By Sam Gutierrez
"What time is it?"
It’s a familiar question kids ask their parents. Knowing the time orients us. It helps us to mark events and plan our days. Knowing the time helps us to fall into proper rhythms of rest and work, playing and producing, celebrating and silence, feasting and fasting, praise and lament.
How do we mark time? How do we answer the question, "What time is it?"
The liturgical calendar is a way of telling time. More specifically, it’s a way of telling a story that centers on the saving work of God in and through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The liturgical year is divided into seasons that have specific themes and practices that help us live into the story of Jesus. Over the past 10 years, I’ve come to understand the formative power of the liturgical calendar. I’ve also come to believe that if we are serious about spiritual formation, then we have to get serious about time.
Many churches already acknowledge certain liturgical seasons, mostly Advent and Lent. Others decide to jump in and jump out of the liturgical calendar depending on if it “works” with what they want to do. For many years, I belonged to a church that did this—they always dropped the calendar after Easter Sunday. I can personally tell you that I still benefited from this picking and choosing. However, jumping in and out doesn’t maximize the formative power of the liturgical calendar.
Here’s the church calendar in a nutshell:
●Advent is the four weeks leading up to Christmas and marks a new liturgical year.
●Christmas itself is a mini-season—a celebration of 12 days (ever heard of the 12 days of Christmas?).
●Epiphany starts on Jan 6. This season lasts from 4 to 7 weeks depending on where Easter falls.
●Lent is 40 days and concludes the night before Easter.
●Easter Sunday is the beginning of a 50-day period of exploring the resurrection.
●Pentecost/Ordinary Time stretches from Trinity Sunday (50 days after Easter) to Christ the King Sunday (the Sunday before Advent).
Each season has its own postures and practices that help shape us into the people of God. For instance, the key posture of Advent is waiting (looking forward to celebrating the first coming of Jesus in the manger but also waiting for his return as the glorified King). While we wait, we’re invited into two key practices: singing and groaning. We sing and celebrate God’s arrival (Emmanuel—God with us) and we groan while we live in this broken and painful world, hungering for Christ to return and restore all things. This way of “telling time” is profoundly powerful.
If we’re not using the Christian liturgical calendar, then we’re probably telling time using a North American calendar. This calendar also has formative power, orienting us inside the American story. The North American calendar wants us to live into a different story – telling us that to be human is to be a consumer. It marks the beginning of the holiday season by promoting and celebrating sales and deals (Black Friday, Cyber Monday) as way to prime the pump for a frenzied season of shopping with an aim towards an explosion of material goods on Christmas day. I’m not saying that shopping or giving gifts is bad – but what I’m trying to highlight is that the marking of time “telling time” is a way of “telling a story.” The question is: What story am I living in and how is that story shaping me? Which story do we identify with more?
One of the most powerful faith formation tools that any church can utilize is the liturgical calendar. It’s a way of telling time –more specifically–a way of telling a story that orients us and forms us into the people of God. Telling time is not something we think about often, but I encourage you to stop and ask the question –
"What time is it?"