The Christian Church Calendar--Why We Celebrate

The Christian Church Calendar–Why We Celebrate

One of the best times of the year to consider how Christianity developed its seasons of celebration and worship is at the beginning of a new year. Many contemporary believers are unaware that the observances of the Christian faith were, in some cases, the result of centuries of development. The earliest observances of Christianity were either fasts or feasts and sought to remember the work of Jesus’ work on earth. These calendar events, for the most part, were observed weekly or annually. By the fourth century, particular emphasis was being given to the observance of a feast cycle at Jerusalem and its environs, the places sacred history reported them to have occurred. One of the earliest books recording these observances is the so-called Pilgrimage of Silvia, (of Etheria, ca. 385 AD). To understand the development of the Christian calendar, one must understand how early Christians observed their faith during the week as well as seasonal observances throughout the year.

Table of Contents

Development of Christian Weekly Cycle

I. Daily Prayer

A. In the First Century

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Didache

Daily prayer appears to have an experience of the early Church (Acts 1:14). The exact frequency of pub­lic prayer cannot be exactly determined, though the book of Acts alludes to three periods of prayer each day, possibly four (nine in the morning, 2:15; noon, 10:9; three in the afternoon, 3:1; and mid-night, 16:25). It is important to note that a number of synagogues met within the precincts of the temple for the sake of study and prayer; the early Christians in Jerusalem participated within these groups. In time, Christian participation in these groups ceased.[1] The Didache, an early Christian manual for doctrine and discipline that was written between 80 and 190, may reflect the threefold pattern of daily prayer when it instructs believers to offer the Lord’s Prayer three times a day.[2]

B. From the Apostles to Nicea (325)

The New Testament indicates that the early Church enjoyed public prayer in the temple. However, from the time the early Church was pushed outside of Judaism, the place of daily public prayer is unknown and most likely is observed individually. Under Constantine and beyond, the Church made a more deliberate effort to provide for daily public prayer.

337 Eusebius of Caesarea (337) indicates that “hymns, praises, and truly divine delights are offered to God” both morning and evening.

377 Epiphanius of Salamis (377) noted that he was accustomed to hymns and prayers in the morning and psalms and prayers in the evening.

Mid-fourth century In the mid-fourth century, Basil established a set of monastic rule that provided for eight daily occasions for prayer.

530 The Western monastic rule for daily prayer was established in 530 by Benedict of Nursia. Like Basil, Benedict also provided for eight periods of prayer a day.

In the West, the laity were unable to comply with the rigorous demands of daily public prayer, and as a result, it gradually disappeared.

II. Two Days a Week Set Aside for Fasting

The Didache prescribed Wednesdays and Fridays as Christian days of fasting, apparently a deliberate attempt to avoid the Jewish fast days of Mondays and Thursdays.[3] John Wesley and the early Methodist observed these two Christian days of fasting, but eventually Friday was observed as the main day for fasting.

III. One Day a Week for Collective Worship

A. Sunday Observance During the Age of the Apostles

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Early Christian Church

A distinct feature of early Christian worship was its weekly celebration of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ on Sunday, the first day of the week. Sunday worship began among the Jewish Christians in Palestine soon after the resurrection of Christ:

There is no trace what ever of any controversy as to whether Christians should worship on Sunday, and no record of any Christian group that did not worship on Sunday. This universality is most easily explained if Sunday worship was already the Christian custom before the Gentile mission, and spread throughout the expanding Gentile church with the Gentile mission.[4]

Though Gentile believers were not required by the Jerusalem Council to keep the Jewish Sabbath, they did meet on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2). By the end of the first century, Christians were meeting early on Sunday morning and again in the evening. Early Chris­tian writings indicate that the Church began to worship on Sunday to celebrate the resurrection of Christ.

