Sacred Times and Seasons (Part 2)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

“Three times in the year you shall keep a feast to me.”
Exodus 13:14

From Church Year to Civic Regeneration

In an article for the November/December edition of Touchstone, titled ‘The Devil’s Calendar, Father Scott Wilson talked about the stealthy theft of Christian holy days. Father Scot lamented that

“one by one, the Church’s holy days have been overshadowed by secularizing forces, by new false gods, if you will…. It is striking that nearly every major feast day in the church year has been preempted, to one degree or another, by a secular event that now absorbs the greater part of public attention.”

Father Scott pointed to many examples of this, not least the way Easter break has been hijacked by Spring Break:.

“Even in public school systems, the weeklong break that occurs in the spring used to be called the ‘Easter break.’ No more; it is now just called ‘spring break.’ And while it often coincides with Holy Week, the solemn week culminating with Good Friday, when our Lord’s Passion is commemorated, many people use the break to skip town and head to warm climates for festive activities, in a recess from daily and academic grinds. Good Friday on the beach is not one of the Stations of the Cross.

Because human beings are inescapably liturgical and religious, we invariably organize the year into rhythmic structures that reflect our priorities. As I pointed out in my blog post ‘Church Calendar, if our priorities are not 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. The issue is not that we have civic landmarks or vacation time: the problem arises when these become the fundamental structuring devices by which we order time.

By getting rid of the church year and all Christian holidays, the Puritans and their descendants left a vacuum that would ultimately has been filled by the non-religious ordering of time. Such non-religious ordering has helped to reinforce the idea that there exists a secular world that functions separately from spiritual categories. By rejecting the church year as one legitimate way to tell the story of redemption, the Puritans and their descendants inadvertently underscored the sense of religion being disembodied, detached from the space-time continuum. This would ultimately reinforce a duality in North American culture that emerged under the Puritan’s canopy, including a false dichotomy between the sacred and the secular. Moreover, the vacuum created by the evacuation of the church year would eventually be filled with the type of civil religion described by Amy Sullivan. This can be felt strongest in those American holidays that celebrate civic regeneration, integrating Americans around the liturgies of their common political life.

The irony of this can be pressed one step further. In my book The Twilight of Liberalism, I pointed out the how evangelicals who would never dream of making the sign of the cross at the end of a prayer are quite comfortable putting their hands on their hearts every morning to say the “Pledge of Allegiance,” with liturgical devotion. (“Francis Bellamy, author of the Pledge of Allegiance, understood the Pledge’s liturgical component, and commented that it was meant to sink into the hearts of schoolchildren through ritual repetition, adding, ‘It is the same way with the catechism, or the Lord’s Prayer.’”) Or again, American evangelicals who have long ceased to tell the story of redemption through the yearly cycle of ecclesiastical holidays are comfortable celebrating Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Memorial, Veteran’s and Independence Day with quasi-religious regularity. In place of the rejected church year, these holidays become public festivals of a new civic order celebrating the achievements of American nationalism. The term ‘nationalism’ is justified to the degree that this drama involves subliminal assent to what William Cavanaugh perceptively termed “certain stories of nature and human nature, the origins of human conflict, and the remedies for such conflict in the enactment of the state itself.”

Now don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with Americans saying the Pledge or celebrating their political holidays. Indeed, in an age when patriotism is increasingly demonized by the Left, and the crimes of America elevated above her achievements, holidays like Veterans Day and the 4th of July and can act as necessary antidotes. They also remain powerful opportunities to reflect on the Christian heritage of our nation. At the same time, however, it is appropriate for Christians to question the way sacred space and sacred time have migrated from the ecclesiastical to the civic, from the spiritual to the political. It is appropriate to challenge the way the metanarrative of the American story, as incarnated in our national symbols and holidays, has trumped the older and more basic story incarnated in the church’s liturgical calendar.

In contrast to these nationalistic narratives, I would like to suggest that a robust celebration of the church year has the potential to assert the primacy of sacred time over the purely ‘profane’ categories that now dominate our experience of time.

