James K. A. Smith, in Desiring the Kingdom, exposes how many of the structures of culture have a shaping effect on us, whether we know it or not. We American Christians are most often used to processing the “negative influences of the world” through the grid of content, rather than form. We rightly point out that the graphic depictions in movies (violence, sex, etc.) and the lyrics of songs–the content–have the ability to orient our souls toward depraved things. But have we processed how the forms and structures of society shape us?
Think, for instance, about time. Our sense of time is governed by usually one of two things. Either we “feel” time according to the January-to-December calendar year, or we “feel” it according to the summer-break-fall-kickoff routine engrained in us from the schooling system. This sense of time shapes our decision-making and behaviors. For instance, think of how your sense of work and rest is related to summer and fall. Summer is a time to relax, and fall is a time to get serious. Our cultural rhythms have very much shaped how we practice Sabbath, whether we are Jewish, Christian, or “irreligious.”
Yesterday, for many Christians, was the beginning of a new year. Did it feel like one? For over a decade now, I’ve been in worship traditions that have oriented themselves around the Christian year–Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. I have to say that I think I’m about 25% there when it comes to “feeling” Christian time. I desperately want the liturgy to sink into my bones so that my very inner annual rhythm is shaped like Jesus. This advent, I really, really, really, want to feel what it means to long for Jesus to come. I want to remember Christ’s first advent so “hard” that this remembrance (this anamnesis) is actualized in the present and in turn becomes my longing for Christ’s second coming…in real time. I want my sense of identity, when Epiphany hits, to be grounded in the joy, wonder, and eye-blinding brightness that the wise men experienced when they saw Christ. I hope that, during Lent, I actually feel like repenting and fasting, that I might somehow know Christ’s own forty-day wilderness wandering in a more deep way. And it’s not at all that I should desire to somehow earn God’s favor by orienting myself to “worship time” in this way. It’s that, with every fiber of my being, “I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection” (Philippians 3:10).
One question often asked is, “Did Jesus have a worship-oriented sense of time?” The answer is, yes, He most certainly did. We forget that first century Jews were intensely liturgical beings, and therefore Jesus was. In fact, though the first several chapters of the gospel of John are “liturgically lost” on us, they wouldn’t have been so to a first century Jewish reader/hearer. Especially in chapters 5-10, we see John being a very focused storyteller, proclaiming the message loud and clear that, as Christ participated in the Jewish festivals and practices, He was proclaiming Himself the fulfillment of them:
- Jesus is the fulfilment of the Sabbath (John 5:1-47)
- Jesus is the fulfilment of Passover (John 6:1-71)
- Jesus is the fulfillment of the feast of Tabernacles/Booths (John 7:1-9:41)
- Jesus is the fulfillment of the festival of Lights (Hanukkah) (John 10:1-42)
Much like it is with the law, Jesus didn’t come to abolish believers’ sense of liturgical time; He came to fulfill it. In this sense, then, it’s not just a “cool tradition” or a fun option to celebrate the Christian calendar year. It’s actually a biblical idea. When we have a worship-oriented sense of time, we are claiming continuity of practice with the ancient believers of old. And I’m not just talking about medieval Catholic liturgy, here. I’m talking about the family of Abraham, into which we’ve been ingrafted. When we engage the Christian year, we claim our worship kinship and lineage with the ancient Israelites who observed time around Christ, albeit cloaked and veiled. Passover showed them Christ, the passover lamb (1 Cor 5:7). The festival of booths pointed them of Christ, who would tabernacle with us (John 1). Hanukkah oriented them to Christ, the light of the world (John 8:12). So it is with us. Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost all have the power to tatoo on the wrist of our soul a watch that says “Jesus.” God forms in us an intrinsic daytimer that says “Christ” on every page.
For many non-liturgical folks, Advent is a gateway drug into worship-oriented time. If you celebrate Advent intentionally, if longing for Christ starts to become you, you want more. Advent and Christmas will wane, but you start longing for the centering, clarifying, identity-forming sense of time that was so palpable in December and early January. That’s, at least, how it was for me. I started celebrating Advent, and soon I wanted all the other goodies. The world’s calendar seemed simultaneously more hyped and hollow, and I wanted something deep, historic, shaping, and meaningful.
This can be yours. But it takes practice.
Thank you for the post. I appreciate that you view order as essential in worship. One area here I disagree, you say there was an biblical calendar to which the saints of old worshiped God yet you argue for a calendar not within the bible. The calendar you are here supporting is from the 4th century not in the bible. The bible directs the church to weekly worship with teaching, preaching, prayer, and breaking bread. God has given two ordinances baptism and the Lord's supper. Let us not bring "strange fire" before God by inventing our worship.
Thanks, Frank. It looks like we'll have to agree to disagree. Several things persuade me that following the Christian calendar is a "biblical" idea. First, the ancient Israelites followed an annual worship cycle, centering on feasts and festivals themed upon none other than the saving, redeeming acts of God. The Christian calendar is nothing more than that very thing, realized through Christ, as the book of Hebrews would lead us to do. Second, Jesus Himself appears to have been a devout follower of that worship calendar, only He taught by his actions (explicated and exegeted by the apostle John in his Gospel, esp. chaps 5-10) that He was the fulfillment of those things. Does that cause those things to cease? Perhaps. But perhaps it actually causes those things to be re-interpreted, re-lived, and re-practiced through Christ. The latter seems more natural and plausible to me. Third, I would caution against throwing out "strange fire" too haphazardly. Perhaps you believe you aren't, but know that there are solid, BIBLICAL arguments for practicing the Christian Calendar and that faithful brothers and sisters of yours have been doing so for many, many years. Fourth, though it's true that the early Christians didn't practice the Christian calendar as it is practiced today, I think it's doubtful that they didn't practice any calendar. Many were Jews, after all, who were steeped in a worship tradition that involved an annual cycle. And many of them saw continuity and fulfillment in what Jesus brought to the Christian faith, as opposed to radical discontinuity. The Gospel of Matthew is at pains to make this specific argument–that Christ is the fulfillment of the ancient Israelite religion…continuity.
I'd highly recommend a great article by Mike Farley, published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, entitled: "What is 'Biblical' Worship?" It influenced me to broaden my perspective on all of this.
In any regard, even if you don't agree with what I've said above, perhaps the above will allow you to grant your brothers and sisters who do practice the calendar enough grace to be willing to say that it's not "strange fire." That's a pretty serious charge.
Zac, thank you for your thoughts. I especially appreciate the parallels between the Jewish calendar and the Gospel of John. Good stuff!
I'm at the place you describe in the last paragraph. I've spent the last couple of years trying to be more intentional in my observations of Advent and Lent, which is a new experience for me. I've found that having specific rhythm to the celebration of my faith gives me time to fully embrace and rediscover facets of our faith that risk becoming "ordinary".
Having been raised in a non-liturgical (I'd even say anti-liturgical) tradition, I have little experience with the calendar, beyond a basic understanding of what theme is celebrated in what season. Do you have any resources you could recommend?