High Days and Holy Days

I wonder if you have a favourite day in the year? For some people it might be their birthday, while others might be big Christmas fans. I’ve known people who were super keen on Valentine’s Day, while perhaps a Wedding Anniversary carries the most meaning for some. Looking forward to these exciting landmarks is often as enjoyable as celebrating them when they arrive. I remember the excitement of looking forward to Christmas when I was a child as vividly as the happy family times that followed.

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A couple of things are interesting about this, it seems to me. One is that it is just as possible to imagine someone actively dreading these special days as looking forward to them. A birthday is a possibly unwelcome reminder that one is getting older. Christmas can be wonderful, but if you are alone, or trying to navigate difficult relationships with those you live with, all the enforced jollity can be ghastly.

Being told that you ought to be happy, that you should be celebrating when you don’t feel like it is at best annoying and at worst liable to send you into a bit of a downward spiral. That, alone, ought to make us all careful about assuming that major landmarks in other people’s lives must be a source of joy.

But the other thing that strikes me as interesting about special days is that they are part of a human determination to put markers into the timeline, to divide their lives up into days and years, hours and weeks, anniversaries and seasons. Some of these markers correspond to external realities like the movement of the earth around the sun and its rotation on its axis. Some correspond to historical events like the date of our birth. Others are arbitrary, like the number of days in a week. People need to do this, it seems.

The Church has its own way of putting markers in the timeline, of dividing up the year into seasons and special days. Today is one of those days, the Feast of Pentecost on which we remember the gift of the Holy Spirit to the infant Church. Pentecost is what is known as a ‘moveable feast’ because its date can vary by as much as five weeks. That is because Pentecost is always fifty days after Easter, which is the moveable feast on which a great many other moveable feasts (before and after it) depend.

Pentecost is one of the days in the Church year when we remember a particular event in the history of our faith. Like Christmas, when we celebrate the birth of Our Lord, or Easter, when we celebrate his resurrection, Pentecost connects us with the story of our salvation. These are not anniversaries, not celebrations of past events that take place on the same date as those events. Instead, they form part of an annual cycle in which the grand narrative of God’s saving work is recollected in sequence.

Other special days in the Church year, however, are anniversaries. Very often they’re anniversaries of martyrdom – people of extraordinary faith and courage are remembered on the date when they died. In our own church, we also remember people who have been part of our community in our daily prayers on the anniversary of their death.

The way that the Church marks out the timeline, then, has some similarities to other ways of dividing time into chunks, but some differences. The difference that stands out for me is that the Church calendar connects us to a bigger story, a longer narrative arc in which our own individual lives here on earth are a comparatively small episode. These special days are not occasions for jollity, enforced or otherwise, but they are opportunities for joy since they help us to recognise ourselves as caught up in the drama of redemption, the story in which all things and all people are being reconciled to God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

May God bless you all,