The Story of the Church Calendar
The historic Church has sought to place memorials of Jesus everywhere. This is a right desire (Deut. 6:5-9) and the calendar did not escape the zeal to memorialize. But because what we are looking to memorialize is a whole story, the memorial feasts of the church calendar have themselves formed into a story.
Advent celebrates the longing that God built into the world before Christ. It leads to the celebration of the fulfillment of the longing of the Jews as we celebrate the incarnation of Jesus with the twelve days of Christmas. Though God has drawn near throughout our history, God’s people had always been barred from the inner life of God. But the Son of God became a man and opened up direct fellowship with God. In his flesh he became the door to that life.
God has always been the savior, but by taking on a body in order to dwell among us, Jesus became savior in a new way. He brought a salvation that was deeper, broader, higher, and longer in every way. So much so that all the salvations that God had wrought in the past turned out to have been shadows of what Jesus came to do in the flesh.
Epiphany is the first day after Christmas and is the celebration of the coming of the wise men to worship Jesus. As the first Gentiles come to worship Jesus, in them we see that Jesus is the fulfillment of the longing, not just of the Jews but of all off the peoples and nations of the world. Just as the gospel went first to the descendants of Abraham, and then to the Gentiles, we move from Christmas to Epiphany, but that is just the first act.
Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Resurrection Sunday together make up the next holiday, the cycle of Easter. The word “Easter” is Anglo Saxon for spring equinox. Easter was calculated using the equinox, and the term for the equinox (Oestra), according to the church historian Bede, gave its name to the Feast of the Resurrection. (Incidentally, the nation of Austria is also named after the spring equinox.)
We used to worship a goddess that was said to be the power behind the equinox, but she has been forgotten. And the heavens, which shout the praises of God, have come to be recognized and understood for what they have actually been saying all along. The word ‘Easter’ has been cleansed as the gospel has triumphed. Easter is now the festival day in which we celebrate the fact that winter is not just overcome every year; the winter of the world was overcome when the true spring began. When the Son of God burst forth from the grave as he was raised from the dead by the power of the Spirit of God, the winter of the world was wrecked.
Adam and Eve cast the world into winter with our sin, but God soon began giving hints that the winter would be broken. T.S. Elliot, in his poem ‘Little Gidding,’ calls these hints, “midwinter spring”, where a day with winter on each side is bright with the hint of a coming spring.
When the short day is brightest with frost and fire . . . stirs the dumb spirit, not with wind, but with pentecostal fire.
All throughout the Old Testament there are midwinter spring days, where spring itself does not come, but God makes it clear that the spring is coming. Resurrection is coming. History itself will have a spring equinox, when history turns from winter to spring.
This is why we call feast of the resurrection Easter. This is why we named it after Spring. The true meaning of Spring, the actual reason that God set up the cycle of the equinoxes and seasons, is that God is a God who brings life from death. So everything in spring is a legitimate symbol to be used in our celebration of the resurrection. Be it eggs, rabbits, flowers, dressing the children in new outfits, or seeing the ladies in beautiful spring clothes, it is all a wonderful and legitimate way of celebrating the resurrection. Because when Jesus came back from the dead the world's winter was broken and the spring came.
Jesus' resurrection is the turning point in history that then leads to the revolution of the ascension. Forty days after the resurrection, Jesus ascended into heaven (Acts 1:9). Ascension Thursday is the day that the church has traditionally set aside to celebrate that installation of Jesus. At the ascension, Jesus was anointed as King of kings and Lord of lords. Then he took the throne at the right hand of God the Father.
It was a revolution because every authority in the pre-Ascension world was unseated by the work of Jesus. "And having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it" (Col 2:15). After the resurrection all authority on heaven and on earth was given to Jesus (Matt. 28:18). When Jesus "was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God" (Mark 16:19), the revolution was accomplished, complete, and finished as Jesus was installed as the ruler of all.
Daniel recieves a vision of the day when the Son of Adam would come to heaven. He gives us a view at the other end of the journey of Jesus' ascension. The Apostles saw him leave for heaven. Daniel is given a vision of Jesus arriving in heaven. "I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed" (Dan 7:13-14). In the ascension, the authority of mankind, the authority that was forfeited when Adam sinned, was restored to Mankind in the second Adam.
