Exhortation on the Liturgical Calendar

Prepared by Chris Schlect of Trinity Reformed Church (Moscow, Idaho).


This is the end of the year, the last Sunday in the liturgical season of “Trinity.” Next Sunday marks the beginning of a new season, the first season of the year, Advent. This change of seasons, this end of one year and the beginning of another, invites us to reflect on time.

In the creation account that opens the book of Genesis, a noteworthy feature of Creation is the marking out of time: “the evening and a morning were the first day,” “the evening and the morning were the second day,” and so on. History’s first week dazzles us with the appearance of new sun, moon, stars, seas and dry land, plants and animals, man and woman. It should also dazzle us with the attention given to time.

In creation God gathered evenings and mornings into days; he grouped seven of them into a unit we call the “week.” He set the seventh day of the week apart from the others and called it holy. In history’s first week, God showed us that time will also be ordered in units lengthier than days and weeks, for on the fourth day He created lights in the firmament—the stars—for marking out seasons and years.

Time is in the very constitution of the universe. We can no more ignore time than we can ignore the earth itself, or the sea, plants and animals, or even the nose that God placed in the middle of your face. We must order time, and how we do it matters. It is appropriate that we gather the various hours of the day, our evenings and our mornings, into units called “days.” It is important that we collect our days into sets of seven; our weeks should consist of seven days, not six or eight or ten days. And we must organize our seasons—seedtime and summer and harvest and winter—into years.

Calendars are just as basic to human experience as other aspects of creation such as marriage, eating and drinking, labor and rest. Ordering time is inescapable.

How we order time reveals our values. (This is true also of how we order our marriages, our meals, and our work.) The Romans reflected their values in their calendar. They named January in honor of Janus, god of doors; hence January opens the year. They named February after their sacred season of purification called februo. March honored Mars, god of war, and was in their earliest times the first month of their 10-month year. April comes from the Latin aperire, which means “to open”; thus April is the month when trees open their leaves. May is probably named after Maiesta, goddess of honor. June honors Juno, queen of Rome’s gods. September comes from septem, or seven, and was originally the seventh month. October, November, and December come from the words octo, novem, and decem, marking their respective places as the eighth, ninth, and tenth months. Julius Caesar, a prideful man, renamed the fifth month after himself; so what had been called quintiles (five) became “July”. Julius’ successor liked this idea and gave a new name to the sixth month; sextilis (six) became “August.” Indeed, the names we give to time carry important meanings.

The ancient Saxons of northern Europe also honored their gods by naming time after them. Sunday and Monday honor the sun and moon, and they honored the gods Tiea, Woden, Thor and Freya with Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.
It is a wonderful tribute to the Gospel’s converting power that the Roman and Saxon names for our months and days are almost completely stripped of their pagan significance. Our idea of Wednesday has little to do with Woden, even as Woden has no part in true deity.

Far more important than the pagans, God assigned significance to certain days and seasons for His people. In Leviticus 23 He instructed His people to mark out various feasts throughout the year: Passover, Firstfruits, Pentecost, Trumpets (or Rosh HaShanah), Atonement (or Yom Kippur), Tabernacles, and Passover. In Esther we read that Mordecai established another feast called Purim. And in the intertestamental period, the Jews established the festival of dedication, or Hanukkah, when they rededicated the temple after the Greeks had defiled it. John informs us that Jesus participated in Hannukah (10:22-23).
We have seen (1) that Creation shows us that calendars of some sort are inescapable. Also, (2) Leviticus 23 suggests that we use time to remember God’s redemptive acts in history, and (3) the examples of Mordecai and Jesus indicate that God gives His people liberty to set aside special days and seasons in commemoration of events in redemptive history. Therefore, God gives His people the sanctified discretion to regularize seasons of feasting and fasting on the calendar as a way to remember His mighty works.

Next week we begin a new year with the season of Advent. Advent—the coming of Christ–is followed by Christmas, His nativity. Following Christmas is Epiphany in recognition of Jesus’ teaching ministry. Then follows Lent, when we remember Jesus’ suffering, which leads us of course to Easter, celebrating His victory over death. Then comes Ascension, and finally, Pentecost, the coming of the Spirit.

Of course, if we do not mark these seasons, the vacuum will inevitably fill with other feasts and seasons. Every culture marks time somehow. We measure the rhythms of the year by the World Series, college bowl games, Super Bowl Sunday, Spring Break, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, First Day of School, Day-After-Thanksgiving-Bargain-Shopping-Day, and so on. The question we face is not whether we mark out time periods and name them, but which time periods and which names we will use. Marking time is inescapable, it’s built into creation itself. If we do not reckon time according to events in redemptive history, another reckoning will take its place.

The Scriptures urge us to guard against replacing substance with mere outward forms, and this is always a danger with seasonal recognition as it is with any other matter of life. Of course we may not bind anyone’s consciences with our proclamations of fasting or feasting. Nonetheless, such abuses of the calendar are not arguments against the calendar itself, any more than abuses of other creation ordinances, such as work or marriage, argue against work or marriage themselves.

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~ by Michael on December 5, 2006.

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