What is Sacred Time?

Humans exist in time. We measure time. We give time. We mark time. We spend time. We waste time. We make time (we think). Rarely, however, do we stop to consider time. We keep track of birthdays, anniversaries and deaths. We celebrate notable days of the civic, academic and religious calendars. We anticipate future events that we plan or imagine will happen, all the while existing only in the present. But what is time?

Augustine speaks of Time in terms of “memory (past), attention (present; also, “sight: or “attending to”), and expectation (future).”[1] He mused over the ability of the mind to encompass past and present, even imagining the future, all outside the confines of actual time and space. He is said to have stated “whenever I imagine that I am in the present, it is already past to me.”[2] Stookey, who is a professor and coauthor of Handbook of the Christian Year, adds that in some sense, “the present barely exists.”[3] He continues, “The present cannot be conceived in isolation, as if it had a life of its own,”[4] and considers time a continuum, where the present is simply a moving edge between the past and the future. Ricoeur adds that “the mind itself [is] the fixed element . . . [and] the important verb is no longer ‘to pass’ (transire) but ‘to remain’ (manet).”[5] Whatever it is, time is “interconnected with motion and change in the universe.”[6]

Why, then, do Humans mark time? Early nomadic peoples chased the game and weather patterns, while agrarians planned for planting and harvest. Some of these ancient cultures based their calendars on the moon, while others looked to the sun to calculate a course of action. In each case, it seems that the measuring of time allows a People to measure and assess their progress. It enables them to participate and construct life, rather than merely watching it go by. Lastly, the measurement of time provides a lens through which to examine the patterns and principles at work in the universe.

A Theology of Time

The deliberation of natural patterns and principles of time necessarily introduces an investigation into a theology of time. An examination of this kind must shed light on both the past, revealing human worth, and on the future, revealing human hope. The fact that time and eternity have intersected and continue to do so is “grounded in the most basic of Christian affirmations . . . for our scriptures insist that in the days of the Emperor Augustus the eternal Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us.”[7]

An abbreviated review of this Biblical convergence of time and eternity is in order. Genesis 1 reveals that time was created on day four, as well as time within time (i.e. it is measured). Day five documents life within time, while day seven is set apart as holy, with cessation from work as the demonstration of Sabbath’s holiness. In John 1, time and eternity intersect as the Logos exists both out of time (v.1) and is made in time (v. 14). In John 17:5 we overhear Jesus pray to be glorified with the glory that he had before the world was made. Hebrews chapter 1 also reflects this concept, speaking of Jesus making purification for sins (a temporal act) before sitting down “at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” 1 John 1:2 again reminds the reader that Jesus was “with the Father and was manifested to us.”

Sacred Time

Because ancient cultures were oriented towards the seasons, early religions understood that life was cyclical. The Hebrew calendar, however, began to distinguish itself by marking events as well as agricultural patterns. The Christian calendar went even further by rejecting seasonal time in favor of time centered on the Pascha (death and resurrection) of Jesus Christ. New Testament time is not some “distinctive theory of time, but the fullness of time. What distinguishes it is its completeness, its pleroma . . . [it is] not some new philosophy of time, but a new quality of life.”[8] Time, then, has a sense of completeness in God, while at the same time continuing on to its end.

Time has no sacredness of its own, but rather, is a tool to be redeemed and employed by humans in order to participate and celebrate the eternal. Sacred time, according to Patricia Wilson-Kastner, does three things. It connects Christians as members of the Body of Christ, and draws the worshiping community into its broader union with Christ and with the World. Sacred Time serves to focus Christians on the great feasts of the life, death and resurrection of Christ.[9]

Robert Weber, professor and author of Ancient-Future Time, adds that the events of Christianity communicate time in the following ways: The incarnation presents time as fulfilled time (Mark 1:15; Acts 2:14-36), while the crucifixion epitomizes the time of salvation (Romans 5:6; Matthew 26:18; John 7:6; Colossians 2:15; II Corinthians 6:2). The resurrection, ascension and second coming of Christ all impart anticipatory time

