The Redemption of Time: The Christian Calendar as Civil Disobedience

Late last week, I took my two boys grocery shopping, and my observant four-year-old remarked with dismay that all the wonderful Christmas decorations had disappeared from the store. For more than a month, he had been delighted by the festive decorations, which of course, made grocery shopping easier for me. Instead of having him beg for gummy snacks and cookies, we played the Who-Can-Find-The-Christmas-Decorations” game.

So, if you happened to be shopping in the same store as me, you would have heard an excited, awe-filled voice repeatedly saying as we shopped, “Christmas-decorations-Christmas-decorations-Christmas-decorations.”

But just a few days after Christmas Day, the decorations had been removed, as if the Grinch sneaked in and stolen the last 9 days of Christmas. I had been reminding my son that we had 12 whole days of Christmas, and he just couldn’t quite understand why a store would get rid of Christmas when it had only just begun!

Indeed, even today, as most Americans have moved on to New Year’s resolutions and many stores are already stuffing aisles with pink hearts for Valentine’s Day, it can be difficult to remember that Christmas has yet to end. Indeed, there are still four days until the Epiphany this Friday.

That’s nine ladies dancing, ten lords a-leaping, eleven pipers piping and twelve drummers drumming still to go! But let’s be honest. How many of us really ever make it much farther than the five gold rings?

In all seriousness, it got me to reflecting on the differences between our civil calendar and our religious ones, and what each promises. In our society, our calendars have been molded into seasons of consumerism, each bleeding into the next without pause. As soon as the Christmas wrapping paper is discounted, the candy hearts and paper cards for Valentine’s Day begin to appear, followed quickly by St. Patrick’s Day shamrocks and leprechauns, chased by Easter’s bunnies and candies. Then, it’s on to Mother’s Day bouquets, Memorial Day sales, Father’s Day ties, Fourth of July fireworks and hot dogs, back-to-school sales and Labor Day clearances. Halloween begins in September, Thanksgiving in October, Christmas in November.

Our civil, consumer calendar offers us no break in the buying season, no chance to reflect, to pause, to celebrate, to truly linger over a feast. How quickly did many of us take down our Christmas trees? How quickly did we pack up the Nativity? How soon after Christmas Day did we start thinking about our New Year’s resolutions?

I don’t think these are trivial questions nor do I think something as basic as a calendar should be overlooked for how it operates on us. We are busy, time-oriented, calendar-centric people, with our day planners and meticulously crafted schedules packed into smartphones or fancy leather-bound books.

Within this culture, the calendar — time itself — has been manipulated in order to serve consumerism.

Think about that for a moment: Time serves mammon.

And unless we resist the empire’s time and have some sort of disciplined alternative, we will quite easily be caught up in its seductive current.

This is the quiet power and justice of the Christian calendar. It offers us a chance to resist absolute conformity to the timetables of consumerism, to push back against a culture that requires us to find our worth in things, to stand defiantly against a calendar that hurries us past meaningful pauses and refuses to let us rest in peace.

Christmas is not over, I keep reminding my friends (who roll their eyes). Leave up the tree, the decorations, the poinsettias, the Nativity. Slow down. Be in the moment and let Christmas continue to fill you with wonder. Cultivate Christmas. Or better yet, let Christmas cultivate you!

There is a subversiveness to slowing down time that makes us uncomfortable because it forces us not to conform with the norms of consumer society. And difference, in a hegemonic consumer culture, is frowned upon; it creates cracks in a facade through which people might imagine another world, a better world.

In allowing the seasons of our faith to supplant the seasons of our shopping, Christians can begin to reject the wisdom of a consumeristic empire that says time can only serve mammon. It fights against the schedules of monetary time and the measuring of days in coffeespoons. It protests the notion that our months are billing cycles, our weeks meted out in paychecks rather than in meals with our families, memories with our friends, worship with our faith communities.

The Christian calendar offers us an exit from consumeristic world, a path that will help to pull back the satiating veil of consumerism that hides its injustices and abuses to which we have all been contributors.

To celebrate Christmas on Jan. 3, when we are all returning back to work, is a most basic act of civil disobedience, a simple act of justice, a spiritual discipline. To celebrate Christmas when others are rushing into the false hope of a new year is a reminder that our time is precious and should be savored rather than offered for sale. To continue to celebrate Christmas when it is already being forgotten is to begin to wake from the fog of consumerism to the new reality of the birth of Christ and the Reign of God.

