Lately I’ve been wondering what would happen if we framed the liturgical seasons as a practical teaching tool for humaning instead of what the Encyclopedia Britannica defines them as an “annual cycle of seasons and days observed in the Christian churches in commemoration of the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ and of his virtues as exhibited in the lives of the saints.”
The latter definition gives me a very ‘there will be a test on this’ feeling. Don’t be the person to say ‘alleluia’ at the fraction during Lent. Be sure you know to add TWO alleluias to responses during Easter. Saint Nicholas Day is December 6th and THAT is where Santa originates from so don’t be going all wild on December 25th with his arrival, that is Jesus’ day. We often celebrate the transfiguration TWICE a year and if you are lucky you get to preach on it both times without having a good grasp on what the heck happened on that mountain. Then there is this long stretch of green after Pentecost (don’t forget to wear red that Sunday!) where it’s just ‘normal church’ and we call it the ‘growing season’ but we all kinda wonder why our big holidays are not spread out more since the liturgical seasons were created by people and not God and when Christmas and Easter get too close together it feels rushed and when it’s too far apart sometimes it falls on spring break and that’s never a good thing. And why is Easter always a different day?
These are all things I think about. A lot. It’s the framework I’ve seen the church year through for my entire life. A checklist of sorts. Get excited for Jesus, celebrate his birth, get sad for Jesus, honor his death, EMPTY tomb, Thomas doubts, Jesus ascends, Holy Spirit comes… REPEAT.
Since life has felt like Lent for the past two years, my heart has had to rethink how to move through these seasons. I am beginning to view them as a practice for my life based on Jesus’. When I was a runner I used to imagine that I was just getting myself prepared for the inevitable moment I would need to outrun someone trying to capture me. My son will sometimes talk through exactly what he will do if, by chance, he becomes stuck in between a mama bear and her cubs. I have a friend dedicated to outdoor survival just in case she becomes lost in the woods as a person who does not even hike.
The liturgical practices seem much more helpful than outrunning an imaginary abductor, fending off a bear, or building a fire to purify drinking water.
In Advent we practice anticipation and receiving the unexpected. We practice the experience of what we’ve been hoping for, ending up being much different than we imagined. We practice recognizing the upside down Kingdom of God. A baby is our redeemer. Our perfectly planned life looks nothing like we planned and is somehow still good and holy. We worship a God of the unexpected.
In Lent we practice mourning, simplicity, and intention. We recognize our own mortality. While for some mortality is a momentary stomach drop in the car pick-up line realizing someday every single person surrounding us, even our precious babies, will die. Then we snap out of it as soon as backpacks are dropped and days are debriefed. For others mortality is a faithful companion they carry with them through treatments or grief or pain. Death is inevitable and the practice of how we walk with it and where it can lead us is transformative. For much of the past two years the entire world has been entrenched in a kind of Lent. There has been sacrifice, there has been loss, there has been heartbreak and anger, and there has been lots of grief.
Through all of our Holy Days and seasons we practice being human. The inevitable arc of our own lives and those around us. Birth and mountain-top moments and final meals and betrayal. All of our liturgical cycles and seasons can line up with our own lived experiences but they keep moving in ways that our own lives do not. I was a pregnant person during Advent TWICE and it was magical. Mary and I were totally in sync. But I’ve had 35 other Advents to understand and practice anticipation and hope and am better at recognizing it when it shows up in July as an unlikely friendship or as a mid-march snow storm. I lost a dear friend on Ash Wednesday seven years ago and the liturgical season mirrored my heart but I also sat vigil as my mother transitioned from life to death in the blazing August heat.
And now, as we walk into Easter, we once again join the practice of THE WORST THINGS IS NOT THE LAST THING. I wrote about the experience of Easter two years ago and how Jesus rose but we were all still stuck at home. I had no idea how long that Lent would last. In many ways we are still in it. But here comes Easter, again. It is a reminder to us all that the metaphorical deaths we experience constantly as humans (friendships ending, lost jobs, failed classes, family strife, disease) are redeemable. The practice of Easter is critical in our ability to move through life. Jesus showed us how we can fear, we can suffer, we can be betrayed, we can fall very short of others and our own expectations, and still we can rise.
I often think of Jesus as the 33-year-old man he was and what he would think of The Church today. I wonder if he chuckles at the altar linens or if those beautiful flowers on the altar mean much to him. I know we get it wrong a lot in church and I hope we always strive to do better but I also believe church is one of the only places we get to practice doing life. Each year we practice welcoming unexpected salvation on Christmas, we name our mortality on Ash Wednesday, we walk through unavoidable pain on Good Friday, and we resurrect on Easter. I think Jesus wants that for us and for our children. I think he wants us to practice doing life together so that when it happens, for real, we can also do that together but we’ve already had some practice.
This Easter I am practicing resurrection. I am practicing hope. I am practicing knowing that no matter how bad it gets there is redemption, even after death. I want my children to practice, too. I want them to know how all the seasons are holy and natural and universal. I want them to know that when their personal Lents arrive, Easter will follow. I want them to sing songs of celebration with their friends when they are surprised by unexpected joy and to look at their lives knowing that everything,
Is a season.