In the celebrations of Christmas and Easter, the unity of the church displays itself, and a watching world joins in some level of participation in worship. Through the doctrines of Incarnation and Resurrection, these holidays demonstrate the Christian sense of time and the ways in which worship draws us out of ordinary time to join in the eternal “simultaneity” of God’s divine drama.
In Being and Time, Martin Heidegger writes of the “vulgar understanding of time,” in which time is seen as linear, with a clear beginning, middle, and end. In this sense, we both experience and imagine ourselves as linearly time-bound creatures who are born, live, and eventually die. Thirty years later, Hans-Georg Gadamer proposed a more complex view of time to explain the “timelessness” of aesthetic experience. He argued that
Only a biblical theology of time starting not from the standpoint of human self-understanding but of divine revelation, would be able to speak of a “sacred time” and theologically legitimate the analogy between the timelessness of the work of art and this “sacred time.”
This theological understanding of time explains the unique role that communal, ritual celebration plays in Christianity. Borrowing an idea from Kierkegaard, Gadamer suggests that “the task that confronts the believer” is to “bring together two moments that are not concurrent, namely one’s own present and the redeeming act of Christ, and yet so totally to mediate them that the latter is experienced and taken seriously as present (and not something in a distant past).” This kind of “contemporaneity” occurs “especially in religious rituals and in the proclamation of the Word in preaching.”
This way of thinking about time, of bridging past and present into a moment that exists in the weekly proclamation of the Word and celebration of the sacraments, culminates in the annual celebration of the divine drama of doctrine. The economy of grace displays itself in the Advent season, the pageantry of Christmas, the Lenten fast, and the liturgies of Holy Week. Through these rituals, the church rises to a moment of sacred time, and in so doing transcends the “vulgar” linearity of ordinary time.
Secular and Sacred
Charles Taylor discusses the concepts of secular and sacred time in A Secular Age. He writes,
People who are in the saeculum, are embedded in ordinary time, they are living the life of ordinary time; as against those who have turned away from this in order to live closer to eternity. The word [secular] is thus used for ordinary as against higher time. …
[These] higher times gather and reorder secular time. They introduce “warps” and seeming inconsistencies in profane time-ordering. Events which were far apart could nevertheless be closely linked.
In this sense, “Good Friday 1998 is closer in a way to the original day of the Crucifixion than mid-summer’s day 1997.” Taylor explains that this way of thinking about time begins with Platonic philosophy and changes with Augustine’s development of a Christian philosophy. For the Greeks, “The really real, full being is outside of time, unchanging.” The coming of Christ changes this view: “God enters into drama in time. The Incarnation, the Crucifixion happened in time, and so what happens here [in time] can no longer be seen as less than fully real.” Thus, Augustine developed a new theory of time in order to account for the Christian view of God in relation to time. Augustine “holds that God can and does make all time such an instant of action. So all times are present to him, and he holds them in his extended simultaneity. . . . [R]ising to eternity is rising to participate in God’s instant.” In this late antique and medieval view of time, normal human existence occurs in ordinary time, and that “ordinary time” is occasionally intersected by a higher, holier time.
The Church Calendar
Such a view of time fits with the early and medieval church’s concept of the church calendar. Each year is made up of the normal round of weeks and months, paydays and tax seasons; but in the midst of the mundane year the church observed holidays (holy days) that participated in a higher sense of time. Local communities celebrated hundreds of local and regional feast days, while the church universal observed a sacred time oriented primarily around Christmas and Easter. Both of these holidays baptize traditional pagan holidays, and in doing so elevate the meaning of these sacred moments.
Christmas, and the Advent season leading up to it, marks the most profound intervention into the mundane world. The transcendent, omnipotent Creator entered his creation; the invisible became visible in the most humble of birth scenes. By the Middle Ages, the church repurposed the ancient pagan festival Saturnalia to highlight the Incarnation. This secular celebration commemorates continued life in the heart of frigid death, but the church has a higher vision. Here, on a celebratory day, the entire church unifies in a celebration of the immanence of the transcendent God. For all the differences among Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant traditions, all Christians ascend together to the higher time. In the act of worship, we join the shepherds marveling at the birth in Bethlehem.
The second moment of ascent begins with sorrow. On Good Friday, the whole church, through worship, moves to Jerusalem and witnesses the death of the Man born of a virgin. We wait with baited breath with the apostles on Holy Saturday, and break forth in ecstatic joy with Mary Magdalene on Easter Sunday as we encounter Jesus. Again, the church parallels a pagan celebration. The ancient fertility rites correspond with the arrival of Spring: just as the world died in winter, it is reborn each spring. The church celebrates the beginning of life, but elevates this ancient rite to envision the future of redeemed humanity. “Death, where is your sting?” As Christ is, “so shall we be.” In Christ’s resurrection, we see the ultimate promise of Christianity. Full reconciliation with God, and fully embodied life in perfected bodies unaffected by sin or death. As we celebrate Easter, we do far more than commemorate Spring fertility. We display the truth of Christ’s resurrection and partake of the apostles’ joy in seeing the Savior risen from the grave.
While Christianity has a rich tradition of sacred time, this is not a uniquely Christian insight or practice. Judaism has a holy calendar, with the high holy days of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover, Purim, and Chanukah that unite them as the chosen people of God bound together through time. The Sabbath celebration orients the week toward the divine creation and the blessing of rest in God’s world. Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel describes the importance of this weekly cycle in The Sabbath, writing,
The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn, from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world.
For Judaism, the structure of sacred days establishes an “architecture” to their faith, an architecture that endures through the centuries.
What Sacred Time Means for Christian Worship
This philosophical vision of worship as elevating the congregation into a joined temporality yields three specific implications for Christian worship.
First, it matters that Christians observe these holidays in Christian ways. For Christians, Easter cannot simply be about hunting for hidden eggs, taking pictures with a bunny, or eating chocolate. For us, Easter is about participating in redemption. Easter completes the story begun in Christmas.
Second, pastors have the unique opportunity to teach the Christian story through worship. Even in a post-Christian west, family and friends gather for divine service on Easter and Christmas. The opportunity to use these services for teaching should not be wasted. If we think of these holidays not just as culturally permitted excuses to gather, but as moments when we move from secular to sacred time, pastors should (rightly) assume a mostly ignorant secular culture that requires instruction in the ritual. God uses such moments throughout the Old Testament to teach his story of redemption to forgetful Israel. Passover, Yom Kippur, the Festival of Booths, and the other sacred festivals highlight how forgetful we humans are, and how kind God is to give us such visual and tangible ways to celebrate his acts of grace. Let us not waste the opportunities to teach the story of God’s interaction with humanity on the two high holy days when the lost willingly enter the pews.
Third, low-church denominations should recover a stronger practice of a church calendar. All Christian denominations celebrate these two holidays. But there is so much more to the Christian tradition. The full resources of the church calendar can make the lives of contemporary Christians much richer, helping them see the ways in which the sacred intersects with the mundane. Of course, such a calendar would need to be modified to respect specific denominational distinctions. Still, incorporating more traditional celebrations would go a long way toward pushing back the “secular age” we inhabit.
Christmas and Easter are beautiful seasons that reveal time to be more complex than our everyday linear experience of it. As Christians, we need to remember that YHWH not only speaks through his Word and in his Church, but also through the calendar. In recovering a stronger sense of sacred time, we move towards the fullness of the faith that not even “the gates of hell” can withstand.