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Five Theses on the Christian Year

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.

9 Comments

  1. Great reflections Halden.

    Monday, April 21, 2008 at 2:35 pm | Permalink
  2. ericroorback wrote:

    Well done, Halden!

    Maybe its our Protestant background, American context, or some other factor, but I really wish that liturgical time was given more consideration and thought in theological/ecclesial discussions because the political implications are immense! Time, it seems, is so often given such little theological attention and just taken as a given. We’ve talked about this before but I’m fully convinced that the Church in the West suffers from an identity crisis due its efforts to be so welcoming to “seekers,” and, therefore, almost anti-liturgical, whether directly or indirectly.

    Was this your paper for Metzger’s class? If so, it sounds like it went well.

    Monday, April 21, 2008 at 4:44 pm | Permalink
  3. Excellent post. Allow me to add a few friendly amendments to section 1 and to suggest a sixth thesis…

    The first would be that Epiphany reflects the manifestation of Christ *in glory* whereas Lent reflects the manifestation of Christ in sufferings. This is particularly true when we consider the Gospel readings used in the old one-year lectionary. Both Epiphany and Lent have miracle readings; the liturgical context is what differentiates them. Advent appears not just at the year’s beginning–it is also its end. Indeed, in certain periods of our history lectionaries began at Christmas and thus Advent served as the final liturgical season of the Church year. The upshot is that it highlights the eschatological character of Advent–the One coming is not just the baby born by Mary but the one borne on the clouds in great majesty.

    The sixth involves the other half of the Church year–the one you left out… Protestants are often wary of the Sanctoral cycle–and not without good reason–but the Sanctoral cycle is nothing less than the logical continuation of the Temporal cycle. The Sanctoral cycle shows us those in every place and time who have been formed according to the mind of Christ and who have proclaimed him in word and deed. As the Temporal cycle offers us the perfect exemplar into whom we are formed, the Sanctoral shows us what this looks like in practice.

    Wednesday, April 23, 2008 at 10:33 am | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Yeah, I agree about the sanctoral cycle. I think it is very important. The project I wrote this for had a word limit, so I was unable to go into the depth I would have liked.

    Wednesday, April 23, 2008 at 10:36 am | Permalink
  5. That makes sense. ;-)

    Wednesday, April 23, 2008 at 10:59 am | Permalink
  6. John Hartley wrote:

    6. The Christian calendar falls short of the noble aims above, and distorts the faith it is trying to promote. This is probably inevitable, and is a consequence of the fact that, as creatures of time, all our appreciation of the present is cast in the context of the past and the anticipation of the future. So, for instance, the season of Advent which is supposed to focus on looking forward to Christ’s coming again in glory, always starts with a bang but ends with a whimper as the inevitable Christmas expectations distort our appreciation of the doctrines of end times. The hymnody of the Easter season gets itself confused with the temporal season of spring, and such lyrics as “now the green blade riseth” blind us to the fact that the resurrection is still true even in the autumn! The transfiguration is always preached on in a Lenten context, and John the Baptist always seems to collide with the Angel Gabriel’s appearance to Mary. The life, ministry, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus always take about four months, rather than being spread over many years. Mostly we are unconscious of these things: only when we seriously talk to Christians of the Pentecostal denominations do we see how much our perspectives have been distorted.

    Thursday, April 24, 2008 at 1:06 pm | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    Yeah sure, the Pentecostals have all the answers. Color me unimpressed by your pedantic and ill-informed statements, John.

    Thursday, April 24, 2008 at 1:30 pm | Permalink
  8. Hill wrote:

    Are you telling me that Jesus wasn’t born in late December and then died the following April?!?!

    Thursday, April 24, 2008 at 2:12 pm | Permalink
  9. Halden wrote:

    Yes, Hill as we now know based on new calendrical research, Jesus is always born in late December, but sometimes he gets killed the following March!

    Thursday, April 24, 2008 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

6 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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