Jesus’ Autobiography: The History of the Church Year

by Rev. Samuel Schuldheisz

History is fraught with questions, none more challenging to the historian than this: When did the event in question begin? The history of the Christian church year is no different. It is as intricate as a puzzle and as sprawling as an old family farmhouse, growing with each addition, serving each new generation.

It begins in the opening chapter of history where God ordered days and seasons. On the seventh day, He rested, and the Church Year began with that rest, with the Sabbath. For Yahweh is the God of the holidays—the holy days—and His children, at all times and in all places, are no different.

He even patterned Israel’s liturgical life after Himself. The early holy days of Leviticus—Feast of Weeks, Passover, the Day of Atonement—were integral in delivering Yahweh’s message of life and salvation to His people Israel.

Thus, it is through Christ’s death and resurrection that Israel’s Church Year finds consummation and boundless joy. Messianic hope is fulfilled in Christ’s past, present and future Advent. The Lord’s Supper is the new and greater Passover, followed swiftly by Jesus’ Day of Atonement. Fifty days later, the Church rejoices as the Spirit breathes life into the Feast of Weeks, sowing and gathering a baptismal harvest at Pentecost. In short, as we follow the Church Year, we live in the history—and abiding presence—of Christ’s saving work.

History comes alive

In a similar manner, I discovered this once on a field trip to Fort Clatsop, Lewis and Clark’s winter haven in Oregon: There the history of their arduous journey came alive for me. I, too, felt I had explored distant, new lands.

Egeria, a fourth-century French nun, experienced something similar on her pilgrimage to Jerusalem. There she discovered a rich liturgical life. Like Lewis and Clark, she kept a detailed diary replete with formative information on the Christian church year, its festivals, customs and theology. History came alive as she witnessed the church year celebrated in the very places Jesus was born, lived, died and rose.

As Christianity continued to spread, the church found her future in the history of the liturgical calendar. It was none other than the history of Christ’s saving work for His people.

It reads like a timeless history book. Easter came first and then Epiphany. Then the church father Irenaeus wrote the next chapter: a Lenten fast before the Paschal feast. The church’s Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325) then set 40 days of Lent.

Next, surrounded by the darkness of Roman paganism, Christians first publicly celebrated the true Light of the world at Christmas around A.D. 336. Advent came to us later from modern-day France in the mid-sixth century, Holy Trinity from Pope John XXII (14th century) and Transfiguration by Luther’s pastor Johannes Bugenhagen (16th century).

What does it mean for us?

This is anything but dead history. The church year is not, as C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape would devilishly trick us into believing, merely “the same old thing” year after year. But how does history come alive for us who are so far removed from the Early Church and the historical places of Scripture?

No need for pilgrimages. Our Lord comes to us every Sunday. In the Divine Service— Christians’ holy day—we find the pages of Church Year history unbound and alive. What began in the Early Church with the celebration of the Holy Triduum— Good Friday, Easter Vigil and Easter—now marks the festive epicenter for the entire Church year. From its beginning in Advent to its Last Sunday, the Church Year announces the saving work of God.

During Christmas, we rejoice in the Father who sends His Son in human flesh to die for the sins of the world. During Easter, we celebrate the Son’s resurrection, a new Sabbath, where we find true rest in the liturgy and the Lord’s Supper (Acts 2:42). During Pentecost, we marvel as the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son to the Church through Baptism, preaching and teaching.

The Church’s use of the historic church year is more than preservation. It is proclamation: Christ crucified for you, for the world. The life of Christ’s Church is patterned around His own life-giving salvation. Our future is shaped by His saving work in history. From beginning to end—throughout all seasons—the Christian church year is Jesus’ autobiography, a vibrant, joyous book, each chapter greater than the last.

>  Go to www.cph.org to order a Church Year calendar for your home or church.

About the Author: The Rev. Samuel Schuldheisz is pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church, Huntington Beach, Calif.

September 2011

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