|The Church Year|
The Church Year is an annual cycle of days and seasons celebrating historical events in the life of Christ, biblical themes and the lives of prominent Christians of the past (the saints).
It is devoutly practiced in the English and Roman Catholic Church, Orthodox, Lutheran and other Protestant churches. In the more conservative Protestant churches, little notice is taken of saint days, with only key days celebrated:
Advent - the coming of Jesus
Christmas- the birth of Jesus
Lent - a period of prayer and fasting
Good Friday - the death of Jesus
Easter - the resurrection of Jesus
Ascension - the ascension of Jesus
Whit Sunday - (Pentecost) the coming of the spirit of Jesus
Trinity Sunday - the Godhead
Most other Protestant churches simply celebrate Easter and Christmas Day and "Lord's Day", Sunday.
Old Testament Background
God commanded that the people of Israel were to celebrate certain days, seasons and years as part of their worship. They were to concentrate upon some act of God in the past, a truth about God and His people, or some future act of God.
Hours of prayer. A later development Psalm 55:17; Daniel 6:10.
The Sabbath. A day of rest, because God rested on the Sabbath day. There will come a day when all God's children will find their rest in Him.
The Passover. 14 Nisan. A celebration of Israel's past deliverance from the land of Egypt and an expectation of a future deliverance.
The Feast of Weeks, Pentecost. A celebration of the first harvest and was associated with God's appearance in fire upon Mount Sinai and the giving of the Law to Moses. (This was a later interpretation).
The Feast of Tabernacles or Booths. A final harvest celebration, associated with the wilderness wanderings; God's past and future care for His people.
The Day of Blowing Trumpets. Nu.29:1; Lev.23:24.
The Day of Atonement. 10 Tishri. A reminder that the sacrifices during the year were not enough to remove the stain of Sin. On this day the High Priest sacrificed for himself and the people and so gained a once yearly entry into the Holy of Holies.
The Feast of Purim. A later addition. Esther 9. Celebrating the deliverance from Haman.
The Festival of Lights. Apocrypha - Maccabees.
iv] Every Seven Years
The Sabbatical Year. Lev.25:2. Mainly agricultural - the seventh year is a fallow year for the ground.
v] Every Fifty Years
The Jubilee. Another fallow year. All property is restored to the original owner, debts remitted, and Hebrew slaves released. A year of thanksgiving for what God has provided and a reminder that man owns nothing, but simply tends it. Lev.25:8.
The purpose of the Biblical cycle
Mankind is by nature linked to the cyclic forces of creation: light - dark, cold - hot (seasons); labour - rest, birth - decay. Without special revelation, humanity has tended to be absorbed in identification with the natural forces (ancient fertility cults and possibly today the trend to get back to the "earth" of things) and also to see history and the passing of time, as a cycle of repeated events.
God gave his people a meaningful God-centred cycle to identify with, which locked them into a linear view of history. The creation, fall, restoration by God's intervention in history, and our ultimate restoration in eternity.
Development of the Christian Year
Jesus celebrated the Old Testament and post exile Jewish religious year, but at the same time reinterpreted religious practice (eg. Sabbath observance Mk,2:23-3:6, Fasting Math.6:16-18) and pointed to the dawning of a new age. (eg. John 4: It was right to worship at the temple but the day is coming when men will worship "in Spirit and in truth", cf. Mark 2:18-22. The new age cannot be contained in the categories of the old).
Paul, therefore, although from a very strong Jewish background, saw himself and his fellow Christians, in the new age; the old was passing away. He was therefore, quite indifferent as to the keeping of Old Testament ritual, such as circumcision or Holy Days, Rom.14:5-9, Col.2:16. Even the Sabbath was being replaced in importance by "The Lord's Day", Sunday. Acts 20:7, 1Cor.16:2, Rev.1:10.
Clearly, the New Testament church saw itself as a new society living freely under the Spirit and so sought to shape itself into the image of the Kingdom of God. Jesus had outlined the principles, and it was up to his body, the church, to develop the pattern. This radical newness showed itself in the type of church that evolved, Acts 2:43-47, 4:32-37. Every day was a holy day given to worshipping God, Acts 2:46-47.
Yet, the Old Testament was the basis of this new society and so the believers happily adopted Old Testament practice. The large number of Jewish converts in the early church encouraged this process eg. fasting, Acts13:2-3, 14:23; 2Cor.6:5, 11:27. The development of a Biblical yearly cycle obviously followed the Old Testament practice of holy days, but now completely reinterpreted.
i] Sunday. Initially the Sabbath was kept by Christians and was still being observed by some up to the 5th century. Yet, even as the New Testament was being written, Sunday, the Lord's Day, was becoming the significant day of the week. By the end of the 1st Century the Lord's Supper was no longer a daily supper meal, but was being celebrated on Sunday morning as a service of Bible readings and Prayers following the Synagogue pattern. The structure of the service is preserved in the Roman Mass and the English Holy Communions service. The readings, or lectionary, again followed the Synagogue pattern, but with added readings from the gospels and the letters. By the 5th century, these readings followed the themes of the Church Year.
ii] Easter and Pentecost. It is clear that the Passover season, followed by the 50 days to Pentecost, was celebrated by the early church. By the end of the 1st century "The Lord's Passover" celebrated Jesus' death and resurrection and Pentecost celebrated the coming of the Spirit of Jesus upon the church. The main debate about Easter was on what day it should be celebrated, 14th Nisan or the closest Sunday. It was finally decided for Sunday at the Council of Nicea 336 A.D.
iii] Lent. Very early the Atonement Fast was associated with Easter following Hebrews chapters 9 and 10. Initially, the fast was held on Friday and then later extended. It was a time of repentance and therefore became a period of preparation for baptism. By the 4th Century it had been extended to 40 days and by the 5th Century it began on Wednesday - Ash being a sign of penitence. Jer.6:26; Matt.11:21.
