Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this table for solace only and not for strength, for pardon only and not for renewal.
-- BCP Holy Eucharist Rite 2 Prayer C
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ as we begin a new liturgical year with this holy season of Advent.
The liturgical year is our practice of acting out the Christian meta-narrative of salvation over the course of 12 months. It begins with the prophesies of longing and hope, progresses through each stage of the life of Jesus, and culminates in the Feast of Christ the King. This seasonal ritual is one of our most controversial Episcopal practices. It is constantly under attack by those who want to dumb down the Church into religious entertainment and psycho-spiritual analgesic. From their perspective, I grant that the liturgical year just gets in the way. It evokes feelings that they’d rather repress and does not always allow for the religious pick-me-up they want each week. But Anglican Spirituality is not religious entertainment or psycho-spiritual analgesic. If we want those things, Anglicanism is not for us. It can only offer a second rate knockoff of what the big box churches do better. Anglican Spirituality is about something else altogether – something we cannot hope to achieve in a dumbed down way.
I respect the right of other Christians – ok, many Christians, maybe most Christians – to disagree. But my argument for the liturgical year isn’t just an aesthetic preference on my part. If life is a spiritual journey with ups and downs, joys and sorrows, regrets and aspirations, all steps toward a holy destiny, then we have to liturgically support all those things. To turn worship into religious entertainment or psycho-spiritual analgesic is to say one of two things about life: 1. This hard thing we are getting through is all there is, so the best we can hope to do it cheer each other up on the way to the gallows; or 2. There is redemption in the next life, but how we have lived this earthly transitory existence does not matter for that. God will save us – or not – without regard to our spiritual transformation through the years. One way says life is tragic. The other says it is irrelevant. Both of those views amount to despair over any meaning and value in the struggle that now occupies our time, our attention, and our passion.
When we plan a liturgy out of that despairing assumption, it just doesn’t even work to do what it is trying to do. The liturgical and musical attempts to be upbeat all the time have a hollow ring that breaks my heart for the people. The leaden core of despair shows thorugh the thin gold plate. One cannot write a symphony with just one note or paint much of portrait with only bright colors.
Anglican Spirituality, however, is about a lifelong journey of transformation – “from glory unto glory” we say – as we are changed step by step into the likeness of Christ, as we become little by little the person we were always intended to be, as the fragmented parts of ourselves are pieced together into a coherent whole. This is an entirely different project. It is getting ready to meet God, whom “I myself shall see, him who is my friend and not a stranger.”
In his classics The Will To Believe (1896) and Varieties Of Religious Experience (1902), William James, the father of American psychology, wrote before dumbed down Christianity was so widespread. (Even the Great Awakening had real content. Read Jonathan Edwards!) So when James talks about Christianity, he has something mainline in mind. Speaking strictly psychologically, he found Buddhism and Christianity to be the two most effective world religions at equipping people for life. Their adequacy rested on their capacity to acknowledge and work with the breadth and depth of human experience, including the parts of human experience we might be tempted to deny, ignore, or repress. He contrasted these psychologically adequate traditions with something he called “the Religion of Happy Mindedness.” I don’t know who was espousing that brand of religion in James’s day, but it would later be promoted as “positive thinking” by Norman Vincent Peale and “expecting a miracle” by Robert Schuller. Liturgically, much (not all) of the charismatic renewal movement pushed aside the more emotionally nuanced and multi-toned traditional liturgies for the consistently upbeat style that came to be known as “happy clappy.” James said the Religion of Happy Mindedness was ineffective and ultimately made things worse by adding to life’s hardships the burden of perpetually pretending everything is “fine thank you.”
When Churches shift from Anglican Spirituality to the Religion of Happy Mindedness, the liturgical year ceases to make sense for them. In fact, it becomes decidedly inconvenient, much as reality is inconvenient to anyone who hopes to stay in the same mood or mental state all the time. The liturgical year is part and parcel of Christianity’s way of addressing and working comprehensively with all of life. It is also part of bringing us along step by step in a process of lifelong transformation.
Before explaining how the liturgical year works, I need to acknowledge that its effectiveness depends on how it is implemented. The liturgical year includes seasons of solemnity, which some clergy, musicians, and congregations render as dreary, mournful, and gloomy. Our liturgy is meant to be emotionally nuanced, rarely grim, boring, or mournful. I have, however, heard lilting consolation songs like “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need” played and sung as dirges. That is not what I am espousing.
The underlying assumption of the liturgical year is about how change happens. We are clipping along with a particular understanding, in a particular way, at a particular level. As long as that is “working for us,” we will probably just keep clipping along that way. For any change to happen, any deep transformation, there must first occur a falling apart, a disintegration. The old ways no longer work as they once did. So the first movement of change is downward. It is a kind of falling.
The (Season After) Pentecost is called “ordinary time.” We will say more about that season later, but for now, think of it as clipping along in our ordinary way, believing what we are accustomed to believing, feeling our usual way, praying the old way, doing what we do. Then Advent comes and tells us God is still a long way off. There is something missing. We come up against the experience of exile, of alienation, the sense that we are not at home here. Things are not all right. The ordinary no longer works for us. We read Isaiah’s lament, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” We sing in a minor key “O come O come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel that waits in lonely exile here.” It is not a song of grief or sorrow, but of longing for God who is not so present in our lives as we might wish. The Kingdom has not yet come. There is dissatisfaction in that.
