The calendar of Israel was primarily theological, centered on commemorating the salvific acts of God, but also agricultural, celebrating the creation-restoring effects of those salvific acts. The feasts of the first month celebrated the reviving of the world in the Spring, and typified the cutting off of the Savior in his youth. The feasts of the seventh month celebrated the cutting off, or harvest-climax of the year, and typified the fulfillment of man’s dominion task at the end of history.
During the inter-testamental era, in fulfillment of the prophecies of Daniel, Israel was delivered from Antiochus Epiphanes and the temple was restored at the time of the Winter Solstice. The feast of Hanukkah was established to commemorate this, and Jesus recognized the propriety of this feast in John 10:22ff. Thus, God established a feast of renewal in terms of the solar cycle as well as in terms of the agricultural one.
From what we know, the Christian Church initially recognized Easter and the springtime festivals as primary. In time, the custom grew up of recognizing the birth of Jesus Christ, the True Tabernacle (Temple) rebuilt among men, in connection with the Winter Solstice (late December). As with the Old Covenant, however, these festivals were always primarily theological in character, and only secondarily connected with creational cycles. It was recognized that the theological, symbolic dimension of life is primary, and that solar and agricultural renewal spring only from the renewal of the world in Jesus Christ. The feast of Christmas came to be very important to the early Church, for so many heresies centered on the incarnation, and the festival of the incarnation provided an annual affirmation of orthodoxy.
The calendar as it developed came to have three cycles. The primary one centered on the life and work of Jesus Christ. The second one centered on the observation of great days in the history of the Church, particularly saint’s days (days on which various heroes of the faith had been martyred). The third cycle centered on agricultural events, times of special prayer for crops or of thanksgiving.
By the time of the Reformation, the memorializing of the lives of the saints had become corrupted by superstition, and saint’s days had multiplied. The Reformers by and large swept these all away, including the Marian feasts, though the Anglican reformers kept some saint’s days. Calvin kept only Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, dividing his catechism into 55 sections to be read on each Sunday, and on the three festival days.
Later the Puritans went further, and under the influences of a rationalistic approach to the rhythm of time together with a baptistic hermeneutic which isolated the New Testament from the Old, swept away all religious days except the Lord’s Day. The Puritans believed that other days would compete with, rather than fill out, the observance of the Lord’s Day. The “extra” sabbaths and festivals of the Old Covenant, however, did not detract from the weekly sabbath, though it, as the Lord’s Day in the New Covenant, had primacy.
The effect of this iconoclasm was to secularize the calendar. We still have an agricultural festival (Thanksgiving), and various saint’s days (Washington’s Birthday, Mother’s Day, etc.) on which we celebrate our (secular) heroes. In America, the most Puritanized of all Christian societies in its early years, the Christological calendar remains, but thoroughly secularized (so that Christmas today is all about Santa Claus, not Christ). By making our primary feasts nationalistic (July 4, Veteran’s Day, Thanksgiving, etc.) rather than ecclesiastical (Thomas Becket Day, Feast of Orthodoxy, Good Friday, etc.), we have fallen into Baalism. Baalism is the cultural pattern that subordinates the faith to nationalism.
Meanwhile, various movements in the Christian Church, in many quarters, have sought to reintroduce and reform the calendar. These essays are a continuation of that movement, seeking a Biblical foundation (the regulative principle) for all that we do in this area. We as Christians, having dominion over all the world, able to make Satan flee by resisting him, need not fear the calendar, but should use it to our own advantage. Briefly, we need not fear agricultural feasts. It is a good and proper thing to pray the Lord of the harvest to bless us, and to thank Him for His bounty at the end of the year. Why should Thanksgiving be secularized? Indeed, how dare we keep it out of the Church?
Also, we need not fear saint’s days. We are only the poorer for our ignorance of the life of St. Sebastian, or of Martin of Tours, or of Patrick of Ireland, or of Thomas of Canterbury. We cut our children off from a rich heritage, a heritage which encouraged men of old in the face of threats, and which can encourage us as well in an age of increasing persecution. Just because these things are abused by some people (e.g., the fearsome alien Romanoids) is no reason for us to avoid them. We do not avoid alcohol because some are drunkards, or food because some are gluttons. To say a thing is bad in itself is Manichean, not Christian.
Most importantly, however, we need not fear the Christological cycle. It is not only excellent pedagogy, but it also gives us occasion to rejoice in the specific works of God and Christ for our redemption. We cannot do everything at once, and we cannot preach the whole Bible in one sermon. We must celebrate one thing at a time, and the calendar marvelously helps us to do this.
Concerning pedagogy, Peter wrote that his primary purpose was to stir up his parishioners to remember the basic things (2 Pet. 1:12-21). The purpose of the Christological calendar is just that. How many protestant preachers go for years without taking their congregations through the central facts of the history of redemption: the birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and enthronement of Christ, and the sending of the Spirit? The historic Church calendar reminds us of these things annually.
The Christological cycle is divided into two parts. The first part, from Advent to Ascension, focuses on the life of Christ and the history of redemption. The early feasts of the Old Covenant (Passover, Pentecost) also concentrated on the events of redemption. The second part, from Pentecost to Advent, focuses on the teachings of Christ, just as in the Old Covenant the Feast of Tabernacles focused on the teaching of the Law.
James Jordan is scholar-in-residence at Theopolis.