Why Liturgy: How the Liturgical Calendar Can Save Our Lives

Why Liturgy: How the Liturgical Calendar Can Save Our Lives June 28, 2018

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
Lamentations 3:22-23

Lectionary Text for July 1
Sixth Sunday After Pentecost

I came into church one Sunday, and the soft ambient light on the back wall behind the pulpit was red instead of white.

“That’s so weird,” I whispered to my friend. “Why is everything red today?”

“Oh, it’s because it’s Pentecost,” she whispered back. “It’s the liturgical color!”

Wait, we have colors?

Welcome to “Old Things New,” a Scriptural devotional based on the liturgical year – and yes. We have colors.

***

I didn’t grow up with liturgy.  I grew up in a melting pot of Baptist, Pentecostal, and non-denominational evangelical churches in rural New Hampshire. Services were informal. We had communion twice a year, sometimes shuffling it awkwardly off our Sunday morning schedule altogether to stick it on Wednesday nights, like the weird uncle that everyone feels uncomfortable inviting to family reunions. The pastors preached “Sermon Series” on Scriptures of their personal choice, either topical (Hope) or a series from a book of the Bible (Romans). Lent meant that we stopped drinking coffee or eating chocolate, and Advent was just tapping our fingers until the real holiday, Christmas. We definitely didn’t put ashes on our foreheads, and we absolutely didn’t talk about the saints. We didn’t fast. We also didn’t really feast. The weather changed outside, winter to spring to summer, but inside our heated and air conditioned evangelical churches, we were insulated and unaffected by the seasons outside as much as we were unaware of the seasons the Church.

There is something in a human soul that needs seasons, though.

There is something about surviving winter, then watching snowdrops poke up through snow and knowing that it’s spring. There is something about the first cool wind that dries the sweat on the back of our necks when summer is finally over.

Most modern Western lives aren’t structured around seasons anymore. Not many of us rely on rainfall patterns for our work, and none of us store up food for the winter. Sometimes it seems like we’re living without any framework holding our lives together at all. We rush week to week, a gasping dash to make it to Friday and then a melancholy Sunday afternoon as we trudge into Monday. Life turns into a series of sprints instead of a long, focused marathon. Time is scattered out as a series of disconnected moments, somehow both monotonous and panicked. Without patterns, we aren’t always sure what the larger story is, and we vibrate through life trying to be good, happy, successful – at parenting, at working, at church, at friendship.

This is exactly why we need the liturgical year so badly.

The liturgical year structures time as a series of fasts and feasts, celebrations and repentance.  It lines Scripture reading up with the Church’s year – what Epistle is for Advent, the time for anticipation and corporate repentance leading up to Christmas? What Old Testament story goes with Epiphany, that time between Christmas and Lent? This spiritual calendar takes seriously Ecclesiastes admonition that there is a “time for everything.” It tells us that there is a time to repent, rejoice, anticipate, be afraid, be filled with hope. There is a time to yell and a time to be very silent. There is a time to work hard and a time to rest. There is a time to wait with Jesus in the Garden, horrified at what’s coming, and a time to jump gleefully into the water with Peter and swim to the Risen Christ cooking us breakfast on the shore.

The liturgical calendar connects together all our fragmented moments into a pattern. It puts our disconnected days together intentionally, like loose pearls strung carefully on a long thread. The liturgical calendar structures our chaotic moments and creates meaning from them.

And as the liturgical calendar walks us through time, we’re aware of two things: that we aren’t in control, and that we aren’t doing this alone.

In a culture obsessed with individuality and control, the liturgical year invites us to release our tight grip on our lives and participate in something bigger than our individual selves. The liturgical year sings us into its steady rhythms, inviting us to celebrate even when we are full of fear, to repent even when we’re on top of the world. It tells us that we don’t repent in a closet, individually, but repent together, for systemic sins as much as personal ones. It reminds us about the need for justice when we’re trapped in self-centeredness, and calls us to rest in community when we’d rather plowing ahead on our own steam.

We are not great at knowing what we need. We work ourselves to death when we desperately need a Sabbath, and we give up in despair when we need courage to keep going. We aren’t sure how to work productively, and we aren’t sure how to rest restoratively. We don’t know if shame is the same as repentance, and even though we quote “do justice, love mercy, walk humbly,” sometimes it feels like we’re just throwing things at the wall and hoping they’ll stick.

The liturgical calendar – that old story running through our new days, the ancient Scripture read again to fresh ears – is a lifeline thrown down to a people overwhelmed by our options and afraid we’ve lost the plot. We work so hard to make sense of the world and change the world and fight for the world. Sometimes, though, we are working so hard that we aren’t aware of where the Spirit is already present, and where She has gone before us. When we come prayerfully to the lectionary text every week, and enter into the liturgical year, we find that God is already there working. God is in the suffering. God is with the poor. God is in the confusion. God is on the ground before me. I am not going ahead of God, but showing up where He already is.

The Church runs like a river through time, and the water is always changing and moving – fresh water in an old, old riverbed. The liturgy urges us to be brave, and step into the river. In the moment that we do, we become part of it. And strangely, impossibly, while we become part of something ancient, what is ancient becomes part of us, too. And the liturgy is suddenly brand new. The ancient tradition is spoken fresh, as if it’s the first time, in this handmade pulpit, in this rural congregation, in this too-small living room, on this obscure blog.

It is the old made new, and then the new made old again, in a pattern that keeps repeating and scooping new stories, new people, into the old stories. If the lectionary is forming us, we are also transforming the lectionary every time we see the Spirit speak through Scripture in our brand new moment in time.

I’m so grateful to have this space with you, to take a breath every week and remember where we are in the church year, to reflect on the lectionary Scripture, to enter into sacred time and let ourselves rest from our anxious self-creation. We’ll start with the lectionary Psalms next week as we move through Ordinary Time (the time in the Church year that runs from Pentecost until Advent). For those of you who follow my personal blog, you know that I have a particular place in my heart for the book of Psalms, and I’m so glad to spend time with them.

The liturgical year is a steady current underneath the low-level anxiety of relentlessly chaotic daily life. May we find rest and courage together as we locate ourselves in the slow and rhythmic patterns of our ancient Church and old, old stories of Scripture.

Image via Pixabay/CC0 Creative Commons

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  • billwald

    Good essay, strange title. I prefer a liturgical service and appreciate the liturgical calendar. I don’t see how the form of the service “saves.”

  • Wesley

    the author tells us. just look at the world around us. people are always rushing to the next big thing. just look at your local retail stores. right now they are pushing school supplies when students have been out of school only a month and half. Christmas shopping starts the day after Labor Day, considered the official end to summer. what about Halloween or even Thanksgiving? in fact Thanksgiving for most Americans is just another day off that they use to start the Christmas shopping spree, and no longer about whatever the original meaning of the day was. all this rushing keeps us stressed out leading to heart attacks. the liturgical calendar builds in times of rest. have you ever said as soon as Christmas Day was over “it finally over for another year”? Christmas is supposed to be a twelve day feast celebrating the birth of the King. take a look at Easter which should be bigger than the Superbowl for Christians, but Christmas is tends to be treated as more important in our churches. without Easter, Christmas would be just another day out of the year.

  • This is a masterful post, and one that is desperately needed. I’m grateful.

  • Widuran

    I have a love hate relationship with liturgy

  • Patricia Raube

    What an absolutely wonderful piece. I’m also a lectionary preacher, and just love the flow of the seasons. You’ve offered a meditation on what we do that nourished my heart. Thank you;