Thursday, November 26, 2009

Calendar Crunch

It’s crunch time again, when two calendars slam into each other at the intersection of seasons.

The one calendar is the Christian Year: starting with Advent, on to Christmas, Epiphany, Ordinary Time, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and more Ordinary Time until we return to Advent—and numerous special days along the way.

The other calendar is the one on your desk or hanging on the wall, starting with New Years Day, Valentine’s Day, President’s Day, Mothers Day, July Fourth, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve—and numerous special days along the way.

It’s easy to see where they bump into each other. One of those times is hard upon us; actually it’s already begun.

Step into a mall today and you’ll see all the sales hawking potential Christmas presents. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear the familiar tunes of Christmas carols serenading the shoppers. Drive around the neighborhood, and Christmas lights and decorations are popping up. It began this year around Halloween, and will continue with increased intensity up until December 24 at midnight—when all will stop abruptly (except for the lights which will twinkle on). This is the season of preparation for Christmas (a.k.a. ‘The Holiday Season”) in the secular world.

In the Christian Year, the season of preparation for Christmas is Advent. So far so good—the two calendars seem to be running in parallel lanes. But one swerves. In the church, people want to sing Christmas carols during the four weeks of Advent—after all, they hear them at the mall, why not at church? They also want to do other Christmassy things like pageants and parties, visits from Santa, and so forth. What happens is that we’re celebrating Christmas before Christmas. The two calendars crunch, and the church’s calendar gets the dents.

Then we arrive at a big day in the Christian Year, Christmas. Services of worship, prayer, celebration of gifts of love, ours, Gods, and singing praise to God for the miracle. And then. . . nothing. Crunch! We still have eleven more days of Christmas—it’s a season, remember? Yet it feels like we’ve already finished with Christmas.

What happens is that the secular calendar smashes into the Christian Year changing its contours. It happens not only at this season. Two other dangerous times, for example, are July Fourth on a Sunday when parishioners expect if not demand high patriotic themes and songs in the service. Then there’s Mother’s Day when Mom is to be idolized. (Note: I was invited to be a guest preacher last Mother’s Day. I took the occasion to preach on the radical, subversive text of Mary’s Song (Luke 1:46-55). It wasn’t what they expected.)

The point is that it’s a struggle to be faithful to the Christian Year, to follow that calendar closely as we track the life of Christ from birth to life and ministry to death and resurrection, and then experience the life of the church in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is a life-changing, faith-building journey, and we should not allow ourselves to be caught in the crunch or run off the road when the secular calendar swerves into our territory.

How do you educate your congregation about the Christian Year? Do you use the liturgical colors for the seasons? What other means do you use to make the Christian Year prominent?


  1. Happily, we Presbyterians attend more to Advent than we did in previous years. In our congregation, we sing Advent Hymns and Choir Anthems, have a solid scriptural liturgy around the lighting of the Advent Wreath, with its growing light. By Advent 4, we sing Christmas Hymns/carols. The Lectionary texts begin to shift at that time as well. In Advent 1, 2, and 3, we have already experienced the admonition to watch and wait, John the Baptist's call to repent and believe. Chrismas Eve through Epiphany, the congregation sings Christmas carols and is focused upon Incarnation.

    I think it's inevitable that the culture will walk into the church- and although I once served a church where we had a Christmas Day Service, I don't do that anymore. So many pastors are away the Sunday after Christmas- we're part of the reason that Christmas Eve gets full throttle, and it feels like a festival rather than a season. We and the folks we serve are stretched.

    Presbyterians have come a long way with the liturgical year. BTW- I completely agree about 4th of July and Mother's Day. If we do anything with them, the 4th of July should be humble- confessing United States arrogance. Mother's Day could be the way you preached it, Don, and/or treated in the prayers as a pastoral occasion for those who grieve or find that day a struggle.

  2. Addressing the question of secular vs. Christian Christmas is on a plane of thought purer than I'll admit to.
    Yes, there is a conflict (crunch) when the two calendars meet on the 25th of December, but to think that the 25th is the end of the secular, and begins 12 more days of Christmas for us "Christians?" Gimme a (realistic) break!
    We go lickity-split from the birth to the wise men to the Epiphany etc. until Christ disappears until he's 12, then off to the marriage at Cana... all in how much time?
    I think it's a lot easier for us believers to go with the secular flow but emphasize the love of neighbor, the helping the disadvantaged and so forth in the time leading up to the 25th. Let's sing some Christmas carols with gusto, too. Advent carols only? Uh-uh. I don't know anybody who wants to sing Christmas carols AFTER Christmas.
    I heard a priest the other day explain it this way: Christmas wasn't chosen to coincide with a pagan harvest or with Hanukkah or with some other feast. The Messiah was to die during the same month he was conceived. Since Christ died during Passover -- say, March 25, then being conceived on March 25 makes 9 months later December 25.
    Probably the most important question is whether we believe any or all of this story or have we fallen prey to a myth like so many others? Whether or not we really get "into" Advent or not is a minor point.
    I for one am glad to see my church emphasizing Advent when for years we neglected it entirely. I go along with the comments about Mother's Day and Thanksgiving too. Sometimes it looks like just another "Hallmark moment," an excuse to sell more cards (or toys or whatever).
    I take this all into account when deciding what hymns and anthems we choose and it's not easy all the time.


Thanks for joining in the conversation!