How the Church Calendar can speak to modern people (if we allow it to)

This is my sixth article (out of 6 but with a couple of followup article) exploring "liturgical" worship and whether or not it works in my culture, that is "middle American Christianity". Here is our ongoing foundational question: Is the liturgy too elitist and academic for "regular" or mainstream Christians who fall into the general Evangelical, Pentecostal, or Protestant camps?

After several negative articles attempting to dissect the problem, this article (as well as the previous one) make an attempt at rebuilding what the liturgy is and can do amongst God's people, most especially in the role it can take in transforming the Church in the midst of our present culture. Specifically, this article deals with the scope and rhythm of the Church calendar. For more on the Church calendar, check out my interview with Michelle Van Loon about her book Moments and Days.

There are certain seasonal rhythms that just feel right. They are embedded into our very life cycles. Some rhythms naturally arise with the changing of the seasons and some have been shaped and established through years of cultural practice.

For example, planting in the spring and harvesting in the late summer/fall. A midwinter celebration when the sunlight is at its lowest. Beginning school in the autumn, along with a number of sports, followed by another round of sports beginning in the spring or early summer. The Olympics comes every four years and that just feels right. Think of all our civic holidays and where they fall on the calendar: Independence Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Halloween (which is actually a Christian holiday but feels more "civic" in how it's practiced culturally), Thanksgiving, and New Year's. Our elections held in the drizzly cold and fading light of early November. Each of these days feel like they each have their place in our year, as if they belong somewhere.

But are all those stops and starts and commemorative dates telling a combined coherent story or are they simply the dates that make up our year as Americans?

I would argue the American "Civic Calendar" is a set of arbitrary dates that we can all mostly agree on as Americans and in this sense even Christian holy days become "civic" holidays. Thinking of Christmas and Easter as "secular" or "civic" holidays (i.e., holy days) may not sit well with Christians, but I would urge us to see that this has already happened culturally and to let it be what it is. Let them have their "holiday". I am fine with our general culture "stealing" the Christian calendar because it offers the Church an opportunity to create a counter-calendar and thus a counter-culture to the general culture's understanding of seasonal rhythms. 

By offering an alternative yearly narrative, we can transform our "holidays" into the Holy Days they were meant to be. At the same time, we can allow the general culture to enjoy their civic and secular calendar, even participating in it fully ourselves at certain points, while also removing ourselves at other points. And it is at those times of removal that we offer the "general culture" a chance to ask "What exactly are they doing over there? That doesn't look like our Christmas/Easter/Halloween" and so forth and so on. 

At the same time, as we do this the Church will be challenged to make all the various civic holidays an opportunity for transformation and redemption: Mother's/Father's Day, Independence/Memorial/Veteran's/President's Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Arbor Day, Homecoming, Graduation, weddings, funerals, and every day and event worth commemorating as they exist in our general culture.

Practicing the Church Year offers us an alternate ordering of time. It calls the followers of Jesus to draw back into worship, community, and service, and proclaims a different meaning of the days celebrated, or not celebrated, as many dates on the "civic" calendar will not be celebrated at all within the life of the Church, or, at the least, will be celebrated with little emphasis.

Here now is a brief ordering of the Church Calendar. This is a new way of doing time from within our contemporary culture (that is actually quite old). As with my last article, this material draws from a catechism class I have taught at my church:

Yearly and Weekly Rhythm--Just as the form of our worship has been established for some time (see my previous article), the calendar of the Church has also been long established. Within the calendar we find a daily, weekly, and seasonal rhythm or ordering of our time.
1. Daily: We are called to prayer and the reading of Scripture daily in both private and public settings. In the Anglican church, as well as other traditions, there are a number of set prayer times throughout the day, each containing their own liturgies: Morning Prayer, Midday Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline (late night prayer).  Everyday we need to feel the pull of the Lord, calling us to seek him in prayer as individuals and as the gathered church, to worship him, to hear his voice, and to intercede for our world.
2. Weekly: We are called to gather every week on the Lord’s Day, Sunday, the day of his resurrection, to remember his work on the cross and to proclaim his victory over sin and death until he comes again.  Some have said that the biggest Christian holiday is not Easter but Sunday itself, that is, that Sundays are the central and most important Christian holiday.  Therefore you could say that every Sunday is a little Easter, and Easter is the biggest of all Sundays.
3. Seasonal: The church calendar goes through a number of different seasons, which leads us through the gospel narrative, and which causes us—as Christ’s disciples—to enter into and in a sense re-enact the Story of how God is redeeming the world.  The Church calendar shows us that:
  1. We are people who wait in expectant preparation—during Advent.
  2. We are people who celebrate God’s coming to our world and his dwelling with us—at Christmas.
  3. We are people who fall down in worship before Jesus and acknowledge him as Lord and King—on the feast of Epiphany.
  4. We are people who live in a constant state of repentance, of turning from our own way and following the Lord’s way—on Ash Wednesday and throughout Lent.
  5. We are people who lay down our lives as Christ laid down his life—during Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Good Friday.
  6. We are people of resurrection (making all things new and conquering sin and death)—on Easter and during the entire Easter season.
  7. We are people filled, guided, and empowered by the Holy Spirit—on Pentecost.
  8. We are people who live out our faith everyday, allowing for his Kingdom to come on earth—in Ordinary Time (the seasons in between the major seasons, most especially from after Pentecost and until Advent).
Following the Church calendar creates a simple but effective narrative. It is, in essence, the "salvation narrative", or the redemptive narrative of the Bible. It does not follow a strictly linear timeline, but it nonetheless tells the full story, especially within the course of a full year: waiting, birth, sin, death, redemption, and then living in the fullness of Christ's reign as Lord and king.

