Christmas and the Church Calendar

During this season of Advent, as we await the coming of the Christ Child born in Bethlehem, it is appropriate to take some time to reflect on the church calendar and its importance for the worshiping community.

The rationale for organizing time spiritually is found in Exodus 13:14 and 23:14-19, where God provided His people with three main feasts as a tangible way to remember what He had done for them. Although the feast of Passover expired when Jesus brought Israel’s exile to an end (a fact hinted hinted at in Jeremiah 16:14-15 and 23:7-8), this does not mean that the people of God are now without any feasts to celebrate. On the contrary, just as our forefathers had the three cardinal feasts of the law (Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles), Christians also have a number of feasts that celebrate our ongoing salvation. These feasts—celebrations like Pentecost, Pascha or Easter, Advent, Christmas or Nativity, Theophany or Epiphany, to name only a few—proclaim that time itself, once the medium only of death and decay, has become the very medium of our redemption. One of the Christian feasts, Pentecost, was also an Old Testament feast, though it has been transformed by the gospel to take on a fuller meaning. And just as our forefathers had numerous supplementary holy days between their feasts like the Day of Atonement, so the church has numerous saints’ days that we can celebrate.

These holidays are not merely reminders about spiritual truths; rather, these holidays are a tangible way for Christians to live through the story of redemption every year and to sacramentally participate in the realities they commemorate. This idea of sacramental participation goes back to the feasts of the Old Testament, particularly Passover. The annual celebration of Passover was always more than simply a reminder that God had delivered His people out of Egyptian bondage. Rather, the faithful believed that through the Passover liturgy, they were mystically participating in those original events. Through the ritualistic reenactment of the Passover night, the ancient past was brought forward into the present.

Jesus celebrated the Passover in the event we call the Last Supper, as faithful Jews and Israelites had been doing for hundreds of years. Significantly, this occurred on the night before His death when Jesus, the new Passover lamb, rescued Abraham’s descendants from their final bondage. By mysteriously participating in the original Passover, Christ was able to transform the celebration in light of His own dawning victory over slavery and exile.[i] Taking the Passover bread and wine, Christ declared that it was His body and blood shed for the remission of sins and for the initiation of a new covenant (Mt. 26:26-29). When Christians thereafter celebrate the Last Supper, or the Eucharist as it later came to be called, they participate in Christ’s victorious death, the ultimate Exodus out of bondage. Just as the annual Passover liturgy was a participation in the original Passover meal, so the Christian Eucharist became a participation in the new Exodus made possible by Christ’s sacrificial death.

Many Christians have a hard time understanding this type of liturgical participation, and so they end up with weird theories, such as the theory held by many Protestants that communion is simply an illustration and nothing more, or the even stranger Protestant theory which says that Catholics and Orthodox believe Christ is being re-sacrificed every time Communion is served. Much of this confusion arises because we have a different understanding of time than the ancient Hebrews. When the Hebrews celebrated the Passover every year, the symbolism and typology enabled them to spiritually participate in those original events, even though in purely secular time the Passover was in the distant past. The ancient Hebrews did not believe that the Passover repeated itself hundreds of times throughout linear history, just as Catholics and Orthodox do not believe that Christ is re-sacrificed anew every time a priest serves the Eucharist. Rather, the doctrine of liturgical participation is built on the notion that a specific punctiliar event in the distant past can come rushing forward into the present, and that through “reminiscence” (anamnesis in Greek), those events can be “made present.”

The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor articulated the concept of “making present” by saying that “The original Passover in Egypt, and the last supper, are brought into close proximity by typology, although they are aeons apart in secular time.”[ii] If this is true, then it challenges how we think of time. Consider the following question: what is closer to the original Easter: January 3rd 1975, or Easter Sunday 2013? According to human reason, we would say that January 3rd 1975 is thirty-eight years closer to the original Easter than Easter Sunday (or Pascha, as I prefer to call it) in the year 2013. But that is a secular way of approaching time. When our thinking has been informed by a Judaeo-Christian worldview, we understand that Easter Sunday is actually “closer” to the events of Christ’s resurrection, though on a different axis from secular time.