Lent became a regulated period of prayer and fasting along with Fridays. The two acts are associated together in the Old Testament, Ex.34:28; Deut.9:9; Sam.12:16-23, regulated by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, Matt.6, and practiced by the apostles and the early church. Acts 13:2-3; 14:23; 2Cor.6:5; 11:27. By 100 AD we see in the Didache, detailed regulations on prayer and fasting eg. prayer 3 times a day; fasting: Wednesday and Friday. Fasting obviously plays an important part in the piety of the early church as quite a number of early additions were made to the New Testament on the subject. Matt.17:21, Mark 9:29; Acts 10:30; 1Cor.7:5, see AV.
iv] Epiphany. This festival developed from the theme of the manifestation, appearing, or coming of Christ, 1Tim.1:10. This Holy day was being celebrated by the 2nd century. Clement said it centered on the manifestation of the Son of God at his Baptism. By the 4th Century it included Jesus' birth and his 1st miracle.
v] Nativity of John the Baptist. . 2nd Century.
vi] The birthdays of martyrs. This was an extension of the Maccabees' festival which was taken over by the early church. It was a celebration of the day of martyrdom. Saint Stephen, Saint Peter and Saint Paul were the earliest saints celebrated. Others were added later. Many fictitious characters were added during the Dark Ages.
vii] Christmas. Probably began around the 3rd. century, Christmas replaced the Roman festival of the unconquered sun at the winter solstice - the birth of Jesus replaced the birth of the sun.
viii] Advent. The coming of Jesus. 5th Century.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, civilization fell into the dark ages. Holy days, celebrations, practices etc. became imbedded into the cycle of the Church Year. Many were contrary to the Bible.
During the Reformation, the Protestant churches revised the Church Year. The practice of Archbishop Cranmer, the reforming bishop of the Church of England, was to remove anything contrary to scripture. "Therefore of the sundry alterations proposed unto us, we have rejected all such as were either of dangerous consequences (as secretly striking at some established doctrine or laudable practice of the Church of England, or indeed of the whole Catholic Church of Christ) or else of no consequence at all, but utterly frivolous and vain", preface 1662 Prayer Book. The Puritan Churches tended to reject most of the Church Year, in some cases even Christmas and Easter.
In modern Prayer Book reform in the Church of England, there has been a trend to revise Saints' Days and include red letter days. Compare 1662 pages xvii to xxxii and 1v to 1vi to AAPB. Evangelicals Anglicans have tended to work for a simplifying of the Church Year and the celebration of Biblical Saints only.
Is the Church Year Biblical?
The Old Testament Child of God was to celebrate significant days that remembered past events and looked forward to God's final intervention in the affairs of man - the establishment of the Kingdom of God in power. In Jesus, the time of fulfilment has come, the new age has dawned, the Kingdom of God is now, Col.2:16-17. Every day is a Holy Day. Every day is the Lord's day, for we have risen to new life in Him. Every day we celebrate the Sabbath rest, for now we have found our rest in Christ. Every day is a day of prayer, fasting, of total commitment to the Lord. Every day is Good Friday, for every day my sins are washed away. Even the Lord's supper is a daily affair - at every meal we remember.
So the New Testament does not lay on the disciples a set of holy days to be celebrated. There are certainly no grounds for the celebration of days that look forward to a final fulfilment. The Kingdom is now; the reality has dawned in Jesus.
Yet, it is totally reasonable for believers to organize their lives within a Biblical framework of time. Although the Kingdom is now, it is also not yet. We still await its final dawning. At this moment we are caught in a time warp, a lull, a moment of mercy in a world facing destruction. We are part of that world and very much need the cues to help us live out our Christian lives. A pattern of daily prayer and Bible reading, a weekly gathering with other Christians on a day when we can draw aside from the hubbub of daily life, the keeping of special days for prayer and fasting, or to remember what Jesus had done for us, is a helpful pattern for our Christian walk.
The Church Year is a Biblical framework to structure the passing of time. It has evolved from the practice of the early church. We are not commanded to observe it. It is simply an aid for the Christian life, arrived at by mutual agreement.
There is clearly nothing wrong with a church concentrating on a specific event in the life of Christ or setting aside a particular period for prayer and fasting, in fact, there is every good reason why we should. We are inherently lazy and need to be reminded of what Jesus had done for us and how we should respond. Of course, at the same time, we need to be careful not to place too much reliance on the celebration of special days etc. Jesus is the Lord, and every moment is his. Col.2:6-3:4.
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