Some might argue: Since Christ is already resurrected, shouldn't we always live in the victory of the cross and the tomb? Aren't we always in Easter?

Others might argue: Shouldn't we always be in repentance? Or, shouldn't we be lead to seasons of concentrated fasting and prayer whenever the Spirit leads us?

Or still: Shouldn't we always be in a state of preparation, waiting for the Lord's coming?

To all of this I would say a resounding "yes"! Practicing the Church calendar forms us into a people who can be ready at all times to enter a season of waiting, repentance, resurrection, and Kingdom building. In other words, even when we draw back in Lent and take stock of our lives, that shouldn't restrain us from experiencing a season of victory and resurrection. That is, just because Lent is penitent doesn't mean it can't also be joyous and victorious. At the same time, just because other seasons are more naturally celebratory, it doesn't mean we can't be drawn into prayer and fasting as the Lord leads.

Of course, everything requires discernment, as it would not be edifying to overly emphasize a personal victory when on the whole everyone else in a congregation is in a state of penitence, or, on the other hand, to overly emphasize personal penitence when on the whole a congregation is in the midst of celebrating Christmas and Easter. In other words "All things in moderation..." 

The point is this though: just as the structure of the liturgy teaches us how to live as Christ's disciples in the world, so does the Church calendar. If we happen to find ourselves placed into a forced season of waiting, preparing, or penitence we will be ready because the rhythms of the calendar have pre-conditioned us. We are already a people of celebration and penitence and can adapt as necessary while still holding to the general posture of the season we find ourselves in.

Allowing the Church Calendar to shape us as disciples of Jesus will make us "strangers and aliens" in our given culture, but it will also make us far more adaptable. We will hold much more loosely to the civic calendar, letting them "have their fun" without attaching any judgment to their practices (unless they truly go against the ways of God). At the same time we will also find ourselves engaging fully in the civic calendar without feeling shame, because we know the real calendar exists and it is that to which we are called within our community of faith. And this "Christian" calendar is far more meaningful, joyful, and identity shaping.

Nonetheless, faithfully practicing the Church calendar offers some challenges for the common American Christian as well as church leaders attempting to implement the calendar:
1.) These practices by necessity need to be practiced as a community. That is, they are not solitary and must be undertook as a local group.
2.) The practices must be immersive and, I am somewhat sad to say, more "fun" or joyful, than the practices of the general culture. The Church Calendar appeals to our affective natures and however we practice it, people will have to want to be a part of our celebrations in order to be immersed in the rhythms of the calendar. This does not mean we give in to the means of our media-saturated, screen obsessed culture, but it does mean our rituals should be holistic and beautiful and meaningful. I would argue the liturgy and the Church calendar and our holy-day celebrations already are these things, however, church leaders should be ever-mindful of how our church practices are offering a counter-experience to the norms of our days.
3.) These practices are stretched out over time and thus require people's concerted commitments. Most people will at some point need to see the fuller picture of what the Church Calendar is doing, otherwise they'll get bored or equivocate "this calendar thing" with every other way of doing Church. In other words, people will be prone to say "It's fine if this is how YOU want practice your faith, but it's just not for me." We have to, therefore, create an alternate sense of time that is so compelling and transforming and re-forming that people simply get bored with the more general "civic" understanding of the calendar year. At the risk of sounding cynical I'll state it this way: at the end of the day people are hedonists, meaning they will do what they want to do. 
4.) Related to point #3, since we are Americans we will be tempted to want to choose which seasons and holy-days to celebrate. Granted there are more feast days and saints days than most people know what to do with, which can leave people completely overwhelmed and wanting to give up. But if you were considering implementing the Church calendar into your life or the life of your church I would recommend first following the major holy days and seasons as outlined in my list above. From there you can look up various websites such as http://www.lectionarypage.net/ to walk through the many days worth celebrating.

CONCLUSION: WE. NEED. THIS. Quite frankly people in our times truly need to learn how to wait and to be in active preparation while they wait. People need to learn how to live a life of repentance and how to die to themselves. People also need to learn how to throw a true celebration, to throw a days long or weeks long party for the events that changed all of human history. And we need to learn the life of the Spirit and what it means to be new creations in Christ. In order to learn these practices and be the kind of people who find their identity in these practices we need long periods of time where we can enter into a certain frame of mind and spirit and immerse ourselves into a new rhythm, one that jolts us out of the mundane slog of life. The beauty of the Church calendar is that each of the seasons offers us enough time and repetition to get the practice down and make it our own.

The challenge remains: is such a practice of time possible in today's increasingly post-religious, media-saturated, non-faith seeking culture? For those of us who remain disciples of Jesus, we can only hope and pray so.

Previous Articles in this series:
Is the Liturgy Too Elitist and Academic For "Normal" Christians?
Liturgical Worship is Like Being a Radiohead Fan
Why People Don't Go To "Liturgical" Churches Part 1: Liturgy's Superiority Complex
Why People Don't Go To "Liturgical" Churches Part 2: It's Un-American!
How the Liturgy can speak to modern people (if we allow it to)
What Exactly Is a Normal Christian Anyway? (and yes, my answer sounds elitist)
Related Articles on Worship and Liturgy
Will it Endure? The Search For a Canon of Contemporary Worship Music
I Don't Care If the Church Will Sing It In 2065
Worship in Full Spectrum: An Introduction
Hymnals = Vinyl: The Case For and Against Hymnals in Worship 

Confession: I Am An Irrelevant Worship Pastor
4 Things I Learned About Worship By Being on a Podcast
Worship Music Should Be Radically Contemporary

No comments: