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The New Handbook of the Christian Year
Based on the Revised Common Lectionary
By Hoyt L. Hickman, Don E. Saliers, Laurence Hull Stookey, James F. White
Abingdon PressCopyright © 1992 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
THE CHRISTIAN YEAR
A. The Common Calendar
First Sunday of Advent to Fourth Sunday of Advent
First Sunday After Christmas
New Year's Eve/Day or Holy Name of Jesus
Second Sunday After Christmas
SEASON AFTER EPIPHANY
First Sunday After Epiphany (Baptism of the Lord)
Second Sunday After Epiphany to Eighth Sunday After Epiphany
Last Sunday After Epiphany (Transfiguration Sunday)
First Sunday of Lent to Fifth Sunday of Lent
Monday in Holy Week
Tuesday in Holy Week
Wednesday in Holy Week
Second Sunday of Easter to Sixth Sunday of Easter
Ascension (Sixth Thursday of Easter)
Seventh Sunday of Easter
SEASON AFTER PENTECOST
Trinity Sunday (First Sunday After Pentecost)
Sundays After Pentecost
Christ the King (Last Sunday After Pentecost)
Presentation (February 2)
Annunciation (March 25)
Visitation (May 31)
Holy Cross (September 14)
All Saints (November 1 or First Sunday in November)
Thanksgiving DayCHAPTER 2
THE ORIGIN OF THE CHRISTIAN YEAR
A. Time Is Important
Christianity takes time seriously. History is where God is made known. Christians have no knowledge of God without time, for it is through actual events happening in historical time that God is revealed. God chooses to make the divine nature and will known through events that take place within the same calendar that measures the daily lives of men and women. God's self-disclosures take place within the same course of time as political events: "In the days of Herod king of Judaea" (Luke 1:5 NEB), or "it took place when Quirinius was governor of Syria" (Luke 2:2 NEB). God's time is our time, too, marked by a temporal order called a calendar.
When we encounter one of the Eastern religions in which historical time may be insignificant, we realize just how crucial time is to Christian faith. Christianity talks not of salvation in general but of salvation accomplished by specific actions of God at definite times and places. It speaks of climactic events and a finale. For Christianity, the ultimate meanings of life are revealed not by universal, timeless statements but by concrete acts of God. In the fullness of time, God invades our history, assumes our flesh, heals, teaches, and eats with sinners. There is a specific historical and spatial setting to it all: "It was winter, and the festival of the Dedication was being held in Jerusalem. Jesus was walking in the temple precincts, in Solomon's Portico" (John 10:22-23 NEB). Christ is put to death on a specific day related to the Passover festival of that year, and he rises on the third day. It is the same time we inhabit, the time in which we give birth, earn a living, grow older, and face death.
The centrality of time in Christianity is reflected in Christian worship. This worship, like the rest of life, is structured on recurring rhythms of the day, the week, and the year. Far from trying to escape time, Christian worship uses time as one of its basic structures. Our present time becomes the occasion of encounter with God's acts in time past and future. Salvation, as we experience it in worship, is a reality based on temporal events through which God comes to us. How we structure time enables us to commemorate and reexperience those very acts on which salvation is grounded. Christian worship is built on the foundation of time.
The way we use our time in daily life is one of the best indications of what is really important to us. We can always be counted on to find time for those things we consider most important, though we may not always be willing to admit to others, or even to ourselves, what our real priorities are. Whether it is financial gain, political action, or family activities, we find time for putting first those things that matter most to us. Time talks. When we give it to others, we are really giving ourselves. Time, then, inevitably expresses our priorities. How we allocate this limited resource reveals what we value most.
The church also shows what is most important to its life by the way it keeps time. Here again the use of time reveals priorities of faith and practice. One answer to "What do Christians profess?" could be "Look how they keep time!" This will become clear as we examine how Christians have kept time, beginning with the New Testament church.
The earliest portions of the New Testament are imbued with a sense of time as kairos, the right or proper time present, in which God has brought a new dimension to reality. "The time has come; the kingdom of God is upon you" (Mark 1:15 NEB).
