Introducing the Church Calendar
When you get to the reading schedule, you’ll notice the peculiar detail that we’re starting our reading in the middle of the books. That’s because, to borrow a phrase from TV news breaks, we’re joining a program already in progress. From early on in the history of the church, communities of followers of Jesus-particularly communities of monks and nuns-began to put some structure to their common life of prayer, worship, and reading. They generally organized their devotional life around the major seasons of the church year, also known as the liturgical year (Liturgy basically means, ‘pattern of worship’). While more contemporary churches like ours tend only to celebrate a few major holidays, in the more ancient church traditions the year is divided into whole seasons of fasting and feasting. While there are some differences among the various communities, the ‘liturgical’ churches all basically follow this pattern in their calendars:
- Advent: the month of December, a fasting period with the theme of waiting for the coming of Jesus. Besides specifically being a preparation for Christmas, Advent is a time to reflect in general on things we are waiting for. And as we look back to Jesus’ birth, we also look forward to the time when Jesus will return and set everything right in the world;
- Christmas: a 12-day feast to celebrate Jesus’ birth and his promise to one day come again;
- Epiphany: something of a break between the major seasons, the Epiphany Season is kicked off by the day of Epiphany, January 6th. Epiphany Day is a commemoration of the visit of the wise men to the child Jesus;
- Lent: a forty-day period of fasting during which we grieve the ways our sins separate us from God. This forty-day fast is modeled after the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness, fasting and confronting the devil. The season of Lent takes us to Jesus’ crucifixion and death on Good Friday.
- Easter: a long season of feasting to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection;
- Ordinary time: another break, of about 6 months, between the Easter feast and the Advent fast.
Introduction to Advent and Christmas Readings
- The selections from the gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John will contain some perspectives on Jesus’ birth, some elements of which you may recognize from traditional Christmas nativity scenes.
- The readings from other New Testament books reflect on Jesus and his purpose on earth.
- The special Old Testament readings for Advent can be a bit more difficult to deal with. Obviously, the Old Testament was written before Jesus was born, so what can they help us understand about him during this season? The key to understanding these readings is recognizing that Old Testament prophets would occasionally get a glimpse of a future where God would come to earth to alter the course of history on earth. Today we can see how some of their prophecies anticipated a person in the lineage of King David who would fill that role.
For example, take the following verses from the selections leading up to Christmas day:
And the Lord himself, the King of Israel,
will live among you!
“The Redeemer will come to Jerusalem
to buy back those in Israel
who have turned from their sins,”
says the Lord.
Both of these speak generally about Jesus’ arrival and mission, even though the authors didn’t know anything about him.
- John the Baptist-John the Baptist was Jesus’ cousin. He was a powerful prophet in his own right, but he is best known as a herald for Jesus. In odd years, during the last week of Advent, as the time of waiting for Jesus draws to a climax, our gospel readings focus on John, the one who came just before Jesus, to let everyone know that Jesus would soon arrive;
The ‘Second Coming’- Advent serves a dual purpose. It’s a preparation for celebrating Christmas, and also a time for remembering Jesus’ promise that he would someday return. The New Testament readings during the latter half of Advent and into the first couple of days of Christmas address this theme of the Second Coming. In the Bible, the Second Coming is the end of the age, or even the end of this world and the beginning of a new one; so it is also frequently referred to as ‘the last days’;
Jesus’ birth-as you might expect, for several days starting Christmas Eve, we’ll read the stories surrounding Jesus’ birth;
- Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies and expectations-the Old Testament readings during the twelve days of Christmas are prophecies Jesus fulfills.
- Reflections on Jesus’ nature-the New Testament readings during the Christmas season are various reflections on Jesus’ nature;
- The ‘I am’ statements-the Christmas gospel readings also follow this theme of the nature of Jesus, by leading us through a series of ‘I am’ statements Jesus makes in the Gospel of John;
- Jesus as Savior for the whole world-Epiphany is the celebration of the coming of the Wise Men to pay respects to Jesus. Since the Wise Men were non-Jews who nonetheless recognized this Jewish child as king, Epiphany is a day to celebrate the fact that Jesus is a rescuer not just of Jews-as, probably surprising to us, many of the earliest followers of Jesus were tempted to think-but of anyone in the whole world. The readings on the day of Epiphany follow that theme.
