Summing-up the Liturgical Year Experiment

Joan Chittister, “The Liturgical Year”

This past year (liturgical year, that is) I (Stacey Gleddiesmith – SG) have been walking through the Christian seasons with Ian Walden (IW) and Andrea Tisher (AT) – and we have all been walking with Joan Chittister, as we read through her book The Liturgical Year. For the conclusion of this series, I posed a number of questions to Ian, Andrea, and myself about the experience of walking very intentionally through the liturgical calendar this year. I know that some of you have been tracking with us throughout the year – even reading with us. We would love to hear your own answers to some of these questions – so comment away!

  • Is there one moment or event that stands out to you when you think back on walking through the church calendar/liturgical year with Joan Chittister?
    • IW: Advent, particularly the early stages, which bind up all our tiredness from months of following an invisible Jesus in ordinary time, and restore our hopes by uniting them with Israel’s. Joan confirmed Advent as my favourite time of the year, especially by highlighting that it is… the “beginning” of our year. We start by placing the “end” of Israel’s hopes (and ours), the coming of Jesus, right smack in front of our eyes. It sets a very different tone for the year than “New Year” party loneliness, excess, and regret!
    • SG The memory that crystalizes this past liturgical year for me is singing “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today!” and “He Arose” for weeks, rather than one single, solitary time on Easter morning…. Being able to let loose and celebrate fully (and at length) the resurrection of Christ (and therefore our resurrection to come) gave me hope and strength during a dark time in my life. It was an unexpected blessing.
    • AT: For me… Advent was the most memorable because it was also my first Advent in First Baptist Church (Vancouver) and so I was exploring both what Advent means, and what it means to this community, and how we might engage more deeply in the season… Looking back, I’m excited about how we learned to dig deep – and looking forward, I’m excited to do it again and with a little more awareness of who we are as a church and with a little more confidence that they trust me to lead them in new ways of doing things.
  • What did you find difficult about following the liturgical year?
    • AT: … Practically, it is really hard to live the story during Holy Week, when on the Wednesday night, you gather to rehearse all of the resurrection songs for Sunday morning. It’s a bit like skipping through scenes of a movie and then watching them in the wrong order and trying to stay “in” the story… it is a challenge for me on a personal level, but also on a pastoral level as I lead the 60+ musicians involved through that kind of week. I don’t want any of us to miss out on the week, but I also want us to be prepared.
    • IW: My own lack of preparation. Most events (the beginning of Lent, and even Easter day) caught me unawares, despite this advance reading and anticipation with Joan Chittister. By the time I’d realised the significance of the day, it had already passed, and I wasted the season in regret and never-really-getting-started.
    • SG: Being a worship leader, I need to plan for the next liturgical moment while I am both in the midst of the current moment and evaluating the previous moment. It is exhausting to walk this line… and it has caused me to think significantly my planning process (I’m going to try to write a basic plan for the coming liturgical year over the summer). At the same time, this blurring of lines enabled me to not only see, but experience, the connections between the liturgical seasons in a new way. Connect to the accompanying blog post.
  • What practice(s) will you take with you into the following year?
    • SG: Honestly, I don’t think we, as a church, will celebrate every little day and season… We will, however, preserve the seasons of fasting (Advent and Lent) and try to hold back on celebration, taking time to really prepare for it. We will also hang on to the extended seasons of celebration. Now that I’ve experienced an “extended Christmas” and an “extended Easter” I’m not sure I can go back to a one day “pull-out-all-the-stops” kind of celebration…
    • IW: Fasting / conscious preparation in both Advent and Lent (and figuring out the nature of those fasts, and making practical preparations for them [like clearing out the fridge] a week in advance). A “big” Easter (featuring, at least, communal worship times and personal reflections spanning Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, as well as Sunday)
    • AT: The main practice I’d like to take with me is one of “liturgical awareness” that is contagious… I found Chittister to be so inviting… Her descriptions of seasons and practices have such a winsome and attractive way about them… If I could live the seasons a little more the way Chittister describes them, perhaps there would be less need to convince anyone that participation and awareness of the seasons is a good idea.
  • Having walked intentionally through the liturgical calendar, how would you describe its meaning and purpose in the life of the church?
