October 24, 2017

Preparing for the New Church Year (3)

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The freest time in our adult life was after we were married and before we had children. Having graduated from college, we were no longer bound by a school schedule. We lived in a small, iconic Vermont village where the pace of life was slow, the program of our church modest, and our income too low to allow the pursuit of costly activities. We had no TV. Extended family demands were few. We could schedule vacations almost any time we desired and we had few events to attend. Life was simple, our calendar was uncomplicated.

We moved to Chicago after our first child was born. It was a new life, and calendar demands began to accumulate as our family grew. I was in seminary and working part-time. My wife worked full time. We had to arrange childcare. It wasn’t long before I was back in pastoral ministry, and we started dealing with school schedules for our children.

After we relocated again, this time to Indianapolis, white space on the calendar became more and more rare. I was on staff in a much busier church, our children became involved in various sports and extracurricular activities, and for the next fifteen years, the numerous calendars that merged into and became “the family calendar” ruled our life.

The school year calendar has been the basic template. Each new year began in late summer/early fall. It progressed through fall break to Thanksgiving, and then into the holiday program season, culminating the week of Christmas and New Year’s. School resumed in winter and kept us busy until Spring Break, which was also the time for Holy Week and Easter events. As school concluded in May and June, end of school year programs as well as spring and summer sports put additional demands on our schedule. And then we had to make arrangements for what the children would do over summer break. A few weeks in midsummer was the only “free” time—the only time available to get away or at least breathe for any length of time before it all started again.

To this day, I find myself shaped by that calendar. I can’t help feeling that fall is the beginning of the year, and the summer its end. The winter holidays mark the annual half-way point. This is the basic pattern for families in our culture. For the vast majority of my life it has been the pattern I’ve followed. Year after year after year, this schedule has formed my life’s habits.

That is what calendars do.

Here is the practical wisdom of Church Year spirituality. Following the Christian calendar is one way of recognizing that human beings are creatures of habit. It relies upon the fact that when we repeat patterns over and over and over again, those patterns mold us. They shape the way we think, feel, and act. For this reason musicians continually practice their scales and athletes drill the fundamentals of their sport. Through regular repetition habits are formed, consistency developed, and excellence achieved.

Christian spirituality adds another entire dimension to this idea of habit-forming practices. Human beings live in this world as “embodied selves” (to use Dallas Willard’s phrase). Through Jesus’ incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, and outpouring of the Spirit, the power of God’s Kingdom has invaded our world. Those who trust in Christ and receive God’s grace are made new in him and given his Spirit. Believers have been made alive, raised up, and seated “in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:6). We have “obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand” (Rom 5:2). As we walk in God’s grace through Word and Sacrament and the practices of the spiritual life, the habits we form and live out in our bodily, earthly existence are infused with God’s own transforming power.

The disciplines for the spiritual life, rightly understood, are time-tested activities consciously undertaken by us as new men or women to allow our spirit ever-increasing sway over our embodied selves. They help by assisting the ways of God’s Kingdom to take the place of the habits of sin embedded in our bodies. (Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, 86)

In this way we begin to see glimpses of the answer to our prayers: “May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

What could be a more practical way of forming Christlike habits than following a calendar that points us to Jesus, that allows us repeated opportunities to meditate on his life, death, resurrection, and exaltation? What could be more down-to-earth than letting the Spirit transform the way we deem and use our time?

What if we started seeing the beginning of the year as the time to get ready to welcome Jesus at his coming? What if we spent a few weeks preparing our hearts and lives for his entrance into our world? What if we found ways of building anticipation and expectation for his arrival?

What if, to mark Jesus’ coming, we threw a great celebration, a feast that lasted for twelve days? What if we shared gifts with one another, our neighbors, and the needy during those days to commemorate the grace and mercy he showered upon us?

What if we lightened the darkness of the winter months by remembering Jesus’ ministry? What if we traced his steps as he went through all the towns and villages of Galilee and Judea, bringing light and love, healing and hope to the crowds? What if we saw this time of year as the time for our own mission activity in his name, joining Jesus in reaching out to those around us with the Good News of salvation?

What if we decided to take forty days of intense spiritual discipline at the start of spring to get ready for Holy Week, as Jesus took forty days in the wilderness to prepare for his journey to the Cross?

And what if we saw Holy Week as the high point of our year? What if we started to think of Easter as so important that we decided to take fifty days to celebrate it, not just one special Sunday?

What if we decided to mark the Church’s birthday? What if we gave the Spirit’s coming the same kind of attention that we gave to Jesus’ birth?

What if we realized that the “ordinary” time which fills the rest of the year, when we no longer mark the “extraordinary” events of Jesus’ life, is actually the time for us to walk daily in the salvation we’ve celebrated during the first part of the year? What if we took seriously that living in the world and fulfilling our vocations is the way we bring God’s love and goodness to the world every day?

What if we brought our year to a close by honoring all the saints who’ve helped show us the way of Jesus, and by honoring Christ as the King of our lives?

And what if we lived like this, year after year after year?

Comments

  1. The biggest little word in the English language.

  2. Christiane says:

    “What if we lightened the darkness of the winter months by remembering Jesus’ ministry?”

    I love how the Church set aside the time around the winter solstice for the celebration of Our Lord’s coming.
    As we know, at this time of year, the ‘light’ begins to slowly INCREASE in amount per day as the days gradually begin to get longer.

