Friday, November 28, 2008

Church Calendar

With the beginning of the church year nearly upon us with the coming of advent this Sunday, I think it would be appropriate to post some quotes and comments on the church calendar and why it should be important to us as Christians. The first quote is taken from N.T. Wright's excellent little book For All The Saints? Remembering the Christian Departed (which I simply cannot recommend highly enough).

“The church’s liturgical year is rooted in ancient custom. It follows the story of the key events in the life of Jesus: his birth at Christmas, his death on Good Friday, his birth at Christmas, his death on Good Friday, his resurrection on Easter Day, his Ascension forty days later, and his sending of the Spirit at Pentecost (‘Whitsun’).

“Into this sequence, again in ancient custom, the church inserted Advent and Lent. Advent offers four Sundays of preparation before Christmas, recalling simultaneously the preparation of Israel and the world for the coming of Jesus at Christmas and the preparation of the church and the world for his final second coming. Lent, the forty penitential days leading up to Holy Week, which itself climaxes in Good Friday, recalls the forty days Jesus spent fasting in the desert at the start of his ministry. Advent and Lent have traditionally been seasons of penitence and preparation for the awesome events to which they point.

“Other key moments have also been added. Epiphany (the showing of Jesus to the non-Jewish world) commemorates the coming of the Wise Men to teh boy Jesus in Matthew 2. Candlemas (Jesus’ presentation i n the Temple) picks up the theme of ‘light’ from the song of Simeon (‘a light to lighten the Gentiles’) in Luke 2. And so on. At a different level, the western churches have for a long time kept the Sunday after Pentecost as Trinity Sunday, celebrating the complete revelation of God which has been granted through the events of Jesus’ life and his sending of his own Spirit.
"...many churches have found that by following the liturgical year in the traditional way they have a solid framework within which to teach and live the gospel, the scriptures, and the Christian life. The Bible offers itself to us as a great story, a sprawling and complex narrative, inviting us to come in and make it our own. The Gospels, the very heart of scripture, likewise tell a story not merely to give us information about Jesus but in order to provide a narrative we can inhabit, a story we must make our own. This is one way in which we can become the people God calls us to be. The traditional Christian year is a deep-rooted and long-tested means by which that biblical aim can be realised.”

As I have been reflecting on Wright's words, it occurs to me that a robust embracing of the church calendar is an antidote to spiritual Gnosticism and rationalism since it reminds us that what matters is chiefly events not ideas. An understanding of salvation and doctrine should flow out of the Christian story we tell through the church year, rather than the other way round, since then we will be constantly reminded that what we are living out is a story not an idea.
I am also impressed with the fact that historically, the rhythm of a liturgical year has been one of the chief means for inculcating a metanarrative into the fabric of society and transmitting it to the next generation. And this does not merely apply to Christian liturgies. In pagan societies this would reflect itself in the recurring rituals connected to the seasonal cycles and the harvest. Therefore, it is not a question of whether human beings will celebrate a religious calendar. Because human beings are inescapably liturgical and religious, we invariably organize the year into rhythmic structures that reflect our priorities. If those priorities are not the great feasts of the church, then by default our year will probably end up being structured around secular holidays that tell the story of political redemption or else holidays that pay homage to the god of hedonism, such as vacation time (I have no problem with vacation time, but I do question the tendency to structure one's priorities around vacation instead of around the church calendar).
At the risk of stretching my point, I would like to suggest that the church calendar protects us from the totalitarian state. By saturating Christian worship in the story of redemption as outworked again and again through the liturgical calendar, we will be less vulnerable to forms of secular regeneration told through the liturgy of statecraft (see my article on the eschatology of the European Union). This is particularly needful in America where many Christians tell the story of liberal democracy as their own, operating in what Leithart calls ‘Eusebian mode’, treating America as the culmination of redemptive history.
The American state provides us its own meta-narratives, its own sacramental feast and its own rhythms with which it seeks to structure our lives. And, like the EU, it also provides its own eschatology. This is why politicians increasingly need to be good story-tellers. To be successful the vying candidates much each convince us that they come from traditions that are bringing civic maturity. In countless ways we are urged to trust them, like we trust our mothers, and to structure our lives around the benefits they bring and the obligations they demand. Obama’s acceptance speech was typical in that he told the story of American history, from its inception to its growth into civic maturity, a process which climaxes in his own utopian announcement: “Our union can be perfected.” Okay, I didn't intend to get started again on Obama! My point is simply that Christians who have not had the church’s story ingrained in their hearts through the continual retelling of our story in word, symbol and sacrament (for which a robust celebration of the church year is central) are easy victims for the error which says that the story of American statecraft is our fundamental story and is that which gives us our identity.Finally, I'd like to end with a quote from the introduction to the book Common Worship: Times and Seasons (this book is a liturgical feast for family worship, by the way):
“The rhythm of the Church’s times and one of the primary ways in which Christians learn, and are strengthened in their grasp of, the story of Christ – just as Jesus himself was familiar with the Jewish festivals, and with the way that the annual remembrance of Passover shaped the identity of the chosen people.”
Further Reading

Sacred Times and Seasons (Part I)

Sacred Times and Seasons (Part 2)

Read my columns at the Charles Colson Center

Read my writings at Alfred the Great Society

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