From Sacred Time to “Empty Time”

The secular imagination tends to view history on an axis of what Walter Benjamin called “empty and homogeneous time”, a linear and uniform sequence of cause and effect, measurable by the clock and calendar. By contrast, the story that the church has historically told through its six seasons, like the story the Hebrews told through the Old Testament feasts, understands time in the present through its proximity with events that are typologically significant within the Divine Plan. Such proximity operated on what we might call a different axis to that of ‘ordinary time’ (though to call it ‘ordinary’ is already to reveal our modern presuppositions), one closer to eternity. This is why, to borrow the example that Charles Taylor used in A Secular Age when making the same point, “Good Friday 1998 is closer in a way to the ordinary day of the Crucifixion than mid-summer’s day 1997.” The great events of the church’s life, whether the anticipation of Christ’s birth during Advent or the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, were occasions in which the people of God could, so to speak, participate in the original event, which comes rushing into the present as the church provides the vital link between heaven with earth.

This spiritual notion of time has been deeply troubling to secularists, especially those who have answered the nationalistic or totalitarian impulse. Charles Taylor explains how even our word ‘secularization’ comes from certain modern notions about time that arose in competition to the spiritual understanding of time articulated by the church. Secularization comes from the Latin ‘saeculum’ which means “a big tract of time, an age.” Commenting on this, Taylor writes,

“Now ‘saeculum’, and the adjective ‘secular’, come to be used in Latin Christendom as one term in a contrast; in fact, several related contrasts. As a description of time, it comes to mean ordinary time, the time which is measured in ages, over against higher time, God’s time, or eternity. And so it can also mean the condition of living in this ordinary time, which in some respects differs radically from those in eternity, the conditions we will be in when we are fully gathered in God’s time…. In this sense the saeculum is resistant to the form of life which will prevail in the fullness of our restored condition, and which is at work even now [and breaks through, as it were, in the church’s feast days]…. It lives in some tension with the saeculum, just because the two conditions of life are very different, a tension which can flare into opposition when humans cling to their ‘secular’ condition as ultimate.”

Sacred Time and Sacred Space

The spiritual understanding of time displaced by secularization is very much related to a spiritual understanding of space. “Certain sacred places – a church, a shrine, a site of pilgrimage – are closer to higher time than everyday places” suggests Charles Taylor. “Really to capture this complexity, or rather to capture the hierarchy here, one has to disrupt space, or else make no attempt to render it coherently. This latter is the option enshrined in the iconic tradition, which strongly influences pre-Renaissance church painting.”

What makes me suspect that Taylor is right is that it jives with the way the Bible treats both sacred times and sacred spaces. Let’s start with what the Bible says about sacred spaces.

In ancient Hebrew theology, the temple was the place where Heaven and Earth intersect, where the spiritual and the material merge together and become one. We find this notion implicit in passages like 2 Samuel 7:12-17, as well as the various Psalms which speak of God literally dwelling in the temple in a way that God, though omnipresent, does not dwell in other places. The temple foreshadows the intersection of heaven and earth in the God-man and later in the church, both of which anticipate the final Eschaton when Heaven and earth are finally reconnected together in fulfillment of the Lord’s prayer (Matthew 6:10).

In these passages we are confronted with the notion that the ordinary materiality of our world can, under certain conditions, be taken up and transformed into something higher. We find this same reality operative in other sacred spaces in scripture, such as the Ark of the Covenant, Elisha’s relics (2 Kings 13:20-21) the garments of the apostles (Acts 19:12), or the transfiguration event (Mark 9:2-28), to name only a few. The point is that while all of the material world is good (Genesis 1:25) and in some sense spiritually-infused, certain sacred spaces can become conduits of spiritual power that sets them apart from ordinary material objects.

If this is true of sacred spaces in scripture, it is also true of sacred times. In the Bible, God set certain times apart from the normal flow of linear time. These times become sacred in a way that ordinary time is not. The primary example of this is, of course, the Sabbath. But in addition to the Sabbath God also instituted numerous feasts that His people were commanded to observe annually. The significance of these sacred times is not that they simply remember a past event. Rather, these feasts link the people of God back to the original event so that, in a mystical sort of way, the people celebrating the feast can participate in the event. The memorialized event comes rushing into the present and we, in a sense, are able to relive it.

Consider a few examples. When Jews celebrate the Passover meal of Exodus 12, the youngest child at the table asks the father, “why is this night different from all other nights?” and the father replies by explaining how God rescued our forefathers on this night. This idea is enshrined in the Mishnah where we find the teaching that in every generation a man must so regard himself as if he came forth himself out of Egypt. There is a sense in which the feast of Passover allows each generation to become the generation of the Exodus.

