Lent, Ash Wednesday, and All Saints #3

How does the ancient liturgical practice of following the church calendar help us consciously step into the gospel, conforming us to Jesus and the shape and purpose of his life? I raised this question in my last blog, giving a theological answer and promising existential explanations as well.  Here is one: the church calendar helps us sacralize time.

What does it mean to sacralize time?

Every person or community has certain days that are more important and special than others because of what happened on that particular day. For example, a couple’s wedding anniversary possesses an importance for them that even their family members and closest friends don’t share. The same is true for Americans and 9/11. That date carries a weight of significance for us that people of other nations don’t feel. 9/11 is a date that has been set aside formally and informally in the hearts, minds, and practices of Americans and marked as different and special. For our nation 9/11 is a holy day. The word “holy” or “sacred” simply means set apart, or according to Merriam-Webster: “imbue(d) with sacred character, especially through ritualized devotion.”

Everyone has some experience of this, of how “an ordinary day in our common calendar can become charged with memory and meaning, can become, in a way, hallowed… (and) we choose to mark such dates because in some way they have marked us… We set them apart to remember and, as appropriate, to grieve or celebrate or give thanks. Such days for us are no longer ordinary.” (Bobby Gross, Living The Christian Year)

This is what it means to sacralize time, which we find being done throughout the Bible – God set aside the Sabbath day as holy, the ancient Jews travelled to Jerusalem for the major annual festivals held there, and the early Christians moved the day of gathered worship to Sunday because it was the day on which Jesus was raised from the dead.

The practice of following the church calendar both acknowledges and utilizes this common human experience as well as the biblical precedent of sacralizing time. It does this by marking certain dates that correspond to the major events in Jesus’ life as holy. The church calendar and those who follow it regard these days as holy, because they believe that Christians are the beneficiaries of what happened to Jesus in those events. He was born for us; he was baptized into the plight of our sinful existence; he was crucified as a sacrifice for our sin; he was raised so that we might receive a new life; he sent the Holy Spirit so that we might join him in his mission to make all things new.

In other words those days in Christ’s earthly life changed our lives forever. The Lord has sacralized time. Following the church calendar is essentially an aid to help us recognize this – recognize the spiritual significance of these particular days, as well as the seasons of time that surround them, so that we can inhabit God’s story. Because in inhabiting God’s story through our worship and personal habits of devotion, God’s grace will form our hearts and transform our lives into conformity with Jesus’ life.