Why Bother with A Liturgical Calendar?

Justin Shaun Coyle, Ph.D.

In 1928, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that the future’s technological advances would yield more leisure time. His prediction seems plausible enough: leisure time should increase at roughly the same interval that the automation of labor does. Keynes was right that technology has largely optimized our calendars. He was wrong, though, to imagine that optimization necessarily spells more time for leisure. Out of the office for the day? Emails can be returned from anywhere. Kid home sick from school? You can always jump on a Zoom call. The truth is that technology has not cleared our calendars. It has only devised more and more ways to fill them. In fact, modern life divides along several (often competing) calendars — one for each of the kids’ schools, another for one’s spouse’s career, still another for your own, and so on. And technology means that even leisure time promises little relief, punctuated as it is by smart phone alerts from life’s many calendars.

Why, then, does the Church bid us observe yet another calendar? I’m not asking after what marks the liturgical calendar, notice, nor how it passed from East Roman courts to Kyivan Rus’. Neither am I asking after the calendar’s when, tangled as that question is inside competing vernal equinoxes. No. I’m asking instead why we Ukrainian Catholics ought to care about a liturgical calendar at all. Haven’t we calendars enough claiming our time as it is?

The Church has, I think, at least three theological reasons for tendering a liturgical calendar.

The first is that as embodied creatures, we experience time relatively. We know of course that every year repeats a twelve-month cycle, every day a twenty-four hour one, every hour a sixty-minute one, and so on. But we rarely experience time this way. Consider only our habits of speech. Today was long, I say of a tedious day at work. That hour flew by, my son remarks of his Tae Kwon Do session. At an abstract level, we’re aware that any given day or hour isn’t longer or shorter than another in any absolute sense. Difficult work days share identical durations with easy ones. But we scarcely experience time so abstractly.

Even the time we assume to be absolute is itself entirely relative to the space we inhabit. Time passes quicker at higher altitudes than it does at sea level, for instance. And the story’s no less true on a smaller scale. Hence the odd truth that your feet are, by infinitesimal degree, younger than the head to which they’re attached. Leave earth and absolute time grows more elusive still. Mercury’s days extend far beyond ours even as its years constitute but a fraction of ours. (Actually, Mercurian days are longer than Mercurian years!) Whose time then is absolute? Whose time truer? “There is no ‘truer’ time,” physicist Carlo Rovelli writes. There are only times that “change relative to each other.” Physics aside, the first point stands: we experience time relatively.

Relative to what? The answer to this recommends a second reason the Church gives us a liturgical calendar: because we experience time relative to our loves. Anniversaries and birthdays and days marking national independence — all these revolve around what we love. That’s why anticipating them feels longer while enjoying them feels shorter. (Or why, alternatively, a tedious work day feels longer than a high-energy martial arts session.) The impossibility of observing time’s flow indifferently — loosed, that is, from the weight of our loves — teaches us something fundamental: that love organizes our experience of time. Try as you might, you could not experience time’s passing as bare ticks of some cosmic metronome, one after another, until you die. Without the weight of love, time remains an impossible, stratospheric abstraction.

And vice-versa, since without the weight of time love too courts abstraction. As friendship and family reveal, love is less sugary sentiment than a record of time given. That’s why we so often measure love’s work in time: in hours spent on the rug constructing Legos with our children or at a coffee shop talking through struggles or in the confessional reconciling the faithful to their Lord. Time is, Olivier Clément writes, “the possibility… of love.” And love needs time to do its work.

If love and time give meaning one to another, then what we love with our time matters a good deal. Christians are called to love God with all their “heart, soul, and mind” (Matt. 22:37). But if love is in part a record of time spent, then we’ll need time to linger with the Lord in order to love him. What the Church offers us in the liturgical year, then, are opportunities to love Christ in time. This is the third reason the Church gives us a liturgical calendar: to re-order our loves to Christ.

Every event of the liturgical year finds its anchor in the life of Christ — even the feasts of the Theotokos or of the Forerunner derive from their relation to Christ. In this way the events of the liturgical year make Christ really present. Sacrosanctum Concilium, Vatican II’s constitution on the liturgy, makes clear that Christ’s “real presence” is not limited to the Eucharist, but extends also to the liturgical services. Which is why, incidentally, at Nativity Matins we say not Today we remember when Christ was born, but rather Today Christ is born!

And so the liturgical year offers us something vital: the very presence of Christ, in hopes that we might shape our time around his. As St Maximus writes, “The Word of God wills at all times and in all things to accomplish the mystery of his embodiment.” And so liturgical events are nothing less than the mystery of Christ’s embodiment, his lingering with us until the end of the age (Matt. 28).

This business about Christ being born today brings me to a final point for theological reflection. Typically, the events we organize our time and love around remember a past. Wedding anniversaries and birthdays and school reunions — all of these commemorate a past event. True, we celebrate them to stay their eventual loss to time. But each time we do, the events slip further away from us — inevitably, inexorably, irretrievably — into nothing. Le temps detruit tout — time destroys everything.

But the liturgical year yields another view of time. It remains true that each time we celebrate (say) the Nativity of the Lord we grow more distant from it chronologically. 2021 years now yawn between us and it. Next year it’ll be 2022 years, and so ever on. But here time does not merely destroy. Not, anyway, if Christ is both the beginning and the end (Rev. 22:13). The resurrection of Christ renders his nativity an eternal truth. It’s just as true, then, that Christ was born that night in Bethlehem as it is that he is born on December 25, 2021/January 7, 2022. We can even say, curious though it sounds, that Christ will be born on the Nativity next year. A transfigured view of time notices that time not only separates us from Christ’s historical Nativity from the Theotokos in Bethlehem. Time also draws us closer to his eternal Nativity from the Father in glory.

Because this transfigured view of time isn’t obvious to us, we need practice seeing it. And practicing the transfiguration of time is exactly what the liturgical calendar offers. It offers, that is, concrete opportunities to experience time relative to the Lord and to re-order our loves around his time. More concretely still: the liturgical calendar asks us whether 12:00pm isn’t merely a mark of convention along the Earth’s daily rotation, but also a mystical participation in the Lord’s passion; whether Sundays aren’t merely the day before our work-week begins, but also the Lord’s Pascha; whether December 25/January 7 is not merely one among many cultural festivities around the hibernal solstice, but also the Lord’s very Nativity.

Between work and family, you have enough on your calendar as it is. But as we prepare to welcome 2022, consider adding some events of the liturgical calendar to yours. It’s a small way to practice seeing time transfigured by the Lord who “wills in all times and in all things to accomplish the mystery of his embodiment.”

*An earlier form of this text was given as a religious education course at Nativity of the Mother of God Ukrainian Catholic Church in Springfield, OR.