I have argued previously that liturgical time is political and that it froms the church in a particular sort of community. The way in which calendars are formulated are inevitably political. Calendars encode particular sorts of politics and generate particular sorts of persons and communities, what sort of polity and person is presupposed and evoked by the Christian liturgical calendar? Toward that question, I offer five theses about the theopolitical formation of ecclesial identity that the practice of the Christian year seeks to foster.
1. The Christian calendar forms the church to understand herself as a community who is a participant in the story of the triune God disclosed in Scripture and to understand that biblical story as the context in which the world is interpreted and engaged.
The Christian calendar begins its year in Advent, in anticipation of Christ’s coming. It moves from anticipation to joy in the incarnation of Christ at Christmastide. In light of the incarnation, the church celebrates the life of Christ, rejoicing in the manifestation of his glory as the Son of God throughout the season of Epiphany. The church then journeys with Christ toward his sufferings in Jerusalem during the time of Lent and Holy Week. The church then rejoices as she is raised with Christ in his glorious resurrection during Easter and finally rehearses the coming of the Spirit to constitute the church in the celebration of Pentecost. All of these seasons, and the holidays inserted into each one of them serve as a means of participation on the part of the church in the story of God in Christ. The church, through her liturgies and celebrations offers a form of deep language, of thick description, through which she is invited to understand herself as a part of the story of Scripture. In celebrating the Christian year, one’s fellow citizens cease to be one’s fellow Americans (or British or Chinese, or what have you), and instead become the holy martyrs, prophets, patriarchs, and apostles of the Christian faith. In and through the rhythms of the Christian year, the church ceases to view the biblical story as some remote part of ancient history which they then apply to their lives, but rather discovers their lives recast into the biblical story itself, locating themselves within the triune drama of salvation.
2. The Christian calendar recasts the Christian understanding of personal identity within a narratival and ecclesial frame of reference.
In contrast to the secular American calendar which orients personal identity within the framework of American nationalism, familial sentimentality, and rugged individualism, the Christian calendar recasts our understanding and practice of personal identity within the framework of the narrative of Scripture and the communal life of the church. Within the rhythms of the Christian calendar we are invited to see ourselves, not as discrete individuals who are complete in and of ourselves, but rather as characters within the scriptural narrative whose identities are constituted in and through our participation in one another in the body of Christ.
3. The Christian calendar invites the church to order its daily life, seasonal celebrations, and familial and communal events in a Christocentric manner, relating all aspects of the ordinary to Christ’s lordship and offering them to him as worship.
One of the most profound aspects of the formative power of the Christian calendar is its ability to seize one of the parts of life that has been so thoroughly claimed in by our late-capitalist culture: the ordinary. One of the supreme characteristics of our atomized capitalist culture is the way in which the practices of everyday life, personal relationships, and local economics are regulated by the secular calendar. We express our romantic love and attention on Valentines Day. We spend more money on gifts and traveling during the Christmas holidays than the rest of the year combined. The connection between economics and the calendar cannot be overestimated. One of the key functions of the secular calendar is to regulate how money is spent and on how commodities are exchanged. The Christian calendar invites us however, in the face of calendar of capitalist discipline, to refigure our way of spending our money, giving our time, and participating in our personal relationships. By making Holy Week, rather than Christmas the center of the year, the Christian calendar calls into question the ways in which the secular calendar forms people into consuming individuals who only view their participation in Church as the voluntary association of religious individuals whose true identity and allegiance lie elsewhere.
4. The Christian calendar nurtures a distinctively eschatological imagination, inviting the church to understand her own being and actions as bearing witness to, participating in, and anticipating the fullness of the triune God’s eschatological kingdom.
Through immersing herself in the rhythms and seasons of the Christian year, the Christian community seeks to instill into her members an eschatological consciousness which generates a particular understanding of the nature and purpose of the church in the world. By viewing herself as a participant in the drama of the triune God, the church comes to understand herself thoroughly with reference to the kingdom of God rather than through the various reigning political orders in which she finds herself. As Scott Bader-Saye notes, in discussing the French Revolutionaries’ introduction, not merely of a new regime, but a new calendar, “Despite the rise of modern conceptions of time as uniform, the revolutionaries understood that calendar functioned to name a politics and define a people.” By naming time in the way that Christians do in their practice of the Christian year, they invoke a specifically eschatological imagination which encodes a particular politics, the politics of the kingdom of God. The Christian calendar, like the secular calendar should not be underestimated in its politically formative power. Through measuring each and every year in and through the life of Christ rather than through the veneration of the heroes and myths of America, the church has the ability to profoundly shape an eschatological imagination which calls into question the idolatries and sins of our world.
5. The Christian calendar orients the church to see her primary vocation as the worship of the Triune God, finding the summit and center of her life in the proclamation of the Word of God and the communion of the Eucharist.
Finally, the Christian calendar offers a distinctively ecclesiological contribution to the self-understanding of the church. Evangelicalism has been long critiqued for its lack of a substantive ecclesiology. Much of this, I would suggest derives from the evangelical propensity to view the church in instrumentalist terms. The church is often viewed by evangelicals as existing for the purpose of service, evangelism, or the edification of the individual Christian. However, the Christian calendar invites us to view the church, not as instrumental to any end other than the worship of God in gathering, interpersonal communion, and common life. The center of the Christian year lies in proclaiming the Word of God disclosed in Scripture and entering into its mysteries through the communal celebration of the Eucharist. It invites us to view the center of the church not as moral effort, personal uplifting or evangelistic activity, but rather unites all such elements of the church’s life within an overarching vision of the faithful worship of the triune God by his people.