Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Rhythm of the Days and Seasons of our Church Year

One of the things I am reminded of at two of the greater transitions in the Church Year, After Trinity/Pentecost to Advent and After Epiphany to Lent, is that at its best, as Derek, reminds us again and again, the lectionary is a key to understanding the formation of us by the Church Year.

Transition is gradual. The lectionary texts start taking on the themes of Advent before Advent, and the same with Lent. Preparation is already underway in the trifecta of the Cloud of Witnesses. Preparation is already underway in those formerly numbered weeks.

This is how we are formed and normed by the Incarnation, to the oneness and totality of Jesus Christ's conception, birth, life, teachings, death, resurrection, ascension, sending of the Spirit, and coming, always coming to us explicitly in psalm and canticle and prayer, word and bread and wine, and hiddenly in life everyday and in all of God's creation, until finally, when as Tutu writes, we shall reach a tipping point, and Christ hidden and at work always and everywhere shall burst forth full bloom and we see the Little One in every face and the great Cloud take on flesh before our eyes in the blinding light of Love.

This all gets me to the point of this post. The Advent Sours, those people who go into apoplexy if you dare sing a Christmas hymn in the Advent season, need to take a chill pill. I write this as a former Advent cranky-pants extraordinaire. This sort of thing is a little like an anachronism. Sort of like those in a perfectly pristine sanctuary of 21st Century America trying to recreate in exact replica the rites of 14th Century Hereford cathedral (never mind that local practice in parishes was probably quite unique, and never mind the dogs and horses and stink). Singing carols and hymns in Advent as preparation for the Nativity is longstanding and finds support in all sorts of popular practices if we dare to look at dramas, local customs, and the like. Advent after all has a multivalent character, looking toward Nativity, looking toward Parousia, bleeding into and being bled into by the trifecta of the Cloud of Witnesses, and even carries with it more than a tinge of the Cross and the promise of Resurrection and the goodness of Creation afire by God's Holy Spirit.

The central concern of many sour folk, a very catholic concern, is that the American Reformed tradition's elimination of the liturgical year has led us to a socio-cultural rhythm of the commercial days of Christmas starting after Black Friday, if not earlier, and ending Christmas Day--just when the Days and Season of Christmas are beginning. Commerce swallows up both Advent and Christmas and forms us! And not to the Incarnation! We lose expectation, waiting, preparation, and a bit of penitence (yes, I think, a bit of penitence as much as joy characterizes this season, disagreeing with some of my former professors in this regard. I recommend using the first Collect everyday just as Ash Wednesday's is used in Lent.). But this swallowing up is only so by our own actions and habits. We have been formed in competing ways. That is the catholic concern, and rightly so. But rather than rail and whine and get all pissy, let's take responsibility for this, rather than slam someone down for singing, What Child Is This? Better a hymn to the Incarnation than not. We do not know how God might move a heart to faith by that long stretch of holiday favorites usurping regular radio programming unto Christmas Day.

As Dr. Michael B. Aune noted of Candlemas last year in a magnificent sermon, this is a day already portending Lent. He mused, perhaps we Twentieth Century folk have compartmentalized our Days and Seasons of the Church Year in ways our ancestors in the faith would not--because they knew better. To hear, Lo, How A Rose at Rejoicemas is a welcome relief, a bit of Christmas, and more than a bit of Marian piety for we who swing that way.

Nativity reaches into Parousia, and vice versa. Purposely. As I wrote in my last post, the Nativity is put-to-promise on God's word to us that in the End the fullness of God shall be visibly, completely, fully All in All. Nativity should reach into Parousia. And just so, Parousia should reach into Nativity. God is with us! God is with us, indeed! God has not gone absent in the meantime contra popular cultural tales of being left behind. Though often hidden, unknown, even despised, God in Christ is present, working, redeeming, creating anew through, with, and in flesh. And calling we who are Church to say so. Everyday! Nativity reaching into Parousia is also a reminder that flesh matters. Flesh is fit for showing forth God, as the Damascene writes in defending icons. Yet, crap still happens. Flesh bleeds. The Cross is present, too. Folks still are starving in the streets. People are now dying from wars. Creation groans from our pollution and waste. And we hear God say, "I send you." Flesh matters, love Me in the flesh.

So, if we must offer a liturgical solution so that Advent gets its due in an overly commercialized cultural context, rather than become Advent Sours, I recommend revisiting the possibility of an earlier start to Advent, say the Sunday after St. Martin's Feast. After all, catholic practice, the want to make the Incarnation encountered here and now in proclamation and sacrament, is known to respond to the contextual realities of flesh.

We tried just this solution this year at the seminary. What I have noticed is that the longer Advent season has led on my part to a bit of melancholy, perhaps depression if not despair, and impatience for Christmas to arrive. One person noted, there are consequences for making such changes in the calendar. Yes, there are. And a bit of melancholy and blues, not just contemplation and give aways, are precisely how it should be in Advent. The long seeming slow decay to despair that otherwise haunts this season in a world of hunger and fear and hate makes way to the Promise that we and all flesh shall behold God, in the Child, and Though, With, and In Us and All Flesh. And in this mean time of tensions, when we know Him only explicitly in remembrance of His death and by proclamation, a longer Advent reminds us as does the Nativity to "Love Him in the World of the Flesh." (W.H. Auden, For the Time Being).

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