Sunday, December 26, 2010

the calendars we live by

I write at the beginning of one of the holiest weeks of the year for a pastor, the days following the Christmas Eve services and leading up to New Year's, and then the Epiphany. I am reminded each year that this represents something of a confluence of festivities; some are sacred, others are civic. And all of it is a reminder that we live by overlapping calendars, ways of structuring time and finding meaning and purpose.

Most of us live by at least three calendars.

A prominent calendar in our culture is the rhythm of athletic seasons. Some of us live from the opening day of baseball to the first kickoff of football to the midnight madness of college basketball, then to the baseball world series, and then the college bowl games, the NFL Super Bowl and March Madness. And then the opening pitch of the first baseball game is thrown again. Within these seasons there is also the Master's Golf Tournament, the Wimbledon Tennis Tournament, and other assorted contests (such as World Cup of Soccer and the Stanley Cup). Many organize their lives around their favorite teams, and their psyches flourish or falter alongside the fortunes of their heroes. There are sacred spaces (Fenway Park, Cameron Indoor Stadium, and the new Cowboys Stadium, the largest domed stadium in the world are but three examples), secret societies (scouts, betting services fantasy football), and remembrances of shared history (note the remarkable Ken Burns PBS series on Baseball, updated this fall). It is not accidental that parents pass the importance of the sports calendar along to their children, and that participation in sports (which once were seasonal but are now year-round) becomes a priority and even an obsession.

A second calendar is our civic calendar. Broadly sketched, this includes New Year's Day, a time for making resolutions, and a moment marked by the possibility of reinvention. There is Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, and Thanksgiving Day. A recent addition to this listing is the observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. These days are often profoundly important to some in our society, and less meaningful to others. The civic holidays may elicit deep memories of loss and sacrifice in some families, while others consider them simply as a respite from work and school. Indeed, this reality is at times the source of some tension among citizens of the United States. In our rhythm of life, Memorial Day marks the beginning of summer and Labor Day its conclusion, and what happens in between (vacations, leisure, longer days, a break from school) is more significant for most that what occurs on the particular holidays that frame the season. Some will raise flags at their homes, attend picnics, and view fireworks (especially on July 4). Thanksgiving, in particular, is a somewhat ambiguous ritual, in that it began as a harvest festival and most of us now live at some distance from the profession of agriculture; in addition, it recalls the encounter between the European settlers and the Native Americans, who had their own traditions of harvest celebration, which were displaced over the course of time. In addition, Thanksgiving has become closely associated with the onset of Christmas commerce in general and "Black Friday" in particular. Alongside these recurring days in our national life are Mother's Day and Father's Day, which are certainly important within families, and the growing prominence of political elections, which, like athletic contests, are no longer seasonal but unending. This final dimension of the political calendar, the adversarial contest between political parties, have a deadly effect on our congregational and denominational lives.

A third calendar, for a Christian, is the liturgical year. It is, very simply, a way of marking time according to the life of Jesus, beginning with the anticipation of his coming (Advent), the celebration of his birth (Christmas), and manifestation of his presence in the world (Epiphany) and his baptism. The most frequently told stories about Jesus (his baptism, changing water into wine at a wedding, and his transfiguration) introduce us to his glory, but also prepare us for his suffering. In the season of Lent (from the anglo-saxon word lencten, the lengthening of days), the followers of Jesus enter into his suffering, and on Palm/Passion Sunday witness his entry into Jerusalem, the place of his final testing and, ultimately, his death on a cross for humanity (Good Friday). After three days, we believe that God raises him from death, on Easter. Over the next fifty days he teaches the disciples about God's purposes for the world, and on Ascension Day he returns to be with God, preparing for the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. The Sundays after Pentecost (formerly Kingdomtide) move into Ordinary Time, finding their climax on Christ the King Sunday, which signifies the fulfillment of God's purposes on earth and in heaven, as Jesus is seated at the right hand of God...and then, we quickly move to the first Sunday of Advent. Within this liturgical calendar there are also significant days, such as World Communion, Reformation Sunday, and All Saints, and these are increasingly observed by mainline, emergent and evangelical Christians alongside their Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. In addition, some Christian congregations are sensitive to Jewish holy days, among them Passover, Shuvuot and Yom Kippur (Atonement), each having profound implications for Christian belief and practice.

We live in each of these calendars (sports, civic, liturgical), and each shapes our lives to some extent. We are recreational beings, citizens, women and men of faith. The overlapping of these calendars is one way of making sense of life; thus we watch football on New Year's Day or offer prayers for families on Mother's Day, or find spiritual lessons in our political dramas (God is on our side, or not). To reflect on the confluence of the calendars is one way to bring their realities to our conciousness, although it is probably true that, even for Christians, the liturgical calendar is the least influential for most of us. The flattening of the liturgical calendar to the celebration of Christmas and Easter removes the pain of pregnancy and the discipline of suffering from the equation, just as the negligence of national appreciation for military sacrifice is the result of wars that are not, in fact, shared sacrifices for most of us, but for the few.

Speaking as a Christian, and as a pastor, one of the great challenges for us is to recover the thickness of our story, the meaning of our faith and the adventure of the life of Jesus. We do not undertake this work in a vacuum; it is the work of the people, and it will be a process of structuring reality in a different and somewhat counter-cultural way. Thus, we will need to convince the parent of an athlete that confirmation is more important than a season with a team that travels to near and distant cities, and we will need to persuade a friend in the greatest generation that our Independence Day is Good Friday.

So, we have made our way through Advent, and we now live in the 12 days of Christmas. What is next? What if we took on the work of making this calendar make sense to our people? What if we invested ourselves in the adventure of following Jesus, and inviting others along for the journey? Is this worthwhile? Is it possible? Is there an alternative?


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