    There is also a beautiful connection to the time of the summer solstice, when the Church celebrates the feast of the birth of St. John the Baptist, as from that solstice, the amount of sunlight each day slowly begins to decrease day by day, which corresponds with St. John the Baptist’s words in sacred Scripture:
    “He must increase, BUT I MUST DECREASE .” (John 3:30)

    • Thanks, Christiane. I am learning underneath the surface of the church calendar for the first time and this helps. I believe the observance of the solstices and equinoxes is helpful for living life on Planet Earth with all its natural rhythms, and not in any way to be looked down on by Christians as pagan or superstition. The light does increase and decrease like year long breathing, and it makes a real difference if we are in tune with Nature. The connection with John the Baptist is new to me and very interesting.

    • Brianthedad says:

      Good words. I love the church calendar and its rhythms and was pleasantly surprised when Pastor preached on it Sunday after I had earlier read this post. A related, less serious aside: an Argentinian friend used to chuckle at our North American church culture’s sermon references to the parallels between Easter and springtime awakenings.

  3. What if you grew up in a house that hated tradition -save the women.
    What if you resented visiting family and making a fuss over holidays.
    What if you now realize that these were these were the best times of life.
    I find myself taking care of a father who despised gatherings of friends and family. It is understandable considering his upbringing; however, now I find myself alone, taking care of a father who doesn’t even remember a single family member. The women in our lives are gone now, and I wish so very much to hear them tell us the importance of family, friends, and holiday togetherness. Christ will teach you the hard way if you are stubborn. I never pass up an invitation to anybody’s holiday celebration any longer. Television is little comfort compared to family and friends.

    • I haven’t experienced what you’ve experienced, RobertR, but I can hear the pain in your words. May God bless you with a Divine and Abundant joy over the next few days and weeks.

  4. There’s a church in Canada that offers a beautifu calendar that follows the Church year beginning with Advent and ends with Ordinary Time. It has wonderful artwork and scritpure readings for everyday. It’s not your typical calendar and only works in following the christian year. Would make great gifts.

    http://www.thechristiancalendar.com

    • Thank you for sharing this, gab. It’s a lovely calendar that would make a great present for anyone who wants to follow the Church Year.

    • Thanks Gab, they look highly interesting and I ordered a couple.

    • Thank you for this link, I’ll also be ordering a few for gifts. Happy that it’s a ‘Canadian’ resource as I always like to shop ‘local’.

      I grew up with the ‘Church calendar’ and have really missed the rhythm of following it. Thank you Chaplin Mike for offering this series.

  5. This calendar of the church has always ruled my life and helped shape my faith. This year, after a profound sea-change in my Interior life….only the third “metanoia” of my life……..I am longing for Advent (but not as much as I long for the Eucharist, in joy I had been missing in my heart, even if I had it in my head…)

    Sorry if I am off topic…..still in a joyful haze!

  6. Perhaps an off-topic question, but I was wondering where the three holy year icons came from?

  7. I very much like the idea of living year to year like this. Could you share any recommended resources on how to realistically do this? In terms of the calendar it used to be that the church provided the rhythm and groove, and the individual could add their melody. I’m afraid I’m a one-man-band nowadays!

  8. CM Is there a correlation between the Hebrew feasts and festivals and the calendar you present Im totally non liturgical so I really am asking this out of ignorance Evangelical,nondenominational, and charismatic is I.

    • I’m no CM, but I can think of a few comparisons… two of the big three holidays–Easter and Pentecost–are directly related to Passover and Pentecost (I think the NIV calls it the Feast of Weeks, perhaps?) in the Old Testament. Obviously, they have a meaning for Christians that Jews would not recognize: Passover isn’t about a certain nation being led out of slavery in Egypt, but the universal release from the power of death by Christ’s resurrection (if there’s anything at all worth celebrating, it’s that); Pentecost was once about the Law coming from Mt. Sinai, while for Christians it’s about the Holy Spirit coming from heaven, writing God’s law on the tablets of our hearts. Christmas is the odd one out, I think, as the Incarnation was pretty unique. Someone else might be able to tell us about a related feast in Judaism, but I’m too ignorant to say, myself.

      The rest are either commemorations of events in the life of Christ (Annunciation, Epiphany, Transfiguration, Baptism in the Jordan, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Ascension…), preparations for Christmas or Easter (Advent and Lent), expressions of God’s work in the world since then (All Saints’ Day, commemorations of various Christians throughout history that serve as examples and heroes of faith), or hope for the future (Christ the King, Advent in a secondary sense).

      I hope this helps. Peace!

      • Christmas and Hanukkah celebrate a miracle of light .

        Hanukkah remembers the Maccabees who fought when the rulers sacrificed pigs in the Temple . They cleaned it and relighted the candles which burned for seven days until they could produce more purified oil. ” A great miracle happened”

        Christmas celebrates the “Light of the World”

        Check out Bishop Spong’s books that talk about the early Christians connecting the stories of the OT to the Gospel of the NT.

    • Interpretation – “How can I tie this clearly extra-biblical practice of a liturgical calendar into the clearly biblical practice of ancient Israelite festivals and celebrations?”

      I see the question for what it is because I was once there myself. But more and more…I don’t think I care if elements of a church service cannot be found verbatim in NT writings. Oh we can’t do that because it’s not Biblical?

      Meh.

  9. OldProphet says:

    If your response is to me then I’m LOLing and ROTFLing! I don’t celebrate Jewish holidays, ancient Hebrew festivals, or the liturgical calender But, nice try. My question is intended for me to.learn and grow. Perhaps ypou should read CM’s admonition to us today. Your critical response and a attempt to prejudge my question is not helpful to me