    • IW: It is a continual reminder of our purpose beyond this life. It insists that our lives aren’t just week-by-week, year-by-year survival, but they are witnesses and pioneers of a transposed life, of years after years that will one day (a day that starts now) be lived in a different, higher “key.”
    • AT: The liturgical calendar ensures that the church celebrates the WHOLE story. We don’t spend a whole year in lament or celebration, but follow the cycles which will allow for them both in the context of a story that is central to who we are. The calendar means that Jesus will have to be the focus for much of the year, which hopefully would be true anyway, but it also means that we’ll have to explore some of the less “popular” aspects of His life and ministry – including the idea that we are waiting for him still (Advent) – and to walk a little more slowly through the “death and resurrection” part of the story (Holy Week).
    • SG: After this past year, I understand what Chittister says near the beginning of her book. The slow, cyclical, plod through the life of Christ and the life of the church through the Spirit works as a spiral calling us ever deeper into the life of God. Humanity is designed for repetition. We need to hear the big story over and over – and the liturgical year is a great tool to guide a congregation through and into this meaningful repetition.
  • What would be the value of introducing some of these practices to the “non-liturgical” church, and how would you go about introducing them?
    • SG: The liturgical year is a key way in which you can work to deepen the spiritual life of your congregation. You don’t need all the bells and smells, but I would encourage “non-liturgical” churches to consider how they can rehearse the story: drawing on the liturgical traditions – but reapplying them in a way that suits the personality and character of their specific congregation.
    • IW: Church unity. However much we may disagree about doctrine, it’s harder to distrust and despise one another when we’re all consciously participating in the same acts at the same time. It gives us something in common we can talk about, for starters! Most “non-liturgical” churches plan preaching series in advance and cherish scripture, and so I would start there, consciously aiming to start a new series on the first Sunday of Advent, on Epiphany, in Lent, in Eastertide, and in Ordinary Time…
    • AT: I’m not really in a completely “non-liturgical” setting, so I think for me, it’s about adding strength and depth to our current practices and possibly adding to some of the seasons/days that we tend to treat more lightly. This next year, I’d like us to engage more in Eastertide, with a sense of heading towards Ascension and Pentecost…. I’m also thinking about ways that we might engage in a day like All Saints. Some of my key volunteers have been thinking with me about some creative ways to engage the day, but in a manner that will be more familiar…
  • How did the experience of walking intentionally through the liturgical calendar impact you personally?
    • AT: I found it very special to walk through the seasons thoughtfully and reflectively WITH you two. And my thinking and reflecting with you spilled over into other conversations and relationships too. I think it helped me feel more of a communal engagement. And the beauty of it is the way that the events of our lives match or completely miss-match the season. It means that sometimes we’re in a depression on Easter Sunday. And that’s okay. Or sometimes we’re in the euphoria of relational bliss during Lent. Or we’re experiencing some other life situation that feels “liturgically inappropriate”… as we gather week by week, there are those in our midst who are full of joy, anger, happiness, despair, excitement, anxiety … and so the calendar helps us to engage the whole gamut of human experience. (A bit like the Psalms, really!)
    • SG: Walking intentionally through the liturgical calendar in the company of Joan Chittister, Ian Walden, and Andrea Tischer gave me a fresh understanding of Jesus. The slow intentional plod of the liturgical year, and its focus on Christ, made me feel that I was matching my footprints (along with the others journeying with me) to Jesus’ footprints in the dust.  Stories I have heard all my life, accounts of Christ’s life that I have read almost yearly, came alive in a new way as I tried to walk my congregation through them… the liturgical year awakened in me a desire to measure my life in a new way.
    • IW: It convicted me! Mostly of how I live for deadlines, not for eternity. I time my life by accomplishments, not seasons, or character growth. This year re-awakened me to the scale of transformation I want to see in my life and goals. I don’t want to forget the height of purpose and depth of character that the various seasons call us to. I want my to-do list constantly reduced, effectively, to “walk with Jesus.”

Oh Lord, I want to be in that number! (a post on Chapter 30 of Joan Chittister’s The Liturgical Year)

by Andrea Tisher

I’m not accustomed to feast days. Haven’t grown up with them. And don’t have any sense of when they occur in the calendar. But I am used to thinking about the ‘cloud of witnesses’ – I have grown accustomed to giving thanks for the ordinary saints whose lives have intersected with mine in various ways.

