Ever wonder where the church got the idea for an annual calendar of feasts and fasts? Most of the worlds christians follow a church calendar. It would be nice if we all followed the same one but we do not. The two main calendars are those followed by the Eastern Church and the Western Church. This is why the Orthodox Church and the Western Churches celebrate Easter on different days. Sometimes looking at the differences can be puzzling and make a person ambivalent about the whole thing until we recall the purpose and usefulness of the Calendar.
Today in the United States many churches are rediscovering the calendar. Easter and Christmas are celebrated as days, and Advent has been trending upwards among many churches. Those of us who have worshipped alongside a calendar are glad to see fellow christians start to follow it even if a little. So why do so many Christians follow a church calendar any way? The answer to that lies in its origins. Passover was the first feast that started the whole thing. We read about it in Exodus
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt,“This month shall be for you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year for you…“This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall remove leaven out of your houses, for if anyone eats what is leavened, from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel. On the first day you shall hold a holy assembly, and on the seventh day a holy assembly.Exodus 12:1-2, 14-16 ESV
Yep, the church calendar is God’s idea. After Exodus God appointed other feasts and fasts so that by time of Jesus’ earthly ministry there was a rhythm of religious life surrounding these feasts and fasts. Jesus participated in the pilgrimages and the feasts.
Following Jesus’ Death, Resurrection and Ascension there was a significant period of time during which the first Christians continued worshipping in the Temple and Synagogues. We read in Acts of Paul getting thrown out of Synagogues Some hold the opinion that the Jewish believers in Jesus were excluded from he Synagogues by the Council of Jamnia in 72ad. Whether it was then or soon after, it is generally believed that this occurred sometime in the late 1st century, several decades after Jesus’ resurrection.
The first Christians followed a calendar of feasts and fasts. The Passover Festival changed to a focus on Jesus’ death and Resurrection. The Jewish feast of Pentecost became a celebration of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The calendar as we have it today gradually took shape. Some Jewish Feasts were kept and reinterpreted, while others began as local observances and became widely adopted by the wider Christian Community.
The purpose of the Church Calendar today is the same as when God initiated it in Exodus. It is for our remembrance. We memorialize the things that are important to us and celebrate them. In the USA we memorialize and celebrate ciivll festivals like Veterans Day or the 4th of July. We make them holidays so that people don’t forget them. This is how the church got days commemorating saints like St. Patrick on March 17, and St. Valentine on February 14. These important exemplars of Christian Faith were first commemorated locally and then more widely as their example inspired others. Saints Days are of lesser importance than the main feasts of the calendar.
The Church calendar ensures that we don’t forget the main events of the Gospel and ensures we celebrate them each and every year. These celebrations shape our faith and give a rhythm to the Christian Community around the world even if we don’t agree on the exact dates things should be celebrated on.
Easter and Holy Week, the week preceding Easter Sunday starting with Palm Sunday, has obvious roots in the week long Passover Festival. The Season of Lent, the forty days (excluding Sundays) that lead up to Easter likely has its origins in the 4th century. When the persecution of Christians came to an end, many who had left the faith during persecutions desired to return. This was a sensitive time as many who had remained faithful had suffered greatly. The decision was made to allow people to return following a short and public fast preceding Easter when they were readmitted to the church. The benefit of this fast was recognized and adopted by the entire church and eventually became a 40 day period during which the faithful would take on disciplines and give things up in order to advance their faithfulness.