Last week I discussed some things I have learned over the years regarding the journey that is the corporate worship service. This week I would like to continue the conversation and look at larger view of the journey, namely the one through which we walk during the year: the Church calendar.
We live in a world that is run by different calendars: chronological, fiscal, academic. Each month sees the celebration of birthdays, weddings, anniversaries of various kinds, and civic holidays; each month also sees the remembering of those who have passed, the recalling of demarcating events in history, both good and bad. Interwoven in all of this is the Church calendar.
The Church calendar calls us to celebrate and remember, to rejoice and reflect. It reminds us to live not within a state of disconnectedness, but within a living and continual cycle of recalling to mind and walking out the story of Jesus Christ and those who have put their hope in him. Adolf Adam describes the Christian calendar, also known as the Christian year, as “the commemorative celebration, throughout a calendar year, of the saving deeds God accomplished in Jesus Christ.” (Adam, The Liturgical Year: Its History and Its Meaning after the Reform of the Liturgy, vii) This is important to the “big-picture view” we, as worship leaders, must have as we continue to lead our congregations on these “journeys within the journey.”
While the topic of the Church calendar could be boiled down to minutia (and several good books have been written on the subject), we will restrict our view here to the major seasons as they would be the most accessible to congregations looking toward following an annual rhythm. To simplify the matter even more we will divide the seasons into two “cycles”: the “cycle of light” and the “cycle of life.” (For more on this see: Robert E. Webber, Ancient-Future Time.) This week we will address the “cycle of light.”
THE CYCLE OF LIGHT
The cycle of light begins with the season of Advent. Advent comes from the Latin adventus, or “coming.” Contrary to popular belief Advent is not just about the first coming, the Nativity, of Jesus; it is also looks to forward to the second coming of Jesus. Laurence Hull Stookey wrote,
Thus Advent concerns the future of the Risen One, who will judge wickedness and prevail over every evil. Advent is the celebration of the promise that Christ will bring an end to all that is contrary to the ways of God…. (Stookey, Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church, 121)
Interestingly enough, Advent is the beginning, not the end, of the Church calendar. The eschatological aspect of Advent keeps us in the divine tension of the “already” and the “not yet,” the salvific Incarnation of Jesus and the triumphant return of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Thomas Merton stated, “Advent is the ‘sacrament’ of the PRESENCE of God in His world, in the Mystery of Christ at work in a hidden, obscure way for the final manifestation of His Kingdom.” (Thomas Merton, Seasons of Celebration, 61)
The next season, and one of two with which even non-Christians are familiar, is Christmas. During Christmas we celebrate the Incarnation of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. We find the words spoken by the Prophet Isaiah fulfilled in Emmanuel, “God with us.” (see Isaiah 7:14) Robert Webber describes the meaning of Christmas and the importance of its observance like this:
God shapes us by the spiritual meaning of Christmas. In this service we not only celebrate Christ born in Bethlehem but Christ crucified, risen, and returning and Christ born in us. By opening our hearts and minds to the meaning of Christmas, it carries us into the reality that it signifies. (Webber, Ancient-Future Time, 57)
As stated above, Christmas is technically a season, albeit a short one, of the Church calendar. For twelve days (the song exists for a reason!) we celebrate the Incarnation and also remember some of the others who displayed what Webber calls “incarnational spirituality.” Indeed, the two days following Christmas each contain a feast commemorating ones who dedicated their lives to Christ and his Church: St. Stephen the Martyr (Dec. 26) and St. John the Evangelist (Dec. 27). These two remind us that our faith is not a staid or static thing; it is active and vibrant. We must remember that eschatological tension:
“Christ is born. He was born to us. And, He is born today. For Christmas is not merely a day like every other day. It is a day made holy and special by a sacred mystery. It is not merely another day in the wary round of time. Today, eternity enters into time, and time, sanctified, is caught up into eternity.” (Merton, Seasons of Celebration, 102)
The final season in the cycle of light centers around the revelation of Christ to world at large. Epiphany, the “appearing,” focuses our attention on moments in which the Incarnation was “broadcast” beyond the immediate Jewish world. Furthermore, it is a time that, as Sister Joan Chittister remarks, “…amplifies our awareness of the person of Jesus….” (Joan Chittister, The Liturgical Year, 93) This can be seen through three particular stories from Scripture: The Magi, the baptism of Jesus, and the Wedding at Cana.
