The Church Year

Solstice

Winter solstice sun in the arctic.

The annual cycle of seasons — of solstices and equinoxes, of agricultural death and rebirth, of the changing raiment of the trees, and of the migrations of animals — is an inescapable feature of existing on the planet Earth. Even at the equator where the Earth’s tilt makes astronomical changes like solar solstices or changing constellations not as noticeable, there are still yearly cycles of rainy and dry seasons brought about by shifting global weather patterns. From the dawn of humanity to the present, it’s safe to say that all human life is profoundly shaped by the repeating time-scale of the Year.

Like all things that profoundly shape the human experience at the most natural, fundamental levels, the annual cycle of seasons finds its highest fulfilled expression in and is most profitably experienced by those within the life of the Church. This is because the natural cycle of the year is christened — made Christ’s — and is defined by the Lord of nature. The year becomes the Church Year, and the liturgical calendar is centered on and built around Christ. Specifically, the events and shape of Christ’s life here on earth form the structure of the Church Year.

The Church Year begins in anticipation of the birth of the Son of God in the world, the mystery of the Incarnation. In the Western liturgical calendar this is the season of Advent, beginning four Sundays before Christmas, looking forward toward that day. In the Eastern calendar the year begins earlier near the day celebrating the birth of Jesus’ mother Mary, who is essential to the story of the Incarnation and thus is appropriately commemorated in the calendar. The Church then arrives at Christmas and celebrates the reality of the transcendent God becoming man. The newborn was circumcised and given his name on the eighth day after his birth, and the Church celebrates this. It celebrates his dedication in the Temple forty days after his birth. It celebrates the shining forth of the truth of who Jesus is into the world with the feast of Epiphany, focussing in Western tradition on the manifestation of Jesus to the magi and in Eastern tradition on the Trinitarian theophany at Christ’s baptism — the beginning of his ministry.

The Church moves from there to preparing for the crucifixion of Jesus with the season of Lent. The purpose of that season is to follow Christ to his cross by learning to carry one’s own cross, training one’s mind, soul, and body to let go of all selfishness, in fact to “die to self”. Holy Week begins with Christ’s final entry into Jerusalem and recounts the events and teachings of those last days. On Maundy Thursday the Church recalls the institution of the Eucharist and holds vigil as Christ is betrayed and arraigned. On Good Friday, the Church paradoxically mourns the passion and death of her Lord, but she also rejoices in the completion of his good and perfect work of identifying with humanity in every way (including death), recognizing God reigning as a victor even on the Cross. On Holy Saturday the shadowy abode of the dead is ravaged by the soul of Christ and its prisoners are shown paradise.

Then, on Easter Sunday, death is robbed of its power and a new kind of life is inaugurated. The Easter season begins for the Church and is a time for celebrating, but also for coming to grips with the reality and ramifications of this new resurrection life. For forty days Jesus appeared to his disciples, teaching, instructing, and preparing them. Then, on the fortieth day after his resurrection the Church watches with the disciples as Christ passes from the realm of our cosmos into the heavenly realm for his coronation as King over all creation. In anticipation of the helper Christ promised, the Church then waits in prayer until the fiftieth day (Pentecost) after Easter, when the Holy Spirit descends upon the Church to enliven her for her mission in the world.

With the complete story of Christ’s walking on Earth now told and celebrated by the Church, and with the coming of the Holy Spirit as the guide and guardian of Truth within the Church, the fullness of the revelation of God to man is now complete. It’s only with the completed work of Christ and his sending of the Spirit that the world can know God as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. As Father Thomas Hopko of blessed memory wrote, “The fulness of the Godhead is manifested with the Spirit’s coming to man, and the Church hymns celebrate this manifestation as the final act of God’s self-disclosure and self-donation to the world of His creation.” Because of this, the Eastern tradition commemorates on Pentecost the revelation of the Trinity. The Western Tradition pauses to commemorate the Trinity the Sunday following Pentecost in order to give due time both to the event of the descending of the Spirit and to the contemplation of and celebration of the completed revelation of the blessed Trinity.

“On Pentecost we have the final fulfillment of the mission of Jesus Christ and the first beginning of the messianic age of the Kingdom of God mystically present in this world in the Church of the Messiah,” says Fr. Hopko. This demarcation between the fulfillment of Jesus’ mission and the beginning of the age of the Church comes roughly halfway through the Church Year. The remainder of the year for Christians, then, is for focussing on exactly that mission in the world, to carry on Christ’s work and to make him present in the world by being his hands and feet.

The responsibility of living like Christ-followers in a world that can no longer see Jesus in person is one that every baptized Christian has. It becomes the job of Christians to represent Jesus to their neighbors. They are, in fact, to be “little Christs”  — which is why the ancient Antiochians started calling them Christians. Christians have to feed people like Jesus did, and heal them, and pay attention to them, and visit them, and even suffer for them. They have to try to pray like Jesus, praying to “our Father” — going off in secret early in the morning and in the evening. They have to fast like he said to, focussing on their own hearts, and not on whether people are paying attention to them. They have to get to know the scriptures, learning them, a little at a time, by heart. They have to lose their fear, and put their trust in God. That’s what this season after Pentecost and Trinity Sunday is about: living like Christ, and representing him in a world that knows little to nothing about him.

After a long season of focussed learning and working in a world still full of deep darkness, the Church will once again turn her gaze to the mystery and miracle of the brightest Light to ever shine in the darkness, and in Advent will renew her faith and hope in the coming of that Light. The repeating of this liturgical cycle every year is not a pointless monotony that never goes anywhere. It, like nature’s joyous repetition of the seasons every year, teaches new lessons to all those who experience it year by year, growing with the believers as they advance in maturity, and connecting with each individually on their own particular level. We were created by the wisdom of God to connect to the rhythm of the year, and this innate connection is fulfilled for us in the Christological pattern of the Church Year. We become more fully human as we mark the time in our lives by yearly celebrating Christ’s life.

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