Yet already within the New Testament itself—when, for instance, Luke writes his Gospel and church history begins with the book of Acts—we see the beginning of a tendency to look back, to recall the time past in which things had happened. Remembering the past comes to be almost as important as anticipating the future before the first century is ended.
The priorities of the early church's faith are disclosed by the way Christians of the second, third, and fourth centuries organized time. This was not by a systematic or planned method but was, rather, the church's spontaneous response to "the events that have happened among us" (Luke 1:1 NEB). The same type of response, the keeping memories alive, also prompted the writing of the Gospels that others might be able to follow "the traditions handed down to us by the original eyewitnesses and servants of the Gospel" (Luke 1:2 NEB). The use of time was not as systematic as the Evangelist's efforts "to write a connected narrative" (Luke 1:3 NEB), but the practice of organizing time was already present in Judaism and has had almost as persistent an influence in shaping Christian memories as have the written Gospels. Thus, for Christians, Easter is an annual event just as much as it is a narrative in writing. Even today, Christmas is for most people far more a yearly occurrence than a nativity story.
What was the faith of the early church as witnessed to by the church's use of time? It was, above all else, faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Second, it was trust in the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit, known and experienced in the holy church. And third, it was belief that witnessed to those signs by which God had become manifest among us in Jesus Christ. While this is not a systematic summation of Christian belief, it gives a clear indication of the heart of the faith of the early church, revealed by how the church kept time.
The early church's calendar shows an implicitly trinitarian structure: belief in the Father made manifest, the Son risen, and the Holy Spirit indwelling the church. It will be helpful to probe more deeply into the history of how the early church kept time so that we may compare its practices with ours. We may find reasons to readjust our priorities in the light of those of the heroic age of Christianity. Observation of early practices provides important insights into Christian faith. We are, in fact, doing liturgical theology, using practice as our data for theological reflection.
B. The Lord's Day
The foundation of the Christian calendar is what the New Testament calls "the Lord's day" (Rev. 1:10 NEB), the first day of each week. The earliest Christians received from ancient Israel the pattern of the seven-day week. As Jews they had observed the seventh day of the week (sunset Friday to sunset Saturday) as the Sabbath, in remembrance that God rested on the seventh day after the six days of creation (Gen. 2:2; Exod. 20:8-11; 31:1217).
The New Testament points to the first day of the week as a special time for worship. Paul told the Christians in Corinth to set aside money for the collection on the first day of the week (I Cor. 16:2). At Troas, after talking until midnight on Saturday, Paul broke bread (presumably the Eucharist) and remained in conversation with Christians there until Sunday dawned (Acts 20:7, 11). The writer of Revelation relates, "It was on the Lord's day, and I was caught up by the Spirit" (1:10 NEB). The Lord's Day had become a familiar Christian term for the first day of the week by the end of the first century.
The celebration of the Lord's Day has from the beginning been a way in which the church has witnessed to its faith. On the first day of creation, "God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light; and God saw that the light was good, and he separated light from darkness. He called the light day, and the darkness night. So evening came, and morning came, the first day" (Gen. 1:3-5 NEB). All four Gospels are careful to state that it was on the morning of the first day—the day on which creation had begun and the moment God had "separated light from darkness"—that the empty tomb was discovered (Matt. 28:1-6; Mark 16:2-6; Luke 24:1-3; John 20:1-8). The Gospels go on to state that the risen Christ appeared to the disciples on that first day of the week (Matt. 28:9 ff.; Luke 24:13 ff.; John 20:14 ff.) and also on the eighth day—that is, the next Sunday (John 20:26).
About AD. 115 Ignatius wrote to the Christians in Magnesia and spoke of those who "ceased to keep the Sabbath [Jewish seventh-day] and lived by the Lord's Day, on which our life as well as theirs shone forth, thanks to him and his death."
The Didache, written sometime in the late first or early second century, reminds Christians: "On the Lord's day of the Lord, come together, break bread and hold eucharist."
Even pagans noticed that "on an appointed day they [Christians] had been accustomed to meet before daybreak," though Pliny, the Roman administrator who wrote these words, hardly understood this to mean a meeting for the Lord's Supper.