The grandparents who I loved and learned from until their deaths. Thankfully, I had many years with both my grandmas, but all four of them – even the grandpa I never met – had tremendous impact on my life. And I was mindful that they were in that ‘cloud of witnesses’…

The aunt who lived with us on and off for the final decades of her life and loved me in ways I had no idea I could be loved. Taught and corrected me, laughed with me and challenged me, encouraged and loved me like a parent, but different than either of my parents, too.

And then the authors I began to encounter in my young adulthood. Madeleine L’Engle, whose journals led me to placed I’d have never gone to on my own. (Including a journey through the liturgical cycle back when I had no idea what that was!) C.S. Lewis. Hildegard von Bingen. Julian of Norwich. I began to encounter these folks and to see that they had been on this journey too. That I walked with them in some mysterious way. And then as I began to delve more deeply into the deep wealth of spiritual theology, my world of saints grew to include many more including hymnwriters Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and most of all, Anne Steele.

These people who gave their lives to follow Jesus have become heroes and role models for me. But, other than All Saints Day, I don’t usually see a connection between the liturgical calendar and this great cloud of witnesses. I wonder if that’s okay? Or am I missing another layer of the practice of the calendar?

How about you? Who are your heroes and role models? With whom do you hope to be when we go marching into the new heaven and new earth?

Fidelity, or “Why do we bother?”: Chapter 28 of Joan Chittister’s ‘The Liturgical Year’

by Ian Walden

The sun is setting. The feast of Easter is fading to memory. Ahead lies the long road of Ordinary Time. The next ‘high point’ in the Liturgical Year is a long, long way away. So when the candles are out, the colours are muted, and the words are, well, ordinary – why do we bother with these routines, these rituals, these practices?

The end of the noise and fuss and excitement is a good time for this question. It’s already forced me to re-examine my motives. It’s convicting to hear Sister Joan remind us that “we do not live a liturgical life to look good to other people. We do not develop a liturgical spirituality to affect a kind of spiritual dimension to our lives. And we certainly do not go to Mass regularly to avoid hell.” Ouch. Too often my newbie enthusiasm for this liturgical lark is akin to a shopper’s delight at a little-discovered bargain – consumerism ethos included.

So what’s a better answer? Chittister’s is that we are all (like a character in a parable she tells) being asked, silently but daily, the searching question: Are you Jesus? And I for one would like to say (perhaps also silently, but daily nonetheless) that yes, indeed, I am. I would like my Ordinary Time, my ordinary life, to be lived extraordinarily well, “no matter what other elements of life emerge to seduce us as the years go by.” No matter how far removed Jesus’ first earthly presence seems, no matter how absent his Spirit feels, no matter how improbable his Return appears, I want my life to be the evidence of Things Unseen. I want it, even this summer, to be both site and source of redemption in this world. More than a sacrifice, I need re-creation. I need my life to be witness that I am (and therefore all are) defined by the beautiful future, not the tragic past.

And as we’re all learning, in the Pentecostal economy, becoming like Jesus (learning to think like he thinks, to act as he acts, to allow his life/mind/heart to saturate ours) is something that can be learned. And learning takes repetition, re-enactment, constant re-membering. It takes fidelity, constancy, regularity. All else (and this also, paradoxically, is all the difference) is the in-breathed, dry-bone-stirring  Life of God.

Where have you seen Jesus lately? Where has his life continued in your midst, in the habits, reflexes, instincts, or desires exhibited by Jesus people – including yourself? Was it surprising, extraordinary, or surprisingly natural? Was it obvious, or seen only after reflection? What kind of practices, what kind of liturgy, might possibly (feel free to speculate, to guess!) have contributed to this miracle, this new Presence?

In the hope of glory, Amen.

Paschaltide: The Days of Pentecost (Chapter 27 of Joan Chittister’s The Liturgical Year)

by Andrea Tisher

So much of life is lived as one event after another. We anticipate and over-expect and then pick apart all the ways the event did (or mostly didn’t?) live up to our expectations. And then we choose the next event and do it all over again.

