As we learned in the previous post, the church retained two different calendars side by side: the lunar and the solar. Thus there was a clash between two ways of dividing up the year.
But there is also another clash in the church’s time-keeping. We think of the new day as beginning at midnight. So did the ancient Romans. However, in Palestine, each day ended at sunset. As a result, from Old Testament times, Jews have marked the beginning of a new day at sunset. By Roman reckoning, the Sabbath began on Friday evening and ended on Saturday evening—but for the Jews, that was just one day, the Sabbath.
Christianity emerged out of Judaism, but soon spread into the Roman world. As a result, both ways of time-keeping exist side-by-side. On the whole, the church operates the Roman way, from midnight to midnight. At the same time, the Jewish way hasn’t gone away altogether.
For centuries, Christians in the West have begun the Lord’s Day (Sunday) with Saturday night vespers. Many churches also have the first Communion service on Saturday evening. At Christmas, we have Midnight Mass, which often finishes rather than starts at midnight.
The modern observance of the Easter Vigil is a mixture of the two systems. Originally an all-night service (hence the name ‘vigil’). In the Eastern Orthodox church, midnight is marked with particular festivity, with the lighting of fresh candles and the proclamation of Christ’s resurrection. In the West, it is common to have the service already on Saturday evening as the ‘first Mass of Easter’—since by biblical reckoning, the day of Christ’s resurrection began at sundown on Saturday.
This clash of times will no doubt persist until the end of the world—until the revelation of a new heaven and a new earth, where there will no longer be night but one endless day (Rev. 21:23), and no seasons, but a perpetual season of fruitfulness (Rev 22:2).
From Luther’s Epistle Sermon for the Third Sunday after Easter (1 Peter 2:11–20):
We have heard above that the two parts are to be together in a Christian and emphasized in Christan teaching. The first part is faith, that we are redeemed from sin through the blood of Christ and have forgiveness. The second part, after we have [faith], is that afterward we should become different people and live a new life. In Baptism, or when we begin to believe, we receive not only the forgiveness of sins (which is the grace that makes us God’s children) but also the gift that must do away with the remaining sins and kill them. Our sins are not forgiven so that we would continue in them (as St. Paul says in Romans 6), as the insolent spirits and despisers of grace allege. Rather, even though sins have been blotted out through Christ’s blood, so that we do not need to pay or make amends for them, and we now are children of grace and have forgiveness, yet that does not mean sin has been entirely done away with and killed in us.
The forgiveness of sins and the killing of them are two different things. Both of them must be proclaimed against those who confuse and turn things upside down with false doctrine. Against the first, the pope and many others have taught that the forgiveness of sins is to be obtained through the trickery of their own self-chosen and invented works and their own satisfactions. This error always continues in the world from Cain at the beginning to the end. Then, when this error has been put down, there are again false spirits on the other isde, who have heard the preaching about grace and boast about it and yet produce nothing more from it, just as if that were enough, and forgiveness should do nothing more in us than that we remain as we were before. Afterward, there were just as many as before, when we still knew nothing at all about Christ and the Gospel.
Therefore, those who want to be Christians must know and learn that, since they have obtained forgiveness without their own merit, they must from now on not allow or indulge in sin, but rather oppose their former, evil, sinful lusts and avoid and flee their work and fruits. That is the summary and meaning of this Epistle reading.
Luther’s Works, Vol. 78: Church Postil III (St. Louis: CPH, 2014), 154–155
The Christian Church was borne out of the mixed soil of the Old Testament Scriptures, first-century Judaism and the Græco-Roman world. This mixture of influences is still with us today when it comes to measuring and marking time in the Church’s life.
The worship of the Old Testament, and much of the Judaism of Palestine in the first century, operated with a lunar calendar, where the change of months was determined by the cycle of the moon. Months, and therefore festivals, would not always occur at the same time of the natural year.
This is why the chief festival of the Church, Easter, which is based on the Jewish festival of Passover, can occur on any time between 22 March and 25 April, depending on when the first full moon of the spring occurs.
On the other hand, the Romans (like us) used the solar calendar, so that months always occur at exactly the same time of the natural year. Festivals that have no Old Testament precedent but were introduced by Christians, such as Christmas, therefore have a fixed date.
Some of the seasons of the Church Year relate to fixed dates (e.g. Advent for the 4 Sundays before Christmas), some to movable dates (e.g. Lent for 40 days before Easter), and others vary depending on how the two relate (Epiphany and Pentecost).
The Church Year has kept both calendars side by side, giving us a number of fixed festivals, with Easter moving to and fro. As a result, in any given year, we might have a short Epiphany season and a long Pentecost (Trinity season), or vice versa.