Christ and the convictions of the early believers influenced the observance of the first day of the week, instead of the seventh, for a day of worship by Christians. Christ’s influence in this matter may be seen by the facts that he arose from the dead on the first day of the week, met six of ten times with his disciples following his resurrection was on the first day of the week (not once on the seventh), and baptized the awaiting disciples with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost on the first day of the week. For a short period after the resurrection, the early church met on Saturday and Sunday. Soon, however, the church dismissed its attendance at the Jewish synagogue on the Sabbath and worshiped only on Sunday.

The observance of the Lord’s Day was different from the Jewish observance of the Sabbath. The Jewish Sabbath was a day of idleness, though sacrifices were offered in the temple at Jerusalem as well. Christians in the early church did not believe that Sunday should be a day of idleness, but service to the Lord. For many Christians in the early church, the Sabbath commandment had a spiritual intent:

It is entirely clear from all these writers [Justin Martyr, Ptolemaeus, and Tertullian] the literal commandment to rest one day in seven was a temporary ordinance for Israel alone. The Christian fulfills the com­mand­ments by devoting all his time to God.[5]

In spirit, strong Christians are to keep every day alike. In practice, the Christian knows that to observe all days alike would in all probability simply mean to observe none at all; Christian have observed a special day on which to focus their attention–though not observed according to the ceremonial law of the Jews (see Romans 14:5-6).

B. Sunday Observance After the Apostles

Numerous references from the life of the early Church, from both friend and foe, indicates the way in which the Church was observing the Lord’s Day.

1. “Eighth Day” and “Lord’s Day”

In an early Christian writing, the Constitution of the Holy Apostles, we find this affirmation:

On the day of the resurrection of the Lord, that is, the Lord’s day, assemble yourselves together, without fail, giving thanks to God, and praising Him for those mercies God has bestowed upon you through Christ, and has delivered you from ignorance, error, and bondage, that your sacrifice may be unspotted, and acceptable to God, who has said concerning His universal Church: “In every place shall incense and a pure sacrifice be offered unto me; for I am a great King, saith the Lord Almighty, and my name is wonderful among the heathen.”[6]

2. Witness to Sunday Worship by Unbelievers

a. Pliny the Younger (112)

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Pliny the Younger

Pliny the Younger, Roman Governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor, wrote to emperor Trajan asking advice on how to prosecute Christians. Pliny described the worship of the early Christians. In 112, Pliny indicated that the believers congregated “on a certain fixed day before it was light” to worship together. That day was universally observed on the day Jesus arose from the grave—Sunday.

b. Trypho the Jew

Trypho, the Jew, also confirms that the early Christian church did not keep the seventh day: “We do not live after the law, we are not circumcised in the flesh, we do not keep the Sabbath.”[7]

3. Witness of Believers

a. The Didache (80-190)

The Didache noted the primacy of this day in the life of the Church: “On the Lord’s Day come together, break bread, and hold Eucharist.”[8] This work appeared shortly after the turn of the first century, reflecting what Christians believed who had lived with the Apostles:

But every Lord’s day do ye gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one that is at variance with his fellow come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned. For this is that which was spoken by the Lord: In every place and time offer to me a pure sacrifice; for I am a great King, saith the Lord, and my name is wonderful among the nations.[9]

b. Ignatius (ca. 110)

Ignatius was bishop of Antioch, Syria and suffered martyrdom in Rome. His seven letters were written (ca. 110) en route to martyrdom–a fate which he joyfully accepted. While en route to Rome, he wrote to the churches that had ministered to him, warning them of the heresies that threatened the peace of the churches. Particularly, he opposed the Gnostic and Docetic heresies.