But that restoration does not just remain with Jesus. Ten days later, on the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit of God was poured out on the church and the final restoration of humanity in and through the church began. The Church is the body of Christ, and when the Spirit was poured on Jesus, as he was anointed the King of kings and the Perfect High Priest of the heavenly tabernacle, the Spirit flowed down his head, down his beard, and onto his body (Ps. 133). When Jesus is anointed King he gives gifts to his people (Eph. 4:8). But the first gift that he gave was himself in the gift of his Spirit. Hence the name ‘Spiritual’ Gifts (1 Cor. 12:1). And through these gifts, the restoration and perfecting of his people (that will continue into eternity) both begins and is guaranteed by the giving of the Spirit.
Next we come to Halloween and All Saints Day. Halloween was not, and has never been, a pagan holiday. The Christian calendar, because of the Hebrew influence, has always begun its celebration on what the Romans considered to be the day before. The first days went from evening to morning (see Gen. 1), but the Romans reckoned their days from midnight to midnight. Out of Hebrew habit, the feast day celebrations began the evening before the day of celebration. Because much of the calendrical reckoning was done with Roman calendars, it felt as if the celebrations were beginning a day early.
What this says about the different views of history is a fun question, but for now, what is important is that is how the party on the eve of a celebration came to find itself on the calendar as its own event with its own traditions and activities. The word 'Halloween' is the contraction of All Hallows' Eve. All Hallows' (or All Saint's) is the celebration of the work of God through the church. It is the day when we make the devil-crushing feet of the Body of Christ dance at the honor and the joy of serpent crushing (Rom. 16:20).
All Saints' is the final hurrah of the church calendar after which we return again to Advent. Longing remembered becomes longing fulfilled. And so we continue the celebration.
This longing also becomes a reminder that all of our longing and all of our love for God will find it's fulfillment in the return of Christ, the second advent. When Jesus comes again bringing the final resurrection of the body, followed by the judgment of Christ and an eternity of life with God for the just and eternal death for those outside of Christ, we find the ultimate fulfillment of all of history.
This is why there are no old world pagan holidays left on the calendar handed down to us from Christendom. There have been a handful of romantic poets and secularists that have wanted to keep the holidays while jettisoning Jesus, but they have had to make things up and grasp at straws. The pagan calendars have all been forgotten along with their gods. The closest that we get is May Day, but no one even remembers who Maia was, let alone how her day was celebrated in the past.
There are still a handful of names that have remained on the calendar from ancient pagan times. Each of the seven names of the days of the week are derived from the Roman and Norse names of the gods of the seven visible planets, (Sun's Day, Moon's Day, Tiu's Day, Woden's Day, Thor's Day, Freya's Day, Saturn's Day), but the way back to worship those gods, or to the worship of the hosts of heaven at all, has been forever blocked and dammed by the resurrection of Jesus.
Now the planets are in the right hand of Jesus (Rev. 1:16). The seven spirits represented by the seven candlesticks of the temple turned out to be but a shadow of the seven spirits of the seven planets as they danced in light and glory before the Holy of Holies built without hands (Rev. 1:4, 12-13; Heb. 9:1-3, 23-24). The principalities of the planets were created to lead us into the presence of God. Though in the new covenant that job has been taken over by the church (Eph. 3:10), there is no reason to object to the use of the names of these forgotten gods, if only to remember that they have been forgotten. Having been overshadowed by the brightness of the glory of a crucified and risen Christ, each day is a reminder that all time is in the hands of Jesus.
So as we seek to recover and reinvigorate the church calendar, we should remember that the calendar is not merely a reminder to engage in some extra religious activities. We are remembering what Christ has done and is doing in history. And the remembering causes us to celebrate. The church calendar is to remind us of the great works of God on our behalf, and to mark out the time of our lives according to what God has done in Christ. The primary purpose of the church calendar is to give a rhythm and vocabulary to our joy, freedom, and hope.