(I Timothy 6:14; John 5:28-30; I Corinthians 4:5; I Peter 4:17; Revelation 11:18).[10] Time for the Christian, then, is “the measure of purposeful life . . . [and] Liturgy is the medium for such expression.”[11]

Because of the conflict between sacred time and secular time, Christians must have a correct theology of time in order to redeem it. Andrew Hill presents a summary of redeemed time as follows:[12]

-Time is God’s time (Job 12:10; 33:4)

-Time is a divine gift, an act of grace (Psalm 139)

-Time is cyclical in the Bible (Eccl 3)

-Time is linear in the Bible (Dan 9:24-27)

-Time has purpose and meaning (Zeph 1; Matt 24)

-Time is short (Psalm 90)

-Time is for rejoicing (Psalm 124)

-Time is for praising God (Psalm 119:175)

A Vocabulary of Time

The vocabulary of a language often reveals what is valuable to the people who speak that language. For example, our thinking about “time” is necessarily limited by the English vocabulary of “time.” Therefore, the study of time, and specifically liturgical time, demands a broader vocabulary than English affords. The following terms derived from the Greek will be useful in understanding and describing concepts related to sacred time.

Chronos: This is “clock” time, where we get our word “chronology.” It speaks of time in sequence.

Kairos: This speaks of an event in time, a specific moment, or even a crisis.

Anamnesis: Literally, a drawing near of memory.

Stookey says that this “doesnot imply a mental process, but a ritual process . . . remembrance by doing rather than by cogitation.”[13] Zimmerman says that it is “not mere  recall, but a remembering action, which is the present of the past.”[14] It is  in this sense, for example, that the Jewish Passover is both memorialized and experienced again in the enactment of the Seder.

Prolepsis: Literally, to take beforehand. It is “the bringing of God’s future into our present.”[15] We sometimes experience this through songs like “We Shall Behold Him” and “I Can Only Imagine.”

Kenosis: Literally, to make empty. This is the word used to describe Christ  laying aside his nature in Philippians 2:6-9. The great humiliation of Christ implies the great dignity of his divine nature, and the intersection of time and eternity.

Incarnation: Literally, in meat, or in flesh. This is an obvious intersection of  time and eternity. John F. Baldovin says that the fact of the incarnation and redemption of Christ “implies an irreducible tension between the already and the not-yet in the Christian experience of the world.”[16]

Resurrection (anastasis): Literally “the standing up again.” It is yet another  concrete instance of the eternal dimension at work in our midst. The resurrection is not so much resuscitation as it is restoration to Christ’s  former existence. It is the center of both the weekly (Sunday) and yearly (Easter) cycles.

These terms help us consider how an individual or a Body of believers can maintain a vital relationship with God, Who exists out of time. Joyce Zimmerman states the challenge in this way: “How do we participate in a historical event that is past and not yet come?” and “How do we live this mystery today?”[17] The observance of the Christian or liturgical year provides opportunities to live in this intersection between time and eternity.



The Liturgical Year, also known as the Christian Year, proceeds from the conviction that God is Creator of all that is, including time. This application of Sacred Time reveals itself in the development of the Liturgical Week, Day and Year.

The Week

The Importance of Sunday

The Week is a primary element of the liturgical year, and is demarcated by the Sunday observance. While Wednesday and Friday were incorporated by the early Church as fast days (a break from Judaism, where Monday and Thursday were fast days), Sunday is the oldest element of the Christian calendar, and is central to both the weekly and yearly cycles. Because of its relation to the resurrection, it trumps all other celebrations and seasons. Mark Searle notes that Sunday is “the nucleus around and out of which the feasts and seasons of the year have evolved, and still it retains in itself the kernel of the whole Christian mystery . . . it encapsulates the whole economy of salvation.”[18] He notes that the centrality of Sunday worship affects the local church in a significant way, stating “it is the day when the local church comes to realize itself as Church when all the faithful are called to find themselves within the whole story of God.”[19] In fact, historically, the Sunday celebration is so important that “both kneeling and fasting were forbidden on this day in the early Church, as they were thought incompatible with its joyful character as a foretaste of the kingdom of God.”[20]

Searle asserts “Sunday is essentially a post-resurrection appearance of the Risen Christ in which he breathes his Spirit upon his disciples for the forgiveness of sins and for the life of the world. As such, it is the point at which all the central images of the Christian life converge.”[21] Robert Weber adds that “historically, Sunday worship expresses three truths: it remembers God’s saving action in history; it experiences God’s renewing presence; and it anticipates the consummation of God’s work in the new heavens and the new earth.”[22] The Sunday gathering, then, is the venue in which anamnesis and prolepsis connect and interact.

