I love the Christian year. Many have written about it and for good reason. Living out the year, Sunday to Sunday, season to season, orders the chaos of our souls in the same way secular rituals gather together, and perhaps heal, communities.
Human beings are creatures of liturgy, ritual, and ceremony. We use these means to express who we are as a people, not only as a church but as a nation. States, cities, clubs, all manner of civic and social gatherings use these means to define themselves, to organize their times together, to ensure justice and democracy, to ensure free speech, to create order. We “call the meeting to order” with a gavel meant to silence the many, so that the few – the single speaker, one at a time – may be heard in an orderly manner.
Both secular and sacred bodies create time liturgies which we call seasons and calendars. Within the twelve months organized in our solar Gregorian calendar we celebrate winter, spring, summer, fall.
Inside each season, Americans gather to honor national heroes, presidents, soldiers, peacemakers, the birth of our nation. We reflect on each old year and celebrate the beginning of each new one with New Year’s Eve and Day. We parade, marching and trumpeting down Main Street, we give speeches, we fly flags, and we sing songs we learned by heart so that we could sing as one. In school we once pledged allegiance to the United States of America, one nation under God… a ceremony that bound us together. At ball games we sing our national anthem and place our hands over our hearts. We memorize words and actions, by rote, by ritual, so that we may say and sing and do these things together. We form a national circle and dance America’s story through the year.
Sacred bodies, churches, also express themselves through seasons and calendars, through song and dance, through processions rather than parades. The Christian liturgical year has, over time, been divided into nine seasons in which the life of Christ and its meaning for each of us is acted out. We step deeper into this meaningful life, immerse ourselves in the love of God in these seasons. Christianity is sacramental, meaning that God is involved in our world, his creation. He desires an intimate conversation, face to face, and we call this prayer. As we portray his mighty acts in history, he acts among us in our own time, drawing us close to him. God responds to our song, and we call this Grace. So it is natural that we act out our faith through the year; it is natural to use all of our senses to express who we are; it is natural that we follow the music of the spheres, both heavenly and earthly.
The Church Year begins with the purple (penitential) season of Advent, which prepares us for the coming of Christ in Bethlehem. Then we live out the white season of Christmas, particularly rich with symbol and song, announcing the incarnation of God in human flesh. Epiphany trumpets, manifests, this good news to the world, lighting the darkness.
Soon we enter Lent, a time of self-examination and penitence, to follow the Way of the Cross to Golgotha, acting out Christ’s last days and his crucifixion. Easter morning we walk with Mary Magdalene to the empty tomb and share her wonder and awe. The following weeks, Eastertide, reflect the resurrected Christ’s appearances to many before his ascending to Heaven on Ascension Day. Ten days later we join the Apostles as the Holy Spirit descends upon them (and us), birthing the Church on the day of Pentecost.
From the beginning of December (Advent) through the end of May (Pentecost) we have acted out the greatest drama ever told. These six months, half the year, tell of God’s redemptive acts among us, two thousand years ago, in the ancient lands of the Middle East, the land of Israel. From Pentecost to Advent, June through November, the second half, we enter the long green season called Trinity, a growing time, a season of learning what all of this means to us, a time of celebrating the many mysteries and miracles only touched on earlier, a time rich with saints and angels and transfigurations, a time of growing, a time of pondering our three-in-one God, the Trinity.
The colors we see in the church reflect the seasons: purple for penitence (Advent, Lent); white for purity (Christmas, Easter, saints); red for fire and blood (Pentecost; martyrs); green for growth (all other times). Vestments and altars coverings reflect these colors and these seasons. The songs we sing, the hymns, reflect the seasons as well, as do the processions, pageants, and even plantings. We bake pretzels (praying hands) and hot cross buns. We form processions, waving palms. We flower the white Easter cross. We light candles to witness to the light lighting the darkness, and we swing sweet incense up the aisle to remind us of heaven and the winging of our prayers. The words we hear in the readings tell the story too; the sermon amplifies those readings.
As with all ceremony, these rituals can be greatly gratifying, artful, poetic expressions of our hearts and minds. But they can also be empty and dead. We must choose whether they be full or empty, alive or dead. Liturgy is the “work of the people” and the Liturgical Year is our great dance through seasons of darkness and light, penitence and resurrection. We weave God into our years, our months, our weeks, our days, our hours. As we genuflect, as we bow, as we make the Sign of the Cross over our heads and hearts, we intersect eternity, kneeling in our Sunday pew. As we step to the altar, we receive more than bread and wine; we receive body and blood; we are fed, filled by God; his time is one with our time.
Today is the last Sunday in the season of Epiphanytide. Next Sunday we begin three Sundays (“Pre-Lent”) that usher in Lent, a season that prepares us for the great festival of Easter, a time of spring and rebirth, resurrection and new life.