The Church’s Year:
Pageant or Remembrance?
Many older Episcopalians grew up being nurtured on the sentiments of Hymn 235 in The Hymnal 1940.
Advent tells us
Christ is near;
Christmas tells us Christ is here….
Holy Week and Easter then
Tell who died and rose again.
We have experienced the Church Year as our yearly walk through the life of Jesus. It is experienced as a historical drama. We begin with the announcement to Mary, move on to Jesus' birth at Bethlehem, see the arrival of the wise men, beneath the cross of Jesus we humbly take our stand, and we go with the women to find the tomb empty. Year after year we walk through the drama of redemption with all the thoughts, feelings, and emotions that the journey brings. Thoughtful clergy have tried many things to help us carefully make this journey. Services of lessons and carols, Christmas pageants, Three Kings cake, myriads of Lenten programs, Stations of the Cross, Tenebrae, three hour preaching services on Good Friday, and helium‑filled balloons for the Ascension have all found their way into the churches. We have experienced these things to help us follow Jesus through his earthly life.
Unfortunately many have gotten bored with the yearly drama. Children subjected to another session on the Church Year yawn and tell us they know the story. Yes, it is the drama of redemption, but many do not seem to be able to understand where they fit into it or where it fits into them. It all happened a long time ago and the Church Year often comes across as a long history lesson. History is a subject many people dislike intensely, and people still ask, "What has the past got to do with me?" Children and teenagers are loud in their expressions of boredom and rebellion. For adults the boredom is expressed in a "business as usual" attitude or in leaving the church to find Jesus in a fundamentalist or charismatic community. An example of this can be seen in the way the church keeps Lent. We don't keep it! The drama goes on in church but so do the bazaars, craft fairs, St. Patrick’s Day dances, roast beef Suppers, and other examples of "business as usual ".
People want, or at least need, a deeper way of entering into the Church Year. They need to move from the yearly historical pageant into a deeper remembering (anamnesis).
Anamnesis is the antithesis of amnesia. A person with amnesia has lost identity and purpose. To know who you are, to whom you belong, and where you are headed, you must remember.... A Christian is one for whom, through anamnesis, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is a present reality, and one who has already entered the Kingdom though it is not yet realized in its fullness. (Commentary on the American Prayer Book, Marion J. Hatchett, 1995, p. xi)
The Jews understand this idea of anamnesis. At the Passover Seder they are reminded by the father "In every generation a man must so regard himself as if he came forth out of Egypt." Christians need to understand the Church Year not simply as journeying through the life of Christ but entering more deeply into OUR life in Christ. St. Paul expressed it well when he said, "It is not I who live but Christ who lives in me," and "I have been crucified with Christ...." St. Leo the Great put it this way:
The body that lay lifeless in the tomb is ours. The body that rose again on the third day is ours. The body that ascends above all the heights of heaven to the right of the Father's glory is ours.
It is not being a spectator but it is being a participant. We find our identity in living out the Church Year.
We have begun to rediscover the relationship between identity and the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist and this deeper remembering (anamnesis). This issue lies behind much of past discussions about infant/adult Baptism, giving Communion to young children, and the meaning of and proper age for Confirmation. In that context, we must also look to renewing our understanding of the Church Year.
If we look at the Book of Common Prayer, the seeds of that renewal may already be there. Though the BCP talks about the Church Year, it does not seem to look at the Church Year as a chronological procession through the life of Jesus. Rather, the Prayer Book speaks to "two cycles of feasts and holy days" (BCP p. 15). The first cycle is that of Easter, the second is Christmas. By entering into these cycles the Church remembers who she is. There is an overlapping of these cycles (the Annunciation always comes in the Easter cycle and St. Thomas always comes during the Christmas cycle) and this overlapping helps to keep them connected to each other.
The Easter cycle, the Paschal cycle, is the celebration of the Passover of the Lord through death to life. The glory of the Lord is shown forth on the cross of Christ. His exaltation is celebrated on the day of resurrection. In the Exsultet we hear "How blessed is this night when earth and heaven are joined and man is reconciled to God" (BCP p. 287). This is the message of the whole Easter cycle, a cycle intimately connected with Baptism. Some Orthodox theologians even refer to Baptism as our Easter. God has acted. We have been reconciled to God through the life giving cross of Christ. It isn't just history, it is our history. It is our identity. "This is the Passover of the Lord, in which, by hearing his Word and celebrating his Sacraments, we share in his victory over death" (BCP p. 285). "Christ is risen, we are risen..." says hymn 191 (The Hymnal 1982). This is the good news that we participate in through the Paschal cycle. We have died with Christ. We have new life in Christ. We are Easter people, alleluias from head to toe. As we do our work in celebrating the liturgies of the Prayer Book for the Paschal cycle all of this becomes a part of the "inscape of our existence", our "deep memory" (to borrow phrases from the late Urban Holmes).
The second cycle, Christmas, proclaims the Kingdom of God. Jesus announced the kingdom in his preaching, "The kingdom of heaven is within you." Jesus manifested the kingdom in his healings and miracles. Jesus brought heaven to earth and earth to heaven in his death and resurrection. The Christmas cycle (Advent, Christmas, the twelve days of Christmas, Epiphany, the Baptism of the Lord, and Candlemas) summons us to enter into that kingdom life.
Advent and Christmas keep our heads spinning. We remember the past, we live in the present, we look to the future. We remember Emmanuel, God-with‑us in Christ Jesus, the inauguration of the kingdom. We look forward to the fullness of God's kingdom. We live in the present where our remembering enables the Church to be pregnant with Christ; it is empowered to be the 'theotokos' (the bearer of God in Christ). The wonderful Advent hymns beautifully address this. Phillips Brooks in his famous carol "O Little Town of Bethlehem" also refers to this. In the last verse Brooks writes "O holy Child of Bethlehem... Be born in us to‑day."
The Christmas cycle enables us to enflesh the kingdom in our world, even if not in its fullness. As the liturgies of the Christmas cycle feed our deep memory we are invited not simply to visit Bethlehem and see the baby lying in a manger but we are invited to allow Christ to be born in us today. We are invited not simply to look at Mary, but to be Mary. We are empowered to be gospel to our neighbor and St. Francis tells us "You may be the only gospel your neighbor ever reads.'' It is through this remembering (anamnesis) that we are enabled to become who we are called to be. The 18th century Jewish mystic known as the Baal Shem Tov said "Forgetfulness leads to exile, remembrance is the secret of redemption."
All of this is not to play down the life of Our Lord or his place in the plan of redemption. It is to help us remember that the Church Year is not 'chronos' (chronology) but 'kairos'. It is God's time breaking into our lives and time. It is our lives and time being lifted up into eternity. "God became man so that man could become God" say the Fathers of the Church. We enter into that reality as we remember in the sacraments. We enter into that reality as we remember in the Church Year. Our prayer is expressed in the words of hymn 475 (The Hymnal 1982): "Let my soul, like Mary, Be thine earthly sanctuary. No longer do we take our stand beneath the cross (as spectators) but we take up our cross daily (as participants). We are a remembering people who live the cycles of Pascha and Incarnation each year. In this remembering our lives are molded, conformed to Christ.
The Church Year must not be simply a wonderfully choreographed pageant. Rather we must come to know it as "the secret of redemption."
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Consortium of Country Churches