Numbering Our Days: Telling Time by Jesus
This is an extended version of Reggie Kidd’s column in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of Worship Leader magazine.
Roger wears two watches. Because he travels a lot, he sets the watch on his left wrist to whatever time zone he happens to be in. He sets the watch on his right wrist to the time zone “back home” in Switzerland, where his heart always is and where his family lives.
Stability on the right wrist gives him equilibrium for all the changes on his left.
A church is like a person whose left wrist is lined with watches that demand we keep up with different “time zones” all at the same time. There’s church programming for the fall. There’s Christmas ramp-up. There’s the first of the year blues. There’s Easter ramp-up. There’s the summer doldrums. There’s always some sports season time that affects people’s attendance and attention span (are we on NFL, NBA, or MLB time?). There’s “Hallmark” time (what are we going to do this year with Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day?). Everybody is constantly on CNN time, with its 24/7 news cycle. And in a year like this one, there’s electoral season time. Everywhere distraction. All the time something demanding attention.
As King Solomon observed, it gets wearisome (Ecc. 1:8) – he might have added soul-sucking. Small wonder Moses taught us to pray: “Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom” (Ps. 90:12).
God gave Israel a pattern of life, from the head of the year at the Day of Atonement through to the Feast of Booths at the time of harvest. Thus he taught her to number her days according to his provision for spiritual and physical life. The church understood – and so Paul taught them – not to come under the calendar as law (see Gal. 4:10). Nonetheless, the church also understood – and so Paul also taught them – that Christ has brought “the fullness of time,” the time of “new creation” (Gal 4:7; 6:15).
When the church realized that the whole point of God’s story with Israel was to point to Jesus Christ, we sensed that it was time to re-do the calendar. And so we have “Before Christ” (B.C.) and “The Year of Our Lord” (Anno Domini, or A.D.). All that preceded him was preparation for “the fullness of time.” All that has followed is “new creation.”
Over time, the church figured out that we needed to “name” the time that God had “claimed.” For us, there had to be more to “numbering our days” than honoring pagan dead gods (January was the month of Janus, the god who looks both backwards and forwards) and counting the months (December, in the old Roman calendar, was simply the “tenth” month). And so over the first several centuries of the church a fairly wide consensus emerged that we would order our days according to the life of Jesus Christ.
The Christian New Year begins with Advent, the four Sundays before Christmas when we anticipate the incarnation of our Lord. We rehearse the OT promises, the annunciation to Mary, and John the Baptist’s “Prepare the way of the Lord.” We remember that Christ has come, and we celebrate the fact that Christ is come (every week in our worship and in our lives) and will come again at the end of the age.
From December 25 and for the next 12 days (the original “12 Days of Christmas”) we rejoice in his birth – a rejoicing that includes the victorious martyrdoms of the innocents of Bethlehem, of Stephen, and of John the Baptist. We exult at the fact that Christ’s incarnation is the beginning of the destruction of all that is evil.
From January 6 up until Ash Wednesday, we celebrate Epiphany, the “Manifestation” of Christ in his mission to become Lord of the whole world. During this season, worship focuses on Christ’s baptism, his turning water into wine, his teaching, healing, and preaching – and his transfiguration as he prepares to journey to Jerusalem.
Beginning on Ash Wednesday, in anticipation of Easter we spend 40 days considering the call of the cross, a season called Lent (Anglo-Saxon lencten = “spring”). Lent climaxes with Holy Week & the “Great Triduum” (or “Great Three Days”) of Maundy Thursday (named after Jesus’ “New Commandment”), Good Friday, and Holy Saturday (concluding with the best kept secret of the Christian year: the Great Easter Vigil, when in the darkness of early Easter morning we joyfully – and loudly – proclaim Christ’s victory over death).
Easter is more than a day – it’s a season, running from Easter Sunday (the Sunday after the full moon that occurs on or after the spring equinox) to Pentecost Sunday, fifty days later: 6 weeks of Easter! While many modern churches put more of their energy into celebrating Christmas, the ancient church highlighted Easter. Because the Incarnate Lord has risen, we have new life in him in the now, and the promise of bodily resurrection at his return. During the Easter season, worship emphasizes Christ’s post-resurrection appearances and teachings. The season includes the feast of the Ascension, the fortieth day after Easter (always a Thursday, of course) — one of my own favorite feasts, because Christ’s ascension means you and I have a friend in a very high place!
From fifty days after Easter to the first Sunday in Advent – almost half the calendar year! – we celebrate Pentecost and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. At Pentecost in Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit reversed the curse of Babel and launched the church’s mission to the nations. The extended Pentecost season gives us ample opportunity to reflect on our place in that great mission. The Pentecost season is marked by three mini-celebrations: Trinity Sunday (the Sunday after Pentecost, reminding us that redemption is an overflow of the inner-life of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), All Saints Day (November 1, recognizing the community of faith that transcends death’s boundary), and Christ the King Sunday (on the Sunday before Advent begins, marking the end of the Pentecost Season and signaling the beginning of a new church year).
In the Christian calendar, the church offers a timepiece for the “right wrist” that anchors us in the “back home” of God and his story. We’re not just passing time according to the secular calendar or sports seasons or greeting cards or the news cycle. We are defined by our relationship with Christ, and he is the one by whom we tell time.
Resources for the Christian Year:
Constance M. Cherry, The Worship Architect: A Blueprint for Designing Culturally Relevant and Biblically Faithful Services (BakerAcademic, 2010).
Robert E. Webber, Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality through the Christian Year (BakerBooks, 2004).
Find out more about Reggie Kidd by visiting his blog: reggiekidd.com