Dear Geneva George,
I promised to take up the question of the church calendar but it seems you have already beat me to it.
Your argument about the church calendar being a throwback to paganism seems a curious move to make. Looking at it historically, there is credence for thinking that the shoe may actually be on the other foot. It was when the Protestant church abandoned the church calendar that they inadvertently opened the door to certain pagan influences.
Think about what happened with the North American Puritans. When they abandoned Christian holidays they left a vacuum that would ultimately be filled by the non-religious ordering of time. Such non-religious ordering would help to reinforce the idea that there exists a secular world which functions separately from religious categories.
I appreciate that the Puritans were animated by noble motives. Their rejection of the cycle of Christian holidays was rooted in the notion that the entire year was sanctified, that every day is a holiday unto the Lord. Even so, by relinquishing the Christian narrative from the calendar, they created the template for a culture evacuated of its religious moorings. This would eventually manifest itself first in a sense that culture is an autonomous institution running parallel to the church, and later with a sense of culture being a rival system in actual competition with the church. I’m greatly oversimplifying things here because this was a process that took hundreds of years and which involved many other factors. Nevertheless, by rejecting the church year as one legitimate way to tell and retell the story of redemption, the Puritans helped to underscore the sense of evangelical religion as disembodied, detached from the space-time continuum.
By contrast, a robust embracing of the church calendar can act as an antidote to the types of crypto-Gnosticism and rationalism that we discussed in earlier letters. As one walks through the cycle of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Pentecost, Lent and Easter, we are reminded that what matters most is not ideas but events. As children participate in these holidays year in and year out, it helps them internalize the fact that the story of redemption is something that they are themselves participating in.
But while the church year helps to underscore the fact that our redemption is first and foremost a story, it also provides wonderful opportunities for emphasizing the doctrinal aspects of our faith. In my own home I have found that each of the church’s feasts provides its own unique insight into the work of Christ. Every holiday we revisit the cycle of fall, redemption, continuation and consummation, noting the particular place this holiday holds within this sequence. We’ve had some great Bible studies together, but I always try to keep it fun with plenty of treats and surprises (except during Lent, as Lent is not supposed to be fun!).
It is possible that 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. We see this same dynamic at work in pagan societies: the recurring rituals connected to the seasonal cycles and the harvest help to instill the narratives of the pagan culture into the next generation. If this suggests anything, it is that human beings are innately liturgical. It is in fact impossible to attain the ideal that Terry Johnson proposed in Reformed Worship when he spoke of being “liberated from…nature’s cycles.”
It is not so much a question of whether human beings will celebrate a religious calendar, but what religion they will celebrate. We invariably organize the year into rhythmic structures that reflect our priorities. If our year is not organized by 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, by the way, but I do question the tendency to structure one's priorities around vacation instead of around the church year.)
I’d like to end by leaving you with two quotations from books dealing with this subject. The first comes from Common Worship: Times and Seasons, a book I use with my children during family worship. In the introduction the authors have this to say about the importance of the church’s liturgical year:
“The liturgical year thus provides a structure for the Church’s collective memory, a way of consecrating our human experience of time in the celebration of God’s work – in Christ and in human beings made holy through Christ – a work which is both unrepeatably in time and incomprehensibly beyond time. It asserts a Christian understanding of time as a context of God’s grace, against the world’s purely functional reckoning of time....
“The rhythm of the Church’s times and seasons...is 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.”
The second quotation comes from Tom Wright’s excellent little book For All The Saints? Remembering the Christian Departed:
“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 the 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.”
Last night I re-listened to your sermon on justice and this time I took notes. In my next letter I’ll try to interact with some of your points.