The Development of Sunday

The New Testament writers also attest to the centrality of Sunday in the liturgical year. But how and why did these Jewish Christians transition from keeping the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday) to a gathering on Sunday? Adolph Adam, noted German Scholar, writes that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all document Sunday, the first day of the Jewish week, as “the day of the Lord’s resurrection”[23] (Mt 28:1 ff; Mk 16:1 ff; Lk 24:1 ff; Jn 20:1 ff). It is apparent that the early Christians gathered to eat together (Acts 20:7) and to contribute to the needs of others (I Cor 16:1-2) on Sunday. Paul also implies that the central activity of the Christian gathering, participating in the Lord’s Supper, occurred on Sunday (I Cor 11). There is also extra-biblical reference to the Sunday gathering, found in a letter from Pliny the Younger (c. 112), governor of Bithynia, to Emperor Trajan. He states “On an appointed day, they had been accustomed to meet before daybreak, and to recite a hymn antiphonally to Christ, as to a god.”[24] Adam states that this letter describes both an early Sunday morning liturgy and a Sunday evening meal, which later was abandoned “under the pressure, evidently of imperial decrees forbidding suspicious gatherings in the evening.”[25]

The Meaning of Sunday

A brief review of the Jewish Sabbath is essential in understanding the development and meaning of Sunday to the early Church, and its centrality to the liturgical year. As we have seen in Genesis 1, God chose to cease from His work on the seventh day. In Moses’ presentation of the Ten Commandments (Ex 20:8-11), the explanation of the Sabbath day is linked to the work/rest pattern of creation, and is assigned stipulations in its observance, i.e. to keep it holy and to cease from work. Later, Moses attached an additional Sabbath stipulation in Deuteronomy 5:12-15, compelling the people to observe the Sabbath by remembering their deliverance from Egypt. Searle notes “these two sets of images of the Sabbath link it with the creation story and the Exodus.”[26]

Jesus is the first to initiate transition from the Sabbath by declaring Himself to be “Lord of the Sabbath” (Mt. 12:8). Searle believes that Christ was “neither purifying the Sabbath law nor destroying it. Rather, he seems to be proclaiming that the Sabbath represented a vision whose time had come.”[27] The twin themes of “Rest” (Genesis) and “Liberation” (Exodus) were now positioned in Christ.

Sunday was not deemed to be intrinsically sacred, especially to “Gentile Christians who adhered to St. Paul’s view of the Jewish law as no longer binding upon them . . . they would have had no interest in keeping any day of the week as a Sabbath.”[28] It was “observed because of its historical connection with Jesus’ resurrection.”[29] Additionally, since Sunday was the first day of the week, early Christians did not view it as a day to abstain from their work. They did, however, employ a bit of “theological inventiveness” to the name of the day on which they celebrated the resurrection of Jesus. Talley, professor and leading liturgist in the United States, says that John’s testimony of “being in the Spirit on the Lord’s day” (Rev 1:10) has commonly been “identified with the Christian observance of the first day of the week, the day assigned to the sun in the planetary week, as the day of worship celebrating the resurrection of Christ.”[30] Because Christ declared himself to be the Light of the world, and because he rose from the dead on that day, the early Church appropriated Malachi 4:2 to proof-text their new day of observance: “The sun of justice will rise with healing in its wings.”

