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.