The early Christians grasped something of this mystery in their understanding of Real Presence: the teaching that the Communion elements mysteriously participate in Christ’s body and His original sacrifice. Although Real Presence became controversial after the sixteenth century, the principle behind it pervades the entire liturgical year, as Jesus’ followers are caught up to participate in the key events of salvation history. For example, Christ’s temptation in the wilderness is re-enacted during Lent when Christians fast and give particular attention to the struggle against temptation. During Advent or Nativity fast, we re-enact and participate in the long period during which our forefathers painfully waited for the Messiah, even as we are now waiting for His second coming. Advent culminates in the Christmas, which celebrates the incarnation, that great event when God became man. After Christmas comes the season of Theophany or Epiphany, which recalls the coming of the Magi and the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles. During Lent the church remembers Christ’s sufferings, both in the wilderness and finally on the cross. All the events of Christ’s final week are re-enacted during Holy Week. Lent and Holy Week culminate in the Paschal mysteries of Easter, when Christ rises from the dead, defeating death once and for all.

The ancient prayers and hymns that accompany these fasts and feasts build on the same reality that the Hebrews understood in their Passover celebrations: under the right conditions, great events from the past are brought into conjunction with the present, enabling worshipers to participate in spiritual realities that transcend their immediate location in time and space.

The rhythm of the church year is unfamiliar to many modern Christians, who think of Easter as a single day rather than as a season, or who assume that Christmas ends rather than begins on December 25, or who consider Lent to be “something that Catholics do.” Why is there such poverty? Part of it goes back to the origins of Protestantism.

The French reformer John Calvin proposed doing away with Christmas and all other feasts in Geneva, a point contributing to his expulsion from the city in 1538.[iii] Protestants after Calvin continued to wage anti-Christmas campaigns, including a campaign originating with the German protestant, Paul Ernst Jablonski who invented the myth about the alleged pagan origins of Christmas in an attempt to discredit the holiday.

Calvin’s teaching had an influence on the Puritans. In their Directory for the Public Worship of God, the Westminster Assembly had prohibited holidays, making clear that “There is no day commanded in scripture to be kept holy under the gospel but the Lord’s day, which is the Christian Sabbath. Festival days, vulgarly called Holy-days, having no warrant in the word of God, are not to be continued.” We get an idea how opposed the Puritans were to these holidays from the fact that when Oliver Cromwell turned England into a Puritan commonwealth he instructed his leaders to make sure that Christmas day was an obligatory work day. Jonathan Gifford writes how “troops roamed the streets looking for signs of inappropriate feasting: mince pies and plum puddings were seized.”

America’s strong Puritan heritage, brought to this country by both the Pilgrims Fathers as well as the hundreds of thousands of Scotch-Irish who immigrated during the eighteenth century, sought to enforce the Westminster decision in what Hambrick-Stowe called “calendary iconoclasm.”[vii] These Celtic immigrants, mostly from Presbyterian and dissenting backgrounds, were heirs of the type of Puritanism that had little time for rituals, ceremonies or “times and seasons,” which they considered remnants of “popery.”

By getting rid of the church year and all Christian holidays, the Puritans and their descendants left a vacuum that would ultimately has been filled by the non-religious ordering of time. Such non-religious ordering helped reinforce the idea that there exists a secular world that functions separately from spiritual categories. By rejecting the church year as one legitimate way to tell the story of redemption, the Puritans and their descendants inadvertently underscored the sense of religion being disembodied, detached from the space-time continuum. This would ultimately reinforce a duality in North American culture that emerged under the Puritan’s canopy, including a false dichotomy between the sacred and the secular. This process of re-ordering the world and time involved the migration of the sacred from the religious to the political, and to landmarks denoting the achievements of civic nationalism. These migrations had begun to occur in Calvin’s own lifetime: significantly, while Saint Peter’s in Geneva was whitewashed to remove all religious imagery, a new stained glass window was installed to display the arms of the city.[viii]

Because human beings are inescapably liturgical and religious, we invariably organize the year into rhythmic structures that reflect our priorities. If our priorities are not the great feasts of the church, then by default our year will end up being structured around secular holidays that tell the story of political redemption or else holidays that pay homage to the god of hedonism, such as vacation time.

“One by one, the Church’s holy days have been overshadowed by secularizing forces, by new false gods,” wrote Fr. Scott Wilson for Touchstone. He continued by pointing out that

“It is striking that nearly every major feast day in the church year has been preempted, to one degree or another, by a secular event that now absorbs the greater part of public attention.”

