Liturgical Calendar
The liturgical calendar is complicated, as you will know if you have studied the “Tables and Rules for the Movable and Immovable Feasts” or the “General Tables for finding the Dominical or Sunday Letter, and the places of the Golden Numbers in the Calendar” in the Book of Common Prayer. The complications arise firstly from the fact the our calendar grew up in a rather haphazard fashion over hundreds of years, secondly from the fact that our calendar has to reconcile the Jewish (lunar) and the Roman (solar) calendars.

The oldest Christian feast is Sunday, the first day of the week, the weekly celebration of the Resurrection and the Beginning of a New Creation. The seven day week is of course a Jewish invention, and Christians like Jews soon established observances for other days of the week: Friday as a fast day may derive originally from Jewish preparations for the Sabbath, but was soon re-interpreted as a commemoration of the Passion.

The second oldest Christian feast is Easter, the annual celebration of the Resurrection. This was observed at Passover or the Sunday after Passover, and thus depended on the Jewish lunar calendar. At least one other Jewish feast, Pentecost on the fiftieth day after Passover, was also adopted and re-interpreted by the Christian Church. Further seasons of pre-Easter preparation (Epiphany and Lent) and post-Pentecost celebration (Trinitytide) were then established.

By the second century, the Church was also observing the anniversaries of the deaths of the martyrs – their “Birthdays” – and this is the origin of our saint’s days. As far as I know, these “Birthdays” were determined by the Roman calendar, on fixed dates of the months, without reference to the Jewish calendar or to the phases of the moon.

When the Church became the established religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, it had to embrace the Roman calendar. Although it retained the Jewish calendar for the date of Easter, the subsequent feasts – like Christmas! – would be given fixed dates of the Roman months (January, February etc). Hence the continuing confusion of “movable” and “immovable” feast – although the words are misleading: what is movable in the Jewish calendar is immovable in the Roman, and vice versa!

By the High Middle Ages, the liturgical calendar was like a Gothic cathedral in its ramifications of complexity. On any day there might be an observance of the season (e.g. Pentecost), a sub-season (e.g. Embertide), several saints (in order of precedence), octaves of past feasts (in order of precedence), vigils and preparations for coming feasts (in order of precedence), and the day of the week And for the mediaeval monks, not just the days but the very hours of the day had their own “calendar”, their timetable of prayers and devotions, often associated with the traditional “hours” of Our Lord’s Passion.

The English Reformers, and a few hundred years later Vatican II, wisely simplified the calendar, but a rich tradition, full of profound hints and symbols, is still discernible in the calendar we use today. I suggest the Calendar as an interesting theme for thought and meditation: by seeing our own lives as fitting into the timetable of the Church’s life, we see our own lives as joined to the life of Christ. The Calendar is more than just a means of dividing up the year, it is what Dom Gregory Dix beautifully called “the sanctification of time”.

- Fr Richard Bowyer, January 2011