ONE of the greatest blessings we have inherited from the early centuries of the Church's life and worship is the possession of the Christian Year. There is nothing fantastic or unnatural in its observance. Rather may we say it would be a strange violation of the natural instincts of a loving loyalty and devotion not to keep in memory the chief events of our Saviour's life.
The same impulse of grateful homage which prompts us to commemorate our national heroes and benefactors, to observe the birthdays and recall the deeds of the great men who have devoted their lives to their country's good, naturally suggests that we cherish the sacred memory of our Lord and Master. Therefore it is that the Christian Year concerns itself chiefly with vividly recalling to mind, and living over again, the great acts of our redemption through Christ. The Church Calendar also contains the names of the Holy Apostles and some of the Evangelists and other Saints whose lives and services were closely identified with the Church's infancy. To this list of Scripture Saints our Mother Church of England has added the names of certain martyrs and others especially worthy of such honor. While these latter do not occur in our American Calendar, yet it is entirely fitting that we should hold them in reverent esteem. The Latin and Greek branches of the Church Catholic are wont to commemorate a very much larger number of worthies. It is altogether probable that our list will be enriched in the course of time by the addition of other names, ancient and modern, to whose lives and works the Church owes a debt of gratitude. The Christian Year also contains certain festivals and fasts to be especially observed. It has been happily remarked that the Church does not number her days or measure her seasons so much by the motion of the sun as by the course of our Saviour, beginning and counting her year with Him, who, being the true Sun of Righteousness, began now to rise upon the world.
The year thus divided into occasions of special commemoration has been handed down to us from the most ancient times. By it the Church regulates her public worship, makes generous provision for the more intelligent and helpful reading of the Bible, and in reality for us, her people, it is the venerated and beloved pathway along which we come up to the House of God. By means of the Christian Year we connect the passage of time with the great facts of redemption, and thus are enabled to so number our days that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom. An examination of its structure reveals the fact that it insures the Scriptural setting forth of the Gospel, not in part, but in all its fullness. It would be difficult to conceive a better method of at once instructing people in the truths of the Bible and at the same time commanding their sympathy and interest by keeping constantly before the mind of the worshipper in detail the various events in the life of our divine Redeemer.
The Church Year is the consecration to God of a natural cycle of time in a holy round of services, each separate one offering to Him praise and worship for His own great glory and for the noble and wonderful acts of redemption. It begins with the Advent season, which prepares us, by the carefully selected Scripture teaching of four consecutive Sundays, for the great fact of the Incarnation celebrated on Christmas Day. Speaking broadly, we may say that the Christian Year is divided into two grand divisions: the first extending from the first Sunday in Advent to Trinity Sunday, and the second from Trinity Sunday on through the half-year to Advent Sunday again. The first part is used to teach doctrine, the second given up to practical instruction, not so exclusively, however, that there is not a free interchange. But from Advent Sunday to Christmas the historical facts of the preparation for Christ's coming and His birth, His second coming to judge the world, and our preparation for it are dwelt upon. Following an ancient custom, Isaiah is the Prophet chosen for this part of the year. From Christmas through Epiphany, with its Sundays, the Lord Jesus is revealed to us by His miracles to be absolute Lord and Master over the world of nature. Diseases yield, demons are driven forth, the storms cease at His word of command. Then come the three Sundays of solemn preparation for Lent, beginning with Septuagesima, when our duty of self-control and of self-renunciation are brought forward, and so we enter into the remembrance of our Lord's great fast in the wilderness and His resistance to temptation, with our sad, faltering, distant imitation of it.
The season of Lent calls up to our remembrance the reasons why our Lord suffered and what for our sins He endured, and so, step by step, it prepares us for Holy Week. This last great week, ushered in by Palm Sunday, terminates at last in the great fast of Good Friday, which is followed by the glories of the Easter feast. The Sunday on which the great fact of the Resurrection is proclaimed is made the center around which all the preceding and succeeding Sundays throughout the universal Church arrange themselves. All refer to this as the crowning act of that Incarnation which the whole Church commemorates at Christmas. The period of forty days from Easter to the Ascension, and of ten days from the Ascension on to Whitsunday, are taken up with setting forth the doctrines of the Church, and are always counted as a continuous feast. The doctrines of the Resurrection, of our Lord's Session on the right hand of the Father as Intercessor and Mediator, and the Descent of the Holy Ghost to abide forever with the Church, are all festal facts for our humanity.
