Tuesday, March 18, 2014

DTK Chapter 5, Part 1: The Liturgical Year

Easter Sunday 2010, Australia
At the very end of chapter 4, Smith starts shifting gears a little bit towards where he is heading with chapter 5 – a detailed look at the various liturgical practices that are contained within a worship service – what truths they are meant to embody and how they can be a helpful counter-formation to the ‘secular’ liturgies of our modern culture.  Even though I still maintain that ideas, belief, and doctrine must inform our practices (rather than the other way around as Smith claims), I found this section really interesting and helpful to think about.    I come from a pretty generic non-denominational, evangelical background that has (unfortunately, in my opinion), shed quite a few of these liturgical practices in an effort to become more ‘relevant’ and ‘applicable’.  Smith points out that when we lose some of these traditional practices, we also lose some of the ‘counter-formational’ benefit to worship. Chapter 5 is a long and meaty chapter, and even with it broken up over 5 weeks, I still doubt I will comment on every practice that Smith mentions.  I do hope to be able to comment on those that I found most interesting and significant.   And I may also take some time to comment on some of the other practices that we have found helpful in our home even if they aren’t mentioned by Smith in this chapter.  This week’s section started off with a discussion of the liturgical year.
Advent Candles in France, 2012

Smith points out several ways that following the seasons of the church year can be an effective counter-formation to our secular culture:
  • Celebrating Advent as a time of waiting, longing, and expectation is clearly a different orientation to the over-commercialization of the Season.
  • Celebrating the seasons of the church year reminds us that our Messiah “does not float in some esoteric, ahistorical heaven, but [is one] who made a dent on the calendar – and will again.”
  • Celebrating the seasons of the church year counters the idea of ‘presentism’ and living for the moment as it remembers back to the events of Christ in history and points forward to His return and coming kingdom.  (We also do this in Communion as we look back and remember what Christ has done and ‘proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes’.)  We become people of expectancy – we have the sense that this world isn’t all there is.  “Thus we are constituted as a people who live between times, remembering and hoping at the same time.”
Advent Candles in Cameroon, 2013

I don’t come from a church tradition that particularly values the seasons of the church year – maybe a nod to Advent, and Easter Sunday is a big deal of course.   In my family growing up, we pretty much tacked “Jesus” on to the rest of the hype of the season – sure, Christmas and Easter were about Jesus, but they were also about glitz and food and parties and candy and presents (and as a student heavily involved in the performing arts in high school, an over-the-top performance schedule).   We might have gone around with our nifty “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” buttons, but really, was He?  Not so much I don’t think – at least this is not the sense that I got as a child.    My husband comes from a similar background, and as we started our own family we both had the sense that something was missing.  I’d read about some of the meaningful liturgical traditions that some of the Catholic bloggers I like to follow practiced in their homes and began thinking about how we could make some of those ideas work within the context of our belief system.  I wanted that sense of beauty and rhythm and Christ-centered traditions in our home too.    We began to be intentional about bringing Jesus back as the centerpiece of our Christmas celebrations.  Several years later, we realized that Easter really gets glossed over while Christmas gets all the hype.  This seemed sort of disproportionate to us – Jesus’ death and resurrection is the focal point of the Christian faith.  If we don’t have those, we have nothing, you know?   Didn’t it deserve at least as much attention as Christmas did then?   So we began to be more intentional about observing the season of Lent as it led up to Easter.   That’s still a work in progress.  (Actually I had resolved back at the end of 2012 that 2013 would be the year of being more intentional about bringing these kinds of liturgical practices into our home…and then we moved to Africa. J  I am just now picking up the pieces.)  Both in Advent and in Lent we light candles every evening.  We do special family devotionals.  This year we’re hoping to extend our Lent meditations through the season of Easter.  We go fairly easy on the gifts, decorations, treats, and other activities – we’ve not gotten rid of them altogether, but we’ve tried to ensure that they don’t completely take over life in those seasons either.  Over the years, we have come to really love these simple family traditions – and I think that perhaps our children are starting to pick up on them too.  It didn’t even faze them that our Christmas packages from grandparents arrived 3 months late this year.  That’s not the focal point of the celebration for them.  These simple practices have helped keep our hearts focused on Christ rather than all the commercial hype of these holiday seasons and have given us something constant to hold onto in the midst of all of the moves our family has made over the last several years – this is the first time since 2009 we’ve set up our Advent and Lent-Easter candle displays in the same house (let alone same country!) two years in a row!  It’s a comforting reminder that the truth of the gospel doesn’t change even when the world all around us does.
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  1. I wish there was a "like" button. The repetitive rhytm of the liturgical year is so beautiful and really gives one a feeling of being grounded in the faith.