Ignatius who knew Christ and St. John, indicates that believers who walked in ancient customs have come to a new hope “no longer living for the Sabbath, but for the Lord’s Day.”[10] He further wrote,

. . . let every friend of Christ keep the Lord’s Day as a festival, the resurrection-day, the queen and chief of all the days [of the week]. Looking forward to this, the prophet declared, “To the end, for the eighth day,” on which our life both sprang up again, and the victory over death was obtained in Christ, whom the children of perdition, the enemies of the Saviour, deny, “whose god is their belly, who mind earthly things,” who are “lovers of pleasure, and not lovers of God, having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.”[11]

c. Justin Martyr (ca. 100-165)

Justin Martyr (ca. 100-165) writes, “And on the day called Sunday there is a gathering together to one place of all those who live in cities or in the country, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits.”[12] In his First Apology, he further writes,

But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.[13]

d. Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-215)

Clement of Alexandria, another early Christian leader, appears to have succeeded Pantaenus as head of the Christian school in Alexandria, Egypt about 190. He remained as head of the school until 202 when persecution forced him to leave. Using the writings of the Greeks, he rationally attempted to demonstrate that even the Greeks anticipate the “Lord’s Day”:

And the Lord’s day Plato prophetically speaks of in the tenth book of the Republic, in these words: “And when seven days have passed to each of them in the meadow, on the eighth they are to set out and arrive in four days.” By the meadow is to be understood the fixed sphere, as being a mild and genial spot, and the locality of the pious; and by the seven days each motion of the seven planets, and the whole practical art which speeds to the end of rest. But after the wandering orbs the journey leads to heaven, that is, to the eighth motion and day. And he says that souls are gone on the fourth day, pointing out the passage through the four elements.[14]

e. Tertullian (ca. 160-220)

Tertullian of Carthage is the first significant Latin church Father. He enjoys the dual distinction as a polemicist and apologist. Early in the third century, Tertullian indicates that Christians were closing their businesses, lest they would give place in their lives to Satan.[15] In his work, On Idolatry, he writes:

The Holy Spirit upbraids the Jews with their holy days. “Your Sabbaths, and new moons, and ceremonies,” says He, “My soul hateth.” By us, to whom Sabbaths are strange, and the new moons and festivals formerly beloved by God, the Saturnalia and New-year’s and Midwinter’s festivals and Matronalia are frequented —presents come and go—New-year’s gifts—games join their noise—banquets join their din! Oh better fidelity of the nations to their own sect, which claims no solemnity of the Christians for itself! Not the Lord’s day, not Pentecost, even if they had known them, would they have shared with us; for they would fear lest they should seem to be Christians. We are not apprehensive lest we seem to be heathens If any indulgence is to be granted to the flesh, you have it. I will not say your own days, but more too; for to the heathens each festive day occurs but once annually: you have a festive day every eighth day.[16]

And in his work, Ad Nationes, he seeks to vindicate Christians against the charge of worshiping the sun:

Others, with greater regard to good manners, it must be confessed, suppose that the sun is the god of the Christians, because it is a well-known fact that we pray towards the east, or because we make Sunday a day of festivity. What then? Do you do less than this? . . . you who reproach us with the sun and Sunday should consider your proximity to us. We are not far off from your Saturn and your days of rest.[17]

f. Constantine the Great (321)

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Constantine the Great

In 321, Emperor Constantine passed an act that forbade work in the cities on the Lord’s Day, although work in the country was permitted to continue, lest crops be ruined by inactivity.[18] Contrary to Roman Catholic claims that the Roman Church changed Christian worship from the Jewish Sabbath to the first day of the week, Constantine sought to ennoble the Christian day of worship by not compelling believers to labor on that day. Constantine did not change the day of worship for Christians but sought to provide Christians with greater liberty to worship, unencumbered by the labors of a normal work day. In every area of life, Constantine sought to bring glory or favorable attention to Christianity, and providing a civilly recognized day of worship was one of the ways Constantine sought to hold in high esteem the Christian Church in the midst of a pagan culture. Most Christians had been slaves or part of the working classes and were normally compelled to work on Sunday. Constantine believed this dishonored Christ, the Church, and believers. To elevate Christianity in Roman society, he asked society to set the day aside from labor.

g. Post-Nicene Regulations

After the first significant Christian Council, the Council of Nicea (325), the Church made further regulations or laws about Sunday worship. Some of those are summarized below:

Canon 29 of the Council of Laodicea (363) insisted that “Christians must not judaize by resting on the [Jewish seventh-day] Sabbath, but must work on that day, and, if they can, observe the Lord’s Day, resting then as Christians.”

