Christianity, Calendar of
Christianity, Calendar of(religion, spiritualism, and occult)
Because much of the world uses the Christian calendar, it is important to understand the significance of Christian holidays, some of which have become almost secular events.
The calendar begins with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, although that is much too simple a statement. First of all, no one knows when Jesus of Nazareth was born. Due to archaeological, astronomical, and linguistic studies, the best guess now is that Jesus was born sometime in what would today be dated as 6 BCE. And even that date requires explanation.
Many people mark time with the terms, "before Christ," and, "anno domini," which translates to "the year of our Lord." In recent times, however, recognizing how insensitive this terminology is to non-Christians, many have adopted the terms BCE, "before the common era," and CE, "common era." Thus, Jesus was born in 6 BCE, or six years earlier than he was thought to have been born when the modern calendar was first drawn up.
The Christian calendar begins with Advent. Christmas, the traditional celebration of the birth of Jesus, has been celebrated on December 25th ever since the early part of the fourth century. This was the day of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year according to the Roman calendar. The tradition of Advent, of preparing for the Christmas celebration, began early in the Eastern Church, beginning on November 14th, the feast of Saint Philip.
In the West, the season begins on the Sunday closest to the feast of Saint Andrew, the disciple who most often brought people to meet Jesus. So for most Christians, Advent now marks the beginning of the Christian calendar, four Sundays of preparation prior to the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Christians see this as the turning point of human existence, when "God became flesh," when the divine took on human form, when the "author" wrote himself into the play and entered into history. The liturgical color is traditionally purple, the sign of penitence. Often a purple candle is lit at the beginning of each Sunday worship service, until the final white candle of the Advent wreath is lit on Christmas Eve. But on the third Sunday, Gaudete ("Rejoice") Sunday, it is traditional to light a rose-colored candle, signifying the joy to come.
Advent is usually celebrated with scripture readings, many of them from the prophet Isaiah, that prophesy not only the birth of Jesus, or his first advent, but his second advent, or Second Coming, as well. The traditional Old Testament readings were incorporated by George Frederick Handel to make up the text of the Advent section of his famous Oratorio, Messiah.
The season of Advent ends with the celebration of Christmas. Christmas, or the "Mass of Christ," is the English word for the Feast of the Nativity, celebrated on December 25th. Evidence suggests that this holiday, now common throughout the world, was not celebrated until at least the fourth century. Although there is no way of knowing the actual birth date of Christ, we do know that December 25th was the date of a Roman festival known as the "birthday of the unconquered sun," recognizing the fact that the sun, after the winter solstice, begins to strengthen. When the early church discovered it could not stamp out the celebration of what they considered a pagan holiday, sometime around 336 CE they "baptized" it with the Christian name, "Feast of the Nativity of the Son of Righteousness."
Most of the symbols surrounding Christmas are pagan in origin. Candles and Christmas tree lights reflect attempts to light up the longest night of the year. Parties and gift-giving were the custom when celebrating the Roman Saturnalia festival from December 17th to the 24th. Christmas dinner and family reunions come from Germanic-Celtic Yule celebrations.
The modern American celebration is a very new custom. When the Puritans came to New England they objected to the very idea of Christmas. It was considered a pagan holiday. But Christmas seems to have a habit of gradually accumulating customs. As Christmas grows more each year into a secular and commercial holiday, American churches are experiencing a dilemma. Traditionally, Advent was a time for penitence, for sober reflection and music in minor keys. When Christmas finally came, it was celebrated for twelve days, until the Feast of the Epiphany. But with the cultural phenomenon of joyous celebration and the countdown of "shopping days until Christmas," with Christmas music filling airwaves and shopping malls even before Thanksgiving, it is becoming harder and harder to leave the culture behind at the sanctuary door on Sunday morning. And just when the church begins to celebrate on Christmas morning, social voices tire of the long party and begin preparations for the New Year celebration.
Individual churches are forced to deal with the problem in their own way. Some have simply dropped the Advent tradition to follow society, singing Christmas hymns beginning in early December. Others attempt to carry on, fighting a counterculture struggle.
At Christmas the liturgical colors in the Church are changed to white. Catholic churches usually say three masses that day, to signify Christ's birth eternally in the bosom of the Father, in Mary's womb, and in the souls of the faithful.
The Christmas season traditionally continues for twelve days. The shepherds were said to have visited Jesus on the day of his birth, but tradition has it that the wise men visited him twelve days later, on the Feast of the Epiphany.
