Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.
- Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 19th c.
You've probably heard it said that “today is the first day of the rest of your life,” so why wait for a “special” day to do something extravagant? There’s some truth to that, actually. In one sense, every day is a holy day—a gift from God to be enjoyed and lived to the fullest.
But Christians throughout history have told their story—and lived it out—by marking time in a special way: by observing seasons, festivals, and days of holy remembrance that help remind us that there is more to our days than what can fit in our iPhones and Blackberries, and that our family is more extended than the pictures in our wallet.
Ever since there were people called Christians, they met together on Sunday—the day of Jesus’ resurrection—to read from the scriptures, sing, pray, and break bread together. Sunday, the first day of the week, is still the day of resurrection for us: the day we are re-centered in our identity as God’s people. Each Sunday is a celebration of the new life God is bringing about in the world through Christ and by the power of the Spirit. And so each Sunday, the Christian community gathers to be a part of it—to give thanks—to celebrate Eucharist (thanksgiving).
The Liturgical Year
Christians mark time not only by the secular calendar but by a “liturgical” calendar—a calendar that is built around the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The year is made up of seasons, which in the Western Hemisphere, coincide with the seasons of nature.
The liturgical calendar begins in Advent, which means “coming.” While the rest of the world is going mall-crazy in preparation for Christmas, we settle ourselves down and prepare in a different way: by focusing on the coming of God into our midst—both as a tiny, vulnerable baby, and as the ruler of the cosmos in whom everything will one day its fulfillment. The four Sundays of Advent, which lead up to Christmas, are both subdued and filled with expectancy. When the earth is coldest and the days are shortest, we await the coming of the Light of the World that will warm and cheer us. The color for Advent is blue, signifying hope and promise.
After four weeks of preparation, we celebrate the season of Christmas, the season where creation rejoices that God has chosen to abandon the safe confines of heaven to come and dwell “with us” in the midst of our human frailty. The Lite Rock radio station stops playing Christmas music on December 26, the day most stores have their “After-Christmas Sales,” but we celebrate Christmas for twelve whole days. Why have one party when you can have twelve? The color for Christmas is white, signifying joy and celebration.
Christmas culminates on the Feast of Epiphany, the day the magi visited the infant Jesus with their highly impractical but symbolic gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. An epiphany is a moment of sudden revelation; for Christians, it is the revelation that this child born to us is indeed God in the flesh, the Messiah who has come to save us. During the Time after Epiphany, which runs between four and eight weeks, we reflect on Jesus’ earthly ministry—and how what he says and does reveals who God is for us. The color for the Time after Epiphany is green, signifying growth.
After taking the time to reflect on who Jesus is, we shift to reflect on who we are: creatures of the earth, blessed by God, baptized and free, yet still broken, hurting, and returning to the dust. The season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and lasts forty days. It is a time to return to our roots, remember our baptism, and allow God to de-clutter our lives of all that distracts and harms us. Lent is also season when many Christians take on a special discipline of fasting, praying, or giving to the poor. The color for Lent is purple, signifying penitence and the royal robes of the crucified Christ.
The final week of Lent is called Holy Week, which recalls the final week of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Holy Week includes the Great Three Days (one service that spans three nights—Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Vigil of Easter), in which through many stories, images, and signs, the church is totally immersed into the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
During the season of Easter, as the springtime earth comes to life again, we celebrate the new and endless life of the resurrection. For fifty days, the church rejoices that the powers of fear, violence, and death cannot triumph over the love and life that is God. The color for Easter is white and gold, signifying joy and beauty. The season of Easter includes the celebration of the Ascension, and the Feast of Pentecost, when God’s sends the Spirit of Jesus upon all flesh and gives birth to the Church.
The remaining half of the year, the Time after Pentecost, is commonly referred to as Ordinary Time. It lasts for most of the summer and fall, and focuses on Jesus’ teachings and parables, living in Christian community, and serving others in Jesus’ name. The color for Ordinary Time is green, signifying growth.
Peppered throughout these seasons are days to remember and honor the saints—those people whose lives of faith and service have inspired us and whose memory we cherish. Lutherans do not pray to the saints or attribute them any special powers, but we do celebrate what God has done through them and believe that we are united with them through Christ. Saints are typically honored on the day they died, or to use the language of the Bible, “fell asleep in Christ.” When a saint’s day falls on a Sunday, we often celebrate it in church.
This is not the only way (or the only right way) to keep time, but it has proven helpful and life-giving for many Christians for many years, and we joyfully follow in the wisdom and spirit of our ancestors.