The same principle applies in the feasts of the Christian era. Every Good Friday, there is a sense in which we are reliving the darkness of the hours that Christ hung on the cross. Every Easter there is a sense that Christ is risen today. That is, after all, why it is appropriate to sing ‘Christ the Lord is risen today’ in a way that would have felt wrong the Friday before. Similarly, every Advent there is a sense that we are transported back to join the saints of Hebrews 11:39-40 waiting for the Christ-child to come. Every Christmas there is a sense that this is when the Christ-child is being born in Bethlehem. This is presupposed in the text of much of the hymnology which accompanies these occasions.

These sacred times and sacred places take on the type of quality that T.M. Moore described when talking about spiritual disciplines in Disciplines of Grace, that is, they become “arenas where the powers of God are especially concentrated for our growth” and where “we look forward in faith eagerly to what the Lord might do in our lives.”

Re-ordering Secular Time

In the examples I gave at the end of the last section, a higher sort of time is operating, one which relates the past event to the present on a different axis than that of the secular calendar. As such, this it has the power to re-order our understanding of profane time, as Charles Taylor has once again helpfully described in his book A Secular Age:

“Now higher times gather and re-order secular time. They introduce ‘warps’ and seeming inconsistencies in profane time-ordering. Events which were far apart in profane time could nevertheless be closely linked. Benedict Anderson in a penetrating discussion of the same issues I am trying to describe here, quotes Auerbach on the relation prefiguring-fulfilling in which events of the old Testament were held to stand to those in the New, for instance the sacrifice of Isaac and the Crucifixion of Christ. These two events were linked through their immediate contiguous places in the divine plan. They are drawn close to identity in eternity, even though they are centuries (that is, ‘aeons’ or ‘saecula’) apart. In God’s time there is a sort of simultaneity of sacrifice and Crucifixion.”

The understanding Taylor is articulating may strike as peculiar those for whom quantitative time has become their only frame of reference. Indeed, an unfortunate corollary to the re-navigation of the sacred from the spiritual to the civic has been a transformation of the categories by which churches in America understanding time. We have absorbed secular notions of time, so that we treat events like Christmas and Easter as mere anniversaries of an event that is further away from us every year, rather than the type of spiritual juxtaposition that Biblical categories invite us to invoke. Thus, Christmas is often treated as if it were simply Jesus’ birthday with the wrong date. I have known some Christians who were in such bondage to the absolutism of secular time that they refused to celebrate Christmas on December 25 since it was not actually Jesus’ real birthday. In this way, the secular ordering of events swallowed up the church’s higher understanding of time rather than, as it ought to be, the other way round.

A corollary to this purely profane or secular way of looking at time is that we are progressing further and further away from events like Christ’s birth, sacrifice or resurrection. The ever moving stream of secular time – what Cavanaugh calls “the uniform, and literally end-less, progress of time” – carries the events of Christ’s life further away from us in the present. It was precisely this sense of temporal remoteness that medieval through Renaissance painters rejected when they represented Biblical figures in medieval garb. In his book Torture and Eucharist, William Cavanaugh comments on this by pointing out that “medieval Christians did not imagine they were separated from the past by a wide gulf of ever-advancing time.” Indeed, their constant repetition of the events in the seasons of the church year kept these events close at hand, an ever-present reality.

The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches have retained something of this idea in their understanding of the Eucharist. In the best of their sacramental theology, the Eucharist is not a mere repetition of a past historical event, but a mystic participation in the original event in much the same way as the Passover celebration linked our forefathers with the first Exodus. The original event becomes an ever-present reality, not in a crude mechanistic way, but in a way that is no less real and substantial.

Given the primacy of the sacred calendar over secular time, when Christmas occurs on Sunday this year, Anglican churches and Roman Catholic churches throughout the world will celebrate the occasion with their regular Christmas service and not a normal Sunday service. Partly this is purely practical: the Fourth and Sunday of Advent (Advent’s final Sunday) will finish a week before Christmas day while the First Sunday After Christmas won’t be until a week later, so there is no existing liturgy or lectionary readings to use other than the Christmas day service. However, aside from these purely practical considerations, there is a deeper theological rationale at work. By choosing to celebrate their annual Christmas Day service instead of their weekly Sunday service, the Roman Catholics and Anglicans will be declaring that Christmas Day, as a Principal Feast, takes precedence over any other observance, including what the secular calendar happens to be saying.

