A Time for Everything: Lent: Part 1

Part 1 – Observing the Church Calendar

For Renée Brasier, because she asked.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven (Ecclesiastes 3:1)

It is the time of year when we awake from the drowsy hedonism of summer and start to our feet, only to glimpse our plans and projects getting away from us, rounding the corner, shuffling themselves into the crowded deck of the street. Rarely a day passes without me being late for an important date.

And just as we begin in earnest on the trail of the white rabbit, coiling for the spring that promises to place us on top of all the doings that need to be done, someone presents a dusty ankle which intertangles itself with our chopping legs, and rather than spring, we sprawl. In the dust and the ash of the city.

You Are DustIt’s the season of Lent. Lent is the homeless man in the city street who sticks out his ankle, around whom the smooth pedestrian flow is rippled and agitated. That’s how my thinking about the season has presented itself, as a picture and feeling.

But maybe we need to rewind a little…

What’s an evangelical, from Sydney, doing thinking and writing about Lent? Well, there are two reasons really: first, a friend asked me because she had been getting questions about it from people at work. She and I are both evangelical christians in the Anglican church, we’re in the odd situation that some parts of our denomination observe Lent with a great deal of rigor and ritual, while other parts simply acknowledge its existence (with varying degrees of affirmation or suspicion), and still others only know ‘lent’ as the past tense of a verb most likely to occur in awkward conversations about your neighbour’s tools. This variety of observances leads to inevitable confusions. So, my friend is interested in the historical background and theological significance (if any) of Christian observation of Lent.

The second reason is personal. I’ve become increasingly interested in the calendar of the church as a means of education and discipline in the real realities brought to light in the gospel of Jesus Christ (a bit like a doctrinal version of the lectionary). It seems fitting to me that we remind, encourage, train, elaborate these realities in the form of a calendar, and that our observance is not merely an intellectual discipline but an integrated intellectual-affective-practical activity (by this I mean: we are taught from the word, we lift up our hearts in songs and prayers and stories designed to move our affections-emotions, and we engage in a variety of symbolic actions and acts of care toward those around us). The church calendar is a mode of education in christian doctrine that insists that we must all learn together (the whole church from the children to the elders, rather than me on my own going off to study a night course on the doctrine of the Trinity through a Bible College); that we must think and feel and act together in response to who Christ is and what he has done; that our faith is rooted in history (both the historical facts of Jesus’ life, the growth of the early church, and the chain of remembrance and respect, what we sometimes call ‘tradition’, that embodies our claim that the fellowship of Christians is with far more than those who presently possess the present); and finally, that we are a community still waiting, we engage in the discipline of truthful remembrance for the sake of the future. This revolving wheel of seasons keeps whispering to us, “until he comes”.

[I’m also fascinated by the intersection of the church calendar and how we think about ‘time’ in general. I’m not going to go into that here other than to notice the broader social shift away from qualitative to quantitative appreciations of time. Our society still has a functional engagement with ‘qualitative’ time – we operate with a keen awareness of the difference between weekday and weekend, but we only conceptualise time in terms of quantity: seconds, minutes, hours, etc. It’s part of our general quantification of reality. But that’s a whole ‘nother discussion…]

Although I think the reasons put forward above are a good foundation for evangelicals to embrace some sort of observance of the church calendar, most have not traditionally felt this way. Often with very good reason. In the late middle ages the number of ‘feast’ days and ‘saints’ days were so proliferated throughout the year it became difficult for anyone to get any work done. The church tended to get a decent financial bump out of all these observances (either through tithes, selling people indulgences, i.e.,  forgiveness for their sins, or just through a general bonhomie leading to greater consumption of alcohol with the consequent result in increased revenue for church owned brewing, distilling, and fermenting operations). Rather than being opportunities for Christian worship, many of the events of the church calendar degenerated into either an excuse for a good knees up or a means of propagating pseudo-christian superstition (veneration of relics, indulgences, etc). Needless to say, the Reformers, and their evangelical descendants, tended to take a pretty dim view of it all.

The most famous example of this ‘evangelical’ opposition is undoubtedly the war on Christmas. During the period of the English Commonwealth, the Parliament, dominated by Puritans, voted to abolish the celebration of Christmas. Curious as it may seem, they even banned going to Church to celebrate Christmas. Philip Stubbes gives voice to the Puritans’ reasoning: ‘More mischief is that time committed than in all the year besides … What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting is then used … to the great dishonour of God and the impoverishing of the realm.’

Needless to say, the GREAT BIG LAW AGAINST CHRISTMAS was about as popular in the 1640’s as it would be today.

It’s important to note though, that the evangelical opposition was always to the abuse of the church calendar rather than the concept itself. There is no question that it has been abused and can still be. But abusus non tollit usum (abuse does not remove use). And the fact that the church calendar still has some use is pretty clearly illustrated by the fervour with which evangelicals (at least in Sydney) will celebrate Reformation Sunday, even if nothing else.

But what about Lent?

Even if we establish that the idea of observing the church calendar might have some value, is Lent one of those observances worth keeping, or is it too bound up with dodgy theology to serve the contemporary church?

That will need to wait for next time.

Image by Mike_tn
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6 thoughts on “A Time for Everything: Lent: Part 1

  1. This is a greatpost with lots of food for throught.

    I'm also slowly understanding the usefulness of the church calendar. I went to my first Maundy Thursday servcie a few years ago and I was astounded by how much I learnt from the structure and special symbolism of the service – not just the sermon.

    Someone very close to me has a learning difficulty and has fallen away from the faith because she just couldn't keep up with the sermons and bible studies at her church. At the moment, the only way people can learn communally in Sydney Anglican churches is through these very word-heavy methods. I think our system is failing people like her.

    Your post here has made me realise the awesome teaching potential of the church calendar. We could totally use it to flesh out our other teaching methods to make sure that many more people in our churches can benefit from communal teaching and learning – not just the ones with "normal" comprehension skills and attention spans.

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    1. Hi Alison, it was thinking about people with different levels or styles of literacy that first got me interested in thinking about the importance of symbolic action in learning the word. I've seen first hand the value of concrete actions and illustrations in teaching children, international students, cross-cultural mission. It reminds me that we need to preserve symbolic action (some kinds of properly gospel oriented ritual) even when it doesn't necessarily directly appear to serve the majority of people in our congregation. We should do it even if only for the sake of our descendants in the faith who may live in a world far different from ours, where our levels of literacy and education can't be taken for granted.
      Of course, all this comes with the caveat that symbolic action is never separable from gospel word. Word and act must always remain intertwined.

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