Sacred Times and Seasons (Part 2)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.


“Three times in the year you shall keep a feast to me.”
Exodus 13:14

From Church Year to Civic Regeneration

In an article for the November/December edition of Touchstone, titled ‘The Devil’s Calendar, Father Scott Wilson talked about the stealthy theft of Christian holy days. Father Scot lamented that

“one by one, the Church’s holy days have been overshadowed by secularizing forces, by new false gods, if you will…. It is striking that nearly every major feast day in the church year has been preempted, to one degree or another, by a secular event that now absorbs the greater part of public attention.”

Father Scott pointed to many examples of this, not least the way Easter break has been hijacked by Spring Break:.

“Even in public school systems, the weeklong break that occurs in the spring used to be called the ‘Easter break.’ No more; it is now just called ‘spring break.’ And while it often coincides with Holy Week, the solemn week culminating with Good Friday, when our Lord’s Passion is commemorated, many people use the break to skip town and head to warm climates for festive activities, in a recess from daily and academic grinds. Good Friday on the beach is not one of the Stations of the Cross.

Because human beings are inescapably liturgical and religious, we invariably organize the year into rhythmic structures that reflect our priorities. As I pointed out in my blog post ‘Church Calendar, if our priorities are not the great feasts of the church, then by default our year will probably end up being structured around secular holidays that tell the story of political redemption or else holidays that pay homage to the god of hedonism, such as vacation time. The issue is not that we have civic landmarks or vacation time: the problem arises when these become the fundamental structuring devices by which we order time.

By getting rid of the church year and all Christian holidays, the Puritans and their descendants left a vacuum that would ultimately has been filled by the non-religious ordering of time. Such non-religious ordering has helped to reinforce the idea that there exists a secular world that functions separately from spiritual categories. By rejecting the church year as one legitimate way to tell the story of redemption, the Puritans and their descendants inadvertently underscored the sense of religion being disembodied, detached from the space-time continuum. This would ultimately reinforce a duality in North American culture that emerged under the Puritan’s canopy, including a false dichotomy between the sacred and the secular. Moreover, the vacuum created by the evacuation of the church year would eventually be filled with the type of civil religion described by Amy Sullivan. This can be felt strongest in those American holidays that celebrate civic regeneration, integrating Americans around the liturgies of their common political life.

The irony of this can be pressed one step further. In my book The Twilight of Liberalism, I pointed out the how evangelicals who would never dream of making the sign of the cross at the end of a prayer are quite comfortable putting their hands on their hearts every morning to say the “Pledge of Allegiance,” with liturgical devotion. (“Francis Bellamy, author of the Pledge of Allegiance, understood the Pledge’s liturgical component, and commented that it was meant to sink into the hearts of schoolchildren through ritual repetition, adding, ‘It is the same way with the catechism, or the Lord’s Prayer.’”) Or again, American evangelicals who have long ceased to tell the story of redemption through the yearly cycle of ecclesiastical holidays are comfortable celebrating Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Memorial, Veteran’s and Independence Day with quasi-religious regularity. In place of the rejected church year, these holidays become public festivals of a new civic order celebrating the achievements of American nationalism. The term ‘nationalism’ is justified to the degree that this drama involves subliminal assent to what William Cavanaugh perceptively termed “certain stories of nature and human nature, the origins of human conflict, and the remedies for such conflict in the enactment of the state itself.”

Now don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with Americans saying the Pledge or celebrating their political holidays. Indeed, in an age when patriotism is increasingly demonized by the Left, and the crimes of America elevated above her achievements, holidays like Veterans Day and the 4th of July and can act as necessary antidotes. They also remain powerful opportunities to reflect on the Christian heritage of our nation. At the same time, however, it is appropriate for Christians to question the way sacred space and sacred time have migrated from the ecclesiastical to the civic, from the spiritual to the political. It is appropriate to challenge the way the metanarrative of the American story, as incarnated in our national symbols and holidays, has trumped the older and more basic story incarnated in the church’s liturgical calendar.

In contrast to these nationalistic narratives, I would like to suggest that a robust celebration of the church year has the potential to assert the primacy of sacred time over the purely ‘profane’ categories that now dominate our experience of time.

From Sacred Time to “Empty Time”

The secular imagination tends to view history on an axis of what Walter Benjamin called “empty and homogeneous time”, a linear and uniform sequence of cause and effect, measurable by the clock and calendar. By contrast, the story that the church has historically told through its six seasons, like the story the Hebrews told through the Old Testament feasts, understands time in the present through its proximity with events that are typologically significant within the Divine Plan. Such proximity operated on what we might call a different axis to that of ‘ordinary time’ (though to call it ‘ordinary’ is already to reveal our modern presuppositions), one closer to eternity. This is why, to borrow the example that Charles Taylor used in A Secular Age when making the same point, “Good Friday 1998 is closer in a way to the ordinary day of the Crucifixion than mid-summer’s day 1997.” The great events of the church’s life, whether the anticipation of Christ’s birth during Advent or the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, were occasions in which the people of God could, so to speak, participate in the original event, which comes rushing into the present as the church provides the vital link between heaven with earth.

