Seasons of the Story
Why is it that Christians follow a yearly cycle of seasons and holy days?
The main reason is that by following this cycle, called 'the church year' or 'liturgical calendar', we can get into the rhythm and flow of the Christian story, to experience it, to learn it, to relive it through the telling and the doing. The church calendar helps the Christian believer to bring their faith into every day of their lives, every time of year.
In Advent, we prepare for God's coming among us. We get ready for the happy occasion by making our own way straight, hearing John the Baptist's call.
In Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Jesus, who is God with us - not just another cute baby, but the ultimate Christmas gift. We remember that by that same Jesus and through the Holy Spirit, God is still with us today, and has not abandoned us in the crush of daily life.
In Epiphany, we celebrate Jesus' revealing Himself to the whole world. Like the three magi with the Christ child, and those looking on when Jesus was baptized, we too are amazed at what God has done, and we realize it was not just for us, but for all.
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. In Lent, we take a hard, sober look at our own role in bringing about Jesus' death. We discover our own sin, and realize how weak and two-faced we are in facing it. We turn to God, who is the only One with the power to forgive us and change us. In the Paschal (or 'Holy') Week which ends Lent, we relive Jesus' entry into Jerusalem ('Palm Sunday'), His last commands and His being seized ('Maundy Thursday'), then abandoned, and executed ('Good Friday'), and then the stillness of the tomb. The bleak days of Christ's death are called by the Latin "Triduum" ('three days'). Yet even so we look toward Easter morning and the empty tomb, where even death does not stop God's forgiveness, and in fact helped to put it into effect.
(Check here about the practices of Lent and Holy Week)
In Easter (or 'Resurrection Day'), we celebrate God's answer : We humans killed Jesus, but He didn't stay dead ! And God has forgiven us! (Check here about the practices of Easter and the Easter Season.)
In the season after Pentecost (or for Catholics, 'Ordinary Time'), we follow the life of Jesus through Bible readings (the lectionary) and sermons (homilies) that are usually based on those readings, so we can learn what it is to live as followers of Christ in our own lives. We celebrate the Spirit that Jesus sent in His stead, and use the gifts that this Spirit has given us in order to build up each other, the church as a whole, and the society as a whole.
Each Christian is a part of the Christian story. The seasons of the Christian calendar give us a way to experience how this can be so.
Yearly Feasts and Commemorations
The church year is not just a matter of Sundays and seasons. It is a daily thing. Over the course of two thousand years, there have been a lot of people who have had an impact on the Christian faith. Yes, they're flawed human beings like us, sometimes in shocking ways. Yet they told the gospel message to people who did not know it. They thought deep thoughts, developed great ideas, dreamed great dreams, did great deeds, and loved with great love. They shaped the way Christians live their faith. Some of them changed history not only for the church, but the world at large. They're often called 'saints' ("ones who became holy"), though all believers are really saints. By assigning days of the church year as commemorations, we remember these people, and get inspired by their examples. It brings joy - that's why they're often called 'festivals' or 'feasts'. Just about every day has somebody to commemorate; each one has a story. For my own life of faith, there are several commemorations that are special to me : February 23, Polycarp of Smyrna (an important early martyr); March 29, Hans Nielsen Hauge (a Norwegian renewal leader) ( link in Norwegian); and April 23, Toyohiko Kagawa (social activist and poet). These people taught me lessons that I cherish. Check them out for yourself. You can find your own inspirational saints, too, as you go through the church calendar for the commemorations and learn about the Christian example and deeds of each of them. (Please note that Eastern Orthodox commemorate many different saints and on different days than do Catholics and Protestants. But the idea remains much the same: an actual person reminding us how to live the faith throughout the church year.)
Why Worship On Sunday? And Pray Throughout Each Day?
Christians worship on Sunday mornings. This wasn't done to give us a separate sabbath day from the Jews, who worship Friday evenings through sunset Saturday. It was done because Jesus arose from the dead early on an Easter Sunday morning. Sunday was the day of the great victory. So for Christian believers, every Sunday has a touch of that special Sunday. Of course, every day is good for worshipping God. The Catholic/Orthodox tradition (followed also by Anglicans and Lutherans) has special morning (Matin), evening (Vesper or Evensong), and bedtime (Compline) liturgies for use at times other than Sunday morning. In some churches, Wednesday night worship services are a joyous time of special prayer, praise, and fellowship. But Sundays, especially Sunday mornings, and extra-specially just after sunrise, are the most important time for worship. It is then that we most remember what Christ has done and it moves us to praise and joy.