial day of the American Republic, Super Bowl Sunday, when well paid grown men crush each other for the benefit of local orthopedic hospitals. Next in line is Ground Hog Day which determines the future of skiing and skating in our wintery climes. In New England in April there is Patriot’s Day when Paul Revere rode to Lexington and Concord to get the Minutemen out of the taverns. In the spring we have that all-time favorite, Mother’s Day, also known as flower and restaurant day, and in the fall, Halloween, where we greatly support the dental profession by handing out Snickers and Peanut Butter cups.
Some of the reasons for these liturgical days are fine indeed – to remember those who brought us into this world and to provide a focus for the customs and events that make up our lives. And, of course, some of the basis for these celebrations has to do with selling us more stuff, more cruises in the Caribbean, more nights in restaurants and bars.
This liturgical year helps to anchor our common life, to provide excitement and pleasure, to connect us to friends and family, and keep our history in order.
Which, come to think of it, is not that different from the purpose of the church liturgical year in which we remember our Lord and what he did for us and what the church means in daily life.
The Church year or Liturgical year is an overlay of the secular year; it’s intended to commemorate and remind us regularly of the saving deeds God accomplished in Jesus Christ. The Whole mystery of Christ from his Incarnation to the day of Pentecost is recalled by the church each calendar year. It also helps to keep us on course in our temporary lives, to help us focus our existence on God and the kingdom of God on earth.
Before their were Christians there were, of course, Jews. The Jewish calendar began with the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week. The Sabbath or day of rest and no labor dates back at least to the exile in Babylon and it reflects of course the Genesis story of creation. Orthodox, observant Jews still observe and practice the Sabbath. The day is one of contemplation, of prayer and remembrance. In addition to the Sabbath a number of commemorations have become the basis for the Jewish liturgical year. In the early days, periods of time were set aside to give thanks for the harvest, for a good year in the vineyards, for rain and reduced infestations. The purpose of these these agrarian feasts gradually shifted over time to remember important events in the life of the people.
For example, the eight day festival of Hanukah which was just two weeks ago, was originally a celebration for the dedication of the restored temple in Jerusalem; today it is a happy time like Christmas with the giving of gifts and, interestingly, it is a celebration of Jewish military prowess in the state of Israel.
By comparison, in this country, we have the former Decoration Day, a day set aside to remember the enormous number of soldiers who died in the Civil War. Much later the day became Memorial Day to include the dead in wars since. Then there is Armistice Day, a remembrance of those lost in World War One; that day became Veterans Day. So change in meaning of these commemorations happens often.
The Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar and all their seasonal feasts are governed by the moon. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot are seasons of repentance and they, with Hanukah, pretty much define the Jewish year. The Jewish calendar contains days and periods that remind its people of the Covenant and the promises God made long ago. To some extent, the Christian calendar does the same thing.
Tomorrow is January 1 in our present calendar. Long before Jesus was born, the first day of the New Year was March 1st. When that old parliamentarian Julius Caesar came along, he moved it to January 1. But in Gaul and later France it stayed March 1st as it did in Germany. So you see calendars can change depending on who is in charge.
After the shock of the crucifixion and then seeing Jesus alive again, the disciples probably laid low trying to understand what comes next. The bible says the doors were locked against the Hierarchy. But being faithful Jews they probably did observe the Sabbath; it was, after all, their tradition. In time they felt the need for a different day to remember Jesus, to distinguish Christians from the Jews. So they chose Sunday; Sunday became the day of the resurrection, a day to gather to eat together, to pray and encourage one another.
Apparently the transfer from the Sabbath to an early form of the Eucharistic meal was a gradual process and depended largely on the location of the individual community. Research now shows that the Breaking of the Bread and the Prayers were common by the end of the first century. But it was not until the year 321 that the Sunday Eucharist was common to all churches of the Empire. And that was by law from our old friend Constantine.
Any celebration of what this man Jesus meant to his followers in Galilee and in Jerusalem had to be centered on his resurrection. Rome and the Temple Jews had nailed him to a cross until he was dead, but two days later he was alive again. So the question was how to make sense of his shameful death, his dramatic rising to life and his ascension to the Father.
That remembrance we call Easter.
Some Jewish Christians said Easter should be on the day after Passover, the day after the 15th of Nisan in the Jewish calendar. The establishment of Easter could only be settled after Sunday became the regular day for worship. It was well into the third century when Easter was finally placed on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after March 21. And there it sits today although some feel we should have a fixed, un moveable date
New Christians were baptized on the night before Easter Day, a time we call the Great Vigil of Easter. Preparation for baptism involved study of the scriptures and of the history and customs of the faith. So the students called catechumens were called to two days of fasting; later in time the fasting became one week and still later the church ruled that the preparation time should be 40 days. Today we call it Lent.
Now the Jews had a celebration some 50 days after Passover. It was the festival of Weeks, the harvesting of the first fruits of the season. The Christian calendar took that time, 50 days after Easter, used the Jewish name, Pentecost, and called the day a celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit.
So the Easter cycle in our liturgical calendar begins with 40 days of Lent, concluding with Holy Week with the Vigil, then Easter Day and finally Pentecost.
So that makes up the Easter cycle, the continuum of days of purpose and remembrance, a part of the liturgical year.
We are, of course, in the midst of the Christmas season. Christmas, its four previous Sundays that we call Advent, and six days from today, the Epiphany with its following Sundays make up the other basic cycle of the church year. This is the Christmas cycle.
