I’m going to write to you today as clearly and simply as I know how for I realize many of my readers grew up in a similar faith tradition as mine. One that didn’t include the rhythm we find in the church calendar. We celebrated Christmas and Easter as one-day events. Often, that meant we attended a church service in our finest clothes before dashing off to one or more family dinners. We got lots of presents and plastic eggs full of candy.
Jesus said, Everyone who drinks this water will get thirsty again and again. Anyone who drinks the water I give will never thirst—not ever. The water I give will be an artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life. John 4:13-14 (Message)
The words of Jesus are true; I thirst less and less for things of this world. I find myself desiring more and more of the living water He provides. The artesian spring within me offers life’s finest and I want to find new ways to discover its riches. In short, I can’t get enough of Jesus.
I have a daily planner. I look at that calendar all the time and make sure my to do list gets checked off. I make coffee dates with friends, plan social activities and attend important meetings. But I don’t want these things to be the rhythm of my life. I don’t want to wake up in the morning thinking about everything I have to do. I want to fall asleep at night remembering all that Jesus spoke to me about during the day.
That’s why we have a church calendar. Not so we can have a bunch of man-made rules to make us feel guilty about not observing them correctly or even at all. It allows us to make our days, our months and years more about Jesus.
Depending on the traditions of your church, you might have celebrated some or all of these seasons I'm going to mention here. They are highlights of the calendar year. If you want a simple, family friendly book that explains the calendar year in more detail, I highly recommend this one by Jerusalem Greer, A Homemade Year: The Blessings of Cooking, Crafting, and Coming Together.
The church calendar year starts with Advent. The number of days vary but it starts the Sunday after Thanksgiving and continues until Christmas Eve. There are many ways to observe this season when we prepare for the coming of Christ. You’ve probably heard of families using Advent Calendars. A circle of Candles are often lit for each Sunday of Advent. You can find any number of books offering devotionals and prayers to be used during this time. What exactly you use doesn’t matter. It offers us a time to quiet our hearts and prepare to celebrate the birth of our Savior.
Next, we have Christmastide, which starts on Christmas Day. It’s a wonderful way to extend the joy of the holiday season for your family. Often, kids will receive little gifts each of the twelve days leading up to Epiphany, a day honoring the wise men who came to visit the Christ child. Some Christians celebrate Epiphany on January 6th, while others have decided it should always be the first Sunday after January 1st. I give myself a lot of grace in observing the church calendar, keeping in mind its primary purpose in my life is to focus on Jesus more throughout the year. For one day, as a conclusion to Christmastide, I reflect on the wise men and what they have to teach me about finding the Christ child across any distance and at any cost. That's Epiphany. I celebrated these twelve days for the first time this year, using these reflection cards from fellow blogger Cara Strickland.
A couple months later, we enter the Lenten season. Again, the exact date varies. This year, Lent starts on February 10th. Or Ash Wednesday. The palm branches a church used the previous year for Palm Sunday (the Sunday Jesus entered Jerusalem before His Crucifixion the following Friday), are burned and used at the ashes for this church service. I’ve only observed this day a few times but it’s becoming an important one for me. A priest or minister puts the ashes on your forehead in the shape of a cross, while reminding us of the words God spoke to Adam and Eve in the garden:
By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Genesis 3:19 (ESV)
The Ash Wednesday service is a somber one. I remember a lot of silence with room to reflect. In this life, we are not our own. I appreciate the opportunity to remember my place in God’s plan and taking a moment to thank Him for working in the life of me, a sinner. I wrote about last year's Ash Wednesday service in a Facebook post:
I am undone. I arrived at the local Catholic Church a few minutes before the Ash Wednesday service was scheduled to begin and just so happened to walk in with the Priest.
Upon entering, I dipped the tips of my fingers in the holy water. I never pass up an opportunity to partake in the holy water. I need all the holy I can get. Crossed myself. There were about 30 faithful ones at the service. The beautiful older lady who wore a black mantilla. The gentlemen who fell to his knees before accepting the Communion elements.
Often times I want to be seen at church. Visiting with church family I haven’t talked to all week long. This time, though, I wanted to remain unseen. My only purpose in church this morning was to do business with Our Father. I slid into the back row. Sacred space.
Suddenly, I hear a voice behind me say, “Will you hold this for me just a second please?”
Y’all, it was the PRIEST! He needed to put his wireless mic on so he handed me the tray of ashes and the pestle. I held last year’s palm branches. The sacred elements rested in my hands. I thought to myself, “What if I dropped these right now?”
The service was beautiful. Full of so much silence. Comfortable, reverent, look-towards-God silence. Right here in the middle of my every day week. In the homily, the priest reminded us that if Ash Wednesday and the forty days of Lent were all we had, it would be a somber day indeed. But he encouraged us to use each act of the Lenten season to point us to Easter. The Resurrection changes everything!
As I left, the Priest stood at the door to greet those in attendance. I told him this was my first Ash Wednesday service. He said, “Are you Catholic?” I said, “No.” He said, “It’s OK. We can still be friends.”
I grew up not thinking Catholics were my brothers and sisters in Christ. I’m not sure who I thought they were. Just other. Today, though, I think the Priest is right. We can still be friends.
Lent is all about getting ready for the Easter season. There are a number of ways to prepare your heart and realize your great need for Resurrection Sunday. Devotionals, sermon series, prayers, particular passages of Scripture.
Excluding Sundays, Lent lasts for 40 days. This year, I've decided to read God For Us: Rediscovering The Meaning of Lent And Easter for a daily devotional time.
The Lenten season takes us to the Thursday of Holy Week. We’re already familiar with Good Friday (the day of Jesus’ crucifixion) and Resurrection Sunday. I can promise you each day of Holy Week will mean so much more to you after preparing for it during the 40 days of Lent.
Following Easter Sunday, Eastertide allows us to extend our reflection on the resurrected Christ. It lasts for fifty days and encourages us to reflect on the forty days Jesus ministered on this earth after his resurrection. The remaining ten days take us from His ascension to Pentecost Sunday (the day God’s Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles and 3,000 Jewish followers of Jesus Christ). I used these cards, another set from Cara Strickland, to help me focus on this time with the resurrected Christ.
Pentecost Sunday leads us into a period called Ordinary Time. I wrote a bit about that on Facebook.
Pentecost Sunday marks the end of the Easter season and the church enters "ordinary time." Nothing of major significance is celebrated again until the start of Advent season.
When I first read about this I thought, how boring. Months of ordinary? Then, it occurred to me, isn't that much of what life consists of for us? Setting the alarm clocks, going to work and school. The holidays are few and far between.
Life is lived in ordinary time. A million little moments that we call routine. Yet, today as I sat staring at my little one (sometimes I just try to take her all in), we talked about her day of music and gym and sewing. I caught her wiggling her loose tooth (again). And I find myself thanking God for ordinary moments just like this one.
Ordinary Time offers an excellent reminder that so much of our days are ordinary. We do a thousand little things over and over in our everyday lives. May we be intentional about finding Jesus there as well.
These days are also spent either fasting or feasting. Again, it’s all Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus stuff. I'd encourage you to do some more research if the days of the church calendar interest you. Let me know what you find out!