The Magi – The Magi (Matthew 2:1-12), a.k.a. “The Wise Men,” followed a star from their homeland in the East to Bethlehem and brought gifts to worship the King of the Jews. Matthew’s Gospel account harmonizes with Isaiah’s prophecy: “And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.” (Isaiah 60:3, KJV) Webber adds, “The story of the Magi fulfills the promise that the light of Christ will extend to the whole world, with the Magi representing nations outside of Israel who come to worship Christ as their king.” (Webber, Ancient-Future Time, 78)
The Baptism of Jesus – The Synoptic Gospels record the baptism narrative (Matthew 3:13–17; Mark 1:9–11; Luke 3:21–23) and reveal the Trinity in action. Jesus, having been baptized by his cousin, John the Baptist, emerges from the Jordan River as the Holy Spirit, looking like a dove, descends upon him and the voice of the Father declares, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (Matt. 3:17, KJV) Not only does this event reveal the Triune God, it reveals a deeper meaning for the salvation of the world. Chittister points out,
As the Eastern church points out, it is at this moment that we see for the first time the union of God the Creator, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. But we see something else as well. We see Jesus accepting baptism by John, a sign that Jesus accepts humanity, His own and ours, in all of its struggles, all of its limitations, all of its burdens, and all its focus on the ultimate, on the divine. (Chittister, The Liturgical Year, 94)
Webber takes the idea a step further,
The baptism and the cross are connected – the real meaning of the baptism is in the paschal mystery. This interpretation was affirmed by John in what must have been a startling revelation to his hearers: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Webber, Ancient-Future Time, 81)
The Wedding at Cana – The Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11) asks us to see the divine pulled into focus through the lens of the natural. Jesus takes a basic element of life (water) and makes it into something beyond itself (wine). He uses stone purification jars (which some say would represent the Law) and fills them with new life (represented by the wine). The wine which was drawn and presented to the master of the feast (think a modern-day event coordinator) is proclaimed to be the best wine that has been served throughout this wedding celebration.
The early Church drew many comparisons within the Wedding at Cana,
Water prefigures baptism and the change that comes into the life of the believer; it symbolizes the cup of Jesus’ passion and death; it is a sign of the Eucharist that makes Christ present in the symbol of wine; and it is a type of the messianic banquet at the end of history when the nations will gather at the wedding feast of the Lamb. (Webber, Ancient-Future Time, 84)
At this point you may be thinking, “All of this is fine, well, and good, but what difference should it make to my congregation?” At the end of my last blog post I asked the question, “If our worship services are journeys where are you leading your congregation and how are all of you getting there?” I want to suggest that leading our congregations through the narrative of the life of Jesus and his followers will draw us deeper into a relationship with Jesus and the Body of Christ.
I enjoy reading biographies. I like to know the “who, what, where, when, why, and how” of subjects in which I have a deep interest. I study Church history, liturgics, etc. and find out about the development of this chant or that liturgical action or another prayer. I have found the Church calendar to be a place of encouragement, challenge, and solace. I look forward to feast days, fasts, and commemorations with a similar excitement that I feel for birthdays, anniversaries, and other events.
Here are some closing thoughts to ponder:
- How would an annual reading and “rehearsal” of both comings of Jesus change our view of life and the world? (Advent)
- How would an annual reminder of the Incarnation change how we view the people with which we interact everyday? (Christmas)
- What if re-reading the revealings of Jesus to the world at large would give us boldness to share the love of God with the same world? (Epiphany)
The Lord be with you…
Bishop Ryan Mackey is a guest columnist for TalkingWorship.com. Mackey is Professor of Music History and Technology at Central Christian College of Kansas and an Auxiliary Bishop in Province USA of the Communion of Evangelical Episcopal Churches. His passions include teaching on and incorporating the historic traditions of the Church in contemporary practices.