Question: "What is the Christian calendar?"
Answer: Human beings live their lives in cycles. There are seasons and years and celebrations that mark the way. In the Old Testament, God ordained feasts that Israel was to observe each year to commemorate and reenact spiritual truth. In secular American culture, there are holidays and other special days sprinkled throughout the year that give some order to our lives: Presidents’ Day, Valentine’s Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, Father’s Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Halloween, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day. Then there are other special days such as birthdays and anniversaries as well as important cultural events that are not official holidays: Super Bowl Sunday, March Madness, spring break, summer vacations, elections, and “Black Friday.” Our lives are oriented around regular events and celebrations. This helps give order to our lives, and the events that we observe reveal our values.
The Christian calendar is an annual schedule that commemorates certain days and seasons to help us remember the important acts of God in the history of redemption. Some churches assign to each day of the year a particular passage of Scripture and/or event or person in church history. Some congregants will build their personal devotions around the liturgical calendar for each day of the year. The liturgical calendar was developed in a time when people did not have access to all of the devotional materials we have today. Today, many Christians use a daily devotional with Scripture reading and meditation for each day, which accomplishes much of the same thing that was originally intended by the liturgical calendar.
The Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, the Episcopal Church, the Lutheran Church, the Methodist Church, and many Presbyterian churches make use of a liturgical calendar. Non-liturgical churches (Baptist and other evangelical churches) do not make as much of the Christian calendar. However, interest in the liturgical calendar seems to be growing among non-liturgical Christians as an aid to personal devotion or to refocus on the true meaning of holidays such as Easter and Christmas, which can often be swamped by secular commercialization.
Below is a summarization of the major days/seasons on the Christian liturgical calendar:
Advent: Advent simply means “coming.” On the liturgical calendar, Advent is the time leading up to Christmas that is to be spent preparing our hearts for the celebration of Jesus’ coming and remembering that He promised to come again. Advent starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas (which can fall anywhere between November 30 and December 3) and ends on December 24. An Advent wreath with five candles is often used, with one candle being lit each Sunday and the fifth, the Christ Candle, being lit on December 24. Advent calendars and devotionals, providing a daily focus on some aspect of Christ’s coming, are also popular.
Christmas: In the West, Christmas is the biggest cultural holiday of the year, but much of that is due to commercialization and secular celebration. For Christians, Christmas is a day to remember that God entered the human race as a baby so that He could live a perfect life and die for our sins as the perfect sacrifice. The actual date of Jesus’ birth is not known, but the important fact is that He was born, Immanuel, God with us. In the West, Christmas is celebrated on December 25, but Eastern churches celebrate it on January 7—the variation is due to differences between the Julian and Gregorian calendars. According to the Christian calendar in the West, the Christmas season begins on December 25 and lasts for twelve days, ending on January 6, Epiphany.
Epiphany: The word epiphany simply means “manifestation,” and the holiday Epiphany (or Three Kings’ Day) is meant to commemorate the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, as represented by the magi. As recorded in Matthew 2, the magi did not come to the manger but to a house (verse 11) where the holy family was staying. According to tradition, the magi showed up on “the twelfth day of Christmas,” or twelve days after Jesus’ birth.
Ash Wednesday: Ash Wednesday is the official beginning of the Lenten season and is commemorated by fasting, repentance, and prayer. (For many who are simply looking for a reason to live with abandon and essentially pervert the meaning of repentance, Ash Wednesday is preceded by Fat Tuesday, also called Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras, which concludes a time of debauchery—a final “celebration” of sinful, fleshly desires before they have to start “being good” on Ash Wednesday. The excesses of Mardi Gras and Carnival guarantee that a person has sins to repent of on Ash Wednesday.) The “Ash” in Ash Wednesday refers to the ashes obtained from burning the palm branches of the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration. These ashes are placed on the forehead of the penitent upon his or her confession of sin.
Lent: Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and lasts for the forty days leading up to Easter (Sundays are not counted in the forty days). Lent is a time of repentance, prayer, and fasting in preparation for Easter observances. Many traditions emphasize giving up some item of pleasure for Lent. Catholics, for example, emphasize giving up red meat, and that’s why many fast food restaurants start advertising their fish sandwiches during Lent. The purpose of Lent is to provide a solemn time of reflection and evaluation.
Palm Sunday: The Sunday before Easter is Palm Sunday, the start of what is often called Holy Week in the Christian calendar. Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as He rode a donkey and as the crowd waved palm branches to welcome Him (John 12:13).
Good Friday: Good Friday remembers the day that Jesus was crucified and is regularly observed in many evangelical churches by a Good Friday service. Good Friday is preceded by Maundy Thursday, so named because of the mandate that Jesus gave His disciples to love one another (John 13:34)—the Latin word for “mandate” was mandatum, the ultimate origin of the word Maundy. After Jesus was arrested and had endured various illegal “trials” before the Sanhedrin, Pilate, and Herod, He was finally condemned to crucifixion by Pilate. This most horrendous crime is remembered on “Good” Friday because it was Jesus’ act of sacrifice for us that secured our salvation. It was the greatest good that could have ever been done for the human race.
Holy Saturday: Holy Saturday is the day before Easter and remembers Christ “resting” in the tomb and His “Harrowing of Hell,” the descent of Christ into hell to release its captives (an event for which biblical support is questionable). Holy Saturday is also called Great Sabbath, Black Saturday, Joyous Saturday, Saturday of Light, and Easter Eve.
Easter Sunday: Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Because the word Easter is sometimes associated with pagan elements, it is becoming more common for evangelical churches to refer to this day as Resurrection Sunday. This is a time for joyous celebration in churches. Although Easter Sunday is a special yearly celebration, Christian worship is traditionally held on Sundays because Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week. The resurrection of Christ is so important that it is celebrated once a week, not just once a year, and, of course, the implications of the resurrection should be preeminent every day.
Pentecost Sunday: Pentecost is observed fifty days (thus, pente) after Easter and commemorates the coming of the Holy Spirit as described in Acts 2.
Trinity Sunday: Trinity Sunday on the Christian calendar is the first Sunday after Pentecost and is observed in honor of the Trinity. In some sense, Trinity Sunday is the end of the major events in the liturgical calendar. The Christian calendar begins with Advent—the coming of the Son—and ends with Pentecost—the coming of the Spirit. Thus, the full Trinity is now manifest.
The Christian calendar is full of special days, but the observance of these days is not mandated in Scripture. Christians are told to meet together regularly and to observe communion on a regular basis as a remembrance of Jesus’ death for our sins. Beyond that, there are no special days required. Historically, some Christian groups have scorned the observance of holidays because they felt they were too easily co-opted by the secular world. Other Christians have become more interested in observing the feasts of Israel and enjoying their fulfillment in Christ. In the final analysis, the words of Paul in Scripture must govern our observances: “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living” (Romans 14:5–9).