Monday, August 1, 2011

Calendar Clutter

The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) had an impact on the Roman Catholic Church to be sure, but it also sent shock waves through the rest of Christianity. For Protestants, the document on the liturgy was a wake-up call alerting many to take a fresh look at Sunday morning and other worship experiences.

One immediate result was increased conversation between Roman priests and Presbyterian and other clergy. In our neck of the woods the dialogue started with priests asking about sermon preparation and pastors inquiring about the drama of the Eucharist. Right away we realized we had much to learn from each other. The discussion went on to many other things, including the calendar of the Christian Year.

In 1969, Pope Paul VI approved the “General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the New General Roman Calendar” as given by Vatican II.

Roman Catholics are still arguing about this action because it represented, in the minds of some (many?), a drastic change. For example, some ninety saints no longer appeared in the general calendar. Missing in action were notables such as St. Nicholas, St. Christopher, and even St. George of England.

The reason for this “adjustment” was to reduce the commemorations that clutter up the calendar and obscure the basic and central celebration of the redemptive act of God in Jesus Christ on the Lord’s Day. Sunday is the foundation of the calendar on which are built the major seasons and special days.

Now, all this is well and good, but what does it have to do with us Protestants, especially those of us in the Reformed tradition?

In one way, we Protestants have gone in the opposite direction from the Romans. We have historically challenged or even eliminated special days and seasons, and have rarely devoted a day to commemoration of a person. Christmas was not celebrated until the latter part of the nineteenth century by many Puritan-Calvinist Protestants, ignored because it was originally a pagan festival. In some circles, the same was true of Easter, which retains the name of the pagan God, Eostre. Many thought the only real worship took place on Sundays.

After Vatican II, however, we began rethinking our liturgy, and even Presbyterians and other Reformed folks have been broadening our calendars.

For one thing, we are paying more attention to the seasons of the year.

In the church where I began my ministry half a century ago, Advent was not observed, and Christmas was a one-day event. Few people in the congregation could spell Epiphany, and fewer had any notion what it meant. Lent was up and running, but Easter was just a single day and not a season. Pentecost was a puzzle.

Now the basic structure of the Christian Year is more evident in Presbyterian and Reformed churches, built around the two seasons of Christmas and Easter, with preparatory seasons of Advent and Lent, and culminating days of Epiphany and Pentecost.

A few other days of import were also included, but only a few. Pope Paul VI had it right, that we should not have so much going on in the calendar as to make clutter that will obscure the Lord’s Day and its primacy. It’s a directive that we all do well to heed, Protestants as well as Roman Catholics.

There is, however, another kind of clutter in our calendars, and it comes from the “secular” side. How many preachers will dare go through a service on Mother’s Day without bestowing laud and honor to the moms in the room? Even Labor Day, Fourth of July, Memorial Day and other public observances sometimes elbow their way into Christian worship, preoccupying and distracting worshippers from the main message the Lord’s Day proclaims.

It happens to the seasons of the year as well. Advent is often so overlaid with gift-giving emphases that the idea of preparing for Christmas is distorted. Christmas itself can just vanish as the wrappings are taken to the trash, and the message of the Incarnation is blurred at best. Easter gets short shrift when it’s shortened to one day and filled with colored hen’s eggs, bunnies and bonnets, and the rock of the Resurrection is not seen as the foundation of worship every week.

So, the question for us is, how can we reduce the clutter in the calendar, in Paul VI’s words, “restoring Sunday to its original rank and place of esteem in the minds of all as the ‘first holyday of all’”?

1 comment:

  1. I've been doing a lot of thinking about this, Don. I'm becoming convinced that we priests and ministers cannot preach the restoration of Sunday to its original place of esteem while we suffer the same clutter of calendar and commitments.

    I do not believe we can preach Sunday as a holy day without preaching the commandment to keep Sabbath... AND practicing Sabbath ourselves. I read Eugene Petersen's memoir "The Pastor" recently and resonated with the way he included his congregation in his own practice of Sabbath by asking for their help to keep Monday as a day of prayer and holy play.

    Too often those of us who lead in worship fail to lead by example when it comes to keeping the Lord's day holy. And if we can't do this one "simple" thing - how can we keep the Lord or his day central in our lives much less stand before our congregations and demand that they do so?


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