“The liturgical year is not an idle discipline, not a sentimentalist definition of piety, not an historical anachronism. It is Jesus with us, for us, and in us, as we strive to make His life our own. It is goad and guide to the kind of personal spirituality that is worthy of the Jesus whose commitment to the Word of God led Him all the way to the cross and beyond it—to Resurrection.” (Joan Chittister, The Liturgical Year)
The man who introduced me to the Christian Year isn’t a Catholic; he’s an East Texas-born Baptist, my favorite college professor, and a scholar of religion and literature. I remember clearly so many of hislectures, which he delivered in his big, booming voice. And I remember the painfully truthful criticism that he wrote on the first paper I submitted for his class: “My dear Ms. Payne, unfortunately, no one has ever taught you how to write.” Ouch! Followed by one of the most generous gifts ever offered to me: “Please allow me to have that honor.” When I left his class, I was a better writer and a better thinker, but I am particularly indebted to him for introducing me to the Christian Year.
He began a lecture for our Literary Classics of Christianity class by drawing a line across the white board. He then drew two upward marks, evenly spaced. He labeled the first “Easter” and the second “Christmas” “This, friends, is what most of us in the South have grown up believing are the events of the Christian year. Wait—I’ve forgotten the Fourth of July,” and added a mark in the middle of the timeline.
Growing up in the South as an Evangelical Protestant, I knew he was right. Every Sunday at church feels pretty much the same except for those three days. Easter we had lilies. Fourth of July we sang, “God Bless, America,” and Christmas was the last Sunday that we had to hear someone belt out, “O, Night Divine” as a solo.
“But this isn’t the whole story,” he told us. He started to add marks to the timeline. And not just marks for individual holy days, but also for the entire blocks of time. There weren’t just a handful of special days to add; there were entire seasons I had never known about! He started out at the beginning, which for the Christian Year isn’t January 1, but Advent, the four weeks before Christmas.
In detail, he explained what the seasons were, why they existed, what they meant, how they prepared us for the season that followed, and how as a whole, they told us the story of Redemption. He explained the darkness and the preparation of Advent with its symbolic color of purple—the color of the bruised and penitent heart. The sorrow of the world waiting for a Savior, followed by the joy of the Incarnation. God loved the waiting world enough to become a helpless child, to be born as a human baby, homeless, and naked.
And Christmas wasn’t just one day! It was a season—12 days of feasting, celebrating, and joy. And then the Season of Epiphany arrives: we remember the Wise Men, traveling from distant lands and how Our Lord didn’t come for only one people group, but for all. We celebrate Him as the Light of the World.
Then, after these weeks of preparation, followed by celebration and feasting, we have “Ordinary Time,” with its color of green. Time to live and work and pray—a season for growing.
Then comes Lent as winter’s chill prepares to give way for spring. Again purple, for our hearts are in darkness. We fast, pray, and give, in order to clear our spiritual vision and to see ourselves as we truly are: in desperate need of God’s grace. We seek to have true penitence for our sin. We ask God to transform us.
Good Friday arrives, its color black, its complete and utter darkness when Our Savior dies for our guilt. And then, the brightness of Easter, after those long, cold, difficult 40 days of Lent. The great joy of a Risen Savior, after we stopped still, to mourn the Passion of Our Lord.
And there was more! Pentecost! Saints’ days! Feasts and fasts and days to remember, observe, and celebrate! It was such a rich tapestry, telling the cosmic story, and I was hooked.
What a beautiful gift the Church offers us in the Christian Year! We get to wait for Christ, walk with Him, die with Him, and be raised with Him. We get to use food, music, and traditions to help remind us what story we participate in: the cosmic tale of God’s love. We get to live by a different calendar—one that isn’t created by Hallmark and candy companies A rich calendar of redemptive time that makes us take a breath, slow down, grow, change, remember, mourn, and sometimes really kick up our heels and party with joy. It is the gift of living by a different watch, by holy time.
Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from Haley and Daniel Stewart’s upcoming ebook Feast!: Real Food, Reflections, and Simple Living and is reprinted with kind permission from the author.
image: Marienkirche Church Clock in Gdañsk, Poland/Shutterstock