  2. I loved this post.

    I really think that the commercialization is the culture's attempt to fill the vacuum. They need to *do something* -- something to make it all seem special. The practices are what they are missing, I think, but they don't know it!

  3. This is a magnificent post, Jen. It is funny in a way because I am now realizing that the emphasis on liturgy was the reason that I did not embrace church in my youth, and which led to astonishment when I realized that the most important thing was a relationship with Christ. I happily followed down the Protestant path and now find myself admiring the very things that prevented me from having this relationship in the first place. We, too, have been more intentional about bringing them together in our celebration of holidays in our home and are very happy with the results thus far. Thanks for sharing a little of how this looks in your home.

    1. That's really interesting Dawn. It reminds me once again that the practices alone aren't really enough to shape us - it's practices that are informed by belief/relationship/faith first.

  4. Sorry I'm late to commenting again! I like your personal examples. I've waffled back and forth on some of the liturgical year things, especially as we belong to a tradition that intentionally and out of conviction did away with most of the observances. If we were Lutheran or some other Protestant branch that did the liturgical year traditionally (being in a "we have no heritage" branch is not really an option), then I'd be all-in. But what if one's tradition doesn't do that particular tradition? lol.

    I totally agree about Easter and have been trying to gradually ramp up our Easter celebration, too. This Christmas I made a list of the practices that make Christmas feel special in our house and tried to make a parallel for Easter....it was pretty hard! I need more Easter decorations (and what shall they even be?!) and special music and a way to build expectancy....even though Easter is late this year, I didn't really get it figured out though. :)

    1. If you're interested I'd be happy to share some things that we do for Easter. I can post it here or you can feel free to email me (lisa (dot) amer (at) att (dot) net)

      Actually any of you who are interested just let me know, I'm happy to share :)

    2. Please do share, Lisa. I'd love to know how you do it. It's always good to glean from others ideas.

    3. And Mystie, I do hear you about being a little waffly on some aspects of it, especially when you come from a heritage/tradition that has good reasons to not observe in that way. We don't do Lent in the traditional liturgical sense so much as looking at it as a season of reflection and expectancy leading to Easter similar to how we approach Advent as the season leading to Christmas. We've used this devotional by John Piper as a starting place, and are adding other things to it slowly year-by-year. http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/lenten-lights Maybe I should just do a post on what we are doing/planning to do, although it may be a couple weeks until I can get to it (our mission's annual conference starts tomorrow for the next week and it's a very full-on schedule.)

  5. Thank you for the reminder about Lenten Lights, Jen! I can't believe that I forgot about it! We did it weekly last year using candles and it brought so much more meaning to Easter for us. While it's too late to do it weekly this year I can still plan to implement it Easter week. And Lisa - I, too, would love to hear your ideas. And Jen - when you get around to it I would like to read your post. And yes to your response to me above - my experience has shown me personally that it is the faith that gives worship and practices meaning. While liturgies once turned me away from the church as merely habits without meaning, now that I know what they represent I can embrace many of them while continuing to adhere to the faith which led me to Jesus.

  6. I've tried to put together a list of the things that we do, some of them leading up to Easter, some for Easter day itself. It's very, very long. Just remember, you asked ;)

    1. I realize that several of you come from traditions that do not fast as a community, so fasting may or may not be something you'd like to do, but one of the results of giving up certain foods (specifically meat and dairy) is that we have a few special treats that we only eat for Easter and I think special foods are a pretty big deal, especially as we purposely try to create family traditions. The one I look forward to most is called Pascha Cheese - which is a delicious spread made from farmers cheese, cream, butter, sugar... lots of goodies! (keep in mind that we've been fasting from this stuff every day for these 40 day - not just Fridays). It's a wonderful treat and the kids really look forward to making it together every year. The recipe I use is here:


    We also usually cook a nice big leg of lamb on Easter. :) Other meats, like ham, sausages, roasts, etc. are main features for our feasting as well.

    2. Connected to Lent, but not really to do with fasting, is a special calendar that we have. There are 40 days of the fast, so we have 40 felt pieces (the calendar is called Path to Pascha, so each piece is one pebble on the path). Each pebble has a picture on it that corresponds to the day's Bible reading. This is something that can easily be done without the actual calendar - you could use any little way, even a paper chain, to mark the passing of days - the important thing here is the scripture readings, which are short daily readings from the gospels that take us through Jesus' ministry. The listing for the readings is too long to post here, but please do email me (my email is in my comment above) if you're interested in the readings for each day.

