On the Essence of the Seasons

Here’s a section from a chapter on the essence of the Calendar. It’s not the full thing because I’m still dithering about how to talk about the divisions of the day. I’m being sorely tempted to talk about the eightfold division that we see talked about in the late medieval devotional material and how various points in the day were linked with complementary Scriptural notions and narratives (as represented in the bit from the Myroure below). And yet, to what degree those divisions appear within our current prayer book are tenuous at best. I’d argue that they can inform our current book, but it still seems like a bit of an external imposition. I’ll have to keep thinking about that. In any case, here’s a section on the seasons.

———————

Now, I want to talk about the Christian year from two different perspectives. The first relates to its connection with our doctrine, this seconds relates to its connection with our emotion. We grasp the church year most completely only when we see both aspects, and when the two are understood to be complementary parts of a whole.

Living the creed

Modern Christians like to fight over the creed. What exactly is it, and what is it for? Most often, one of three perspectives prevails: either the creed is a laundry list of ideas, or it is a set of litmus tests for true believers, or is something to be transcended and left behind. Let me suggest that none of these options quite capture the role and purpose of the creed in the life of faith. I believe that our major problems with the creed are due to the fact that we have disconnected it from its proper function: it is a framework to guide our reading of the Scriptures. It turns out that some of the greatest problems and heresies of the early church came about not in spite of the reading of Scripture, but precisely because of it! That is, the Scriptures can be read in many different ways. We can approach it from many different angles. Once we acknowledge – as we must – that Scripture contains both literal and metaphorical material, then one of our chief tasks is to determine which is which. The creed represents a set of interpretive boundaries. It doesn’t tell us what to believe about everything, it just nails down certain points of controversy and renders a clear judgment on the church’s perspective.

It’s worth giving some emphasis to the “points of controversy” notion; I’ve often heard questions and concerns about why the life and ministry of Jesus is not discussed in the creeds. It’s not because the church didn’t think these were important, rather, it’s because there weren’t fundamental arguments about it. The orthodox and heterodox alike believe that Jesus lived, taught, and worked wonders – there was no controversy about these things, and hence no need for clarification.

Rather, the creed addresses specific points of controversy that have practical implications both for theology and for Christian living. For instance, when we confess that God is the creator of the heavens and the earth, we are confirming our belief that the creation of the material world came about through the God who is the father of Jesus Christ and not some evil, lesser god who sought to trap the spirits and souls of humanity in flesh. This is in deliberate contrast to a dualistic impulse which tried to see all spirit as good and all matter as evil and was convinced that no good God would get himself tangled up in material things. But that’s precisely what we believe! Not only did God get himself tangled up in material things, but took the material world so seriously that he became incarnate within it. But that conviction begins with the belief that God is the God of creation and that creation is not what we need to be saved from.

Too often, we only note what the creed says – and lose sight of the mistaken interpretive moves that it prevents. We get so caught up in arguing about what it does say, that we forget that it is simultaneously shutting down other lines of interpretation that can have disastrous pastoral consequences and skew our understanding of and our relationship with the God whom the creed confesses.

So what does this all have to do with the Christian Year?

Quite simply, one aspect of the Christian Year is that it is a temporal embodiment of the interpretive doctrines of the creed. Almost each line of the creed has a corresponding feast or fast. For those who feel a little wary about the creed, this facet of the Church Year should, actually, come as good news! What the creeds state quickly, sparsely, the feasts explore at more leisure. The traditional liturgical material that grew up around these feasts reflect a more poetic, meditative approach that gives greater nuance and the opportunity for deeper reflection about the meaning of the event or concept celebrated by it.

