November 19, 2017

Church Year Spirituality: Practical Wisdom

By Chaplain Mike

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. Chaplain Mike, I have often felt like spring time should be the beginning of the year and it just happens to arrive around Easter. I know that living in Maine, this would work for me, but for some parts of the world, that would be their winter season. For me, the crocuses and tulips may be coming up depending upon how bad a winter it was. I do remember one Easter when I was young where we had so much snow we couldn’t get out of the driveway. So, I guess if I had to pick a new date to be the beginning of the year, I would pick May 1. But, like you said above, the new year would begin with my having prepared spiritually for it, hopefully, by celebrating the resurrection of Jesus and focusing more on spiritual disciplines.

  2. Excellent, CM. Incarnational spirituality is what separates the fans of Jesus from the followers, and the Church calendar is a great tool to help us make our faith the center of our daily lives.

    • I do believe Jesus said, “Follow me,” not “Become my fan.”

      I’m just sayin’…

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        I’d use the term “fanboy” instead of “fan”…

        Ever thought that the Judgment of the Goats might just be Christ saying “GO! AWAY! FANBOYS!”? (A common sentiment among artists, writers, and those whose works have attracted drooling fanboys, slashies, fan-porn, etc.)

      • Buford Hollis says:

        Many there will be in those days who tweet, “Lord, Lord, have I not followed you on Twitter?” And I will say unto them, “I never Friended you.”

  3. “What if we gave the Spirit’s coming the same kind of attention that we gave to Jesus’ birth?”

    Interesting. We claim to be Trinitarians, yet Pentecost is treated as an after-thought.

  4. As an old evangelical Jesus Freak, I have in the past three years discovered litugical worship. There are blessings aplenty in following the “calendar”; for example, the ancient Celtic Advent Season starts in mid-November. Also, reading a short bio of those brothers and sisters, saints, who have gone before us is both an encouragement and challenge. As with anything, it is the heart’s openess to the Holy Spirit in whatever activity we are engaged in that is crucial. A great post, Chaplain Mike. Blessings.

  5. Compare the church year to this tongue in cheek look at the American Civil Religion Calendar.

    http://gruntledcenter.blogspot.com/2006/01/civil-religion-calendar.html

  6. Yeah but shouldn’t our teaching be “relevant”, like sermons tied to pop culture icons and shows?
    LOST
    Desperate Households (Housewives)
    Fear Factor
    Home Improvement
    etc.
    (sigh)
    Been through those and others. It makes Jesus and his church seem so relevant (please read sarcasm) It feels so disjointed when we follow felt needs and pop culture in our discipleship, creating huge blind spots. … To level the concerns a bit though, I have unfortunately seen the church year made mundane and mindless as a child. Learning a great deal following in in personal devotion as an adult though.

  7. This quote really struck me:
    “What if we started seeing the start 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 would that look like? How do we do that?

    Everyone seems to have started celebrating Christmas already with the decorations and even trees up already. My family has never been too extravagant at Christmas and there are no decorations or Christmas music until Advent 1 but I really feel the need to do something different in our house this year. I have two small kids so that can be a challenge (though we have never encouraged the fat man in the red suit.) Any suggestions? How can we build excitement so that Christmas isn’t actually a let down and dies by Dec. 27?

    • I will recommend this again next week, but I think Madeline L’Engle’s book, The 24 Days Before Christmas, would be an excellent book to read to your children. Also, using an Advent Wreath with simple prayers and/or an Advent calendar with the little ones can help you mark the days and keep Jesus central. In the L’Engle book, you will read of a tradition of adding the characters to the manger scene day by day until you add the Christ Child on Christmas Eve. There are many, many other ideas out there for families to celebrate Advent.

    • Hi, Bev! We’ve been working on our Advent celebration for a few years. I’d love to share what we do. For a year or two we tried to hold off ALL Christmas stuff until Christmas, but, like you, it was very hard with the rest of the world in full regalia by late-November. So, instead, we use Advent to let our Christmas celebration “unfold”.

      Advent 1 we bring out the Advent wreath and calendars and nativity set (minus the Holy Family). Dec 6th we have a BIG St. Nick celebration (no Santa Clause on Dec 24th at our house). I bring out the St. Nick decorations (all in one display area – St Nicks and Santas all mixed together). Dec 13th we have a St Lucia celebration – we enjoy a traditional Swedish “Sankta Lucia” breakfast, bring out a small tree with straw decorations and a St. Lucia/Swedish display. Advent 3 (“Gaudete” Sunday) we put up our tree with lights and some homemade garland (the ornaments wait a bit longer). Advent 4 we are usually busy with last minute Christmas shopping/baking, so we don’t do much. And then Christmas Eve we enjoy an evening decorating our tree together and sipping mulled wine and cider. We remove the Advent wreath and replace it with a great Christmas Pyramid (with a nativity scene) and the Holy Family finally makes it to the manger.

      So you can see how it builds. We even avoid Christmas music until Christmas Eve and instead opt for Advent music. (searched out traditional Advent hymns and found versions I liked on you tube)

      We are still working on our celebration of the 12 Days of Christmas. We are all usually pretty wiped out by Day 4 with company and such. But we keep the tree up until Epiphany to remind us we are still in the Christmas Season.

      I blog quite a bit about our family’s Advent (and other church year) traditions, you might get more ideas there. It can be hard to maintain the church year in our culture, so it is always encouraging to share ideas with like-minded people.

      • Great input, Kerry.

        Hey, iMonk community, feel free to chime in here!

      • Thanks for the book suggestion, Mike and for all of your ideas Kerry! Your blog is bookmarked and I’ll have to go through it. I recall reading in a church newsletter of our church in Ottawa about building up the decorations, even changing them up come Christmas Eve. I like the idea of letting Christmas unfold. I have been thinking of doing a Jesse tree but haven’t gotten to making any decorations for it yet. I like the idea of putting up the tree with lights and later the ornaments. What do you make the garland from?

        You have given me lots to consider and I really appreciate your tips. I may have to go through my stuff this weekend and see how I can use things to mix it up a bit this year.

  8. Loved the post Chaplain Mike. Just like Israel had their yearly feasts to remember the Lord the God and what He had done throughout their calendar year–why shouldn’t we, too? Been trying to think this through for awhile, but you connected the dots. Thank you:)

  9. I have really enjoyed this series of posts, Chaplain Mike. Thanks!

  10. Our family goes by the (Eastern Orthodox) Church calendar.
    This Sunday starts the Nativity Fast.