The season of Lent is almost upon us, and every year there are at least some Evangelical Christians in different countries who contact me out of their concern or confusion with this period in the Christian calendar, or the concept of a liturgical year in general.
Phyllis Tickle explains that the Christian calendar has been an extremely important aspect of spiritual formation down through the centuries:
“The ancient practices of the faith are sevenin number, have come into Christianity out of Judaism, and inform all of the Abrahamic faiths. Three of them – tithing, fasting, and the sacred meal– have to do with the physical body, its work and its needs. Three of them have to do with the monitoring of time. Fixed-hour prayer regulates the hours of the day, and Sabbath-keeping monitors the days of the week. The liturgical year monitors or paces those same days and the weeks into the cohesive whole of basic human timekeeping, the year itself. The seventh of them, pilgrimage, engages both the physical space of the body and the dimension of time, requiring that we go at least once in a lifetime with holy intention to a place made sacred by the faith and encounters of other believers.” (italics added)
Those words of Tickle are penned in the foreword of Joan Chittister’s book, The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life. Chittister, too, has fielded questions from people wondering why we celebrate Advent or Lent or any of the liturgical year’s dates when we do:
“The real answer to the question of the various dates of the liturgical year,” she asserts, “is that the liturgical year is not, for the most part, about a series of events at all. It is about the import of those defining events. It is about the relationship of those events, one to another. It is about the real meaning, not the historical dating, of the events which, to this very day, shape our spiritual lives.”
In a world that rotates around school and work calendars and secular holidays, Chittister happily proclaims her need for something deeper: “I know that it is possible to grow physically older by the day but, at the same time, stay spiritually juvenile, if our lives are not directed by a schema far beyond the march of our planet around the sun.”
And to those who wonder if observing the Christian calendar would ever get monotonous, Chittister has a wonderful answer: “The liturgical year is the process of coming back year after year to look at what we already know, on one level, but are newly surprised by again and again.”
There is renewal in the ritual! There is surprise in the “same”!
I will be offering more thoughts on this topic in the coming days, and more observations from this wonderful book as well. For the meantime, I pray that you would begin to embrace the rhythm of the liturgical year. And may observing and remembering these events open doors of refreshment and deeper knowledge in your walk with Christ.