Around Advent a lot gets written about the importance of the liturgical year. Advent is the Christian New Year. It marks the beginning of our true, authentic, Christian time. And marking time according to our Christian calendar offers us a way of forming our lives that resists the machinations of corporate capitalism, the nation state, etc. I’ve spoken like this for years myself.
I’ve been a part of a church community that very rigorously follows the liturgical year for nearly a decade. I love the liturgical year. I’ve taught a year-long class on it using (among other things) Robert Webber’s popular book Ancient-Future Time as a text. For the last four years I’ve made sure to be a part of planning and facilitating our Holy Week celebration because I so deeply love that time and all it witnesses to.
Okay, so that’s my Christian year street cred. Do with it what you will.
In light of what I’ve experienced in practicing this way of keeping time and in the many theological and philosophical books currently in vogue that have a strong emphases on the liturgical year, I’ve come to have some doubts about its ability to do all we tend to hope. The Christian year we are told, forms us differently than the secular calendar, it immerses us in the story of Jesus and the church, training us to resist other loyalties, allegiances, priorities, and practices. This is commonly accepted in certain theological circles these days.
This claim, however, somehow seems to avoid being put to any empirical testing even though it is an empirical claim. The argument is made that liturgy does in fact form and shape a people that resist global capitalism, aren’t seduced by American militarism, and so on, and yet when asked where this particular liturgy-formed people is, there is usually just some quick excuses and then a return to extolling the virtues of the liturgy. Maybe the reason is that the liturgy that most Christian communities practice has been corrupted by secular calendars and methods. But empirically there’s not really any evidence for churches with untouched, uncorrupted liturgies birthing people who live more faithfully. There’s no sign that high church liturgies that haven’t been influenced by “the world” inherently produce social bodies that do all the things liturgical enthusiasts insist are encoded into the liturgy. One could cite the massive amounts of pristine and pure liturgy that went on in the Medieval Crusades, Hitler’s Germany, Pinochet’s Chile, or the famous scene in The Godfather when Michael Corleone renounces Satan and all his works as his minions slaughter his rivals.
My point is simply this: liturgical enthusiasts claim that practicing liturgy (and the Christian year in particular) effects an empirical change on the faithfulness of the church in the world. It does something, we are told. And yet it doesn’t. And when asked about this inconsistency such enthusiasts give very scant answers. The fact is that, as far as I can see, the correlation between Christian faithfulness and liturgical observance doesn’t really exist in any meaningful way. There is rampant unfaithfulness in churches with the best and most uncorrupted liturgy and there is remarkable faithfulness and vitality in churches who have the most compromised and immaterial worship forms around. And vice versa. As such I see no reason to be persuaded that liturgy does what its enthusiasts claim.
To be clear, I’m not saying that liturgical practices are bad or something, or that observing the Christian year is not a good thing. Only that it doesn’t “just do it” the way it is popular to imagine these days. It suffers from the same vulnerability as all our attempts to fashion a common life together, not merely that it might become stained and corrupted by secular calendars, but that it might become, in itself an object of hope that we reify. We need much more humility, much more realism about our claims for what things like the liturgical calendar can do. To be sure God can and does meet us in worship, but more often than not it is a meeting like that of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist with the Lord (Luke 1:8-20). While burning incense, going about the usual liturgical practices of their calendar, this priest was confronted, unprecedentedly with the Word of God in a meeting that terrified, overwhelmed, and left him literally speechless. It is in this coming of God, this free coming that we must place our hope, not in the “work” of our fragile attempts to offer praise. To the extent that our “work,” our liturgy becomes our answer to the problem of Christian faithfulness, we offer a different answer than that of the gospel.
With all that in mind, recognizing the impotence of the liturgical year to do what some enthusiasts would like it to, I suggest that Advent would be better spent talking about God than about our calendar and how we imagine it organizes us and sets us in the right over against the corrupt world. We do better to simply cry out for God’s coming than to make peace with God’s absence by fixating on our celebrations, with all their traditions and trappings. This impotence is built into the Christian year itself. It has always been meant to be something we simply look through, are helped along by, not something we look at, something we assign divine agency to, or hope in. Advent does not want us to talk about calendars and what they might do for us. It wants us to talk about God, to cry out for God, to long for God, to have literally no hope if God is not coming to us in a way exceedingly abundantly beyond all that we could every ask or think — even in our greatest liturgical calendars and celebrations.