Tides of the Church Calendar

The Need for a Sense of Ecclesiastical Time

In his article in the April 2004 issue of First Things, “The Church as Culture,” Robert Louis Wilken described how the ancient Christian Church posed an alternative to the surrounding prevailing pagan culture by presenting its own unique counterculture–a culture that in addition to creating its own language and its own sacred spaces, also created a new sense of time, revolving around the ecclesiastical calendar. Wilken noted that although this culture persisted to the 20th century, it was rapidly breaking down and greatly in need of renewal. His insight is particularly apt. If we are not to “be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2) then we need to recover a sense of ecclesiastical time.

Recovering Use of the Church Calendar

During the Reformation, many Reformers were cool to the idea of an ecclesiastical calendar for at least three reasons. First and foremost, there was no real Scriptural warrant for any day to receive particular observance other than the Sabbath, which was commanded in the Fourth Commandment. Second, the ecclesiastical calendar was intertwined with the whole religious system of fasting and feasting, so much so that scrupulousness about keeping the fasts and feasts lent itself easily to a mindset of works righteousness, such as what Jesus condemned the Pharisee for thinking in Luke 18:9-14.  To the Reformers, Christians were not obligated to a system of fasts and feasts, nor do we gain righteousness by any other means than Christ alone.  Third, almost every day of the medieval church calendar was a holy day dedicated to one or another saint, and if every day is a holy day, then really no day is holy.  Indeed, because every day was a holy day of some sort, then one had to pick and choose what would be observed or not observed, since there was no way to observe everything and still do the work necessary for life.  Thus, ironically, the Church’s emphasis on “holy days” ended up trivializing the notion of a consecrated day, while distracting from Sabbath observance.  For these reasons and others, Reformers–especially the English Puritans and the Scottish Presbyterians—were inclined to dispense with an ecclesiastical calendar altogether.

In recovering a sense of ecclesiastical time, it would be easy to dismiss the Reformers as having “thrown the baby out with the bath water” in their zeal for reform.  The problem with this is that Reformed criticisms of the church calendar are as valid today as they were in the 16th and 17th centuries.  The weekly Sabbath should be the focal point for our thinking about holy days because it is commanded in the Decalogue.  Despite the current vogue among Protestants for “giving something up for Lent,” no one is seriously talking about re-instituting the whole system of fasting and feasting, around which the pre-Reformation ecclesiastical calendar rotated.  Neither is anyone seriously contemplating re-instituting all the saints’ days, the overwhelming majority of which are for saints no one really knows.  At the same time, the subsequent failure of Puritan and Presbyterian efforts to completely disabolish the calendar in the practice of church life highlight the fact that if one is to change long-held practices, then it is not enough to simply not observe holidays; one has to cultivate new practices in their stead.  There is a rhythm to life–weekly, monthly, seasonally, and yearly–that facilitates godly discipleship.  Indeed, that may have been part of God’s purpose in the Old Testament for instituting the holy days there. Consistent with the Reformers right emphasis on the centrality of Scripture and with the aim of developing new habits, I suggest the calendar be married up with a regular program of reading through the Bible.

The Year of the LORD

One of the first things necessary for recovering a sense of ecclesiastical time is to remember what our dating system is actually oriented around.  It is increasingly prevalent today in writing about yearly dates to substitute “CE” (common era) for “AD” (anno domini – the year of the Lord) and “BCE” (before the common era) for “BC” (before Christ).  To be sure, such notation is not the innovation of a handful of academics in just the past few years—many Jews, for example, had been using CE to mean “Christian Era” for centuries because they rejected the notion of the Lordship of Christ Jesus.  Others used “Common Era” as synonymous with the “Christian era” as well.  The notation has become more popular in the last several years as academics, museums, and others have consciously sought to distance the calendar from any Christian connotations.

This is simply illogical.  If the calendar is marking years from a given point, then what, if not the Advent of Christ, is the reference point?  In other words, what marks the start of the current “Common Era”?  The year 1 CE was the 27th year of Augustus Caesar and the 754th year since the founding of Rome (ab urbe condita or AUC).  Tiberius—at that point, still a general in the Roman army—was in the process of quelling revolts in Germania.  Livy began writing his History of Rome, the Parthian Empire began conquering the petty kingdoms of Gadara in the Indus Valley and the nine year old Emperor Ping of the Han Dynasty in China began the Yuashi Era, which would last all of five years and be known as the beginning of the end for the dynasty.  Oddly enough, none of these events of the greatest empires of the world at the start of the Common Era served as the basis for the Common Era.  In fact, in the full sweep of the histories of the Roman, Parthian, and Han Empires, great things happened before and after 1 CE but the year itself was rather dull—except, of course, for the birth of the Son of God, the Messiah Jesus, in an obscure Judean village on the periphery of the Roman Empire.  If others want to come up with their own dating system independent of any Christian reference, that is their prerogative. They should at least have the courage of the French Revolutionaries to justify what they want to identify as Year 0.

