Ancient Rhythms for a Modern Church

In the beginning, God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years; (Gen 1:14, NASB).”

From the beginning, we were creatures that needed markers, boundaries, and signals. God knew our weaknesses and frame, and he ordered creation in such a way that allowed us to watch and observe, to keep time lest we be lost within our own story and world.

Along with the creation of light and dark, aardvarks and pelicans, came the creation of those celestial beings which help us keep the time—knowing day from night, winter from summer, and one day from the next. God created time for us, and he created us for time. And he organized the calendar so that our lives, in and out of season, might revolve around our story with him. 

Prior to the Incarnation, Jews kept the Sabbath along with various feasts, fasts, and holidays. The sun, moon, and stars helped them keep the rhythm. The ever-unfolding story that they lived within, the story they lived with God, helped them keep the occasions. All of this was worship. As they celebrated Passover, they remembered the character of God sparing them from slavery in Egypt. As they observed the Day of Atonement, they saw their need to put their sin upon a scapegoat to take it to a desolate place, and they practiced trusting God to send a future Messiah to be that sacrifice once and for all. 

Many of us are grafted into this tradition as modern, Gentile believers. Our heritage is one that keeps the Sabbath, remembers the feasts, and observes the fasts. 

The early church adopted the practices of these seasons; their day of rest became Sunday as a weekly reminder of the third-day resurrection. When Constantine legalized and promoted Christianity, the Sabbath was more strictly observed by the whole culture, and the development of the church calendar began to form over the coming centuries as it turned from something distinctly Jewish to something distinctly Christian.

This liturgical calendar begins with Advent and continues with Christmastide, Epiphany, Lent, Eastertide, Pentecost, and finishes with Ordinary Time. The particular dates of each season can depend on the denomination or geographic location of the church. Each season has corresponding colors, histories, and purposes. For example, Christmastide is a period of 12 days of feasting and celebration, while Lent is a period of 40 days of fasting, which mimic the 40 days of Christ in the wilderness. Even more, throughout the church calendar are various observances that call us to remember specific saints and events in our common history. 

Within American evangelicalism, the liturgical calendar has largely been ignored. Yet, there has been a resurgence of believers who either flock to liturgical churches like those of the Anglican Church of North America or those who form neo-liturgical practices within their own local bodies. It is a beautiful thing to return to the observance of a church calendar that orients us as believers within the story of Scripture, but it is just as important to really understand why we ought to do so. 

I have heard and experienced reservations from those who are skeptical about keeping the church calendar, most of the critique having to do with a “staleness” that comes along with consistently practicing something. However, observing the church calendar in my personal life has not led to this supposed staleness. Instead, I find myself more firmly attached to my heritage of faith and more fluent in the language of faith. 

When I remember Lent, I move toward a tangible, embodied faith that seeks God by positioning myself alongside Christ’s own suffering and temptation. As I celebrate Ordinary Time, I am reminded of the building blocks of our faith—simple, slow, and rich lives that form habits around our daily worship of God. I have not found repetition to bind the Spirit from sanctifying me, nor have I found boredom, restlessness, or staleness. Instead, I have found richness.

The biggest “why?” behind the practice of liturgy is the togetherness of the church. Within the catholicity of our churches, we are unified. And observing the church calendar is a practical and beautiful way to emphasize the togetherness we have with other Christians. 

When we fast for lent, we do so in solidarity with Christ. We also do so in solidarity with countless other believers globally who are all remembering Christ in tandem with us. We resist temptation together. We abide in Christ together, commiserate our suffering together, and our voices join together to spur one another on. 

Likewise, when celebrating the resurrection at Eastertide. We feast knowing that Christ is alive, and that one day we will follow him in resurrection. If we choose to observe the liturgical calendar, we are gifted with the presence of other believers celebrating with us. 

Most of all, we worship together.

There is a cloud of witnesses to which we belong. Those who have lived faithfully before us, suffering and dying before us. And their story exists within the same narrative as ours, the same narrative that has been unfolding since the Garden of Eden. And this narrative is reflected in the rhythms of the church calendar. It’s our story with God played out in real time. We are bound together by the Gospel story, and this arc of redemption that is reflected in the church calendar makes manifest our unity. 

The rhythms of the church calendar help us to understand and rediscover this richness of togetherness—the richness and depth of the universal church. 

Practicing liturgy doesn’t cheapen grace. It expands it. It seeps the grace of God into every crack and crevice of our lives. It fills it with the Gospel as we attempt to live within the story of Scripture. From Father Abraham to Saint Peter, to you and to me—our stories are the same, and we have the opportunity to live them out year after year through the church calendar. 

S.A. Morrison married her college sweetheart and has had the delight of partnering with her husband in ministry for the last ten years. She serves as the General Editor of Humble Orthodoxy.

Photo by zero take