Let me give you an example… The feast of the Epiphany concludes the season of Christmas and begins and emphasis on how Christ alternately revealed himself and was revealed to the world. The early church connected the feast of Epiphany with three different biblical events: Matthew’s story of the Magi arriving to honor the infant Jesus, John’s story of the Wedding of Cana identified as “the first of his signs…and revealed his glory” (john 2:11), and the Baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan which is at least mentioned in all four Gospels. While these Gospel stories were eventually expanded to their own Sundays, an anonymous liturgist operating perhaps in the 6th or 7th century wove these narratives into a single antiphon as a way of driving to the heart of the feats:

This day is the Church joined unto the Heavenly Bridegroom, since Christ hath washed away her sins in Jordan; the wise men hasten with gifts to the marriage supper of the king; and they that sit at meat together make merry with water turned into wine. Alleluia.

Using the central notion of the wedding feast, the doctrine of the incarnation is made even more relational as the wedding of Christ and the Church by means of the sacrament of Baptism. The first miracle of Christ reflects the joy of the banquet, and the gift-bearing Magi hint at the inclusion of the Gentiles into God’s promise of reconciliation. This is the sort of liturgical play that helps us return again to the creeds with greater appreciation.

Of course, with Cranmer’s great simplification of the Church services, we lost sight of many of these liturgical gems, but the last hundred years has seen a renewed interest in their perspective and they can be found in several devotional resources like the Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book.

The Seasons and the Religious Affections

Doctrines—like those revealed in the creeds—are an important part of the Christian faith. They’re less important for their own sake and more because they help us get a clearer sense of this relationship that we are developing and the identity of the Triune God to whom we relate. More than being an exercise in right-thinking, the Christian faith has been described as a particular pattern of deep emotions shaped over time.

Emotions are tricky things, and the language that we use to talk about them is not always clear or precise. Feelings, having feelings, listening to your feelings is—and must be—an important part of the religious life as well as the whole process of self-discovery. However, we’ve all seen forms of religion that rely upon emotional manipulation—whether that manipulation is based on guilt or a feigned joy—and that’s not what I’m talking about. Emotions, like thoughts, are often fleeting things over which we have little control; they arise within us and we respond to them, express them, give vent to them, or not as we have ability. The affections are more than this; they are more like emotional habits, patterns of feeling that we choose and cultivate. There’s a difference between feeling anger and choosing to live out of an attitude of anger; similarly, there’s a difference between feeling gratitude and choosing to cultivate it as a way of being. The Christian affections, as identified by theologian Don Saliers in his work The Soul in Paraphrase, are gratitude, holy fear and penitence, joy and suffering, and love of God and neighbor.

In what may seem like a paradox, an important part of this “feeling” work is about ideas, thoughts, and doctrines. Just as what we know about a person may influence how we feel towards them, what we know and the ideas we hold about God shapes our feelings in our relationship with the divine. Because of this interrelation between thinking and feeling, the affections are a constellation of beliefs, of doctrines, and feelings that are shaped and reinforced by language that not only provoke emotions within us, but also offer us images and descriptions of reality that help us understand what living out of these perspectives looks like.

When we examine the emotional atmosphere of the great seasons of the Church Year, we recognize that each season provides its own particular entre into one or more of the affections. Lent disciplines us towards penitence; Easter explores holy joy. Advent teaches us about hope and expectation; Christmas also returns to joy—but from a slightly different angle from Easter. These seasons give us an opportunity to concentrate on an affection, to cultivate it, and to understand it more thoroughly. Too, recognizing the seasons as affectional frameworks helps free us from a particular kind of seasonal guilt. Sometimes, I’ll catch myself rejoicing in the Spring air and newly-warm sunshine and feel bad that I’m enjoying myself so much during Lent. Conversely, holidays—particularly Christmas and Easter—can be difficult for those who have recently lost loved ones or who experience familial conflict at these times, contradicting the joyous intent of the Church’s celebrations. If we understand the seasons as training opportunities rather than emotional straight-jackets, we can free ourselves from this unnecessary guilt; it’s okay to feel something different—to experience a whole range of emotions despite an affectional intention of the season as a whole when we understand it as such. Neither our emotions nor the affections should be restricted by the seasons.  Rather, we focus upon particular affections as we move through particular seasons in order that these patterns may become more naturally a feature of our long-term way of being in the presence of God.

