Living with Jesus?: chapters 3-4 of Joan Chittister’s “The Liturgical Year”

16 12 2011
By Andrea Tisher

I don’t think of myself as particularly spiritually-disciplined. My prayer life is never what it could be. My reading habits are varied and irregular. I do attend worship regularly, but then, that’s kind of built into my job. :) The basics of Christian discipleship from my tradition of evangelicalism are not things I’ve gotten very good at. And so I often wonder if my life is being formed by Jesus’ life as it should be.

So when Joan Chittister tells me that “the liturgical year is the arena where our life and the life of Jesus intersect. (p.16), I sit up and pay attention. Maybe because most of my life, I’ve been taught that the only way to connect with Jesus is through early morning prayer and lengthy bible study and generally just being very spiritual in my approach to life. While I don’t mean for a minute to say that prayer and bible reading and study won’t aid someone in their pursuit of life with Jesus, I’m immediately struck by Joan’s claim that the liturgical year is also key.

And the truth is, even in my ‘Christmas and Easter only’ version of the calendar that I grew up with, I did encounter Jesus. During the past fifteen years or so, as I’ve paid a little more attention to more of the calendar, this encounter has broadened and deepened. I suppose you could say that it has helped to form me in that I have not been allowed to determine for myself when I want to think about Jesus life, death, resurrection and ascension. I have submitted to the story being told and have had to wait for the next part of the story to unfold, often not according to the timetable I would choose. For instance, I would contemplate Jesus’ Passion in an hour or two. Not a whole week with a season of preparation during Lent. Other times, Holy Saturday seems the most relevant part of the story in my life or in the life of someone I know. They are not experiencing resurrection joy in the circumstances of their lives, and yet Easter Sunday has the audacity to come anyway. Christmas approaches whether I’m ready for the coming of Jesus or not. Ascension and Pentecost arrive even when I’d like to stay in the gospel accounts of Jesus and his buddies. The calendar pulls and pushes me through the story and doesn’t let me call the shots. It makes me tell the whole story and not at my own pace.

Joan says at the end of chapter 3: “the liturgical year is the voice of Jesus calling to us every day of our lives to wake our sleeping selves from the drowsing effects of purposelessness and meaninglessness, materialism and hedonism, rationalism and indifference, to attend to the life of Jesus who cries within us for fulfillment.” (p21-22)

She continues on in chapter 4 with the Components of the Liturgical Year…where she boils the whole sequence down to “one beam of light called the death and Resurrection of Jesus and its meaning for us here and now.” (p.24)

Chittister helpfully describes how the whole year hinges on this main event, but that the rest of the events help us to live out the death and Resurrection of Jesus, that the living the calendar is “a catechesis as we celebration, a spiritual adventure as well as liturgical exercise.” (p.27) She identifies four kinds of celebrations: Sundays (or as my boss calls them, “Lord’s Day”), seasons, sanctoral cycle (saints), and Ordinary Time. I am least familiar with the sanctoral cycle, but love how she describes its merit in how it shows us that a faithful life is possible to be lived by all kinds of people in all kinds of places throughout history.

I think that living the calendar one year would be informative in some way, but living the calendar year in and year out is formative. It begins to shape my soul in ways that I wouldn’t choose on my own. Left to build my own calendar, I might avoid lament and waiting or get stuck there for entirely too long and without hope of redemption, wholeness and resurrection. The calendar teaches my soul to tell the whole story and to expect that light does shine into darkness. Those dark days of the calendar – Advent, Ash Wednesday, Lent, Good Friday, and especially Holy Saturday teach my soul to pray the darknesses. They are preparation for dark days that are sure to occur in my life. They will prepare me to live my life. In the same way, the high feasts will prepare me to celebrate, here and ultimately in the Kingdom that is not yet here in full.


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2 responses

18 12 2011
Ian Walden

Beautiful reflections, Andrea. Your summarising phrase (“it teaches my soul to tell the whole story”) perfectly expresses Chittister’s emphasis on the value of the liturgical calendar as catechesis. Being a teacher at heart myself, I love your insistence that the calendar, like all good educators, doesn’t just inform, but has the capacity to (re)form us.
It is clear both from Chittister’s choice of words, and from your reflections, that we should sometimes (often?) expect this (re)formation to be a confrontational experience. You noted that the calendar refuses to let us avoid or linger in lament as long as we would feel comfortable. It also, says Chittister, refuses to let us sleep, to ‘enjoy’ the drowsy experience of meandering through days that are insignificant or without purpose. The liturgy, she says, “calls to us … awakens us … rouses us … rallies us” with the value and potential of our own lives (pp. 15-16). It brings a loud (“thunderous”) cry of urgency into our culture-stupefied lives, insisting that “every step has been finished. Except, of course, for our own” and “if Jesus’ life is to have eternal impact … it will depend on our being part of the mystery ourselves” (pp. 20-21).
I’ve certainly found this to be the case during Advent. Perhaps no other season of the calendar is so prone to sentimentalising than that of holly wreaths and nativity scenes, of beautiful carols and candlelit services. And yet time and again I have been rudely (yet gently) confronted by readings, by hymn lyrics, by prayers. To truly celebrate Advent is to be ready to welcome (=follow) a King who will lead me to the cross. Christ is not just to be worshipped, but to be “put on” by me, today. This baby keeps undermining all my (still-lingering) ideas of what significant, purposeful, successful life looks like.
What tales can you tell of Jesus speaking through the liturgy to confront you, to confront your church, with the pressing need to live out His life today?

19 01 2012
Stacey Gleddiesmith

Let me begin by saying how much I am enjoying this extended conversation with you both. Your words have been an encouragement and a spur to me – and this week’s writings are no different. When I first read these chapters, my eye was caught by Chittister’s phrase: “In no other spiritual practice is that presence of Jesus so searing, so personal, so clear, so developmental, so immediate” (p. 16). I wanted to turn to someone and grumble about this audacious claim. Really, Joan? NO other spiritual practice? The fact is, I have felt the “searing” presence of Christ numerous times in my life – and none of those moments were particularly a part of the liturgical year. When I first learned to read and study the Bible for myself, I experienced the clarity of Christ as I never had before; I almost held my breath as I read, watching the ink on the page reveal Christ to me. As I learned to think within the Christian Reformed tradition, my mind was awakened to see Christ in my day-to-day work, and I now feel Christ by my elbow as I write, cook, sing, teach, and clean. As I learned to pray with the Pentecostals, I heard the voice of Jesus and saw his face, experiencing his real and immediate presence in my life – his willingness to speak with me, to dwell with me personally. So when I read this sentence, and its surrounding text, I wanted to rebel… but for one word: “developmental.” In this area there is, I think, something undeniably unique about the discipline of following the Christian calendar. I can develop spiritually in other ways – but there is no other single discipline that really seeks to fill out every aspect of life in Christ with a daily/weekly (sometimes plodding) motion. So yes, Andrea, I agree wholeheartedly when you say that “living the calendar year in and year out is formative.” And yes, Ian, the process is, more often than not, confrontational. How could it not be, when the reality of my life is still so far separated from the life of Christ? I would, however, quibble slightly with the idea that the liturgical year neither rushes us through lament, or allows us to linger there. I don’t disagree, really, but I would phrase it differently. I think the Christian calendar teaches us the two-fold pattern of biblical lament: admission of the reality of pain and suffering; and joyful acknowledgement of God’s enduring reign that proclaims death conquered, and new life on the horizon. The pattern of the liturgical year teaches us to live within the tension of our world: half-way between came and coming.

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