The writer Ian Morgan Cron explained how he interacted with worship as a child in this beautiful, succinct phrase: “I grew up in an enchanted world, a world humid with God.” The statement speaks to the reality that worship in the Christian tradition, and most clearly in those traditions that embrace some form of the historic liturgy, means entering into another world. It is a passage from mundane reality into the expansive alternate universe of the kingdom of God. Like any good science fiction story, there are unique and exciting ways in which the world of Christian worship is completely foreign, a land with rules and patterns all its own.
One distinct pattern followed in the world of Christian worship is the practice of observing the church calendar. This calendar is completely different than the one that usually governs our working or academic lives. New Year’s Day on the Church Calendar is not January 1st, but rather the First Sunday of Advent. While everyone is celebrating Christmas by the day after Thanksgiving (or earlier!), we Christians are admonished to continue the Advent season of waiting, only to burst forth in twelve days of feasting that begins, not ends, on December 25th. In many other ways, the rhythm of the liturgical year calls us up and out of the present age, into an “enchanted world” with Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection as its focal point and center of gravity. As our pastor mentioned recently, coming to Sunday worship means entering a different “time zone” – one marked by the ancient rhythms of the church calendar.
So, what are the rules, the guiding forces behind the strange world that is liturgical time? Let me offer a few points about the nature of entering into the Church’s calendar:
It is Christ-centered.
The seasons of the Church year revolve around the actual, historical realities of the life of God’s son, Jesus. Advent and Christmas tell the story of the Incarnation, when God became flesh of our flesh and bone of our bones. Lent, Holy Week, and Easter tell the details of his life and teaching, crucifixion, and resurrection. All along the way, we celebrate things like Jesus’ presentation in the temple, his transfiguration, his ascension – you get the picture. It’s a way of keeping our collective gaze focused on the One who is our Savior, as we tell and re-tell those moments like they are our favorite campfire stories (“Oh! Oh! Remember that time when Jesus…”), being gripped again by the mystery and wonder of it all. This kind of time-telling helps us to know the truth of 2 Cor. 4:5-6 (Message paraphrase): “Remember, our Message is not about ourselves; we’re proclaiming Jesus Christ, the Master. All we are is messengers, errand runners from Jesus for you. It started when God said, “Light up the darkness!” and our lives filled up with light as we saw and understood God in the face of Christ, all bright and beautiful.”
It is future-focused.
The calendar of the church often calls us forward into the future with seasons of waiting and expectation. Advent is a time of hope and expectancy as we await the coming Messiah – knowing he came once before, but still waiting and hoping for coming again. Lenten fasting grows a hunger in our hearts to be filled with the joy and celebration of Eastertide, and we wait with bated breath to hear the story again of the empty tomb. N.T. Wright explained it this way in his book Surprised by Hope: “Easter was when Hope in person surprised the whole world by coming forward from the future into the present.” So it is with Christian worship: we rejoice and celebrate the future of a new heaven and a new earth as being real and tangible, even as we wait to see it fulfilled. The passage of time in the church calendar helps us to be a “forward-thinking” community, focused on God’s future as it is made present to us in worship.
It is heart-forming.
We can find ourselves growing, stretching, and changing within the movement of the church calendar. If we, personally, are prone to happy-clappy optimism all the time, there is a built-in mechanism to turn us to penitence, humility, and godly sorrow. Conversely, if we are the spiritual equivalent of a Debbie Downer, times of celebration in the church year challenge us to embrace the joy of the Gospel and go outside of ourselves to find new rhythms of light and hope. I grew up in a Pentecostal tradition, and it seemed like the power and presence of God was dependent on me and my ability to work up the feelings of surrender, worship, and joy that I felt I was supposed to have. But submitting our worship schedule to the external rule of the liturgical year actually frees our congregations from feeling that burden. We can all go through the Gospel-centered drama of death and resurrection, sorrow and joy, darkness and light, without manufacturing our own spiritual experiences. We can form our own individual desires and emotions in the ecosystem of God’s love and mercy, teaching our souls to respond to the Word and the Table, not our personal preference.
So let us enter together into that alternate universe of the Kingdom of God, seeking an enchanted reality full of wonder, love, and praise. Let us journey together in the drama of God’s story in the world, and tell together the mighty works of our Redeemer.