To celebrate Christmas today is to begin to squeeze ourselves and our camels through the needle’s eye.

About David R. Henson

David Henson received his Master of Arts from Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, after receiving a Lilly Grant for religious education for journalists. He ordained in the Episcopal Church as a priest. He is a father of two young sons and the husband of a medical school student.

  • Susan

    So many favorite lines in this, David. Love this paragraph…
    There is a subversiveness to slowing down time that makes us uncomfortable because it forces us not to conform with the norms of consumer society. And difference, in a hegemonic consumer culture, is frowned upon; it creates cracks in a facade through which people might imagine another world, a better world.

    I have often felt this breathlessness from one Hallmark season to another – always something more to give, but the giving is demanded by the merchants, and not directed by a still, small voice. I like the challenge to re-invert the chain of command, where the culture is a reflection of me, and I am a reflection of Christ.

    • http://www.facebook.com/unorthodoxologist David Henson

      Reinvert the chain of command! What a great phrase! I might steal this one day. :) (With credit of course!)

  • http://twitter.com/ignatzz Ignatz

    Dynamite.

  • Tonyb1515

    Just wonderful…..forwarding on !

  • Richard Geoffrey Leggett

    As a teacher of liturgy for more than twenty years, you have done a great service here.

    • http://www.facebook.com/unorthodoxologist David Henson

      Thank you! I’m deeply, deeply humbled by that comment. I might just print this comment out and take it to my ordination committee this summer. :)

  • Michael J. Gorman

    Thanks for this, with which I agree wholeheartedly. Simple case in point: the top string of lights on the tree stopped working this evening. The temptation to take the whole edifice down was strong, but instead I removed the lights, tightened all the bulbs (which led to re-illumination), and re-installed the string of lights. The tree and lights will remain in place until Epiphany. One small step for Christmastide…

    • http://www.facebook.com/unorthodoxologist David Henson

      Now that is dedication.

  • http://bensimpson.squarespace.com Ben Simpson

    An excellent reflection. Thanks for reminding us Christians should have an alternative sense of time.

  • http://twitter.com/thejoeturner Joe Turner

    Not to celebrate Christmas at all would be to reject Mammon, given that it is almost entirely a festival of consumption rather than the incarnation. In any case, if we believe Jesus the Christ was the human face of the erternal, everlasting God – who now continues to live inside us – there seems to be no purpose in celebrating a particular moment in time and only supports the kind of selfish infantile folk-religion we see most clearly at this time of year.

    Even if we agree that we need to ‘celebrate’ any part of the gospels, one might think that better candidate might be the Sermon on the Mount or other teachings we seem to summarily ignore.

    • http://www.facebook.com/unorthodoxologist David Henson

      Interesting perspective, though, it does break almost entirely with historic Christianity, which “celebrates” the Eucharist/Resurrection every Sunday. Every Christian worship service in a liturgical church is a celebration of that. So while I see your point, I think properly re-membering the life of Christ and celebrating it helps keep us in rhythm with God.

      There is something, to me, very important about remembering the life of Christ as a community worldwide that puts us in a unique, communal dialogue that can be transformative.

      But I’m Episcopalian, so, it comes with the territory.

      • http://twitter.com/thejoeturner Joe Turner

        Well I’ve been going to Episcopalian churches for much of my life too – I guess I’m the parish heretic. I don’t think the term ‘historic christianity’ has any useful meaning really.

        I have experienced various forms of the liturgy over the years and have certainly felt buoyed up by it at moments of crisis. I suspect the problem with my life (as with many others), to clumsily paraphrase Chesterton is that I have too little liturgy in my life rather than too much.

        As you point out, the root of the word celebrate is quite different to the way we actually use it (although by all accounts Christian festivals going way back were opportunities for over-eating and over-drinking). But then I don’t actually believe in any of the sacraments. I only really turn up because I like the people.

        But y’know, I’m an Anglican, so that goes with the territory to some extent. I jest..

        [I'm actually quite conservative in lots of ways - just not in the ways everyone else seems to be. Sadly it is only the Anglicans that will put up with me..]

