Don’t be confused. The reference to the church calendar isn’t about when the church softball team has its next game or the date for the next women’s craft night, or when the youth group will be up at camp. It isn’t even about when the next baptism or Bible study is happening. No. This is about the Church’s liturgical calendar, and how it keeps telling us the story of Salvation History all year, every day of every year. Take a closer look at a few important texts and see what I mean.

The “Talking Heavens” in Psalm 19:1-4

1 The heavens are telling the glory of God;
    and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
    and night to night declares knowledge.
3 There is no speech, nor are there words;
    their voice is not heard;
4 yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
    and their words to the end of the world. — (NRSV)

According to the Psalmist, there is a way in which the very heavens themselves talk to us — though they don’t use words to do it. Many people may read this text and conclude that it implies something like, “You just look up at the beautiful sky and you can see that there is a God.”  I won’t discount that beauty in creation points to the Creator, but I don’t think that’s the central point. At the beginning of the creation story in Genesis 1, there is another (and I think more potent) idea right in front of us about how the sky, the sun, the moon, and the stars “talk to us” though (depending on our ecclesial traditions, or lack of them) we may not have detected it.

Cosmic Seasonal Signposts in Genesis 1:14-18

14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. 16 God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. 17 God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, 18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. — (NRSV – Emphasis added)

According to the book of Genesis, God has built messengers (and messages), and ways to keep track of what they are saying into the very fabric of the cosmos. The ancients figured this out long ago and began to see patterns in the sky itself; patterns that tell a story to those who are listening. Even St. Paul, when talking about those who have “never heard” quotes from Ps. 19 to remind us that, indeed, they have heard!

Ancient Cosmic Heralds in Romans 10:14-18

14 But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? 15 And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” 16 But not all have obeyed the good news; for Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our message?” 17 So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ. 18 But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have; for “Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.” — (NRSV – Emphasis added)

How can Paul make the claim here that everyone has heard “the word of Christ?” Impossible! Christianity was pretty new back then. But still, he says “indeed they have (heard),” and then immediately follows that assertion with a quote from Ps. 19:4. “Their voice has gone out to the ends of the world.” Whose voice? Well, if Paul knows his Bible (and if we know ours), then “their voice” is the voice mentioned in the Psalm — and it’s not the voice of the apostles and evangelists or even the early church at large. Rather, it’s the voice (the message, the word, the communication) uttered by the very heavens (the sky, sun, moon, and stars) themselves. They’ve been “preaching” a long long time. And there have been a few occasions when their message was heard around the world! For instance…

Matthew, Magi, and Messianic Sky-Messages in Mat. 2:1-7

1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. — (NRSV – Emphasis added).

Biblical Scholar. N.T. Wright has this to say about the relationship between “earth and sky” in the Matthew text when he writes —

The ancient world, innocent of streetlights, never forgot the night sky. Many people, particularly in the countries to the east of Palestine, had developed the study of the stars and the planets to a fine art, giving each one very particular meanings. They believed, after all, that the whole world was of a piece; everything was interconnected, and when something important was happening on earth you could expect to see it reflected in the heavens. Alternatively, a remarkable event among the stars and planets must mean, they thought, a remarkable event on earth.

Scholars have laboured to discover what Matthew’s ‘star’ might have been. Halley’s Comet appeared in 12–11 BC, but that would be very early for this story. Or it could have been some kind of supernova. More likely is the fact that the planets Jupiter and Saturn were in conjunction with each other three times in 7 BC. Since Jupiter was the ‘royal’ or kingly planet, and Saturn was sometimes thought to represent the Jews, the conclusion was obvious: a new king of the Jews was about to be born. We cannot be certain if this was why the ‘wise and learned men’ came from the East. But, even if it wasn’t, nothing is more likely than that thoughtful astronomers or astrologers (the two went together in the ancient world), noticing strange events in the heavens, would search out their earthly counterparts. [1]

Just one more text before I get to the final (and central) point, and the reason for writing this post.

Apocalyptic Announcements in the Stars in Rev. 12:1-6

1 A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2 She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. 3 Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. 4 His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. 5 And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; 6 and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred sixty days. — (NRSV)

Contrary to popular misuse, this text is not about some pre-fall satanic rebellion in which 1/3 of the angels become demons in a primeval war against God. It’s pretty obviously about Jesus (see vv. 4-5), his mother Mary, and behind both of them, the people of God who are represented by both the mother and the child (who, as both male and female, and as “second Adam and second Eve”) stand for the whole of God’s covenant people — the image-bearing humanity — in different ways. The reason I reference it here is because of the way in which the chapter begins with “a great portent (sign) in heaven.” This is not a reference to the invisible realm, but rather the sky above. This is John saying something like, “The stars and planets all aligned and told a story about a woman, her son, and a dragon.” It’s a reference to the actual stars and planets in the visible sky above the Earth and the things that they “portend” (foreshadow, represent, or say beforehand) regarding some monumental event on the earth.

