“The purpose of Sunday … is not to stop Christians from working in observance of God’s rest in the beauty of creation.” (37)
Controversial? Maybe. What Joan Chittister is emphasising here is the difference between the Jewish Sabbath (which could be described in this way) and the Lord’s Day. For Christians, the Sabbath of rest, remembrance, and witness to the-world-to-come is now transposed by Resurrection and Pentecost, into something more outward-looking and action-oriented. The life to come is already with us – although not entirely. We are freed, but there is a world in us and around us still unfree. And so the purpose of Sunday is to remind us, to redefine us (as a community in the freedom-and-transformation business), to call us to “reflect on God’s place in our lives and our place in the life of the world” (37).
And why all these ‘re-’ prefixes? Because we all regularly forget there’s more than this-life-as-we-know-it. Because we’re all tempted to give ourselves totally to the here and now, to the status quo. Because this world numbs us. Because we keep hiding from ourselves, from each other, and from God. Because we grow tired and discouraged, time and again.
Even on a much longer time-scale, life is not a straight line; it’s “a coil, that bends on itself over and over again” (43). We confront the same challenges, and make the same mistakes, week in, week out, year in, year out. So, Chittister suggests, it is precisely the repetitiveness of liturgical time that we need (rather than regular attempts at novelty or “discerning God’s will for us in this season”? Or is this a false dichotomy?)
Liturgical time is the “arc that … binds heaven and earth into one and the same rhythm” (39). It relentlessly juxtaposes our joys, our fears, our sins, our needs, our wisdom, our experiences, and our doubts with the same person of Jesus, with the church’s same famous models of sanctity, and with the same great truths of the gospel.
Whenever I grieve, or sin, or lose hope, or am engulfed by fear – whether this be the ordinary struggle of the ‘other six days’ or a major life season lasting months or years – the liturgy will be there (with one of its “endless cycles”) to remind me “that death is not the end, that evil cannot prevail, that Jesus lives yet – in us, that rebirth of the Spirit is always possible is always possible to those who are willing to go down into the life of Jesus one more time, hearts open, souls athirst” (33,42-43).
Of course, this focus on the life of Jesus requires a degree of selectivity. What does this liturgy squeeze out? Other parts of scripture? Spontaneity? Other movements of the Spirit? Space for listening to the congregation and what they see in the world, the church , their families? Can it / should it strive to accommodate these things? Is this even the right question? Over to you…