Why should it be such a big deal if people use CE instead of AD or BCE instead of BC?  Couldn’t one “Christianize” the CE label simply by calling it “Christian Era”?  Few people speak Latin anyway, so Anno Domini is not readily understood.  Stop and consider for a moment when the French Revolutionaries proclaimed “Year Zero” in 1792 with the abolition of the French Monarchy and the institution of a non-Gregorian calendar.  Or, in a more recent example, when the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia made a similar pronouncement in 1978 and began a genocide against educated people.  In both cases, the declaration of “Year Zero” carried with it the connotation not merely of a change in the calendar, but the institution of a New Order of the Ages (Novus Ordo Seclorum).  Something new has happened and is ushering in a new era to affect all of human history, such that all subsequent life needs to refer back to that point.  Modern revolutionaries have a certain hubris in declaring their revolution as a turning point in human existence.  Time, therefore, has an eschatological significance.  The question we need to grapple with is, what is the event worthy enough for be treated in such a manner?  For Christians, that has to revolve around Christ.

In using the calendar, however, we are doing more than simply marking time since Jesus came.  The phrase, “The Year of the LORD,” is similar to the regnal formulations typically used of kings and queens—”the 50th year of Elizabeth the II” or the “5th year of Ashurbanipal” for example.  Anno domini, the Year of the LORD, implies that Christ is still reigning.  Indeed, according to orthodox Christian theology in all the major traditions of the Faith, He is reigning, even now.  Simply calling the era the “Christian Era” grossly diminishes that fact.  It suggests that this era is like some other human era and it neutralizes any sense that we as individuals are participants in, not merely observers, of this era.  And, because He is reigning, we as His people have obligations upon us to honor and extend His rule.  Because calendar time is eschatological, there is the sense that the time we are now in is pregnant with significance.  We are in the age in which the LORD is reigning, but His physical presence is hidden.  It is the age in which the nations are being gathered in anticipation of His physical return when the fullness of His kingdom will be ushered in for all time.


Advent is the season in the Christian calendar for God’s people to reflect on the Person of Christ Jesus, and in particular, the mystery of His Incarnation that He is both fully God and fully man, as summarized in the Nicene Creed.  In thinking about the Advent of our Lord, there is an element of both looking backward and looking forward.  We look back to His First Coming and the precedents of His kingship anticipated from the patriarchs onward. He is the long-anticipated Messiah. At the same time, since His ascension to the right hand of God the Father, we look forward to His return in the Second Coming to usher in the Final Judgment and the fullness of His Kingdom in consummating glory.

Advent as a season did not come into being until the Church began regularly observing the Feasts of the Nativity (i.e., Christmas, December 25) and Epiphany (January 6), and there is little evidence that either of those feasts were observed before AD 380. There are only two data points one can point to regarding these feasts before 380.  The first is a reference in a Roman almanac in 354 that Christ’s Nativity was on December 25, but there is no evidence that there was any kind of observance of the Feast at that time.  The only other data point is a mention of one observance of the Feast of Epiphany (Manifestation) in about 360.  The first clear observance of a Feast of the Nativity was in 380, when Gregory Nazianzus (329-390), a prominent theologian and defender of the Nicene Creed, presided over the Feast in Constantinople.  Shortly thereafter, an all-Church council in Constantinople definitively reaffirmed the truth of the Nicene Creed, officially ending the Arian conflict which for 55 years had brought strife to the Church by questioning Jesus’s full divinity and full humanity.  A few years later, another defender of Nicene orthodoxy, John Chrysostom (349-407), made reference to the existence a Feast of the Nativity in 386. Still, it does not appear that either the Feast of the Nativity or the Feast of the Epiphany were regularly observed across the Roman Empire for quite some time.  For example, in Alexandria, Egypt, a major center for the ancient Church, the Feast of the Nativity was not adopted until about 430.  What may have boosted observance of Christmas was a series of sermons in the 440s and 450s that Pope Leo the Great (400-461) on the occasion of the Feast of the Nativity to defend the orthodox understanding of the Nicene Creed, as well as the orthodox position on debates at that time in which the Church grappled with how to define the relationship between Christ’s human and divine natures.