Similar, on December 25 this year, Eastern Orthodox churches will be celebrating the Feast of the Nativity with the “Festal Orthros”, filled with a glorious hymnody and festal readings associated with the Feast. The festal Orthros is the pageantry and build up to the celebration of the Festal Liturgy of St. Basil, which is only celebrated a few times each year (rather than the shorter Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom celebrated normally on Sundays). For 40 days leading up to the Feast of the Nativity, Eastern Orthodox Christians have been undergoing a Nativity Fast in preparation for the great day.

The fact that these historic churches will not be going about “business as usual” this Christmas morning is a way to assert the primacy of the sacred calendar over and above profane time. It is a way to proclaim that the purely secular ordering of events is being swallowed up by the church’s higher understanding of time, even as the kingdoms of the earth are being swallowed up by the kingdom of the Christ-child (Revelation 11:15).


Sacred Times and Seasons (Part I)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

“Three times in the year you shall keep a feast to me.” Exodus 13:14

This year Christmas Day happens to fall on a Sunday. That means that many American Protestants will do something they are not used to doing: they will attend church on Christmas Day.

Do Church and Christmas Day go Together?

When my wife and I first moved to America from England, we found it odd that almost all Protestant churches were shut for Christmas Day, though many Protestant liturgical churches will have Christmas Eve services.

In England, church attendance on Christmas morning is as much a part of the celebrations as stockings, mince pies and carols. In fact, many English men and women who hardly ever set foot inside a church will attend their local Anglican church on Christmas morning. Indeed, walking to the village church on Christmas morning, accompanied by the festive music of the church’s bells, is such an integral part of an English Christmas that when we moved to America my wife and I found it difficult to imagine a Christmas without it.

In America, the tradition of going to church on Christmas morning has been preserved mainly among Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, with the exception of a handful of liturgical churches. The reformed Presbyterian church that my family attends reintroduced the practice a few years ago.

From Feast Day to Family Day

In her Time article titled, ‘Going to Church on Christmas: A Vanishing Tradition’ Amy Sullivan remarked about the way family has replaced faith as being the center of an American Christmas:

“While demand for Christmas Eve celebrations is so high that some churches hold as many as five or six different services on the 24th of December, most Protestant churches are closed on the actual religious holiday. For most Christians, Christmas is a day for family, not faith.”

The problem is not, of course, that Christmas is a family-centered occasion. After all, in the European countries where church attendance is an inseparable part of Christmas piety, the day is also family-oriented, as anyone familiar with Dickens’ A Christmas Carol can attest. But family is not the thing that is first and foremost.

This year when Christmas happens to land on a Sunday, millions of Americans who are regular church-goers will sadly skip church because they simply cannot imagine Christmas morning having anything to do with church attendance. Many will probably justify their absence by saying that they are wishing to preserve the sense of Christmas being a ‘family day.’ But those who do make the effort to attend church this Christmas Day will have a wonderful opportunity to connect with a lost tradition. For some of the younger ones among us, this may be the first time they have ever been able to engage in corporate worship on Christmas Day, an opportunity that won’t repeat itself again until 2016 (unless, of course, their churches decides to bring back the tradition like my church has).

Although American Protestants may think of their church-less Christmases as being normal, it is actually an anomaly within the history of Christianity. Before it was anything else, Christmas was a mass of the church (Christ-mass) and it would only have been pagans who would think to skip out on the occasion. So why did it change within America? Amy Sullivan traces it to developments in the mid 20th century:

“By the middle of the 20th century, Americans had embraced a civil religion that among other things elevated the ideal of family to a sacrosanct level. The Norman Rockwell image of family gathered around the tree became a Christmas icon that rivaled the baby Jesus. And Christmas Eve services — with their pageantry and familiar traditions — became just one part of the celebration, after the family dinner and before the opening of presents.”

I don’t dispute Sullivan’s explanation, but I think we need to go further back to discover why 20th century Americans were so willing to embrace this type of civil religion. In particular, it seems that we need to be attentive to the influence of the Puritans on American culture. Before looking at that, however, I want to briefly outline the theological basis for celebrating feasts like Advent and Christmas.