Another term, Sunday, appeared by the middle of the second century. Justin Martyr told his pagan audience in about A.D. 155 that "we all hold this common gathering on Sunday, since it is the first day, on which God transforming darkness and matter made the universe, and Jesus Christ our Saviour rose from the dead on the same day." Christians soon adopted the newly coined pagan term and compared Christ's rising from the dead to the rising of the sun. Even today, the English and German word is Sunday, while those who speak French, Spanish, and Italian refer to the Lord's Day.
The Epistle of Barnabas called Sunday "an eighth day, that is the beginning of another world ... in which Jesus also rose from the dead." Early Christians saw the Lord's Day as the eighth day of creation, when, having rested on the seventh day, God began to create anew. Anyone who is in Christ is also "a new creation" (II Cor. 5:17).
Sunday was a day of worship but not of rest until an edict by the Emperor Constantine in A.D. 321: "All judges, city people, and craftsmen shall rest on the venerable day of the Sun. But countrymen may without hindrance attend to agriculture."
Sunday stood out above all other days because it was the weekly anniversary of the resurrection. In the early church, Sunday commemorated the Lord's passion, death, and resurrection; but it was, above all else, the day on which the Savior rose from the dead. As the Lord's Day, the day of the sun risen from darkness, the start of the new creation, every Sunday witnessed to the risen Lord. Tertullian tells us that Christians did not kneel on Sunday, "the day of the Lord's resurrection. "Even today, Sunday takes precedence over all other occasions. Sundays of Lent remain days of joy, though within a penitential season. Each Sunday testifies to the resurrection faith. Sunday may be regarded as a weekly little Easter; even more, Easter is a yearly great Sunday.
There were other events that gave the week even more contour for the early church. Luke tells of the Pharisee who said, "I fast twice a week" (18:12 NEB). But the Didache, in all seriousness, told Christians: "Your fasts must not be identical with those of the hypocrites. They fast on Mondays and Thursdays; but you should fast on Wednesdays and Fridays." Commemorative reasons for this had appeared by the time of a late fourth-century document, The Apostolic Constitutions: "Fast ... on the fourth day of the week, ... Judas then promising to betray Him [Jesus] for money; and ... on [Friday] because on that day the Lord suffered the death of the cross." There is evidence that some early Christians also held a certain regard for Saturday as "the memorial of the creation," from which work God rested on the seventh day. Tertullian tells us there were "some few who abstain from kneeling on the Sabbath." But these other days were decidedly inferior in importance compared with Sunday.
C. The Hours of the Day
Even the day itself became a structure of praise for the early church. The Didache instructed Christians to pray the Lord's Prayer three times a day. Psalm 55:17 spoke of calling upon God "evening and morning and at noon" (NEB). Another psalm declared: "Seven times a day I praise thee for the justice of thy decrees" (119:164 NEB), and "at midnight I rise to give thee thanks" (119:62 NEB). By the early third century, Tertullian could speak of the third, sixth, and ninth hours of the day as times of "special solemnity in divine prayers" because of actions of the apostles at those times.
Hippolytus, an early third-century Roman Christian, spoke of seven daily occasions for prayer. For him, nine o'clock in the morning, noon, and three in the afternoon, respectively, recalled the hours at which Jesus was nailed to the cross, "there was a great darkness," and Jesus died. Each day memorialized the crucifixion in this way. Hippolytus saw midnight as a time of prayer, for the bridegroom comes at midnight (Matt. 25:6), and each Christian must be prepared to meet him. Prayer is needed at cockcrow, for at this moment Christ was denied (Matt. 26:75). Prayer was also advocated upon rising and retiring. Monasticism later developed the hours of the day into a daily eightfold cycle of prayer. Late in the fourth century, Chrysostom urged newly baptized Christians to begin each day's work with prayer for strength to do God's will, and to end the day by rendering "an account to the Master of his whole day, and beg forgiveness for his falls." Very early, then, the Christian day became a cycle of remembering Christ throughout one's daily labors in the midst of worldly concerns.
Christians adopted the Jewish sense of the liturgical day as beginning at nightfall. Hence, the eve of a festival such as Christmas or Easter is a part of the same day that continues at daybreak.
Excerpted from The New Handbook of the Christian Year by Hoyt L. Hickman, Don E. Saliers, Laurence Hull Stookey, James F. White. Copyright © 1992 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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