    3. I'm assuming you probably all dye eggs (a symbol of new life), but I thought I'd mention that we dye ours red and one of the reasons is this:

    After Jesus' ascension when the Apostles were traveling to spread the gospel, Mary Magdalene traveled to Rome and asked for an audience with Caesar. Those who had an audience with him always brought some kind of gift. She brought an egg. She spoke to him about Jesus and implored him to believe in the gospel. He told her that he would sooner believe that the egg in her hand was red than that a man had actually risen from the dead. The egg in her hand turned red right before his eyes. He still didn't believe, but this miracle is part of the basis for our color choice. :)

    4. The week before Easter is probably the most wonderful week of the entire year. If you are not Orthodox, you can still take the focus of each day and either do Bible readings, or some simple discussion/activity with these things in mind. So I'll list the focus of each day and what we do in church and you'll probably easily see things you can take and adapt to use at home.

    Beginning with Palm Sunday we are in church every day, and each day has a focus:

    *Sunday evening, Monday and Tuesday we focus on Jesus as the Bridegroom of the Church and we have beautiful and beloved hymns that we sing, focusing on being prepared to meet Him when he comes.

    * On Thursday we have liturgy and the focus here is Judas' betrayal and also remembering Jesus washing the disciples' feet. The priest comes out at the end and washes the feet of each of the altar boys who were serving that day.

  7. (I guess I wrote too much, so I've had to divide this into two parts)

    *Thursday night (which in liturgical time counts as Friday, since liturgically speaking, the new day begins in the evening like it says in Genesis), we have what is called the reading of the 12 Passion Gospels. These are the all the readings that deal with Jesus trial, sentencing and crucifixion. The service is long, and beautiful and somewhere in the middle one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful hymns of all time is sung. I'll include the text here because it's not to be missed:

    Today is suspended on a tree He who suspended the earth upon the waters.
    The King of the angels is decked with a crown of thorns.
    He who wraps the heavens in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery.
    He who freed Adam in the Jordan is slapped on the face.
    The Bridegroom of the Church is affixed to the Cross with nails.
    The Son of the Virgin is pierced by a spear.
    We worship Thy passion, O Christ.
    We worship Thy passion, O Christ.
    We worship Thy passion, O Christ.
    Show us also Thy glorious resurrection.

    Here is a link if you'd like to listen to it (sung in both Greek and English):


    And here is another beautiful one (slightly different translation, only English):


    *On Friday we have short services all day (in between which we dye eggs and decorate the bier, which I mention below) and in the evening, the icon of Jesus which was hung upon a large cross at the Passion Gospels service, is taken down from the cross and placed in a large bier which has been decorated with flowers. In the evening we sing lamentations around this "tomb of Christ". These lamentations again are so beautiful - so incredibly poetic. Again, I can share text and music if anyone is interested.

    *Saturday morning we again have Divine Liturgy and this time, for the first time, the priest is wearing white vestments (he's been in purple all through Lent) and we have a joyous service as we celebrate the descent of Jesus into Hades to release the captives. The priest processes around the church scattering bay leaves (a sign of victory).

    *And finally, Saturday night, close to midnight we come back for the Feast of Feasts. We have been anticipating for so long that we just can't wait until Sunday morning! Here we sing this hymn, which is sung multiple times at every church service for the next 40 days (again let me know if you want music):

    Christ is risen from the dead
    And by His death He has trampled death
    And unto those in the tombs He has granted life!

    The music is so joyful and triumphant and rhythmic - I can just picture a large procession of Byzantine Christians marching through the city singing with joy!

    *Sunday day, around noon we have our final Holy Week service in which the gospel is read in as many different languages as we can find readers for to rejoice over the fact that the gospel is to be spread throughout the whole world.

    5. The last thing I'll mention is that the Easter celebration is not over on Easter Sunday. The entire week afterwards is called Bright Week and it's one of great joy. And for the next 40 days we all greet each other with the words: Christ is Risen! and the response is "Truly, He is Risen!" So the celebration continues for quite a long time. :)

    I'm sorry if this got too long. I get long winded when I'm talking about my favorite things. It's a joyful thing for me to be able to share about what is really the highlight of every year for me, really the highlight of the Christian life: that Christ is Risen!
    In fact, this time of year so overshadows anything else for me that I would do everything in my power not to miss it. My college graduation fell on Easter weekend and I opted to skip commencement so I could be in church for Pascha. There was no contest in making that choice. :)

  8. Wow, Lisa! Thank you so much for taking the time to share. I have only perused your list but look forward to giving it fuller attention over the coming days. Just wanted to let you know that your efforts are greatly appreciated!!