Dissatisfaction is not popular. We’d rather pretend it away. So it is common for people to object to Advent worship, to skip the expectation and go straight to the celebration – a birth with no pregnancy. Yet, look at the sky. This is the time of year when days grow short and nights, long. There is darkness in nature. It is a quiet time, a reflective time in nature – but not at the Mall, where Muzak plays “it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,” ergo “buy, buy, buy.” I sometimes suspect that the upbeat commercial message that “it’s the most wonderful time of the year” when nature is telling us to “be still and wait” is part of the psychological disjuncture that drives so much suicide and domestic violence come January. Perhaps I overstate my case, but the spirit of Advent does accord with the rhythms of nature while the happy clappy sales message is discordant.
This Advent 1, I worshiped in a church that had a crèche up front. But the crèche was empty – for now. It reminded me of how my battle for the liturgical year began at the first church I served as a priest. Rationally, you might think I could have solved this with a straightforward conversation. Trust me. That would not have worked. So I engaged in a mischievous game of subterfuge instead and enjoyed myself a great deal instead of getting grouchy about the desecration of the liturgical year.
The Altar Guild would put out the crèche complete with Baby Jesus and the Wise Men on Advent 1. I would steal Jesus and the Wise Men and put them back in the closet. The Altar Guild would put them back out. I would put them back in the closet. And so it went until Christmas Eve, when I would leave Jesus in the manger. The 2nd day of Christmas, the Altar Guild would put the crèche away in the closet. I would dig it back out and set it up again. They would put it away again. I would dig it back out again, until we got to Epiphany when I would return the Wise Men.
Downward movements in the liturgical year are always a falling onto a trampoline. We bounce up to something new, something happier, something with more hope than we had before. That is the Christmas Season – for emphasis Christmas Season. It last 12 days because it takes that long to take in the miracle.
Christmas comes at last as an encounter with the Divine in human form. After acknowledging God’s absence from the world, Christmas calls our attention to God’s presence in ourselves and in each other. This is the most humanist of seasons. It is the most material of seasons. Putting Advent and Christmas side by side is a way to ritually express and experience the great paradox in our belief about God. We say God is “transcendent” meaning God is so far beyond us we cannot even grasp who God is. We don’t have a clue. That is awesome but also lonely because the transcendent God is so “way beyond the blue” that we feel alone. That is the theme of Advent. But we also say God is “immanent” meaning God is present everywhere, in each grain of sand, in each moment, in each situation – “No, never alone.” God is here in us and all the people we encounter. We meet God made small for us. We can’t do that in one day while opening presents and eating a feast. It takes a little time to soak in a miracle that changes the very meaning of being human. By walking the road of human life, God makes it sacred.
The spiritual pattern below shows Ordinary Time (Pentecost) collapsing into the poignant longing of Advent, rebounding upward through the 12 Days of Christmas, then being appropriated into the “new normal” of the next ordinary time (Epiphany).
Christmas roughly coincides with the Winter Solstice when light begins to return to our world. So the rebound is into a season of light in which we take the new experience of Christ’s incarnate presence into our normal daily awareness. “We proclaim Christ as Lord ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake for the same God who said ‘Let light shine’ has caused his light to shine in us . . ..” “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”
That season of light lasts several weeks culminating in Transfiguration Sunday; but then our new normal falls apart just as our old normal did. The light that revealed Christ eventually reveals what remains sinful and wounded in our hearts. We plunge again, this time much deeper, into the regret and the chaos of Lent. The 40 day Season of Lent recalls Jesus’ 40 day fast in the wilderness, which in turn recalls the children of Israel’s 40 years wandering there. It is a time of deconstruction, when beliefs are questioned – especially the self-serving beliefs we have constructed about our own characters. It is a season of purgation, cleansing, bio-spiritual detoxing. Awareness of mortality hangs over our Lenten discipline. Ernest Becker’s old classic The Denial of Death argued that most of our neurotic patterns of feeling, most of our behavior that is destructive of self or others, most of our numbness to life stems from our resolute denial of death. So just as the discovery of his own mortality sent Gilgamesh on his spiritual journey, we face our mortality and it wakes us up.
Lent is a deeper darker plunge than Advent, but it springs back higher than Christmas when we rebound into Easter. Holy Week brings Lent to a bloody violent crisis (yes, it is a messy faith to match our messy life – it ain’t all pretty adorned with lilies). Then the Great Easter Vigil erupts into “Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord Is risen indeed! Alleluia!” bell-ringing exuberant singing of the Gloria. And so the Resurrection Season begins leading upward, upward, upward into the Feast of the Ascension, then Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday. Death has been defeated, life has been vindicated, God is revealed, and we are empowered/inspired to a new life, the life for others.
Then comes the long season of ordinary time, the season after Pentecost, when we have something so large to assimilate into our lives, it take the longest season of the year to do it. Finally it culminates in a picture of our destiny, a glimpse of what awaits us at the end of our journey, the Feast of Christ the King. But lest we rest in that triumphalism, the next Sunday is Advent 1 and it all begins again.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring will be
To arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
T S Eliot
Our individual spirituality isn’t usually precisely in sync with that of the Church. But the Church’s inclusion of a rich tapestry of spiritual experience, including “the dark night” of no experience, validates us “wherever we are in our faith journey.” It creates a narrative structure on which we can hang our random feelings, attitudes, moods, hopes, and shifting beliefs. A narrative structure invests our experience with meaning and that meaning guides us along our path.