Then comes Trinity Sunday, which is peculiar to the Anglo-Saxon race. On the succeeding Sundays the great historic pivotal facts are not now dwelt upon, but the practical lessons, the moralities of the Gospel, are brought out. Especially if one will only keep the thought, in mind, the Sundays after Trinity illustrate in a wonderful way the manifold fruits and divine operations of the Holy Spirit. They might all with propriety be called Sundays after Pentecost, as indeed they are designated in the Latin Church.
A study of the wise and comprehensive plan upon which the Church year is arranged certainly does bring out the truths of the Christian faith and enforces them upon the attention in a way that no other that can be devised could possibly do. Its flexibility, its unity of purpose, its various teachings, its insistence, Sunday by Sunday, on the same essential verities--all these make it as nearly an inspiration as an institution which is the outgrowth of Christian longings and worship can possibly be. Our feasts and our fasts are being found so helpful and spiritually uplifting that many of the devout Christian bodies about us are more and more observing them.
For a number of years Christmas and Easter have been quite generally observed in our country by Christians of nearly all names. Such concurrent observance bears impressive witness to the vital power over the religious life in the community which a Christian Year, devoutly planned and consecrated by ages of holy use, must yield.
As our own Bishop Coxe so admirably says: "The Christian Year of the Church is not properly appreciated as a means of grace even by ourselves. For, supposing it had never been invented, nor thought of before, and supposing it had just entered into the mind of some modern Christian to establish a system like that of the Church for insuring a full display of Christ and a thorough exploring of the Scriptures every year, how brilliant the thought! How Scriptural the conception! How evangelical, how highly spiritual, how blessed the practical plan!
Such would be the universal expression of popular piety; and the author of this great method would be regarded as the man of the times, the grand original of a new and progressive form of Christianity, a Luther or a Wesley. And justly so, for it may be safely said that no one of the popular leaders who has left a denomination to perpetuate his name and teachings has embodied in it anything which is one-thousandth part so substantial and positive as this truly Christian system of Scriptural exposition. Look at this majestic system of claiming all time for Jesus Christ, and filling every day and every year with His name and His worship. See how vast and rich the scheme as a token of and a provision for the second Advent. And then see what may be said of its divine origin. God is the real Author of this scheme, and it is revealed as part of His wisdom for perpetuating His truth."
The Christian Year needs to be preached more fully than it is, and on broader lines. The historic witness of the observance of the Ecclesiastical Calendar is closely allied to what humanity at its best most craves and needs. What the Christian world most sorely requires is just that which the New Testament in those three great festivals most remarkably exhibits, God and man reconciled, and thereby the wide world of mankind drawn together in love and peace, in friendship and sympathy.
As a distinguished writer has said, it is quite unnecessary to refer in this connection to the contribution which the constantly increasing observance of the Christian Year is making toward a closer fellowship among God's people. The keeping of Christmas alone has accomplished untold blessings in this direction and restored to the lost unity of Christians of every name a sense of oneness in the love of the Christ Child. From the beginning of Advent, which answers to that day in the Mosaic year when the trumpet was blown in Zion preparatory to the Feast of Tabernacles, not our Church merely, but all Christians, if not all men and children, are thinking of Christmas. All men are children when that day comes, and nearly all are friends. The heart of the most selfish man grows soft and tender, if it does not melt, in the presence of that amazing love shown by the Babe of Bethlehem lying in the manger.
Still more profoundly, more spiritually, is it true that Lent and Holy Week, followed as they immediately are by the joyful feast of Christ's Resurrection, are awakening a growing consciousness of human solidarity and fostering a spirit of mutual sympathy. This becomes each year more strikingly apparent. "I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me." Good Friday and Easter, bound together as one, have this result, and by drawing us all to our Lord they tend more and more to unite Christians in a world-wide brotherhood. Let us thank God for this benefit through the increasing observance of the Christian Year. Finally, we cannot but think that the Christian Year is divinely intended to bring home to us more effectually the truth of our Lord's sacred humanity and the reality of His work and suffering on our behalf.
With the words of the saintly Herbert on this subject, we may well bring this chapter to a close:
Who goeth in the way which Christ hath gone
Is much more sure to meet with Him, than one
That traveleth byways.