The seasons cultivate particular affections in a variety of ways; several factors all converge to create the emotional tenor of a season. The liturgical color often provides an initial first clue as to the season’s character. The bright colors of Christmas and Easter give visual cues as do the darker, more somber hues of Advent and Lent. The use of unflowered greens in Advent and an absence of floral decoration in Lent provide further visual indications of the Church’s mood as you glance around the sanctuary. Music, too, can sometimes change. In the great cathedrals where multiple services were occurring at a time and where the chancel organ played a supplemental role (rather than a dominant role as now) its tones were often suppressed during Advent and Lent. More telling is the use of certain musical elements. The Gloria in exclesis is one of the Church’s great songs of rejoicing and its absence is one of the ways that the Church communicates the time’s tone. It is used at any occasion in Christmas and Easter; not at all in Advent and Lent. The traditional rule that it is only used on Sundays in green seasons elevates Sundays within these seasons of patient endurance. The canticles at Morning Prayer also help shape the season’s mood with some being more appropriate at some times rather than others (we’ll look at this more closely when we go through the Office). One of the more subtle means for creating a season’s mood is in the selection of the biblical readings in both the Office and the Eucharist. For instance, Isaiah’s prophecies of the coming Messiah have been a feature of Advent since its creation while Lamentation is a consistent feature of Holy Week.

All of these elements combine to focus us on certain ideas, certain doctrines, and certain feelings that feed into the composite character of an affection. And the affections together with their sometimes complementary, sometimes sequential, movements between love and holy fear, penitence and joy, form the basic grammar of the Christian way of being.

 

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About Derek Olsen

I'm a layman within the Episcopal Church with a PhD in New Testament and an interest in most things medieval, monastic, and liturgical. My chief job is keeping up with my priestly wife and our two awesome kids. In addition to that, I earn a living, run the St Bede's Breviary, listen to loud goth/industrial music, and do some stuff for the church. I currently serve as Secretary to the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music where I'm also co-chair of the Calendar committee and chair of the Digital Publications committee.
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7 Responses to On the Essence of the Seasons

  1. I love this one! That’s a great approach to the Creed, too, I think – to relate it to the Great Church Year (and then via the GCY to “religious affections”). I actually see the Creed through “religious affections” these days, I think – but it’s nice to have that additional, Seasonal, resonance as well.

    Love that antiphon, too! I’ve never seen that one before….

    • Derek Olsen says:

      Thanks! Yes, that’s a great antiphon. That one jumped out at me a few years ago when I was working through the Christmastide liturgies for the dissertation. I made sure it got included in the SAPB along with some other choice ones.

  2. Rdr. James Morgan says:

    Just a thought on the Creed. The Eastern Orthodox know only one, the Nicene, and it is said or sung at every Liturgy, not at the offices. I like to think of it as a song of praise that details our love of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And we don’t proclaim it right after the Gospel, but just before the Anaphora (Consecration). The priest or deacon says: Let us love one another, that we may convess….And the people reply: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity one in essence and undivided. Then the Creed.
    PS In every way, a good post, Derek.

    • I really like that intro, too.

      I love the Creed, actually. I see it the same way James does these days : as a mystical meditation and a song of praise. I’m glad we say it so I can hear it myself, and so I can remember the beautiful, mystical basis for our faith : the Incarnation itself. (This is why I like The Angelus, too.)

      After all, when saying private prayers, you don’t often think about these things – so I m glad there’s a time when we do.

  3. Derek Olsen says:

    That’s cool! I didn’t know that’s where it had been placed in the East. I like that intro–it strengthens the notion of a common faith bound up in a common concern for one another which is, itself, a communal expression of the right belief. Good stuff…

  4. Pingback: The Anatomy of the Calendar, Part 1 | haligweorc

  5. Pingback: The Anatomy of the Calendar, Part 1 | haligweorc

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