Introduction to Epiphany Readings
Epiphany (January 6th) is the day we remember the Magi who traveled from distant lands to do honor to the child Jesus, and Ash Wednesday is a day of repentance. So, the readings on and around Epiphany temporarily break from the flow to instead address the theme, ‘All the Nations of the World’; and the readings on and around Ash Wednesday address the themes of sinfulness and repentance.
Introduction to Lent and Holy Week Readings
You might notice that our reading schedule for Lent has some readings that don’t exactly follow the normal reading schedule. These special readings have some significance for the historical Lenten season. In odd years there are some readings on the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday which set the tone for the forty days.
- Jonah 3-4: The prophet Jonah travels to Ninevah to warn of their impending destruction in forty days. The King of Ninevah responds by ordering that everyone fast and pray to God to prevent the disaster — and it works.
- Hebrews 12:1-14: God does indeed invoke discipline, but only to those whom he loves and only for the greater good.
- Luke 18:9-14: Jesus illustrates that while fasting and obeying are good, it’s all for naught without humility.
- Psalm 102: A special prayer for the occasion of being overwhelmed by some difficulty — could this situation relate to something you’re praying for during these 40 days?
- Psalm 130: Another plea for help from God.
There are also several readings for Holy Week, the week between Lent and the day of Easter Sunday. These readings find lasting significance in the birth and resurrection of Jesus. The readings from the book of John cover some of the story between Jesus’ trial and death. If you read carefully, you will spot a special connection between Zechariah 9:9-12 and John 12:9-19. Zechariah predicts one of the circumstances of the anticipated king of Jerusalem, and in John, Jesus fulfills it. Also, the readings from Philippians 3 and 4 bear some testament to power of the death of Jesus.
During all of Lent, our readings have the subtle flavor of fasting and repentance. In Holy Week, though, that flavor really comes to the fore. To some extent, we briefly digress from our normal reading schedule to instead read Bible passages which quickly build toward the commemoration of Jesus’ crucifixion on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter Sunday. We’ll pray more psalms than we usually do, and they’ll be psalms that match the gospel reading. Similarly in the New Testament readings, 2 Corinthians will be joined by seasonally appropriate passages from other New Testament letters (and, as I mentioned before, we return to finish up 1 Corinthians after Easter). The Old Testament readings for the week are where the themes of fasting, mourning, and grief reach actually reach their highest pitch: we’ll be reading Lamentations, which is a poem the prophet Jeremiah wrote when he saw Jerusalem destroyed by foreign invaders.
Then, the mood completely changes on Easter Sunday, as we suddenly shift from mourning to dancing and a new season of celebration begins.
Introduction to Easter Readings
Easter Season is the biggest feasting season of the church year. Easter Season is all about celebrating Jesus’ victory over sin, death, and the devil. There are three highlights of the season:
Easter Sunday-the commemoration of Jesus’ resurrection from the grave;
Ascension Day-the celebration of Jesus’ ascension into heaven, to sit enthroned at his Father’s right hand as the rightful ruler of heaven and earth;
Pentecost Sunday-the celebration of the day on which Jesus fills his followers with the Holy Spirit, empowering them to spread the news of his victory to the rest of the world. This moment is arguably the climax of Jesus’ life work; more than once, Jesus says that the reason he lived and died was to gain the authority to fill his followers with the Holy Spirit.
Easter season starts, of course, with Easter. It lasts seven weeks, imitating the biblical story, in which the resurrected Jesus spends forty days with his followers before ascending into heaven, and then sends the Holy Spirit to fall on his followers ten days later, during the feast of Pentecost (which means ‘fiftieth day’).
During the first week after Easter, on Ascension Day (the 40th day after Easter), and on Pentecost Sunday, some or all of the readings depart from their normal schedule to match the day’s theme.