In the ancient Church, the Western Church observed the Nativity (Christmas) on December 25, while the Eastern Church (Asia Minor, the Levant, and Egypt) observed the Epiphany (Holy Theophany) on January 6.  Substantively, both celebrated Christ’s Incarnation and manifestation among His people, and the difference in dates probably was due in part to the Eastern Church’s continued use of the Julian Calendar after the Western Church moved to adopt the Gregorian calendar.  It is because of these two dates that we have the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” As the Eastern Church adopted Christmas, it began to distinguish the commemoration of Christ’s birth from the commemoration of His baptism (the Presentation of the Lord, celebrated on February 2). The exact origins of Advent are obscure, but it probably began as a preparatory period since the Church would welcome new communicants into fellowship on Christmas or Epiphany. The length of Adventide varied, from as short as three weeks to as long as eight.  It was only during the pontificate of Gregory the Great (r. 590-604) that the Advent was set at the four Sundays prior to Christmas.


The weeks leading up to Resurrection Sunday traditionally have been a period of sober reflection, penance and preparation, looking forward to the climatic event in the history of salvation, the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus.

The historic English name for this season is Lent, which is completely non-descriptive and simply means “spring season.” In languages other than English, the season is typically described either by its length (e.g. Latin, “Quadragesima” or Greek, “Sarakosti” which both come from the word for “fortieth,” referring to a period of 40 days) or by the practice of fasting associated with it (e.g. “The Great Fast” as in Arabic and Russian). The modern practice of “giving something up for Lent” is but a faint—and in many ways, unserious—reflection of what historically has been a much more rigorous period of material abstinence and spiritual exercise.  Although there is no real antecedent for such a season in Scripture, the idea of a preparatory period before Resurrection Sunday came into being in the early church because, unlike today, baptisms into the church and the Christian faith were not done whenever was convenient for the individual or for the parents (with regard to children), but were done only at a handful of times in the year, Resurrection Sunday being chief among these.  The preparation, therefore, was preparatory to baptism, and the reflection was a matter of coming to reckon with who God is, one’s own sinfulness, and one’s need for salvation.  Such reflection need not be limited to only one season in a year but having such a such period that is consistent from year to year does has utility as a spiritual discipline.

In the interest of finding a term more descriptive than “Lent,” and since Reformed Protestants do not observe days of liturgical fasting or feasting because of their understanding of the Regulative Principle of Scripture, and I have chosen in this reading plan to call the season “Desertide.”  The desert (really, the Wilderness) has always been a place of testing and meeting God and there are echoes of this throughout Scripture.  It was there where God commissioned Moses (Exod. 3:1-4:17), where He brought Israel to after the Exodus and where they wandered for forty years before entering the Promised Land (Exod. 14 through Deut. 34).  It was to the wilderness that David fled in his confrontation with Saul (1 Sam. 21-26) and, similarly, where Elijah fled after his confrontation with the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 19:1-18).  Israel’s later Exile to Babylon was tantamount to a second wilderness wandering (Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel).  From the wilderness John the Baptist called the nation to repentance (Matt. 3:1-12 || Mark 1:2-6 || Luke 3:3-6).  Most importantly, our Lord stayed in the wilderness for forty days resisting the Devil’s temptations (Matt. 4:1-11 || Mark 1:12-13 || Luke 4:1-8).  And subsequently, it was the area to which the Apostle Paul went for three years after he accepted Christ as Lord on the road to Damascus (Gal. 1:17-18).

The definition of the season in calendar terms was very much bound up with a prominent controversy in the early Church over when to observe Resurrection Sunday (Easter).  The Gospels tie Resurrection Sunday to the events surrounding Passover, when God passed over the Israelites in executing judgment on Egypt, just before the Exodus.  In the Gospel narratives, Jesus was crucified on a Friday, on or the day before the Passover (depending on the Gospel narrative) and was resurrected on a Sunday.  Sunday subsequently became the Christian Sabbath.  The Jewish Passover is always on 14th of Nisan, the first month of the Jewish ecclesiastical year, but the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, meaning that each month begins with the New Moon.  Because of this, the day moves around on our solar calendars.  Some in the church, mostly in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, preferred to keep Easter on the same day as the Passover, regardless of when that happened to occur in the week, whereas in the western part of the Empire, the preference was to keep it always on a Sunday, which would be consistent with a Sabbath observance.  The difference in views meant that when some Christians in the Empire were celebrating Christ’s resurrection, others were still mourning his crucifixion.  The friction this discrepancy created within the church was exacerbated by the persecutions Christians faced at the time.  Many Christians identified the Jews with their persecutors, either because of local situations or out of historical identification with the Scriptural texts. This created an incentive for separating out the observance of Easter from that of Passover.  The disagreements became quite strong and were only resolved at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, with the formula that Easter would be observed on the first Sunday after the first New Moon after the Spring Equinox.  This means that Easter varies between 22 March and 25 April in any given year.