No one knows how many wise men, or Magi, visited Bethlehem. Because they brought three gifts—frankincense, gold, and myrrh—it is assumed there were three. Tradition has even given them names: Melchior, Belthasar, and Gaspar or Caspar. In 1162, Frederick Barbarossa claimed to have discovered their relics and brought them back to Germany, where they are enshrined in Cologne Cathedral.
The Adoration of the Magi became a popular subject of music and art. Gian Carlo Menotti's opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, is performed each year before appreciative audiences, and the Magi often take important roles in epic books and movies, such as Ben Hur.
An epiphany is "an appearance or manifestation of God." This is what the Magi experienced, so the Feast of the Epiphany is sometimes called the "Little Christmas" and celebrated as such in many churches with Christmas carols and gifts. This is the day when churches from the Eastern tradition celebrate Christmas.
Six weeks after Epiphany the Church begins the celebration of Lent.
Jesus' experience of forty days in the wilderness preparing for his ministry prompted the Church to institute a period of forty days, not counting Sundays, when preparations are made to celebrate Easter. Because Lent is traditionally a time of fasting and penitence, a real blowout used to occur in the days just preceding it. New Orleans (along with many other communities) continues the tradition with Mardi Gras, "Fat Tuesday," the day before fasting begins. Some Christians "give up something for Lent," a daily reminder of the season. In liturgical traditions, ashes, an ancient sign of mourning, are made from burning the previous Palm Sunday's palm branches. The ashes are administered to the forehead of the faithful on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, as a reminder of the Old Testament tradition of repenting "in sackcloth and ashes."
Sundays are considered a weekly vacation during Lent. Rules are relaxed. Feasts are prepared. Many churches institute Sunday afternoon jazz concerts, a reminder that life is not all mourning and sadness.
But as meditation, introspection, and repentance return each Monday morning, Lent begins to move toward the celebration of Holy Week.
Palm Sunday is the beginning of the countdown. It marks the celebration of the day Jesus rode into Jerusalem and was welcomed as Messiah. It was a very public, triumphal entry, and the people cut down palm branches to strew in his path. But when Jesus threw the money changers out of the Temple and taught what was considered by the authorities to be subversive doctrine, he was seen as a threat to established authority.
For three days he spoke openly in the city. Then, on Thursday night, Jesus met with his disciples in an upper room to celebrate Passover. Here he instituted the meal called the Last Supper, or Communion. Ever since, this day has been called Maundy Thursday. "Maundy" comes from the Latin Mandatum, or mandate. The day is so named because it was on this night Jesus gave his disciples a new mandate, or command, to "love one another" (John 13:34).
That night Jesus was betrayed and arrested. He was crucified the next day, now called Good Friday. It is called "good" because of the benefits God accomplished, not because of the horrible act of crucifixion.
On Easter Sunday morning, Jesus is said to have risen from the dead. Again, as with many Christian traditions, there is evidence of pagan influence. Although the Eastern Church celebrates Easter on the same date every year, the holiday in the West is always held on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox. Without knowing any better, if you were to watch a group of religious folk climb up a mountain on the first Sunday following the first full moon of the spring equinox, gathering there to sing hymns as the sun rose, you would suspect you were viewing a pagan celebration, especially when you walked home to exchange fertility symbols of eggs and bunnies and to share a meal of new spring lamb. In fact, this is a typical Christian Easter sunrise service.
Even the name "Easter" is a bit suspicious. It apparently derives from the name of an ancient Celtic pagan spring festival. But evidence suggests it was celebrated early on in Church history and was the traditional day for baptism and reception of new Church members. Modern Christians simply ignore the significance of Easter bunnies and colored eggs. They may be pagan fertility symbols, but they are still a lot of fun.
The liturgical color for the next seven weeks is white, but eight weeks after Easter the color becomes red, the color of celebration, as the Church remembers the Pentecost.
This is the day marking the birthday of the Church. Pentecost is a Jewish holiday. When Jews from all over made their way to Jerusalem to keep the feast, the disciples, according to Acts 2, were celebrating as well. They had met together and were praying when,
Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
This example of "Pentecostal power" marked the coming of the Spirit, the day the Church began. Jesus had promised to send his spirit, and when he did, it certainly attracted a crowd. The apostle Peter preached the first Christian sermon and three thousand people joined the festivities. The church was off to a flying start—"And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved" (Acts 2:47).
Today Pentecost is often celebrated with balloons and streamers, fitting for a birthday party.
Following the festivities of Pentecost, the Church begins a period known as "normal time." The liturgical color is green, and that continues until summer is over and Advent begins again. Other days are celebrated throughout the year that have special meaning to the Church as a whole, or to individual churches, but this cyclical series of celebrations is designed to provide a framework, illustrating the Christian story anew each year.