The Winter Solstice at the days of the early church was on January 6, a day of celebration for now the days will be longer. When the church settled on the date for Christmas, December 25, they adapted January 6th as the time of the coming of the Magi, Jesus’ baptism, and the wedding at Cana. So the Christmas cycle is Advent, Christmas, Epiphany and the Sundays that follow until Lent. These are the seasons of Christ’s origin and the beginning of God’s messenger on earth.
All other Sundays of the year are called Ordinary Time or Sundays after Pentecost.
So the liturgical year is organized to remember Jesus, his life and its meaning for us. Together, these seasons of Easter and Christmas are the Temporal cycle. The other collection of days of remembrance is the Sanctoral cycle, the calendar of people, of saints over time that we remember as being important to the faith – people like Paul, Peter, James, Stephen, and the man who gave his name to this parish, David of Wales, the Abbot of a monastery and a Bishop. Today there are also more modern names like Elizabeth Seton, Frederick Douglas, Oscar Romero and John Sebastian Bach; this is the Sanctoral cycle. We have a big book that has stories and prayers about these saints.
I have on occasion been asked why the church jams the story of Jesus into a few months of the year. They say, You have this beautiful Christmas story, the little baby born in a horse stall and then the baptism and the wonderful tale of Jesus making wine out of pure water at Cana, and then, in a few weeks, bang—ashes on the forehead, gloom and doom until the real gloom at Good Friday. But sunshine returns on Easter Day and the Holy Spirit takes over for Jesus, and that’s all the action for the year. The whole thing is over in four months. What’s the matter with the rest of the year?
Well, I think, if you can see the year as these two cycles of Christmas and Easter, of new hope with God’s son and his sacrifice for all of us, it makes sense of why the church over many years put the year together this way. It no longer seems jammed into four months, and the rest of the year can be used to communicate the stories of this man we follow.
Addition to Seasons of the Liturgical year Milton H. Coleman – 2018
This period of the year we call Lent is perhaps the least understood, the most confusing section of the church year. What is Lent and what are we supposed to do in Lent?
The word Lent comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning Spring. Remember that when it snows on Ash Wednesday.
The gospels describe the final days of Jesus’ life, his crucifixion, entombment and his rising to life. Memory of that time gradually resulted in the setting aside of a day that is Easter.
It was common practice to prepare for celebrations in Jewish tradition and in later Christian practice by fasting, by refraining from food and drink. So the church decided at some point to designate the Friday and Saturday before Easter as fast days; and that practice continued for many years in Jerusalem and perhaps other parts of the Roman Empire.
But somebody decided that two days of preparation was insufficient so in Alexandria and in Syria the fast became six days. A fast of no food at all or one with no food until the 9th hour, about 3 in the afternoon, will induce strong feelings of the purpose of food. The fast was intended to force remembrance of the sacrifice Jesus made at Golgotha. The six day fast of that era is the basis of what we call Holy Week.
The church in the 3rd century was scattered; the centers where it grew were places like Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Rome and, of course, Jerusalem. When Constantine became the Roman Emperor, he demanded that the church be unified in its theology and practice, basically for political reasons. A vigorous, unified church would help him keep the empire under control. A byproduct of that big change in the state of the church was the shift to a three week fast, beginning in Rome, then moving to other lands.So by the mid fourth century, we had a Lent of three weeks leading to Easter.
Of course it didn’t stop there: one of the Ecumenical Councils settled on a 40 day Lent in imitation of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. If you count back from Holy Saturday to the first Sunday of Lent and exclude Sundays from being fast days, you have only 36 days. Not good for a 40 day Lent. So of course they added 4 days and presto, we have Ash Wednesday as the beginning of Lent.
The Old Testament frequently mentions the use of ashes as expressions of humility. Ashes are a sign of human mortality and thus penitence so it was natural to add them to the rite for Ash Wednesday. When they are applied to your forehead, the presider says, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return”. Ashes today come from the burning of palms from last year’s Palm Sunday.
I tried that one year, burning the palms; the burning is fine but then you have to grind them into a powder and that did not go well. Today we buy ashes in little plastic bags.
The the 40 days were Lent until the 6th century when it was decided we needed to prepare for the preparation of Lent and so they added three more Sundays before Ash Wednesday called Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima. If you grew up with the 1928 prayer book you remember Pre-Lent; they were removed from the current prayer book.
Well, so much for how Lent came about.
Back in the days of the 3 week Lent, there seems to be two basic practices in Lent. In one case as people began to flock to Christianity, they had to be educated in the faith – what we call today, formation. The church used Lent to instruct these adults, to prepare them for baptism. There is one story that these students, called catechumens were permitted to attend the first part of the Eucharist, the service of the word. Then they had to leave at the start of the Eucharistic prayer.
The other Lenten practice had to do with people who, in the mind of the church, had committed notorious sins. Lent was the time to confess such sins and to repent of their actions. If done they could be received back into the church at Easter.
Over time, of course, the church ran out of new adults to baptize. So the purpose of Lent had to adapt to the culture of the day.
The Book of Common Prayer says that all Christians are invited to the observance of a Holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial, and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word.
Holy Week is much more of a liturgical exercise. The drama of Palm Sunday is followed by the clashes Jesus had with the high priest and with the temple practices during that week. Then on Maundy Thursday we remember the institution of the Lat Supper. Good Friday, the crucifixion and Saturday the Vigil of Easter brings the whole paschal mystery together.
Holy Week can be very intentional; you can spend some time reflecting of what Jesus’ sacrifice has done for us; you can concentrate your prayer that week asking God to inspire men and women about the world to seek the kingdom of God on earth.
Holy Week is that opportunity. Holy Week is the original Lent.