The question is, when did this happen? When did this sign appear in the sky above?  Interestingly, there are people who, through computer programs, are able to (shall we say) “rewind the sky” based on the movement of the stars. Whole books, papers, and scholarly enterprises have been developed based on texts like this one in the Bible. Biblical Scholar Michael S. Heiser recently shared some of his own research into this “heavenly portent” in Revelation 12 on his podcast. Here’s a quote from a transcript of that episode:

“If you’re looking at this sign you’ve got a virgin with twelve stars, the sun in her midst, the moon at her feet, the dragon… Then above that, you’ve got Leo, the lion. It’s the symbol of the tribe of Judah. And within that constellation you have Jupiter, the King Planet, and Regulus, the King Star, overlapping. They’re conjoined at this moment. Remember, we’re talking about a 90-minute window where all these things are there. So the combination of astronomical signs produces a unique set of circumstances, which can only be accounted for by one date that matters in the sweep of New Testament chronology. And this date, as we will see… I’m just going to say it here, but we’ll talk more about it. This date has dramatic significance in the Jewish calendar. According to all of these signs taken together (and Martin has even more in chapter 5), the day of Jesus’ birth—the birth of the Messiah—was September 11, 3 B.C. When we hear September 11, that just creeps us out because of the context of that date in our own time. It would be a whole separate show to talk about whether September 11, 2001, was some sort of shot across the bow in terms of cosmic evil, for the fate of earth and humanity and all that stuff. I think there’s something to that because, again, I’m a supernaturalist. But I’m not going to go there in this episode. For this episode, we want to talk about the original September 11th date—the birth of this Messiah-child in Revelation 12. If we take the chapter for exactly what John says (“I looked up at the heavens and saw…”) it’s an example of astronomical prophecy, astro-theology, astral prophecy— whatever label you want to give it.” [2]

Without starting down the rabbit trail of the conclusion that Jesus was likely born on Sept. 11, 3 B.C. (!!), the point I want to make here is that there is really good reason to see the correlation between what was happening in “heaven” (the stars above) and what was happening on the Earth. This has been taken for granted for most of world history, including by God’s own people (based on God’s own word, as you’ve already read above). So — what does this have to do with the Church calendar (as noted in the title of the blog post)?

Lights in the Sky and Liturgical Rhythms

For almost the entire history of Christianity, Christians have utilized recurrent cyclical patterns in the stars (because they are related to dates that come around every year) to plan out their cycles of worship. As the church has moved through two thousand years of history, events that have become important to marking moments of God’s faithfulness have been carefully and thoughtfully added to liturgical calendars across multiple traditions. A robust church calendar will mark key points of Salvation History in both Old and New Testaments (think Passover and other feasts in the O.T., and the birth, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, and the day of Pentecost in the N.T.), as well as key events in the history of Christianity (think of events such as the birth, ministry, or death of various Saints and Martyrs in Church history).

Catholic Biblical Scholar Scott Hahn shares this important insight on the use of a liturgical Calendar in the life of the Church:

“In the course of the liturgical year, Christians receive repeated exposure to the major events of salvation history. The lectionary orders the Church’s readings—Old Testament foreshadowing and New Testament fulfillment—for proclamation at Mass. The celebration of the other rites—sacraments and sacramentals—applies the same pattern to the course of a lifetime. Because of the lectionary’s unfolding, the weeks, the seasons, and the years tell a unified, continuous story and, in the process, teach doctrine. The cycle brings times of fasting and times of feasting, times of sorrow and times of joy, times of penance and times of reconciliation. All creation tells the story. All history tells the story. All our lives, yours and mine, tell the story. It is a story of hope. It is our “strong encouragement to seize the hope set before us … a hope that enters into the inner shrine behind the curtain” (Heb 6:18–19).” [3]

The point is, Christians in traditions that utilize these liturgical calendars are able to keep telling the story of God’s work in the world day after day, month after month, year after year, and generation after generation. When they look up at the stars (by which they chart and then worshipfully navigate their way through the year in ways that help them to once again tell God’s salvation story), they will, in effect, join the host of “heavenly messengers” that keep on declaring the glory of God.

——–

Notes and References:

[1] Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 10.

[2] Michael S. Heiser: Naked Bible Podcast Episode 138: What Day was Jesus Born, Aired on 12/25/2016 – Excerpted from the written transcript HERE, p. 17.

[3] Hahn, Scott. Signs of Life: 40 Catholic Customs and Their Biblical Roots (Kindle Locations 674-679). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

 

 

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