What the church calendar is for

During the Easter season it’s worth asking why Christians follow a liturgical calendar in the first place. People can’t help but follow some sort of calendar. The real question is whether we do it consciously or unconsciously; our spiritual health might depend on our answer.

Consider the various schedules and agendas set for us. There’s a commercial calendar, electoral calendar, sports calendar, agricultural calendar, work calendar, and more.

Focus on the first for just a moment.

Scoot past a shopping mall a week after Halloween, and the whole place turns red and green. Pumpkins give way to snowflakes. Kids are still gnawing through their trick-or-treat bags, and Thanksgiving is a couple weeks out. Yet stores are already hyping the so-called holiday shopping season. Whose agenda drives that—and how does it affect us?

Priorities and values

We mark time with our priorities. Our calendars represent our values, and we conform our lives to them. That’s why Jesus, as a Jew, celebrated all the Jewish feasts. Holy days like Passover and Hanukkah were—and are—integral to Jewish experience and identity.

Events of the past compose our present. To honor those events—and let them more intentionally shape our present—we bring them into the now by observance. That’s what Memorial Day in America explicitly does. But other holidays like the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving work the same way.

We are marked by how we mark time. And observance is all the more meaningful and transformative when it comes to God’s saving activity in human history.

Celebrating Easter makes present the power of the Resurrection in our lives. That’s why the early Christians began commemorating the day and other annual holy days as well. They were identifying with those events, making them present, and transforming their lives in light of their significance.

Formed and deformed

This calendar dynamic works unconsciously as well as consciously—and the results can vary significantly. The agendas that drive our commercial, corporate, or entertainment calendars are not bad in themselves.

Neither are they good in themselves. Our priorities must be reordered so they serve our sanctification instead of becoming accidental obstacles to it. If we are not consciously doing that, we often react to the prompts and signals of the world’s many calendars with little awareness of how we are conforming our efforts and energies to their agendas.

James K. A. Smith discusses this in his new book, You Are What You Love, with an eye on consumerism:

I don’t think my way into consumerism. Rather, I’m covertly conscripted into a way of life because I have been formed by cultural practices that are nothing less than secular liturgies. My loves [desires, wants, priorities] have been automated by rituals I didn’t even realize were liturgies.

These “cultural liturgies” form and deform us, says Smith. And the evidence is everywhere around us, as well as in us.

Redeeming the time

Two verses come to mind when I consider the role of calendars: “teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” from Psalm 90, and “mak[e] the most of the time, because the days are evil” from Ephesians 5.

The first tells me we can number our days poorly or well, foolishly or wisely, by our standards or by God’s, and that our hearts are transformed by numbering our days well. The second tells me that there’s something at stake here. If we do not redeem the time we’re given, we will suffer the consequences.

The church gives us seasons like Lent and Advent, days like Easter and Christmas, Annunciation and Pentecost to help us redeem the time and transform our hearts. That’s what calendars can do. They not only direct our time, they tell us what our time—and thus our lives—are for.

So the vital question for us is this: Which calendars form us most?

Image credit: Dafne Cholet


  1. Fine job Joel, and far more important than we usually think. One thing I’m particularly thankful for — I do not have to dream up my own Calendar. The Church was given the Holy Spirit at Pentecosts to guide the Church into all truth. She formed and has preserved the Tradition of the Apostles who gave our early Calendars and Liturgies to us. So I can have confidence our Calendar and Liturgies have roots deep in the piety and tradition the Apostles gave to the early Church.

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