Early Christians settled on a period of 40 days for the period before Easter, because the number 40 is Scripturally tied to the major acts of salvation.  The rains of Flood in Noah’s time lasted 40 days (Gen. 7:17), Moses was on Mount Sinai with God for 40 days (Exod. 24:18, 34:28), the spies explored the land of Canaan for that period of time (Num. 13:25), and Elijah travelled to Sinai for that time before his confrontation with the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 19:8).  Christ Himself was in the wilderness experiencing temptation for 40 days (Matt. 4:2), and after His resurrection, made appearances for that length of time until His ascension to the Father (Acts 1:3).  Because Sundays were considered feast days and not fast days, they were exempted from the count of forty days for the season before Easter, which is why in the Roman church the season begins on a Wednesday.  In the Eastern Church, the Paschal sequence begins an even seven weeks before Easter.  Before Vatican II, even the Roman church observed Quinquagesima (49 days before Easter, Sundays included).  This lectionary also holds to a seven week long period for Desertide, but to make the level of readings manageable, separates out the week commemorating Jesus’s passion into a separate set of readings for Passion Week.

Passion Week

Evangelicals often undervalue tradition, but when it comes to understanding Holy Week they embrace it in a most unreflective way.  Nothing typifies the inertia of tradition better than the names Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday.

The name for Palm Sunday is evident from John 12:13, which notes that the people of Jerusalem cut down palm branches and laid them before Jesus, marking his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  Interestingly, the Synoptic accounts focus on the people laying their coats down before Jesus.  Matthew (21:8) and Mark (11:8) mention the people cutting down branches but do not specify what type.  Luke mentions nothing about branches being cut down and laid before Christ.  In any case, the act of cutting down the branches and laying them before Jesus had explicitly political import–this was something done typically to honor a victorious conquering king into the city gates.  The Jews were expressly looking for a political Messiah like David or the Maccabees and were honoring Jesus in this capacity.  In light of this, there is something ironic in Christians commemorating the day of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem with the name “Palm Sunday.” Christ is indeed a conquering king, but His victory was not won at that point–it would not be won until the crucifixion and resurrection in the following week.  A better name for that day, then, would be Entry Sunday.

As for Maundy Thursday, the name is shrouded in some controversy.  Typically, it has been understood as coming (via Middle English and Old French) from the Latin word, mandatum, which means “commandment.”  Use of this term probably refers to the “New Commandment” that Jesus gave His disciples at the Last Supper to “love one another” (John 13:34).  If this were the case, though, then the abbreviated form of the term should be “Mandy Thursday.”  An alternative explanation is that the term comes from the Latin, mendicare, which was translated into Old English as maund and which referred to the alms baskets given to the poor before going to Mass.  Linguistically, this is probably a more accurate etymology but, if true, then the term has only the most tenuous connection with the actual events being commemorated on that evening.  In any event, a better name would be one more befitting what happened on that evening.  Since the culminating event on that Thursday was Judas’s betrayal of Jesus, which set into motion the climatic events of the Passion, my sense is that it would be better to call it “Betrayal Evening.”

Lastly, there is “Good Friday,” which is definitely a misnomer.  Although Christ’s bore God’s full wrath against mankind on the Cross that Friday (which was indeed good for us), the fact that our Lord was tried by two kangaroo courts, convicted, tortured, and executed on that day creates no small amount of cognitive dissonance in being described as “good.”  Other Christian traditions call the day “Holy Friday,” “Great Friday,” or “Black Friday” and I think any of these are more apt.  For my part, I think a better name would be “Crucifixion Friday” or “Cross Friday” to describe the central event of that day.


