On the Christian Calender

My friend Halden over at Inhabitatio Dei just did a post yesterday entitled “On this day…”, and while his aim in the post was to discuss the Augsburg Confession it raised a question in my mind concerning the Christian calender: How is an event or person deemed valid for inclusion into the calender year?

While for some the idea of the Christian calender may be foreign, especially given the low-church tendencies of the N. American expression of Evangelicalism; however, for much of the Church scattered throughout the world, in centuries past, presently, and most likely in centuries to come (I’m thinking here specifically of the dominant presence of Christians in the world found in the “global south” which tend to ), the liturgical calender of the Church is a primary staple in Christian worship. As with most conceptions of time, framed in political schemes rather than philosophical ones, the Christian (or Liturgical) calender is centered around God’s drama of redemption, bearing witness through the Church’s celebration to God’s redemptive acts in human history. For those, like myself, who may not come from a high-church background or liturgical community, the idea of the Christian calender may seem new and novel. However, such political framing of time, despite what some may think, is nothing new to anyone. While people may not consciously realize it or directly acknowledge it, everyone participates in some political schema of time which ascribes value to certain persons and events, namely, those that have established or furthered the values of a particular people. Therefore, countries like America that value things like independence and freedom, democracy and civil rights, have certain days to commemorate and celebrate the events and people that have sought to see these values actualized (i.e the 4th of July – America’s Independence day, Martin Luther King, Jr. day, Presidents day, Presidential election day, etc.). Participation in such national “holy” days is an endorsement of the values underlying these celebrations. It acknowledges an allegiance, at whatever level, to a certain socio-political structuring of time that functions determinatively to ascribe value to people, days, and events (while some may object here to the language of allegiance, felling that it might be too strong, I would suggest that what goes on in the socio-political structuring of time is nothing short of baptizing certain people, places and events into the value system of the nation-state with the end of endorsing and furthering these values. It is not an arbitrary fact that in schools and other social gatherings people are called upon, not asked, to recite the pledge of allegiance: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands…” ; and to not do so is deemed subversive and rebellious).

Coming back to Christian calender, the People of God have consciously acknowledged this political laden reality of time and, therefore, operate according to a Theo-political conception of time – a schema that frames time in terms of God’s saving acts in his drama of redemption. This Theo-political understanding of time, in contrast to the socio-political conception of the nation-state, has its own allegiances (namely, to the Lordship of Christ), values, and holy people, places, and events. Among other things, the Church celebrates the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ, and to an obviously lesser extent the lives of saints throughout history.

With that said, I want to come by to my initial question that has prompted this post: By what criteria is an event or person deemed valid for inclusion into the calender year? Or maybe its better to ask the question this way, along similar lines of the biblical canon: How are certain events and people recognized as deserving to be included into the “canon” of the Christian calender? For certain, God’s great drama of redemption is not over; there is more to come, and God is continually act work in the our world. Along the lines of socio-political conception, is it those people and events that seek to embody and further the values and life of a particular community (in this case the People of God) that deserve inclusion? I’m interested to hear peoples thoughts and ideas on this issue; so tell me: who and what makes it into the calender and why?


1 Response to “On the Christian Calender”

  1. 1 Paul December 28, 2008 at 8:42 am

    I found my way to your blog by clicking away furiously at links in blog after blog. Perhaps it is because I have a sermon to preach in a few hours and have come up with very little on this 1st Sunday of Christmas.

    I appreciate your comments on calendar, they are right on the mark. I wonder if James K.A. Smith will cover some of these aspects of calendar in his forthcoming book on worship.

    I am a closet high church Presbyterian (closet high church out of the closet Presbyterian) so here is my take on the Presbyterian church calendar:

    We are suspicious of saints days because they are extra-biblical (though plenty of us will honor MLK in a few weeks and Reformation Sunday tends to be self-referentially incoherent if this is in fact the Reformed position). Like I wrote earlier, my high church tendencies make it hard for me to defend this view but I do think there is something to basing the church year on the life of Christ: (strictly speaking this would eliminate Advent and Pentecost). So we could say salvation history centered on Christ and honoring the Triune God.

    I am not sure where to begin or end with saints if we did put them in the calendar, though I like your point about God’s continual work in history. There is a place for prudential judgment here: what saints do we need to remember these days in order to be formed & fortified to live in these times? I would suspect that a few early martyrs would be instructive for us as we negotiate life under empire. I guess some modern martyrs would also be appropriate (I’ve been thinking of Romero and King). My congregation would be content with a non-penitential, Christmassy Advent, A Christmas without a mass (or eucharist), Maundy Thursday, Easter, Pentecost and the 4th of July. I think that is typical of folks over 50 years old who see the calendar as ancient religion, and love the casual, informal, one day is as good as any other, Jesus wants us to be relevent and contemporary (meaning let’s sing the songs we loved when we were in our invinvible 20’s).

    I came to understand the value of the church calendar (Presbyterian style: advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Baptism of Lord, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, trinity while doing field education in seminary. It was the sort of thing that grew on me after a few months. I love the emphasis on salvation history and have pondered and continue to ponder liturgical time: why is Christmas 12 days? Why is Lent 40? Why don’t we move Christmas earlier in the year, closer to Pentecost which would give us more time to look at the life of Jesus between Christmas and Good Friday?

    I do believe that Baptism of the Lord and Ascension are two underrated items that deserve more prominence on our calendars. i will end with that assertion. I have a sermon to write.

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