This spiritual notion of time has been deeply troubling to secularists, especially those who have answered the nationalistic or totalitarian impulse. Charles Taylor explains how even our word ‘secularization’ comes from certain modern notions about time that arose in competition to the spiritual understanding of time articulated by the church. Secularization comes from the Latin ‘saeculum’ which means “a big tract of time, an age.” Commenting on this, Taylor writes,

“Now ‘saeculum’, and the adjective ‘secular’, come to be used in Latin Christendom as one term in a contrast; in fact, several related contrasts. As a description of time, it comes to mean ordinary time, the time which is measured in ages, over against higher time, God’s time, or eternity. And so it can also mean the condition of living in this ordinary time, which in some respects differs radically from those in eternity, the conditions we will be in when we are fully gathered in God’s time…. In this sense the saeculum is resistant to the form of life which will prevail in the fullness of our restored condition, and which is at work even now [and breaks through, as it were, in the church’s feast days]…. It lives in some tension with the saeculum, just because the two conditions of life are very different, a tension which can flare into opposition when humans cling to their ‘secular’ condition as ultimate.”


Sacred Time and Sacred Space

The spiritual understanding of time displaced by secularization is very much related to a spiritual understanding of space. “Certain sacred places – a church, a shrine, a site of pilgrimage – are closer to higher time than everyday places” suggests Charles Taylor. “Really to capture this complexity, or rather to capture the hierarchy here, one has to disrupt space, or else make no attempt to render it coherently. This latter is the option enshrined in the iconic tradition, which strongly influences pre-Renaissance church painting.”

What makes me suspect that Taylor is right is that it jives with the way the Bible treats both sacred times and sacred spaces. Let’s start with what the Bible says about sacred spaces.

In ancient Hebrew theology, the temple was the place where Heaven and Earth intersect, where the spiritual and the material merge together and become one. We find this notion implicit in passages like 2 Samuel 7:12-17, as well as the various Psalms which speak of God literally dwelling in the temple in a way that God, though omnipresent, does not dwell in other places. The temple foreshadows the intersection of heaven and earth in the God-man and later in the church, both of which anticipate the final Eschaton when Heaven and earth are finally reconnected together in fulfillment of the Lord’s prayer (Matthew 6:10).

In these passages we are confronted with the notion that the ordinary materiality of our world can, under certain conditions, be taken up and transformed into something higher. We find this same reality operative in other sacred spaces in scripture, such as the Ark of the Covenant, Elisha’s relics (2 Kings 13:20-21) the garments of the apostles (Acts 19:12), or the transfiguration event (Mark 9:2-28), to name only a few. The point is that while all of the material world is good (Genesis 1:25) and in some sense spiritually-infused, certain sacred spaces can become conduits of spiritual power that sets them apart from ordinary material objects.

If this is true of sacred spaces in scripture, it is also true of sacred times. In the Bible, God set certain times apart from the normal flow of linear time. These times become sacred in a way that ordinary time is not. The primary example of this is, of course, the Sabbath. But in addition to the Sabbath God also instituted numerous feasts that His people were commanded to observe annually. The significance of these sacred times is not that they simply remember a past event. Rather, these feasts link the people of God back to the original event so that, in a mystical sort of way, the people celebrating the feast can participate in the event. The memorialized event comes rushing into the present and we, in a sense, are able to relive it.

Consider a few examples. When Jews celebrate the Passover meal of Exodus 12, the youngest child at the table asks the father, “why is this night different from all other nights?” and the father replies by explaining how God rescued our forefathers on this night. This idea is enshrined in the Mishnah where we find the teaching that in every generation a man must so regard himself as if he came forth himself out of Egypt. There is a sense in which the feast of Passover allows each generation to become the generation of the Exodus.

The same principle applies in the feasts of the Christian era. Every Good Friday, there is a sense in which we are reliving the darkness of the hours that Christ hung on the cross. Every Easter there is a sense that Christ is risen today. That is, after all, why it is appropriate to sing ‘Christ the Lord is risen today’ in a way that would have felt wrong the Friday before. Similarly, every Advent there is a sense that we are transported back to join the saints of Hebrews 11:39-40 waiting for the Christ-child to come. Every Christmas there is a sense that this is when the Christ-child is being born in Bethlehem. This is presupposed in the text of much of the hymnology which accompanies these occasions.