Other Names and Images of Sunday

The Sunday gathering went by a variety of titles. “The first day” obviously refers to the resurrection of Christ on the “first day of the week” (Mt 28:1 ff; Mk 16:1 ff; Lk 24:1 ff; Jn 20:1 ff). Also, because many encounters with the risen Christ took place on the first day of the week, there was an underlying hope of encounter with the returning Christ on that day. A second reference, “The Lord’s Day,” could be a word-play on the phrase “the day of the Lord” implying the judgment and final reign of Christ. A third reference to Sunday also had this eschatological dimension. The title “The Eighth Day” extends the Jewish idea of seven as a perfect number. The concept of an eighth day “obviously signified something greater still.”[31]

The Day

A second segment of the Liturgical Year is simply known as The Day. Brief weekday services, known as “the Daily Office,” took place both in the city and in the monasteries. The city’s Daily Office, known as The Cathedral Office, was designed for the townspeople who would attend when going either to or from work. The Cathedral Office consisted of two services: Matins, held in the morning, and Evensong or Vespers, which was held in the evening.

A typical Cathedral Vespers would include the following:

· Psalms 140, 141, 129, 116

· Incensation

· Entrance with thurible

· Introit prayer

· Hymn of light: Phos hilaron

· Readings (set for particular feasts and days in Lent)

· Multiple intercessions

· Appropriate hymnody for the day

· Nunc dimittis

· Concluding prayers

In the West, the monastic communities developed a system of seven or eight offices to be said daily, in an attempt to apply the exhortation to “pray without ceasing”

(1 Thess 5:17). The Western Monastic Cycle of the Daily Office is as follows:

Vespers (at the end of the working day)

Compline (before bedtime)

Nocturns or Vigils or Matins (during middle of the night)

Prime (shortly thereafter)

Terce (during the middle of the morning)

Sext (at noon)

None (during the middle of the afternoon)

A rhyme is useful to remember both the name and focus of each of the hours.

“At Mattins bound, at Prime reviled,

Condemned to death at Terce

Nailed to the cross at Sext

At none his blessed side they pierce.

They take him down at vesper-tide

In grave at compline lay

Who henceforth bids his Church observe

Her sevenfold hours always.”

A typical Monastic Vespers would include the following:

· Initial blessing and prayers

· Invitatory psalm 103

· 7 prayers said before the altar, silently, by the priest during psalm 103

· Great ektenia (an intercessory prayer)

· Psalmody

Brian Wren envisions the austere existence of monastic life, and writes “the six hours of prayer are spread between eight services of worship, the Divine Office, which punctuate the day. The members of this faith community will meet more often for worship than for meals, and spend more time at prayer than at agricultural labor.”[32]

The Year

The third segment of the Liturgical Year partitions the year itself into cycles. Andrew Hill writes “The Western church – Roman Catholic and Anglican – adopted a chronological scheme highlighting two cycles of time in the church year: Advent and Easter. The Eastern Church – Byzantine and Orthodox – divided the church year into three cycles of time: the Menaia, the Octoechos, and the Triodion and Pentekostarion.”[33] This report is from the perspective of the Western Church, and will focus on the cycles of Easter and Christmas. First, however, a brief review of the Hebrew festival cycle is essential in order to understand the context and development of the Christian Liturgical Year.

Jewish Feasts

In the book of Leviticus, Moses received from the LORD (Lev 23) a mandate regarding what are called “holy convocations” (verse 4 ff). This list included Sabbath, Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of First Fruits, Pentecost, the Feast of Trumpets (Rosh Hashanah, or the New Year), the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the Feast of Huts, Sabbath Year, and the Year of Jubilee. These Feasts connected the worship of God with concrete historical events, and provided annual opportunities for theological instruction.

Three of the above-mentioned feasts were considered pilgrimage feasts because “every male Jew of twelve years and older was obliged each year to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for at least one of these feasts.”[34] These particular festivals were connected to (2.14) either flocks or crops, and included Passover (which fused with the Feast of Unleavened Bread during the Exodus event), The Feast of Weeks (later called Pentecost) and the Feast of Huts. The additional feasts of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Hanukkah and Purim were feasts that commemorated God’s saving events.

