The freest time in our adult life was after we were married and before we had children. Having graduated from college, we were no longer bound by a school schedule. We lived in a small, iconic Vermont village where the pace of life was slow, the program of our church modest, and our income too low to allow the pursuit of costly activities. We had no TV. Extended family demands were few. We could schedule vacations almost any time we desired and we had few events to attend. Life was simple, our calendar was uncomplicated.
We moved to Chicago after our first child was born. It was a new life, and calendar demands began to accumulate as our family grew. I was in seminary and working part-time. My wife worked full time. We had to arrange childcare. It wasn’t long before I was back in pastoral ministry, and we started dealing with school schedules for our children.
After we relocated again, this time to Indianapolis, white space on the calendar became more and more rare. I was on staff in a much busier church, our children became involved in various sports and extracurricular activities, and for the next fifteen years, the numerous calendars that merged into and became “the family calendar” ruled our life.
The school year calendar has been the basic template. Each new year began in late summer/early fall. It progressed through fall break to Thanksgiving, and then into the holiday program season, culminating the week of Christmas and New Year’s. School resumed in winter and kept us busy until Spring Break, which was also the time for Holy Week and Easter events. As school concluded in May and June, end of school year programs as well as spring and summer sports put additional demands on our schedule. And then we had to make arrangements for what the children would do over summer break. A few weeks in midsummer was the only “free” timeâ€”the only time available to get away or at least breathe for any length of time before it all started again.
To this day, I find myself shaped by that calendar. I can’t help feeling that fall is the beginning of the year, and the summer its end. The winter holidays mark the annual half-way point. This is the basic pattern for families in our culture. For the vast majority of my life it has been the pattern I’ve followed. Year after year after year, this schedule has formed my life’s habits.
That is what calendars do.
Here is the practical wisdom of Church Year spirituality. Following the Christian calendar is one way of recognizing that human beings are creatures of habit. It relies upon the fact that when we repeat patterns over and over and over again, those patterns mold us. They shape the way we think, feel, and act. For this reason musicians continually practice their scales and athletes drill the fundamentals of their sport. Through regular repetition habits are formed, consistency developed, and excellence achieved.
Christian spirituality adds another entire dimension to this idea of habit-forming practices. Human beings live in this world as “embodied selves” (to use Dallas Willard’s phrase). Through Jesus’ incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, and outpouring of the Spirit, the power of God’s Kingdom has invaded our world. Those who trust in Christ and receive God’s grace are made new in him and given his Spirit. Believers have been made alive, raised up, and seated “in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:6). We have “obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand” (Rom 5:2). As we walk in God’s grace through Word and Sacrament and the practices of the spiritual life, the habits we form and live out in our bodily, earthly existence are infused with God’s own transforming power.
The disciplines for the spiritual life, rightly understood, are time-tested activities consciously undertaken by us as new men or women to allow our spirit ever-increasing sway over our embodied selves. They help by assisting the ways of God’s Kingdom to take the place of the habits of sin embedded in our bodies. (Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, 86)
In this way we begin to see glimpses of the answer to our prayers: “May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
What could be a more practical way of forming Christlike habits than following a calendar that points us to Jesus, that allows us repeated opportunities to meditate on his life, death, resurrection, and exaltation? What could be more down-to-earth than letting the Spirit transform the way we deem and use our time?
What if we started seeing the beginning of the year as the time to get ready to welcome Jesus at his coming? What if we spent a few weeks preparing our hearts and lives for his entrance into our world? What if we found ways of building anticipation and expectation for his arrival?
What if, to mark Jesus’ coming, we threw a great celebration, a feast that lasted for twelve days? What if we shared gifts with one another, our neighbors, and the needy during those days to commemorate the grace and mercy he showered upon us?
What if we lightened the darkness of the winter months by remembering Jesus’ ministry? What if we traced his steps as he went through all the towns and villages of Galilee and Judea, bringing light and love, healing and hope to the crowds? What if we saw this time of year as the time for our own mission activity in his name, joining Jesus in reaching out to those around us with the Good News of salvation?
What if we decided to take forty days of intense spiritual discipline at the start of spring to get ready for Holy Week, as Jesus took forty days in the wilderness to prepare for his journey to the Cross?
And what if we saw Holy Week as the high point of our year? What if we started to think of Easter as so important that we decided to take fifty days to celebrate it, not just one special Sunday?
What if we decided to mark the Church’s birthday? What if we gave the Spirit’s coming the same kind of attention that we gave to Jesus’ birth?
What if we realized that the “ordinary” time which fills the rest of the year, when we no longer mark the “extraordinary” events of Jesus’ life, is actually the time for us to walk daily in the salvation we’ve celebrated during the first part of the year? What if we took seriously that living in the world and fulfilling our vocations is the way we bring God’s love and goodness to the world every day?
What if we brought our year to a close by honoring all the saints who’ve helped show us the way of Jesus, and by honoring Christ as the King of our lives?
And what if we lived like this, year after year after year?