A very meaningful practice in my Christian life over the past several years has been beginning to learn and follow the Christian Year. This can mean varying things in different traditions, but the essence of it is shaping our lives, Scripture readings, and worship around an annual cycle primarily based on the events of Jesus' life. All Christians do this to varying degrees, at the minimum recognizing Christmas and Easter, or on the other end of the spectrum having a calendar full of feast days, fast days, and other things that may seem foreign even to many long-time Christians. Since I'm a United Methodist, we fall in the middle (as we almost always do). So my practice of following the Christian year mainly consists of observing the seasons of Advent, Lent, and Easter, along with the special days included in them, as well as following the readings of the Revised Common Lectionary. Doing so has been very meaningful to me, because it's taken me out of the driver's seat of my own spiritual journey ("So what do I feel like reading today?"), and has given me a very practical way of seeking to immerse the story of my life in the story of the life of Jesus. I've gotten enough of a taste of it that I want to go much further.
That's why I was eager to read [amazon_link id="0849946077" target="_blank" ]The Liturgical Year[/amazon_link] by Joan Chittister. It's part of The Ancient Practices Series, edited by Phyllis Tickle, whose guides for fixed-hour prayer (The Divine Hours series) have been very helpful to me and thousands of others. I'd also already read Scot McKnight's excellent book from the series, Fasting, so I was excited to explore another of the series' titles.
The book is 231 pages, but broken up into 33 very short and readable chapters. Chittister begins with some background information on the Christian Year (or, the Liturgical Year as is her preferred term), which she describes as "the spiraling adventure of the spiritual life." If you're from a tradition closer to the end of the spectrum that doesn't get very involved, for example, in observances of Lent or Advent, and only includes Christmas Day and Easter Day in your annual calendar (and possibly something on Good Friday), it would be enlightening to you to read these first chapters. If you're on the other end of the spectrum, the things you already do will become more meaningful. Chittister weaves historical background of the liturgical observances with her own reflections and provides a convincing case for how following this annual calendar helps us to continue living ever more fully into Jesus' story.
The introductory chapters are followed by a journey through the markers of the Christian year. Beginning with Advent, then going through Christmas and Epiphany, into Lent and Easter, with stretches of "Ordinary Time" in between the seasons, Chittister helps us to understand the origin of each of the observances, along with many of the worship rituals traditionally practiced with each one.
I read this book because I hoped that a greater understanding of each of these markers in our year would add depth to my practice of them, rather than- as I had done for so long- simply going along with the flow in my church and doing things but having no earthly idea why we did them. The book will help me to do so during the rest of my Christian years, and could do so for you as well.
A good example is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Even if you're not from a church that observes it, you've likely noticed people once each year who walk around with ashes on their foreheads. It's something that millions of Christians do, but where in the world did we get such a tradition, and why do millions continue to practice it?
Chittister explains that Ash Wednesday is:
an echo of the Hebrew Testament's ancient call to sackcloth and ashes [and] a continuing cry across the centuries that life is transient, that change is urgent. We don't have enough time to waste on nothingness. We need to repent our dillydallying on the road to God... We need to get back in touch with our souls. "Remember man that you are dust and unto dust you shall return," [we heard] as the ashes trickled down our foreheads. We hear now, as Jesus proclaimed in Galilee, "Turn away from sin and believe the good news" (Mark 1:15). Ash Wednesday confronts us with what we have become and prods us to do better. Indeed, Lent... is about opening our hearts one more time to the Word of God in the hope that, this time, hearing it anew, we might allow ourselves to become new as a result of it. (118-119)
For every point along the journey, she provides helpful background, reflections, and guidance so that her readers can enter more fully and meaningfully into joining two millennia of other Christians who have followed an annual cycle of remembering and celebrating the life of Jesus.
Being a Roman Catholic, her annual journey has quite a few more markers than mine does, but she helped in adding meaning to the days and seasons that are a part of the customs of my tradition as well as helping me to know the meaning behind practices of my siblings in other branches of our faith.
Click here to view [amazon_link id="0849946077" target="_blank" ]The Liturgical Year[/amazon_link] on Amazon.
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