It is an interesting sidelight to examine certain New Testament events within the context of the pilgrimage feasts. Within the context of Passover, Jesus (age 12) talks with the teachers in the temple (Lk 2:41 ff), cleanses the temple (Jn 3:13-17) and endures his passion (Mt 26:17 ff). During the Feast of Booths He taught and prophesied in the temple (Jn 7:14-39). The Holy Spirit descends (Acts 2) and Paul hurries to Jerusalem (Acts 20:16) within the context of Pentecost.

The Christian Feasts

During the Apostolic era, the early Church gradually laid the Jewish feasts aside. The reason for this is twofold: Jesus became the once-for-all sacrifice (Heb 9:10; 10:10), and his resurrection canceled the requirement of ceremonial law (Col 2:13-14). To

understand the basic principle in the development of the Christian Year one must come to terms with the fact that the holistic feasts “refracted into greater precision and spread over a period of time.”[35]

In the first Christian century, for example, the feast of Pentecost memorialized the passion, resurrection and ascension of Christ, as well as the giving of The Holy Spirit. In the third century, Epiphany became the second holistic feast, and included the birth, baptism and first miracle of Christ (or a combination thereof, depending on the region). At the same time, Pentecost (the Great 50 Days) had divided into Pascha and Pentecost. By the fourth century, Pentecost divided into the feasts of Ascension and Pentecost, while Pascha divided into Holy week and the Triduum. Epiphany divided into Christmas and Epiphany. By the fifth century the Liturgical or Christian Year has fully developed into the cycle of life (based upon Easter) and the cycle of light (based upon Christmas). The time not directly included in one of these two cycles is called Ordinary time, so named for the ordinals, or numbers assigned to each Sunday.

A third cycle, called Sanctoral, developed originally to celebrate those martyred for the Faith, but continued to grow until every day in the year was assigned. To help “clean up” the calendar, All Saints Day was adopted as a way to both consolidate and to celebrate the lives of believers who had died.

The development of Christian doctrine was a driving force in the evolution of the Christian year. The great festivals of the Church embody important doctrines that “celebrate in our present experience what has occurred or what we resolutely believe will happen.”[36] And like the Jewish Passover observance, the great Christian feasts “recalled an event to transform life.”[37] Robert Taft, who has written widely on liturgical understanding, expounds, saying “liturgical feasts, therefore, have the same purpose as the Gospel: to present this new reality in “anamnesis” as a continual sign to us not of a past history, but of the present reality of our lives in him.”[38]


Because the Christian Year presents events in sequence, it can be an effective medium for presenting the whole cosmic story of God, rather than just the preferred elements. One challenge Christians have faced, from the ascension to the present, is how to maintain a vital relationship with someone whom you cannot see. The Christian Year bridges the gap between contemporary followers and the historical events of Christianity. As a discipleship tool, it is an invaluable resource for presenting the unseen in a tangible and historic manner. The Christian Year is an important and effective way in which both communities and individuals experience the convergence of time and eternity.

Inference to Worship

Observance of the Christian Year can shape both corporate worship and the individual worshiper. A worshiper’s theology is shaped and formed as one navigates the tension between the Christian and secular calendar. This tension is not to be avoided, but rather, embraced as a tool of discipleship. Observance of the Christian Year is something tangible, and helps to keep the mystery of Christ central to the worshiper’s experience.

Additionally, the Liturgical Year shapes corporate worship by providing a pattern by which to celebrate the entire cosmic story. It assimilates the pattern of dying to self and living to Christ, and provides Biblical patterns and expressions for the Church’s adoration of God. Robert Weber submits a set of worship principles that are both rooted and fulfilled in the practice of the Liturgical Year. He says that this practice directs corporate worship to celebrate Christ as it “tells and acts out the Christ event.”[39] As with any cycle or pattern, ritualism and boredom can replace enthusiasm. On the other hand, the possibility of spiritual growth and discipleship through the observance of Sacred Time can be worth the risk. Rather than a repeating and unending circle, the Liturgical Year should be viewed as an ascending spiral, lifting both worship and the worshiper to new understandings and expressions of the mystery of Christ.

Rss Feed Facebook button Youtube button