      • http://www.facebook.com/unorthodoxologist David Henson

        That was seriously funny, those last two paragraphs. :) Every parish needs a heretic. I used to be mine. I feel like the sacraments are meaningful only in so much as we invest in them. I don’t think they have stand-alone meaning, much like the Eucharist must be performed in community. The community part strikes me as at least as important as the Eucharist part.

        I have long said that one of my favorite parts of Sunday is coffee hour — that is where real church happens. I think turning up for the people is a darn good reason to turn up. I’d rather have a church with folks who turn up for each other than who turn up to sip some port and taste a stale wafer.

  • http://restorativetheology.blogspot.com Brian G.

    Awesome reflection! Similar to Joe Turner’s comments, I was wondering this year what might happen if the small-c catholic church moved Christmas to another date on the “secular” calendar. Like in July or something. Maybe not even call it “Christmas” anymore, but have some related term.

    Man, that would put the consumer world in a pickle!

    • http://twitter.com/thejoeturner Joe Turner

      Given the current reductions on prices for Christmas food, I suspect we’d all be better off following the Julian calendar – at least in terms of household expenditure. The truth is that the run-away consumerism associated with Christmas has very little to do with Christianity. Even if it was possible to unilaterally declare Christmas a non-event, I suspect this would have zero impact on the consumerism.

  • http://blog.benirwin.net/ Ben Irwin

    So grateful for this post. My wife and I are relatively new Episcopalians, and last year we celebrated Epiphany for the first time. I have a renewed appreciation for Christmas now that I better see its place on the Christian calendar.

    • Eskridgee

      Epiphany is pretty much my favorite time of the Christian calendar. It is the time of year I reflect on what I have accomplished and have yet to accomplish and it is also the time when great inspiration has come to me during worship. It can be a wonderful time of introspection and self discovery. A great gift so to speak! Enjoy this time of year as new Episcopalians!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Wendy-Wilson-Uhl/1727328876 Wendy Wilson Uhl

    I’ve been saying this for years, “The 12 Days OF Christmas are not the 12 shopping days before Christmas!” Thanks, well said.

  • http://mikesnow.org/ Michael Snow

    Yes!
    I saw this Peanut cartoon where Lucy was bemoaning the fact that she had been counting the weeks till Christmas for three months, the days for a month, and the hours for a day. Then she wails, “AND NOW IT’S ALL OVER!”

    Obviously, she did not know about the 12 days of Christmas!

    What I find sad is that on Christian radio stations, the carols end on Dec. 25.

    • http://www.facebook.com/unorthodoxologist David Henson

      And begin a few weeks before! :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/tldhthompson Tommy Thompson

    Glory to Jesus Christ: Glory forever! I want to say that today is the 12th day of Christmas and I have not stopped the feasting…tomorrow is our Epiphany service…and then Sunday is our Eastern Theophany Service — Baptism of Our Lord. The feasting shall continue even to February 2 when we get to experience the wisdom of Simeon and Anna! Merry Christmas this 12th day !! Merry Christmas!!!

  • Kristin Carroccino

    Our kids have placed shoes out to collect a “gift of wisdom” that the Magi may decide to drop off on their journey to the manger, and our tree has just made its way out to the yard to present gifts for the birds and squirrels after we decorate with peanut butter pine cones tomorrow. We “kicked off” our season during Advent by leaving out shoes for St. Nicholas on December 6 – what a fantastic month! Thank you for your article – these traditions are so important – for our own souls and for showing our children a different way to celebrate.

    • http://twitter.com/revdrewdowns Andrew Downs

      That’s what we do, too!

  • http://twitter.com/revdrewdowns Andrew Downs

    Great reflection! And sorry for the long time getting here!

    Now I’m wondering about the place of the regularity of our inherited calendar. Broken up into months of approximately 4 weeks, everything stable and together. The Christian calendar, OTOH is all crazy! 40 days here, 7 days there, 50 more days here, one holiday, a crap-load of days of ordinary time. It has a rhythm and pace to it that is not orderly and sequential.

    I brought up with a parishioner once that I was compelled by a seminary professor to put the Christian calendar before the Gregorian and he scoffed. “When is vestry supposed to meet?” The intentionality of our meeting completely changes when they are organized by purpose rather than systems.

    Thanks, David!

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