Fr. Scott pointed to many examples of this, not least the way Easter break has been hijacked by “Spring Break”:

 “Even in public school systems, the weeklong break that occurs in the spring used to be called the ‘Easter break.’ No more; it is now just called ‘spring break.’ And while it often coincides with Holy Week, the solemn week culminating with Good Friday, when our Lord’s Passion is commemorated, many people use the break to skip town and head to warm climates for festive activities, in a recess from daily and academic grinds.”

Perhaps the saddest casualty in these secularizing shifts is the church-less Christmas so familiar to most American Christians, which has created space for a sacral quality to migrate to merchandise, hedonism, and sentimentalism. This hit me when I moved back to America after living in England for ten years. In England, church attendance on Christmas morning is as much a part of the celebrations as stockings, mince pies, and carols. In fact, many English men and women who hardly ever set foot inside a church will attend their local Anglican church on Christmas morning. Indeed, walking to the village church on Christmas morning, accompanied by the festive music of the church’s bells, is such an integral part of an English Christmas that when we moved to America I found it difficult to imagine a Christmas without it. I found it disconcerting that most American Protestants think of their church-less Christmases as normal. Yet before it was anything else, Christmas was a mass of the church (Christ-mass) and it would only have been pagans who would think to skip out on the occasion.

The Eastern Orthodox churches have preserved many of the ancient traditions of Christmas, which they call “Nativity.” Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate the Feast of the Nativity with the “Festal Orthros,” filled with a glorious hymnody and festal readings associated with the Feast. The festal Orthros is the pageantry and build up to the celebration of the Festal Liturgy of St. Basil, which is only celebrated a few times each year (rather than the shorter Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom celebrated normally on Sundays). For 40 days leading up to the Feast of the Nativity, Eastern Orthodox Christians have been undergoing a Nativity Fast, abstaining from all meat and dairy products, in preparation for the great day.

See Also

Christmas, like the Church’s other great fasts and feasts, are the church’s ultimate anti-Gnostic statement, for these holidays proclaims that time itself is the medium of our redemption. Through the Incarnation, the linear flowing of time, once the medium only of corruption, has been sanctified. Time itself has been caught up into the repeating cycles of the Liturgy—Annunciation, Nativity, Theophany, Lent, Pascha, etc.—through which history is pulled forward in the ongoing progress towards the final eschaton. Instead of simply bringing more futility, the linear flow of time now ushers in further mysteries of God’s creative work, moving us from part to fullness, from shadow to reality, from incompleteness to completion. This redemptive-historical drama of time will reach final completion at the Second Coming, when God will judge unrighteousness and finish sanctifying time and space itself.

[i]On the Passover symbolism behind Jesus’ Last Supper and its fulfillment in the Christian Eucharist, see Brant Pitre and Scott Hahn, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper, Reprint edition (New York: Image, 2016); Scott Hahn, The Fourth Cup: Unveiling the Mystery of the Last Supper and the Cross (New York: Image, 2018).

[ii] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 96.

[iii] William A. Dyrness, Reformed Theology and Visual Culture: The Protestant Imagination from Calvin to Edwards (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

[iv] David Withun’s article ‘The pagan origins of Christmas?‘ and William J. Tighe’s article ‘Calculating Christmas’

[v] The Encyclopaedia Britannica: A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and General Literature (Philadelphia, PA: Maxwell Sommerville, 1894), 103.

[vii] “The Puritan vanguard was dedicated to the destruction of an entire world view, a whole system of values and meaning woven from Roman liturgical forms and pagan religious traditions in their English manifestation. The clearest illustration of this ‘purification’ process was the Puritan renunciation of the ecclesiastical year, ordered according to saint’s days and local agricultural legends, a renunciation that one scholar referred to as ‘Puritan calendary iconoclasm…. The result, however, was a major devotional disjunction with the Roman system of special days, which had been carried into the practice of the Church of England. Not a single saint’s day survived the voyage to New England. Entirely new temporal patterns and rhythms emerged as Puritan spirituality developed and matured.” Hambrick-Stowe, The Practice of Piety, 48–49.

[viii] Bruce Gordon, Calvin (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 136.

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