But the calendar isn’t so much about events. It’s about seasons. Which is tricky because we’ve made many of the seasons of the calendar into events as well. Christmas. Easter. Just one day (or one hour) events. But, if we’re willing to lean into the calendar in new ways, we’ll discover that there are whole seasons that we’ve been missing out on. Eastertide – or Paschaltide, as Chittister calls it – is just such a season that is so much more than the usual “Hooplah of Easter” followed by a “lull” of some kind. In our church this year, we tried to be intentional in a couple of ways. First, on the cover of the worship folder, we called each Sunday by its proper name. (ie. 2nd Sunday of Eastertide, 4th Sunday of Eastertide) and then we also tried to have at least part of the music reflect that we were worshipping the RISEN King. Then, on this past Sunday, we celebrated Ascension (which, technically is on the Thursday previous, but I don’t think we’re ready for a whole service devoted to the Ascension)  and called it Ascension Sunday and next week we’ll celebrate Pentecost to finish the season.

I love what Chittister says about the season of Eastertide: “the period of unmitigated joy, of total immersion in the implications of what it means to be a Christian, to live a Christian life.” (171) and “We come to know during these great fifty days not only who Jesus is but who we are meant to be, as a result.” (175)

How did you spend the season? Or did you know it was a season?

A story to finish…

I had a friend visit another church on May 6th where they made a royal fuss about how you simply would not want to miss Mother’s Day at their church. There were promises of gifts and celebration and all kinds of special things. She immediately wondered, if this is what they do for Mother’s Day, I wonder what they’ll do for Pentecost? The answer? Nothing. Nada. Zip. Their calendar based more on what the Hallmark store has in their special section… There was a time when this would have seemed quite normal to me. But not now. And I don’t want to go back. Bring on the seasons!

Easter Sunday: Chapter 25 of Joan Chittister’s ‘The Liturgical Year’

by Ian Walden

“This is the very center of the church. This, not the birth of a baby, is the reason we celebrate Christmas. This is the reason for all the feasts of the church. This is the place from which we all draw our fire.”

And what is this Easter-birthing ‘fire’? A tomb-seal shattered (from the inside?). Mighty strength, and glorious possibility – for one we thought Failure, God-Forsaken, for whom all hope had died. A human being, just like us (!) who was kindled to blaze down Death’s dark door, and claw back a Whole New Life beyond our dreams. And all this from One who had given comprehensive proof of His love for us all. So maybe, just maybe, this new way could be for us, too. “We are not, we know now with stunning awareness, made for this world alone. There is more to us than this. Life is about more than simply surviving … We are here to grow to full spiritual stature … we too, must now become part of the Light ourselves.”

This is, as Chittister puts it, “the feast of Resurrection, of the redemption of life from the abyss of nothingness to the pinnacle of creation.” The good news is about far more than a cross, a sacrifice, and forgiveness. That’s all huge, but it’s just the beginning. Now, from Sunday on, there’s a new Life to be lived, a new Alleluia to be yelled, a new Creation to invent. Because the night of this world’s decay is far gone, and the Day is at hand. We have already seen its dawn, and that Dawn now lives within us.”We have come again to answer the question that comes out of Holy Saturday’s emptiness: no, we are not alone.” And to the Light of the World, we are no longer servants, but partners. Who can tell what we might do on Monday?

The journey from Saturday’s silence and emptiness into celebration of this great New Beginning is, in Chittister’s experience, a four-part affair. It begins Saturday night, with the “striking of new fire,” whereby the candles of everyone assembled are lit from the one Paschal candle. Then the history of creation and salvation is told from Scripture, and the congregation shows their appreciation for God’s saving by repeating their baptismal vows, committing again to “try again to be what we are called to be.” Thus prepared, these new-day people cement all by sharing the great Feast of unity, of communion with the risen Christ and with each other.

This is all a lot longer and more involved than I’m used to. What does it all add? What ways of rejoicing have helped drill hope deep into you and your church? What do we miss by disconnecting Sunday from Saturday from Friday, as we so often do?

Holy Saturday – Facing the Darkness: Chapter 24 of Joan Chittister’s “The Liturgical Year”

Holy Saturday is one of the least observed days in the liturgical year – mostly because nothing happens. “There are no public ceremonies, no particular liturgies to interrupt the sense of waiting and vacuity that mark the day” (p. 152). It’s a day for growing – an activity we don’t usually take the time to notice, or consciously engage in. “Holy Saturday faith” says Joan Chittister, “is not about counting our blessings; it is about dealing with darkness and growing in hope” (p. 153).

