Blessed Repetition: chapters 5-6 of Joan Chittister’s “The Liturgical Year”

27 12 2011
By Ian Walden 

“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…


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2 responses

20 01 2012
Stacey Gleddiesmith

Ian, your rephrasing (another “re” word) of Chittister’s text helps me to both understand her words better, and to go a bit farther with them. Those sentences of hers leapt out at me as well “Life is a coil that bends back on itself over and over again. As a result, in every revolution of it from year to year, we find in ourselves both new depths and greater heights” (p. 43). Like you, I am fascinated by the idea that it is not the new, the novel, that forms us – but the constant repetition of constants. In our culture we gravitate to the latest gadget, the newest version, the young. Chittister suggests instead that what grounds us what (ironically?) makes us new, is repetition rather than innovation. So the liturgical year is not just a coil that bends back on itself, but a spiral which draws us deeper into the life of Christ. I am deeply appreciative of this image that Chittister provides us with. I wish, however, that she had dwelt a little more on the communal aspect of the liturgical year, on the fact that we are formed in concert with one another rather than separately. In our individualized culture an individual faith, in which one can worship Christ anywhere and in which the community of faith is seen as potentially unnecessary (or at least unimportant), it would have been good to hear Chittister’s perspective on why we need to gather on Sundays. There is something majestic and unique that happens when God’s people gather to worship Him – we cannot be the body of Christ on our own, nor is the Bride of Christ a singular noun. The liturgical year, being celebrated, primarily, as a corporate body, I hope these are thoughts that Chittister will develop more fully as we continue through the book.

20 01 2012
Stacey Gleddiesmith

And I didn’t even address your excellent questions: “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?”

I wonder this as well. Chittister comes close, in almost every chapter, to asserting that the liturgical year will do all things for the people of God. I cannot help but think that this is a narrow view, and one that could lead to theological problems (eg. ignoring the Old Testament to focus on the New; forgetting about the other two parts of the three in one…). There is at least the possibility that this perspective, in restricting the life of faith to the life of Christ (as large a part as the life of Christ must play in a faith so named), we are ignoring other key aspects of our faith. I don’t think the liturgy of the Christian year can encompass all of the elements you mention. The application of the Christian faith in a particular time and place is work that every congregation must do in addition to the work of the liturgical year. Those are my initial thoughts, anyway. Definitely ideas worth exploring further.

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