This season, which stretches from Resurrection Sunday until Pentecost, is intended to be a time of reflection upon the Law and the standard to which God calls His people now that they have been saved.  After the Israelites had been saved in the Exodus, God led them to Sinai and gave them His Law (Exod. chs. 20-24).  Coming as it did after the great salvation event of the Old Testament–the Exodus–the Law was never intended to be a means of salvation, nor was it intended solely to convict God’s people of their sins.  The Apostle Paul notes as much in his letter to the Galatians (Gal. 3:15-4:11).  Rather, it was intended to reflect the character of the God with whom Israel was in covenant and the standard to which His people were called to reflect His image.  Within the Law, God specified the observance of three annual feasts: the Feast of Unleavened Bread (i.e. Passover, Exod. 23:14-15; Lev. 23:4-8; Num. 9:1-14; Deut. 16:1-9); the Feast of Weeks or Firstfruits (i.e. Pentecost, Exod. 23:16; Lev. 23:9-22; Deut. 16:9-12); and the Feast of Ingathering (i.e. Tabernacles, Exod. 23:16; Lev. 23:33-44; Deut. 16:13-15). Jewish tradition held that God gave the Law fifty days after the Exodus, on what subsequently would be the Feast of Weeks.  In the New Testament, the Feast of Weeks was called Pentecost.

This parallelism is significant.  Under the Old Covenant, the Feast of Weeks commemorated the Lord’s giving the Law to His people at Sinai, whereas at Pentecost, God poured out the fulness of the Holy Spirit upon His people.  This is a fulfillment of the prophecy given to Jeremiah (Jer. 31:34) where the LORD promises that “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.”  The Apostle Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, “For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him?  So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.  Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God” (1 Cor. 2:11-12). How is it that God’s law is written on the hearts of His people?  It is through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit—and this came at Pentecost.  In this regard, Pentecost is the new Feast of Weeks, the New Covenant analog to the giving of the Old Covenant at Sinai.

Contrary to some claims that there is no apostolic precedent for observing either Resurrection Sunday or Pentecost, we do see indications that the Apostle Paul observed both holy days in Acts.  Luke, an associate of Paul and the writer of the Gospel bearing his name and the book of Acts, recorded that at the end of Paul’s Third Missionary Journey, Paul did not leave Philippi for Troas until after “the days of unleavened bread” (Acts 20:6), and he intended to bypass stopping at Ephesus because he was in a hurry to get to Jerusalem by the day of Pentecost (Acts 20:16).  Given the criticism Paul’s critics lodged against him for not observing the Law, Luke’s scrupulousness in recording these particular dates probably has more than an incidental significance; Luke is showing that Paul actually kept the feasts.  That said, Paul did not make it a requirement that others, especially the Gentiles must follow.  In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes, “One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike.  Let each be fully convinced in his own mind.  He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it” (Rom. 14:5-6a).

Traditionally this season has been called Eastertide, and was for reflecting on the resurrection of the Christ, but given the parallelism between the Old and New Covenants suggested by the coincidence of the Feast of Weeks and Pentecost, I have instead called it Covenantide.


Historically in the Christian church, the period between Pentecost and Advent has not been marked by a season in the same way that Advent, Desertide (Lent), Covenantide (Eastertide) have been.  Most mainline Protestant Churches, following the Revised Common Lectionary, simply call the period, “Ordinary Time.”  For the Roman Catholic Church, it was “ordinary” because the period was not marked by any overarching feast.  This terminology is of recent vintage, coming into being only with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s; prior to this, the Sundays were marked in reference to their distance from Epiphany or Pentecost.

The term “Kingdomtide” first came into use in 1937 in a proposal by Boston University Professor Fred Winslow Adams to the Federal Council of Churches, the predecessor to the current National Council of Churches.  The idea was promoted by the mainline Methodist and Presbyterian Churches until the 1960s, when an ecumenical effort got underway to develop the Revised Common Lectionary.  The Presbyterians abandoned the effort to promote Kingdomtide in 1960; the Methodists retained it in their liturgical materials until the early 1990s but have abandoned it as well.  My use of the term has no connection with these earlier liturgical efforts.

As the purpose of this lectionary is to redeem the calendar through the reading of the Word, I have a problem with the concept of “ordinary time,” since it subtly implies that there is nothing special about these particular periods if there is not a feast to mark them. All time is to be redeemed to the Lord. If we are living between the first and second Advents of our Lord, then we are living in eschatological time. This is no “ordinary” age.

This season goes from Pentecost until just before Advent and is a time for remembering the growth and expansion of God’s covenantal kingdom rule.  The Old Testament readings cover the conquest of the land and the emergence of the kingship in Israel; the New Testament readings describe our Lord’s ministry and the expansion of His kingdom through the missionary journeys of the Apostles, preeminently Paul.