Once again, I find that I cannot engage with the liturgical year, or write about it, without delving into the personal. How can I speak about facing the darkness unless I’m willing to bring my own darkness into the light? So let me tell you first that the surgery I had three weeks ago (for severe endometriosis) was unsuccessful, and now we wait – again – this time to see if funding goes through for me to travel to Oregon for another surgery (which may or may not be successful). There is a very real chance that my husband and I will never be able to have kids.

So when Chittister says “Someday we will all know the power of overwhelming loss when life as we know it changes, when all hope dies in midflight” (p. 153) – I know what she’s talking about. This Holy Saturday I will wait in the darkness, cradling a broken womb.

You see, Holy Saturday places us in the position of the disciples, who watched as their dreams were strung up on a cross – and buried. “No doubt about it: this is the day of going down into the tomb – our own as well as Jesus’” (p. 155). This is the day that all the dreams that have died, and all the losses we have experienced, rise to the surface and shake our faith.

But, as Chittister says, it is also a day for “growing in hope.”  “The important thing about Easter Saturday” she says, “is that it is precisely when its emptiness sets in that we begin to understand there is as much voice of God in emptiness as there is in anticipation. It is now, when we feel the absence of Jesus most keenly, that we can find ourselves listening to Him most intensely” (p. 155).

Now, more than any other time in my life, I find myself in constant dialogue with God. I always thought that a “life of prayer” was a complicated and difficult thing reserved for the spiritual greats among us, but this constant internal voice calling “help, help, help” is effortless. When a friend asked me what my relationship with God looks like in the midst of everything, I found myself using a somewhat cheesy, but very apt image. I’m like a tree in a wind storm. I can feel my branches whipping around my head – and I can feel myself bending (sometimes it’s almost unbearably painful) – but I know that I won’t be uprooted. And I know that the storm will eventually pass.

And that’s what hope is. It’s not being miraculously lifted out of your circumstances – it’s knowing you can get through them. It’s knowing that God’s faithfulness is not shaken by circumstance. That the all-powerful God of everything is willing to sit with you in the silence of a tomb. “There is hope that we can begin, finally, to see the world as God sees the world and so trust that God is indeed everywhere in everything at all times – in the abstruse as well as the luminous, whether we ourselves can see the hand of God in this moment or not. To be able to come to that point before the beginning of the Easter Vigil, before the cantor sings the Exultet into the darkness, is what Holy Saturday is really all about. Then loss is gain, and silence is a very clear message from God” (p. 157, emphasis mine).

How have you experienced God’s presence in the darkness?

The Weight of Good Friday: Chapter 23 of Joan Chittister’s “The Liturgical Year”

by Stacey Gleddiesmith

Good Friday.

The day when hope falters and darkness seems to triumph.

Joan Chittister describes the pain of second-century Israel: “the grief was still raw. After all, they were still waiting for His return, then and there. And in the midst of the wait, the desolation inspired a fast that tapped into the profound heartache of a people. For years, the Christian community fasted not only on Good Friday but on Holy Saturday as well…. For years, the fast was a complete one. Early Christians took no food or water at all. They fasted for forty straight hours without either eating or drinking” (p. 148).

Now, she says, Good Friday gatherings are often mere pageantry:  “something to watch, something to realize with a pang… But nothing really serious” (p. 151).

So how do we push past our momentary sympathy with Christ, and take up our cross to follow him? How do we inspire our congregations to do so? How do we preach crucifixion to a culture that shrinks from unpleasantness?

We can use darkness and silence. We can bring newness to history through creative tellings. We can hold back the celebration and take time to sit in the dark. To wait. We can add weight to our words, laying the burden of Christ, for once, heavily on the shoulders of our congregation. Allowing ourselves to feel our backs bowed and our knees trembling – Friday, Saturday.

More than that, we can fast. Having read this chapter, I feel a fresh urgency to observe Good Friday by taking in nothing but the death of Christ. I need the gnawing in my belly that will, in Chittister’s words “whet the need for the return of Jesus to our own lives.” The fast of Good Friday, she says, “means to concentrate us on the moment, to be there nagging at us in the midst of our distractions, to keep us keenly aware of what the spiritual life is meant to be about” (p. 151). I need that. Desperately.

So I invite you to fast with me. Or, if not to fast, to solemnize this day in another way. I invite you to share, here, your experience of Good Friday – the weight that was laid upon you – that we may fully experience together the lightening of Easter morning.