This is a section that needs to be said–it just doesn’t belong in the place that I’ve written it and probably needs to get shuffled back into the Essence of the Calendar chapter…
In one sense the Church Year unfolds like a Gospel, following the life of Christ. Advent reflects the waiting of God’s people for the coming Messiah. Christmas focuses upon the birth and Incarnation. Epiphany combines manifestation and ministry as the early teaching ministry manifests the character of Jesus in both word and works. Lent begins the turn to the cross which is intensified in Holy Week. Easter foregrounds the resurrection and the presence of the Risen Christ in the midst of his people until the Ascension. The coming of the Spirit at Pentecost initiates a new period for the Church, and the later ministry of Jesus that unfolds from that point is dually informed by both the Spirit and the resurrection. Finally, Advent once again reflects the waiting of God’s people for the coming Messiah, but this time as the one who comes to preside over the final consummation of all things as Judge of Heaven and Earth.
The danger with only seeing the year like this, though, is that we can view it as a panorama of historical remembrances. To do this is to miss something important. The Church Year is kerygmatic—an act of proclamation in and of itself. It proclaims not just the past but present power of the Risen Christ and proclaims both the presence and the power in our very midst. At Christmas we pray “O God, you have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true light…” and “…you have given your only begotten Son…to be born this day of a pure virgin…” (BCP, 212, 213). During Christmas we pray, “…you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word…” (BCP, 213). Not, “a long time ago you did some things that we now remember fondly”—no! This night, this day, us, new light, in our very midst!
While we see the same language, emphasis, and themes in the second collect for Easter (“O God, who made this most holy night to shine with the glory of the Lord’s resurrection”), they reach full crescendo in the Church’s great song of rejoicing, the Exultet which is one of the high points of the Easter Vigil. Scooping up the great biblical images of redemption in the Exodus from Egypt and the Resurrection of Christ, they are united in our present moment as the faithful stand in a darkened church, staring at the single paschal candle, our own pillar of flame. The deacon sings:
This is the night, when you brought our fathers, the children of Israel, out of bondage in Egypt, and led them through the Red Sea on dry land.
This is the night, when all who believe in Christ are delivered from the gloom of sin, and are restored to grace and holiness of life.
This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave.
How holy is this night, when wickedness is put to flight, and sin is washed away. It restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to those who mourn. It casts out pride and hatred, and brings peace and concord.
How blessed is this night, when earth and heaven are joined and man is reconciled to God (BCP, 287).
This isn’t about the past: it’s about now. The past becomes powerfully present as we reach towards the future promises, but these are all caught up in the moment of song and is our now.
The Church Year isn’t just a catechetical exercise (although it does that), it is means of accessing the power and the promise of God now. This is why the Anglican fathers fought the Puritan attempts to get rid of the Church calendar: they recognized that this cycle too is a means of tapping into the mysteries that God offers us in the sacramental life.