“Christians are a people whose year does not simply map onto the calendar of the dominant culture.”
– James K.A. Smith, Desiring the the Kingdom, p156.
Over the last couple of years, Matt and I have been exploring more and more why we do what we do as Christians, especially as we gather together each week on Sundays. As a historian (and a bit of an Anglican nerd) I think Matt started this journey to deepen his understanding of how our Christian community practices have changed over time, and why Anglicans in particular do what they do in church. Now he’s very interested in how we are formed by the things we do. I confess I am much more interested in the social and spatial side of things. I love thinking about how what we do shapes and is shaped by the communities we move in and the spaces we occupy and create.
The fruit of this long conversation has been a strong desire to think carefully about liturgical practices and to embrace good liturgy (the stuff that directs my heart towards Jesus) in my own life, household and community. I identified the liturgical calendar as the most helpful thing for me, the changing seasons of Lent and Easter, Advent and Christmas, and the rest of the year – ‘ordinary time’. Ideally the calendar seemed to be a great tool to bring order into chaos of my life. It would give me the mental and temporal space to pray with joy, to pray in repentance, to read lots of different parts of the bible, to reflect on my character, to grow as a child of God. Surely that’s how it would work.
It turns out that chaos is much harder to master than I expected.
As a household we started embracing the ebb and flow of the liturgical calendar at Easter last year. Easter marks the resurrection of Jesus and it calls for forty straight days of celebration. Forty days of sustained celebrating is much harder than I expected! Over the spring and summer, we worked on our advent project. This year we have tried to use the season of Lent to reflect on our enormous capacity for idolatry, and now we are attempting to celebrate the resurrection for 40 straight days once again.
There are (hyperbolic-ly) five hundred reasons to follow the rhythms of the liturgical calender and I know that different people find different reasons more or less compelling. I personally like the way that following a calendar that does not map straightforwardly onto the ‘calender of the dominant culture’. I like the way that the joyous festivals and sombre times draw our attention, through the scriptures, backwards and forwards in time. They point us back to the historical events of God working to save his people, culminating in the cross of Jesus and his empty tomb. They point us forward to Jesus’ promised return, the final defeat of death and the glorious new creation. They give us a way to express our present of waiting and serving with love, patience and faithfulness. As James K.A. Smith puts it:
“We are called to be people of memory… we are also called to be a people of expectation… we are a stretched people, citizens of a kingdom that is both older and newer than anything offered by ‘the contemporary’. The practices of Christian worship over the liturgical year form in us something of an ‘old soul’ that is perpetually pointed to a future, longing for a coming kingdom, and seeking to be such a stretched people in the present who are a foretaste of the coming kingdom”.
– James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, p159.
But this easter I’ve found the chaos of the contemporary almost too much to handle. It’s been Easter for a week and chaos of everyday has already got in the way of celebrating. Over the last month I’ve been constantly sick, I’ve developed agonising muscle pain, I’ve been eating badly. I’ve been unable to do my job properly, I’ve been confronted with shortcomings in my character and my sinfulness. My immediate family has struggled with awful stuff. My extended family has struggled with awful stuff. My church family has struggled with awful stuff. And, worst of all, my grandma passed away.
Two days after marking the resurrection of Jesus I found myself back in a church, confronted with a small wooden coffin. Coffins are always smaller than you expect. I miss her very much.
I know I have to redefine what it means to celebrate. Celebrating Easter can’t be just about having picnics, and filling life with colour, and doing all the fun things for forty straight days. To celebrate in such a superficial way would require checking out of life for a couple of months. It would mean skipping funerals, getting unnecessarily drugged up on pain-killers, refusing to confess my sin. It might be Easter-tide but that doesn’t mean we are magically protected from sin and back pain and the death of loved ones for forty days.
How do we celebrate Easter then? I am really stumped on this one. There are books aplenty on how to celebrate Lent. Has anyone written a book on how to celebrate Easter? What counts as Easter-specific celebration? How do I live with joy through funerals and confessions and sick-days in a way that is different to the rest of the year?
Celebrating Easter the Greek way.
Maybe this is what it means to be a ‘stretched people’? Maybe the point of a forty-day-long Easter celebration is to make the tension between Jesus past victory and future victory painfully apparent? The calender tells us to celebrate, even though everything around us is still corrupted by sin and death, because God cares about us! Jesus has done something to save us, and he will do something to save us. That is worth celebrating, right?
Yes, it is. And it calls for a celebration that can’t be merely involve rich food, colourful decorations and fun, carefree times.
This year our church celebrated Easter with a new Mandarin-speaking congregation.