Theodosius, in 386, forbid all litigation on the Lord’s Day, and all spectacles in the theaters or in circuses.

The Council of Orleans (538) forbid the farmers’ fieldwork.

The Council of Macon (585) required a complete cessation of business and declared the Lord’s Day a day of perpetual rest.

Development of Christian Yearly Cycle

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Celtic Cross

How Christians observed the cycle of each week developed very quickly—almost immediately, though further developments followed. However, the way in which Christians observed the year developed more slowly. By the end of the fourth century, the liturgical week and liturgical year were in place within the life of the Church. For the most part, the Christian year was divided into two cycles, nativity (birth of Jesus) and paschal (suffering and death of Christ), together constituting four seasons: nativity being composed by Advent and Christmas; paschal being divided into Lent and Easter. The practice of observing the beginning of the Church year with the first Sunday of Advent (prior to Christmas) was initiated by the Nestorians and gradually adopted by the Roman Church and used in Western Christianity.[19] The four Sunday of Advent prior to Christmas have been observed in many churches as a means of preparing the minds and hearts of believers for the birth of the Christ Child. The discussion that follows is a brief attempt to describe how Christian holidays emerged throughout the year in the life of the Church.

A. Passover and Pentecost (first century)

Passover and Pentecost were the first two festivals of the Christian Church–festivals that emerged from a shared heritage with Judaism. By the fourth century, additional commemorations emerged which pertained to Passover and the Easter Season. White notes: “Ever since the fourth century, Christians have kept the sacred triduum (three days) beginning at nightfall on Thursdays as Good Friday, Holy Saturday (or Easter Eve), and Easter Day. To these were added Palm (now Passion/Palm) Sunday, Spy Wednesday, and Maundy (or Holy) Thursday. What made perfect sense in Jerusalem because of the conjunction of places and times was soon observed wherever Christians went.”[20]

As early as the second century, a group of conservative Asian Christians, known as Quartodecimans, had observed Easter according to the Jewish dating of the Passover (on the fourteenth day of Nisan, which might fall on any day of the week). The church of the East followed this practice, which was certainly the earliest practice of the Church before it began to celebrate Easter only on Sunday. However, the church of the West, centered around Rome, insisted that Easter should be celebrated on the Sunday following the fourteenth day of Nisan. In 190, Victor, Bishop of Rome, excommunicated the East because of the East’s refusal to celebrate Easter as dictated by the West. The controversy was settled in 325 at the Council of Nicaea when the position of the Western church was adopted.

B. Epiphany (unknown origin)

The third great festival to emerge in the Christian Church was Epiphany. Its origin is more obscure. There remains much debate over whether Epiphany was intended to commemorate Christ’s birth or baptism. It may have been celebrated as early as mid-second century by a group of Gnostics in Egypt. Later Epiphany came to symbolize the visit of the Magi for the Western Church. Around the three early festivals eventually revolved numerous other events, not all as highly observed.

C. Christmas (ca. 336)

Like Epiphany, the origin of Christmas is also enigmatic. Evidence for the celebration of Christmas may be found in Rome as early as 336, though it is possible that it was celebrated in North Africa earlier. It is very likely that December 25th was a pagan holiday that celebrated new life that was represented by lengthening days. Around December 25th revolved related dates: “Once the date of the birth was fixed at December 25, it was relatively easy on the basis of scripture and biology to date the Annunciation nine months earlier (March 25), Circumcision on January 1 eight days after birth (Luke 2:21), and Presentation in the Temple (or Purification or Candlemas) on February 2 after forty days (Luke 2:22-40). Mary’s Visitation of Elizabeth was placed at May 31 (Luke 1:39-56), shortly before the birth of John the Baptist (June 24).”[21] Toward the end of the fourth century, Chrysostom in Antioch observed to his congregation that Christmas was a new and unfamiliar festival.

