The sanctification of time in the church year

Other than celebrating the two high holy days of Christmas and Easter, I did not follow the liturgical calendar growing up; it was never highlighted in my church. It wasn’t really until after college, when I became involved in a denominationally diverse Christian community, that I realized what I was missing out on, and since then the liturgical calendar is something I’ve learned to appreciate and observe—at least its main seasons: Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter, which concludes with the feast of Pentecost. The observance of these seasons is not mandated in scripture, but the church has devised them as a way to help us relive the story of God together throughout the year and to encourage us to meditate over an extended period on key mysteries of the faith.

12 feast days
Russian icon depicting the twelve great feasts of the Orthodox Church, plus the “feast of feasts,” the Resurrection, in the center, ca. 1903.

Wendy M. Wright has aided me greatly in my understanding of the set-apart days and seasons of the church year—their history, significance, and how they can be used as tools for spiritual growth. In her introduction to The Rising: Living the Mysteries of Lent, Easter, and Pentecost (part of an excellent trilogy of books written from an ecumenical perspective), she describes how and why the church has structured time. This passage is quoted here with her permission:  

Not all time is the same. It can be heavy enough to be a burden or so light it flies by. It is configured with peaks and valleys and long stretches of flatland between. Time can be bitter or sweet, free or constraining, endless in rapture, tedium or terror, or so elusive there never seems to be enough of it. Time, like space, has texture, density, and character.

Time’s variousness is sometimes happenstance. It occurs without our intervention. But we do sometimes have a hand in shaping the contours of time.

Deep in the religious instinct of humankind there is the desire to order time so that the invisible, sacred dimension of life can be apprehended. Religious traditions the world over have created a latticework of windows in time—holy days and seasons—through which to peer into the mystery at the heart of all that is. So too have Christians from their beginnings structured time. The natural rhythms of the days, nights, and seasons become the vessels in which the sacred story of God-with-us is manifest. The drama of the life of the carpenter from Nazareth is played out on the stage of the liturgical year, as is the unfolding story of the church with its apostles, saints, and martyrs. Through this dramatic medium we are carried into the timelessness that surrounds historic time. Human and divine meet and touch. The liturgical year is the medium through which the Christian community sanctifies time—makes it holy.

Liturgical time also sanctifies those who enter into it. To venture into the movement of the church calendar is to risk transformation through the divine touch. It is to be ushered into the dynamics of incarnation, death, resurrection, and enspiriting. It is to be changed by and into the mysteries celebrated. The cyclical nature of the liturgical year in fact encourages this transformative process. Year after year we come around to the same church seasons. Year after year we experience the great feasts. Each year brings a new learning, a new changing, a new grasp of the meaning encoded in the rituals, hymns, prayers, images, and texts particular to each holy day. Each year we encounter the feasts and their mysteries at a new moment in our lives. Gradually we have the threads of our own small stories woven into the tapestry of the great stories of the faith. The layers of our lives are sewn together by the stitching of the Christian year.

There is a rich texture and density to the liturgical calendar that makes the taste of our historical moment succulent and nourishing. Our present prayers, born as they are from the limits of our individual and history-bound realities, are given depth and substance by being joined to the centuries of prayer uttered in different languages and in varied cultural expressions. Yet we pray through and in the same season, with the same symbols that continue to unfold their ancient meaning in ever new ways. The liturgical calendar is the journal that has seen recorded on its pages the aspirations and anguish of the community of the people called Christian. As we enter into its seasons we enter into the shared life of that people as it has discovered and celebrated its faith through time.

Not all Christian churches observe the church calendar in quite the same way. For highly liturgical denominations, virtually every day offers an observance of some sort. Other denominations focus on the high watermarks of the liturgical year: the great historic feasts of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. Either way, the calendar provides an entry into the mysteries of the faith. Time opens out to eternity for a day or a season and we find ourselves present to the reality that we celebrate. (11–12)

The content at Art & Theology will for the most part be seasonally motivated, providing multimedia immersion into whatever chunk of sacred time the church has demarcated—starting with Lent, which the Western church observes starting February 10 this year.

For more on the church year, see the short video introduction below, produced by Christ Church Anglican in Overland Park, Kansas.

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