Celebrating the Church Year in the Spirit of Exodus 13

Throughout the history of Christianity, the liturgical year has been a way that the church has celebrated the redemption story, with each of the cardinal feasts emphasizing a different aspect of the story, even as the three feasts mentioned in Exodus 13:14 and 23:14-19 gave the people of God in the Old Testament a way to remember what the Lord had done for them. Although the feast of Passover expired when Jesus brought Israel’s exile to an end (a fact hinted at in Jeremiah 16:14-15 and 23:7-8 where the Lord declares that events like the Passover and Exodus will no longer be talked about), this does not mean that the people of God are now without any feasts to celebrate. On the contrary, just as our forefathers in the Old Testament had the three cardinal feasts of the law (Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles), we have the six cardinal feasts of the church. One of these six feasts (Pentecost) was also an Old Testament feast, though it has been transformed by the gospel to take on a fuller meaning. And just as our forefathers had numerous supplementary holy days in the middle like the Day of Atonement, so the church has numerous saints’ days that we can celebrate.

Advent, the season we are celebrating now, reminds us that our forefathers waited in faith for the promised Messiah, even as we are now waiting for Christ’s second coming. Advent culminates in the season of Christmas, which celebrates the incarnation, that great event in which God became man. After Christmas comes the season of Epiphany, which recalls the coming of the Magi and the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles. During Lent the church remembers Christ’s sufferings, both in the wilderness and finally on the cross. Lent culminates in Easter when Christ rises from the dead, defeating death once and for all. Finally, Pentecost remembers the coming of the Holy Spirit, recalls the way that the new covenant fulfills the law and, with Epiphany, it celebrates the coming of the Gentiles into covenant relationship with Israel’s God.

These holidays, each of which is rich with Biblical symbolism, remain a tangible way for Christians to live through the story of redemption every year. Sadly, however, the rhythm of the church year is unfamiliar to many American Protestants, who think of Easter as a single day rather than as a season, who assume that Christmas ends rather than begins on December 25, who consider Lent to be ‘something that Catholics do’ and may not have even heard of Epiphany. As for Pentecost, the holiday often brings to mind little more than speaking in tongues.

Throwing the Baby Out with the Bathwater

As suggested earlier, the reason for this ignorance is largely the result of America’s strong Puritan heritage, brought to this country by both the Pilgrims Fathers as well as the hundreds of thousands of Scotch-Irish who immigrated here during the 18th century. These Celtic immigrants, mostly from Presbyterian and dissenting backgrounds, were heirs of the type of Puritanism that had little time for rituals, ceremonies or ‘times and seasons’, which they considered to be remnants of ‘popery.’ One way to put it would be to say that the Puritans were guilty of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Don’t get me wrong: there was plenty of bathwater that the Protestant reformers rightly rejected. The amount of obligatory feasts and saints days was becoming cumbersome in late medieval Europe, creating a drain on the finances of the poor. But I would suggest that the Puritans went too far when they dispensed with even the cardinal feasts of the church year like Advent and Christmas.

We get an idea how opposed the Puritans were to these holidays from the fact that when Oliver Cromwell turned England into a Puritan commonwealth he instructed his leaders to make sure that Christmas day was an obligatory work day. Jonathan Gifford writes how “troops roamed the streets looking for signs of inappropriate feasting: mince pies and plum puddings were seized.”

In his book Reformed Theology and Visual Culture, William Dyrness reminds us that even John Calvin proposed to do away with Christmas and all other feasts within Geneva, a point contributing to his expulsion from the city in 1538.

Protestants after Calvin continued to wage anti-Christmas campaigns, and it was actually a German protestant by the name of Paul Ernst Jablonski who invented the myth about the alleged pagan origins of Christmas in an attempt to discredit the holiday. (To learn how this myth is historically false, see David Withun’s article ‘The pagan origins of Christmas?‘ and William J. Tighe’s article ‘Calculating Christmas’)

In the next article we will consider what some of the effects of this Puritan mentality have been on American culture and how the evacuation of sacred content from the calendar has led to new narratives structured around the cult of nationalism.

Personal Challenge: make this year’s Christmas a time to reconnect with the traditions of the historic church. As we prepare for Christmas during this season of Advent, use it as a time to educate yourself on the church year. When you attend church on December 25, remember that before it was anything else, Christmas was a cardinal feast day of the church. Also consider purchasing the Fellowship of Saint James’ Ecumenical Calendar of the Christian Year 2012 which lists all the saints days and feast for 2012.