Monday, January 31, 2011

For Signs and Seasons

And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.’ And it was so. (Genesis 1: 14-15)

Easter this year will be on April 24. This is one day short of the latest it can be. Easter’s date is based on an ancient calculation, based in turn on the date of the full moon in relation to the spring (vernal) equinox. It is one of the few remaining remnants of the Lunar Calendar (dating things in relationship to the cycles of the moon) in our society, which is largely governed by a Solar Calendar (dating things in relationship to the earth’s annual pilgrimage around the sun).

The liturgical year is dominated by two major “cycles.” One of them—the Incarnation Cycle—is based on the Solar Year, Christmas always falling on a fixed date in the calendar. This cycle begins with the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25 (celebrating the Archangel Gabriel’s announcement of God’s Incarnation in Christ), continues through Christmas and Epiphany, and concludes with the Feast of the Presentation in the Temple (Candlemas) on February 2.  So, for much of the year, we are thinking about a “fixed” event in the calendar, connecting us solidly to history, fact, and the “groundedness” of the Christian faith. The Incarnation of Christ is very much about humility—a word coming from the same root as humus: earth or soil. One can say that the Incarnation cycle is always calling us to the “rootedness-in-reality” aspect of the Christian life.

The other major cycle in the Christian Year…and the most important part of our Calendar…is the Easter cycle. This date constantly shifts with each year, falling somewhere between March 22 and April 25 (inclusive). The cycle officially begins (in the Episcopal Church) with Ash Wednesday and concludes with Pentecost.* Its mobility reminds us that movement and fluidity are part of our life as disciples, and that we must keep our eyes fixed on Christ, who is the “Light of Life” for us, and who alone determines the “signs and seasons” in a world of constant change. As we are reminded in the Letter to the Hebrews: For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. (13:14).

Easter will not come this late again for a very long while. This means we will have an extremely long Epiphanytide, a Lent accompanied by the full energy of spring, and that we won’t be taking our annual parish photograph on Pentecost Sunday until nearly the middle of June! Such a long season after Epiphany will allow us to spend a great deal of time thinking about what it means to follow Christ as his disciples and to prepare for Lent. But there is another, more subtle meaning we can glean from this calendar eccentricity.

The Christian life is always marked by holding seemingly opposite things in tension. We believe in a God who is all-powerful, and yet who has come into our midst as one of us—vulnerable and contending with the limits and struggles of our mortal life. We know God to be loving and merciful, but we also know that sin is incompatible with God and we must be shorn of it if we are to achieve union with the divine. Likewise, the Church Calendar teaches us that we must be fixed, solid, and grounded in the eternal truth of God as revealed in Scripture and Apostolic teaching—while at the same time being open and flexible so as to respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit to become more and more like Christ through learning, renewal, and growth.

Some people—and some churches—tend to pick one or the other of these directions, mistakenly believing that by simplifying the mystery of faith, we can “get it right” and arrive in heaven without depending all that much on God. Such “pseudo-faith” distorts our relationship with God and each other. It also disfigures the Church’s witness in the world, often projecting a horrifying caricature of the Gospel that is either rigidly condemning or vapidly permissive. Often, the two things merge, creating a mock-Christianity with neither mercy nor truth. God deliver us from such delusion!

We are blessed as Anglicans and as members of St. Timothy’s to be the stewards of a whole or catholic faith, asserting both the groundedness and the livingness of the Gospel.

This is the kind of Christianity the contemporary scene around us needs. It is an eternally-relevant Christianity. It is the gift we bear. But, it will be seen only if we live it out ourselves, by living lives grounded in the unchanging truth of God, yet always growing into the opportunities God gives us in the present moment. Like the Liturgical Calendar itself, we are a people connected to earth, sun, moon, and heaven itself. By God’s grace, we share in his light, becoming stars and guides, by which others may be guided to that city which is to come: the Kingdom of God. So may it be.

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