These sacred times and sacred places take on the type of quality that T.M. Moore described when talking about spiritual disciplines in Disciplines of Grace, that is, they become “arenas where the powers of God are especially concentrated for our growth” and where “we look forward in faith eagerly to what the Lord might do in our lives.”

Re-ordering Secular Time

In the examples I gave at the end of the last section, a higher sort of time is operating, one which relates the past event to the present on a different axis than that of the secular calendar. As such, this it has the power to re-order our understanding of profane time, as Charles Taylor has once again helpfully described in his book A Secular Age:

“Now higher times gather and re-order secular time. They introduce ‘warps’ and seeming inconsistencies in profane time-ordering. Events which were far apart in profane time could nevertheless be closely linked. Benedict Anderson in a penetrating discussion of the same issues I am trying to describe here, quotes Auerbach on the relation prefiguring-fulfilling in which events of the old Testament were held to stand to those in the New, for instance the sacrifice of Isaac and the Crucifixion of Christ. These two events were linked through their immediate contiguous places in the divine plan. They are drawn close to identity in eternity, even though they are centuries (that is, ‘aeons’ or ‘saecula’) apart. In God’s time there is a sort of simultaneity of sacrifice and Crucifixion.”

The understanding Taylor is articulating may strike as peculiar those for whom quantitative time has become their only frame of reference. Indeed, an unfortunate corollary to the re-navigation of the sacred from the spiritual to the civic has been a transformation of the categories by which churches in America understanding time. We have absorbed secular notions of time, so that we treat events like Christmas and Easter as mere anniversaries of an event that is further away from us every year, rather than the type of spiritual juxtaposition that Biblical categories invite us to invoke. Thus, Christmas is often treated as if it were simply Jesus’ birthday with the wrong date. I have known some Christians who were in such bondage to the absolutism of secular time that they refused to celebrate Christmas on December 25 since it was not actually Jesus’ real birthday. In this way, the secular ordering of events swallowed up the church’s higher understanding of time rather than, as it ought to be, the other way round.

A corollary to this purely profane or secular way of looking at time is that we are progressing further and further away from events like Christ’s birth, sacrifice or resurrection. The ever moving stream of secular time – what Cavanaugh calls “the uniform, and literally end-less, progress of time” – carries the events of Christ’s life further away from us in the present. It was precisely this sense of temporal remoteness that medieval through Renaissance painters rejected when they represented Biblical figures in medieval garb. In his book Torture and Eucharist, William Cavanaugh comments on this by pointing out that “medieval Christians did not imagine they were separated from the past by a wide gulf of ever-advancing time.” Indeed, their constant repetition of the events in the seasons of the church year kept these events close at hand, an ever-present reality.

The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches have retained something of this idea in their understanding of the Eucharist. In the best of their sacramental theology, the Eucharist is not a mere repetition of a past historical event, but a mystic participation in the original event in much the same way as the Passover celebration linked our forefathers with the first Exodus. The original event becomes an ever-present reality, not in a crude mechanistic way, but in a way that is no less real and substantial.

Given the primacy of the sacred calendar over secular time, when Christmas occurs on Sunday this year, Anglican churches and Roman Catholic churches throughout the world will celebrate the occasion with their regular Christmas service and not a normal Sunday service. Partly this is purely practical: the Fourth and Sunday of Advent (Advent’s final Sunday) will finish a week before Christmas day while the First Sunday After Christmas won’t be until a week later, so there is no existing liturgy or lectionary readings to use other than the Christmas day service. However, aside from these purely practical considerations, there is a deeper theological rationale at work. By choosing to celebrate their annual Christmas Day service instead of their weekly Sunday service, the Roman Catholics and Anglicans will be declaring that Christmas Day, as a Principal Feast, takes precedence over any other observance, including what the secular calendar happens to be saying.

Similar, on December 25 this year, Eastern Orthodox churches will be celebrating the Feast of the Nativity with the “Festal Orthros”, filled with a glorious hymnody and festal readings associated with the Feast. The festal Orthros is the pageantry and build up to the celebration of the Festal Liturgy of St. Basil, which is only celebrated a few times each year (rather than the shorter Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom celebrated normally on Sundays). For 40 days leading up to the Feast of the Nativity, Eastern Orthodox Christians have been undergoing a Nativity Fast in preparation for the great day.

The fact that these historic churches will not be going about “business as usual” this Christmas morning is a way to assert the primacy of the sacred calendar over and above profane time. It is a way to proclaim that the purely secular ordering of events is being swallowed up by the church’s higher understanding of time, even as the kingdoms of the earth are being swallowed up by the kingdom of the Christ-child (Revelation 11:15).