The liturgical year: training for life in this world and the next

Halden Doerge’s latest post, The impotence of the liturgical year, is well worth reading. And why I have neither the time nor the inclination to give a full response, I did want to post just a few of my initial reactions. To publish one’s thoughts on-the-run, as it were, is always a somewhat dangerous thing to do in blogdom, but what the salami; it’s close to Christmas, and my responsibility-guard is down.

What Halden wishes to affirm needs to be affirmed: that Advent and the Church’s liturgical calendar as a whole is, properly conceived, about God and not about a fascination with or idolatry about liturgical time per se; that God in his freedom may meet us like he did Zechariah, i.e., while ‘going about the usual liturgical practices of [the] calendar’; we ought not presume that God in his freedom will meet us like he did Zechariah, i.e., while ‘going about the usual liturgical practices of [the] calendar’; that the liturgical calendar functions as something like an icon insofar as we are invited to look through rather than at it, etc., etc., … So three or more cheers for Halden. Halden may also be right when he suggests that some of the claims made by ‘liturgical enthusiasts’ for the efficacy of calendar observance are exaggerated and often appear to lack any empirical testing (I think that the Bible calls this ‘fruit’; the Bible also encourages us to look for such). While I confess that I’ve never actually met such enthusiasts (I haven’t met most people), it is probable that in a world where people can get excited about watching synchronised swimming that some such people do exist.

But I want to defend the claim, made by Hauerwas and others (there is some irony here for it was Halden, among others, who inspired me to read Hauerwas again after some years of neglect), that living in a deeper awareness of the story of Jesus and of the Church does, in the freedom and grace of God, ‘do’ something. Specifically, it trains us. It immerses us into a gospel-forming rhythm. And that is precisely something that the Church’s calendar encourages (rather than ‘does’) too. Like praying the Lord’s Prayer, or fasting, the Church’s calendar calls us into the river with others and watches to see if we are learning to swim in it yet, or otherwise. It does not turn us into liturgical automatons. Again, it trains us. It trains us in the way of ordinary gospel-posture. (It seems significant to me that the bulk of the Church’s time is ‘ordinary’). To claim that keeping Church time ‘does’ something is different to claiming that such time-keeping has some kind of magical power, something akin to a superstitious understanding of baptism articulated by some (in less enlightened times than our own ;-)). The former is to say something about the way that faith understands God’s way with us; the latter is simply atheistic.

I understand that every time we come to the Lord’s Table, for example, which is where the entire Church story is enacted in concentrated form, we are offered training in how to live sacramentally in the world, to unearth its idolatries and to expose what William Stringfellow (in Free in Obedience) calls the ‘transience of death’s power in the world’. I agree that the training itself doesn’t, in Halden’s words, ‘just do it’, i.e., do the work in and of itself of making us more like the discipling community intended by the training ‘event’, but I’m not sure that the fault (if we are looking for such) here lies with either the teacher nor with the training manual. I think that Jamie Smith’s thesis, in Desiring the Kingdom, is basically right. To be baptised into the liturgical life of the community is to be immersed into its habit-forming practices, practices which are invitational, which are undertaken with a view to fostering transformation of both mind and performance, and have something like what we might call eschatological reserve or groan. In other words, they are the gift of the Spirit, and so bear the print of the Spirit’s hand. As one of my students put it to me recently, the Church is called to be ‘a foretaste of a community of right relationships’, not the kingdom arrived! This begs the question of how the Church’s observance of ‘real’ time prepares and directs one for life as it shall be: ‘For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known’ (1 Cor 13.12).

Or think of the Supper, the central act of the Christian community. As the community gathers around the Table, we are offered, among other things, training in how to forgive others. God creates koinonia around the Table in which, as Hauerwas and Willimon argue in Resident Aliens (sorry Dan but I think that Hauerwas has a point here, even if his response to you was less than satisfying), ‘even small, ordinary occurrences every Sunday, like eating together in Eucharist, become opportunities to have our eyes opened to what God is up to in the world and to be part of what God is doing. If we get good enough at forgiving the strangers who gather around the Lord’s Table, we hope that we shall be good at forgiving the strangers who gather with us around the breakfast table. Our everyday experience of life in the congregation is training in the arts of forgiveness; it is everyday, practical confirmation of the truthfulness of the Christian vision’ (p. 91), and it is an invitation to live as if the one who first appeared as a stranger at the Emmaus breakfast was serious when he preached the so-called Sermon on the Mount.

As a side note, Jaroslav Pelikan (in The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 4: Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300–1700), p. 124) recalls an interesting point argued by Nicholas de Cusa. While de Cusa supported communion in only one species (bread), he linked Eucharistic practice with the health of the church. Pelikan summarises de Cusa’s position thus: ‘When the love of the church was at its peak, believers communicated often and under both species; when it was only warm, they received more rarely and by means of intinction; and now that it was merely tepid, they received even less often and under one species. Thus, “the usage was commensurate with the love of the church”’.

Perhaps it is no coincidence, afterall, that St Paul comes back to the Supper as he deals with the Corinthians and their train-wreck of a church. We either feast on Christ, or we feast on each other!

4 comments

  1. J, I like the concept of ‘training’ but I’m suspicious of how cognitive it might sound. As long as we’re talking about training us in a new encounter with the very structures of reality. As Thomas a Kempis might suggest, the liturgical calendar reveals and trains us, creatures thoroughly situated in the Way of Nature, in the everyday structure of the Way of Grace.

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  2. Joey – Now why couldn’t I just say all that I did with your economy of words? Thanks.

    Reno – I too wondered if ‘training’ may be so construed, though chose to run with the word in hope that it might be able to carry a wider meaning. I still believe it can.

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  3. I’m not sure that the word ‘training’ solves Halden’s dilemma. Training is presumable not the presentation of ‘ideas’ (information). Training is practice and formation which transforms. Thus I take the liturgists to be claiming that God uses these routines to form human identity and community. If that is true, then Halden’s challenge is why does it look otherwise? Is this claim about liturgy an empirical claim and if so what would falsify it? If we are ‘trained in how to forgive’ around the table, surely we ought to see that communities which are eucharistic are more forgiving (i.e. I share Halden’s anxieties when I look at the appearance of the church). (see also my comments on his blogpost)

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