Friday, November 23, 2007
The Mythology of the Church Calendar
Back to my project on Theology for the 21st Century. Other posts can be found to the right of this blog. I want to start with a few thoughts on Jesus. One of the first tasks, as I see it, is to begin to separate the myth from the man, the historical Jesus from the Christ of the creed, or the pre-Easter from the post-Easter Jesus (Borg).
For me to separate does not mean to discard either one necessarily. Many progressives (ie. Borg) are quite comfortable with the Christ of creed. Others are not.
One of the first steps is to take a look at the liturgical calendar in order to see how the Christ myth influences our worship and theology. Since Vatican II, Protestant churches have developed an interest in the church calendar. In 1983 ecumenical Protestant groups came up with the Revised Common Lectionary. Here is a visual:
The church calendar is based upon the Christ myth. It has nothing to do with the historical person of Jesus. The church is year can be both comforting and challenging. It puts one into a rhythm for spiritual development. Here is the church year in calendar form.
The year is divided into three cycles, Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost (Ordinary Time). The church calendar is further divided into three years, A, B, and C. In year A, the gospel readings are taken from Matthew. Year B is for Mark, and C for Luke. John is used in all three years as the Gospel text for the big hitter seasons such as Easter.
The Christmas Cycle includes Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany.
Advent looks the birth of Christ as well as his second coming. The readings contain apocalyptic texts and texts from the Hebrew prophets interpreted in such a way that they point to this mythology. The church (cleverly, I might add) co-opted the Winter Solstice, the darkest time of the year (at least for those in the northern hemisphere) to establish the birth of Christ, the "light of the world."
The Western Church celebrates Christmas on December 25th. The Eastern Church on Epiphany or January 6th. Epiphany is manifestation or revelation. The gospel readings following Epiphany feature his baptism, his call of the disciples, signs, wonders, and healings.
The Sunday that provides the hinge between the Christmas Cycle and the Easter Cycle is Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday. This is the fiction where Jesus goes on the mountain with Peter, James, and John and is transfigured before them. A voice speaks from the heavens that Jesus is God's son and everyone ought to pay attention.
Following this Sunday is Ash Wednesday and the Easter Cycle. It begins with forty days (excluding Sundays) of Lent. This is the way of the cross and discipleship. The Lenten season concludes with Holy Week and the crucifixion.
Easter Sunday celebrates the Resurrection. Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon following the Spring Equinox. Again, the church cleverly used the Spring Equinox to date the Resurrection. Spring, flowers, new birth, etc. Following Easter Day is the Easter Season. The gospel readings include appearance stories and teachings.
Thirty-nine days after Easter (the 40th day) is followed by the Ascension (always on a Thursday). This ends the Easter cycle. Forty-Nine days after Easter (the 50th day) is Pentecost Sunday. This is the day that commemorates the arrival of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles. Again, none of this is historical. It is all myth or fiction. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but it is what it is.
Now we are in Ordinary Time. This is the season of the church or the Holy Spirit. Following Pentecost, the church threw in Trinity Sunday. Included in ordinary time are the readings from the whichever gospel is the one for that year. There is no particular order or emphasis.
The church year ends with Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. This Sunday emphasizes that Christ is enthroned over all Creation.
In outline form:
Four Sundays of Advent
Christmas Eve/Day (always December 24-25).
Epiphany (always January 6)
Baptism of the Lord Sunday
Season of Epiphany
Ash Wednesday (followed by 40 days of Lent excluding Sundays)
Five Sundays of Lent
Holy Week (includes Maundy Thursday and Good Friday)
Easter Sunday (needs to be calculated by the moon)
Season of Easter
Ascension Thursday (forty days after Easter including Sundays)
Pentecost Sunday (forty-nine days after Easter including Sundays)
Christ the King Sunday
A few points of observation:
1) None of this as I have said goes back to the historical person of Jesus or his earliest followers. This would be as foreign to them as the Toyota Prius. This took centuries of development by the church. A further complication for we children of the Enlightenment is that this schema was produced in a pre-modern, three-tiered universe.
2) That said, the church year, its holy days and seasons, if understood as symbolic, can be a tool for spiritual growth. The use of winter and spring for its major days, the birth of the divine child, suffering, injustice, vindication, rebirth, and hope for a blissful future certainly capture the heart, as well as our unconscious. In fact, I find much it helpful in communicating aspects of the Gospel that I feel are important. I especially like Christ the King (or reign of Christ Sunday) in which I can freely talk about Christ as your political as well as personal savior. It is a good Sunday to speak about Christ as king, as opposed to George W. Bush.
3) The 64,000 question(s). Is it enough? When we become conscious of a myth as a myth, does it lose its power? Is this a relic of the past? Are we in a time in which we need to find new myths and symbols that reflect our modern/post-modern situation? Is it time to re-think Jesus? Who is he for us today? I think that these questions, however we answer them, are the substantive questions for a theology for the 21st century.