As a rite of command performance worship, danced before the throne of God for His pleasure, the Church Year is a form of covenant recital or covenant rehearsal. The recital of the covenant in Scripture takes two forms. The first is the recounting of the great acts of redemption that God has wrought on behalf of His people. Many of the Psalms are covenant recitals, and we do this each week when we recite the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds before the throne of God.
The second form of covenant recital is the reading and sounding forth of the law of God. Many of the Psalms are thus didactic, and we do the same when we read the ten commandments or some other portion of the law each week. Why do we stand during covenant recital? Because it is a formal act performed before God. Even though we do not all read the law together, we respond to it by saying “Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep and enforce Your holy law,” thus putting ourselves again under obligation to live by God’s every Word.
The Church Year in Israel was organized according to these two halves. Passover commemorated and focused in on the mighty redemptive works of God. Tabernacles focused in on the teaching of the law of God. Redemption accomplished and applied; these are the two parts of covenant recital, and of the Church Year.
Accordingly, the first part of the Christological calendar concerns the history of redemption. It begins with Advent, the time of remembering the Old Covenant, its darkness, and the promise of coming salvation. Historically, the assigned readings from the Old Testament and Gospels have concerned prophecies of the coming of the Messiah. There are traditionally four Lord’s Days in Advent, symbolizing the period of 40 days that always indicates a time of waiting. It would be appropriate to remember the Annunciation to Mary during this period, unless we are terrified of even speaking of Mary!
Next come the birth and manifestations of our Savior. When Christmas is placed on December 25, the Circumcision of Christ, coming eight days later, falls on January 1, most appropriately! The third event in this section is Epiphany, our Lord’s manifestation (epiphany means manifestation) to the Gentiles (the Magi). The fourth event is the Slaughter of the Innocents, a commemoration we should endeavor to revive in this era of rampant abortion. Fifth is the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, upon the purification of Mary, 40 days after His birth.
The Lord’s Days between Epiphany and Holy Week deal with the life of Jesus Christ: His baptism, His temptations, His miracles, His Transfiguration, and His determination to go to Jerusalem as the sacrifice for the world. As Easter approaches, the forty days prior to it are historically called Lent, and this has been a time of fasting.
The Easter cycle comes next. Here the Church observes Passion Sunday (two weeks before), noting our Lord’s determination to die for His people, Palm Sunday (one week before), Thursday in Holy Week (the last supper), Good Friday, and Easter. There follow the fifty days before Pentecost, which focus on Jesus’ appearance to His people, culminating in Ascension.
Then comes Pentecost. The coming of the Holy Spirit, the great Teacher Who guides us into all truth, inaugurates the second half of the Christological cycle, which concentrates on our Lord’s teaching. The first Sunday after Pentecost is traditionally Trinity Sunday, since the doctrine of the Trinity was one of the first doctrines hammered out in the history of the Church. Historically, All Saints’ Day (November 1) has been included in this season also, since the work of the Spirit in the Church can so prominently be seen in the lives of those raised up by God for exceptional sacrifice or service.
Since extended festivals were an important part of the Old Covenant calendar, and of the historic Church calendar, we can suggest two major festivals. Christmas, for obvious reasons, would be one. Easter might be the other, but usually the days before Easter are times of quiet reflection, not of festivity. Since most American churches have a Bible conference or vacation Bible school during the summer, and since Pentecost season is the time of special attention to teaching, it might be well for a Church to have a special week-long Bible conference in late summer or early September. Maybe we should kick off the new school year with a week of special meetings. This would answer to the purpose of the Feast of Tabernacles of the Old Covenant.
With this overview in mind, we can begin to consider the lessons for the calendar year.
James Jordan is scholar-in-residence at Theopolis.