D. Saint Worship (second century)

As early as the second century, Christians began to celebrate the life of local heroes and heroines who had passed away—perhaps in martyrdom. These saints’ days, as we may call them, were observed by the reading of the saints’ lives and proper prayers. The worship of the life of the Virgin Mary, the death-days of the Apostles, martyrs, and saints of the Church were all added to the ecclesiastical calendar. The worship of the saints, being learned from pagans rather than Scripture, has been practiced by many Christians and is but one of many ways that paganism has deeply influenced and crippled the true evangelical message of Christianity.

Conclusion

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Martin Luther

The response to the use of the Christian calendar has varied among Protestants. Martin Luther and the Lutheran Church were the most conservative of all the Protestant reformers and for the most part, retained the Catholic idea of the church year.[22] Under the influence of John Calvin, the Reformed Churches sought to return to the form of worship that was practiced in the early Church, and therefore rejected the idea of the use of a church year or church calendar. Among the high-church Anglicans in England, the Latin church year was retained to a greater degree than the Lutherans were willing. Those churches of England that refused to be part of Anglicanism were known as Dissenting churches or Non-conformists. Among these churches, the church year or calendar was not observed, except for the Easter season. From this latter group came the founders of America. Feeling deeply the bitterness between Catholics and Protestants in England, America’s Pilgrim and Puritan forefathers rejected the observance of Christmas, believing it too closely associated with Catholicism. At many other points, those who wished to purify themselves of the doctrinal heresies that had arise in the Roman Catholic Church found themselves also rejecting anything that would remotely imply the worship of Mary or the saints. For this reason, the church year was rejected among the Dissenting founders of America.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the spiritual descendants of the Dissenters are faced with new and very real dangers. In America, the Christian symbols that used to be present in our children’s classrooms, in courthouses, public parks, and many other place are being taken down. As secularism attempts to destroy America’s Christian heritage, Christians must find new ways to visually express the faith that was once “delivered to the saints.”

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[1]Webber, Library of Christian Worship, 1:15.

[2]Chapter eight. See White, Brief History of Christian Worship, 23-24.

[3]White, Brief History of Christian Worship, 31.

[4]Carson, From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, 236.

[5]Carson, From the Sabbath to the Lord’s Day, 266.

[6]ANF, 7:471.

[7]Dialogue with Trypho, 10.

[8]14.1

[9]ANF, 7:381.

[10]To the Magnesians, 9.1

[11]Epistle of Ignatius to the Magnesians, in ANF, 1:63

[12]First Apology, 1:67.

[13]ANF, 1:186.

[14]ANF, 2:469.

[15]On Prayer, 22. Early Christians, for the most part, were from the lower classes of society and were completely unable to cease their labor as slaves on the Lord’s Day.

[16]ANF, 3:70. For origin of “eighth day” nomenclature, see John 20:26.

[17]ANF, 3:123.

[18]The Code of Justinian, book 3, title 12.12.3.

[19]In the Greek Church (Eastern Orthodoxy), the church year begins on September1.

[20]Brief History of Christian Worship, 63.

[21]White, Brief History of Christian Worship, 64.

[22] The Lutherans did reject the Corpus Christi and the days of the saints, but did retain the festivals of Mary in so far as they were reflected in Scripture and the celebration of the days of the apostles and angels. Greater tension arose between high-church and low-church Lutherans.

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Written by Dr. Stephen FlickNumber of posts: 217
Stephen Flick heads Christian Heritage Fellowship, a national organization dedicated to reclaiming America’s Christian Heritage and celebrating the life-changing influence of the Gospel around the world. Concerned with the cultural decay of America, Dr. Flick has sought to provide answers to fellow Christians (and unbelievers) concerning the questions and objections to Christianity often posed by secularists and the irreligious. Dr. Flick is a writer and speaker and has authored numerous articles and books on America’s Christian heritage. He earned his Ph.D. from Drew University in history and Christian theology and has taught at the graduate level as full professor. He has been a licensed minster for nearly forty years and resides in East Tennessee with his wife, Beth. They have two grown, married children and five grandchildren.

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