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The Liturgical Year
By Joan Chittister
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2009 Joan Chittister
All rights reserved.
THE SPIRALING ADVENTURE OF THE SPIRITUAL LIFE
Life is made up of the turning of the years. We watch our lives go by, a phase, a stage, a year at a time, and we mark the meaning of the year by the way we feel as we spend it. We talk about "the kind of year it's been." As if one year could possibly repeat another, as if all the parts of the year were cut from the same fabric, all its days derived from the same root or developed in the same ways. Instead, every year is a distinct growth point in life, the shedding of another shell of life. Each year brings something unique to us and calls for something different from us. Yet, however much we recognize their separate comings and goings, we, too, often neglect to be prepared for their equally unique effects on our development.
More than that, so often we fail to realize that any given year can be many years in one—the year he got married, the year she graduated from college, the year the child died—each facet of it a separate and discrete reality in itself. No doubt about it: as life inches on, the truth of the spiritual uniqueness of every year becomes more and more apparent. There is no such thing as a universal year, a simple rendering of a common block of time. There are actually a good many ways, not only one, by which to define the years of our lives. So many, in fact, that it's important that we take pains not to confuse one kind of year with another.
Every different kind of year demands different strengths of us, provides different kinds of gifts for us, enables different kinds of sensibilities in us. To confuse one kind of year with another, then, is to assume that they are all equally valuable or that we can possibly achieve all the things we need in life—material or spiritual—in any single one of them. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The years of our lives come in more flavors than any single year can possibly encompass. There are, in fact, a good many kinds of years by which we shape our work, our family life, our very selves. To fail to distinguish one kind of year from another is to risk skewing the way we look at life. The way we define our years determines what we think our lives are meant to be about and how we will live because of it. There are fiscal years and school years, planting periods and harvesting periods, calendar years and business years. There are years to mark every stage of life—childhood, adolescence, adulthood, middle age, and old age—and all of those periods are unlike the periods before it. The question is, what kind of year means the most to us spiritually? What in the spiritual life is there to enable us to live all of the other years well, to their fullness, to the elastic limits of our growing souls?
I began writing this book on New Year's Day, the first day of the amount of time it will take for the earth to revolve around the sun again. But the fact that I began to write about the meaning and character of the Christian year on the day the civic year began was a matter of pure coincidence. Ironically enough, the fact that it was the beginning of another calendar year had nothing whatsoever to do with the subject matter of this book.
I am writing about the Christian year, the liturgical year, the year that puts in relief the full array of Christian mysteries and spiritual cycles for all to see. But unlike the civic year, the Christian year does not begin on January 1. The church year begins on the first Sunday of Advent, which normally begins in late November. The point is clear: many periods of time shape us, and most of them do not begin or end at the same time.
This book, then, does not concentrate simply on what it means to grow older as one year succeeds another. This book is about growing wiser, growing holier, growing more embedded in the essentials of life as the years go by rather than simply moving from one time of life to the next. The liturgical year is an adventure in bringing the Christian life to fullness, the heart to alert, the soul to focus. It does not concern itself with the questions of how to make a living. It concerns itself with the questions of how to make a life.
The truth is, then, that as Christians, January 1 isn't really our "new year" at all. It is not the beginning of the "new year" of our soul's search for wholeness. Instead, January 1 is simply the day that makes it possible for the secular world to mark centuries, to keep track of its earthly ways, to coordinate itself with the ways of the rest of the world, to begin again its cycle of civic events.
Other than that, the Christian year and the civic year go wafting by each other, often unaware, sometimes completely distinct in their measures of value and their indications of what is really important in life and what is not. To be a Christian is to see the deep-down difference between the two. And to celebrate that.
The civic new year is clearly only one of many "years" we all live, for one reason or another, with one emphasis or another, every year of our lives. Depending on who we are and what we do, we can live fiscal years and family years, school years and retirement years, apprentice years and professional years, one after another or even simultaneously, as our lives go by. All of them, though different, say something to us about what's determining in life, what's formative in life, what's meaningful to us in the here and now of life.
The civic new year is, at best, a calendrical device designed to regulate the daily affairs of a people. It enables people to count time together—three weeks until we leave for the next trip, for instance; or to plot future engagements, such as the date on which we will close the deal on the new house, to mark the weekend of the next meeting, or to calculate the time when we can all expect snow again. The civic new year as we know it is a purely solar event, a chart of the planet's journey around the sun. But it is not, except in the most private and personal of ways, the story of the rest of us, the narrative of our spiritual lives. That story begins and ends and begins again annually with the journey of the soul through the liturgical year, the year that marks the major moments in Christian spirituality and so points our own lives in the same direction.
The liturgical year is the year that sets out to attune the life of the Christian to the life of Jesus, the Christ. It proposes, year after year, to immerse us over and over again into the sense and substance of the Christian life until, eventually, we become what we say we are—followers of Jesus all the way to the heart of God. The liturgical year is an adventure in human growth, an exercise in spiritual ripening.
It wasn't always that for me. For long years, the liturgical life as I learned it was simply a round of fast days and feast days, arranged by who-knew-whom for the sake of who-knew-what. Some of them delighted me, all of them fascinated me, but few of them had much to say to me in those early days about the purpose of my life. I'm older now; I know better now. I know now that it is possible to grow physically older by the day but, at the same time, stay spiritually juvenile, if our lives are not directed by a schema far beyond the march of our planet around the sun.
Like the rings on a tree, the cycles of Christian feasts are meant to mark the levels of our spiritual growth from one stage to another in the process of human growth. They add layer after layer to the meaning of life, to the sense of what it entails to live beyond the immediate and into the significant dimensions of human existence. The seasons and feasts, the fasts and solemnities, if we are open and alert to them, lead us deeper and deeper into the self, beyond the pull of the present, higher and higher into the One who beckons us on through time to that moment when we will dissolve into God, set free from time to become one with the universe.
The secret lies in coming to understand the Christian year so that it might work its cosmic dimensions of what it means to be alive right into the fiber of our daily lives.
This book sets out to open what may at first seem to be an arbitrary arrangement of ancient holy days or liturgical seasons to their essential relationship to one another and their ongoing meaning to us. It is an excursion into life from the Christian perspective, from the viewpoint of those who set out not only to follow Jesus but to live as Jesus lived, to think as Jesus thought, to become what Jesus had become by the end of His life.
It is the presentation of the Christian mysteries and their eternal place in life, both in His life and ours as well. It is a book about the journey of the soul through the map of Christian time.
This book will not only explore the major seasons and feasts of the church as they developed in the past but will consider their place in our own spiritual development in the present.
This book is not merely about the past. It is not limited to past events in the life of Christ or historical problems in the lives of ancient saints. It is also about what it takes to live a spiritual life now that is as rich and as meaningful in this day and age as it was for those who preceded us in all the eons of the Christian tradition.
We follow Jesus, we say. But what does that mean? How do we know if that's really true or not? And in what way does such a thing as "the church year" provide both an insight into what it means to follow Christ and the support to do that?
This book is about the role of the church year in bringing each of us to a fuller understanding of the Christian life—and, most of all, it is about explaining precisely what it means to live a Christian life.CHAPTER 2
A LIVING MODEL, A REAL LIFE
Some years ago, commentators reported with a kind of muted disbelief that a U.S. governor had ordered a prisoner on death row removed from terminal treatment at a local hospital and returned on a gurney to the state prison in order to execute him on the appointed date. No flexibility, no mercy, no more physical care. In the same vein, British immigration officers years later removed Ama Sumani, a thirty-nine-year-old mother of two whose visa had lapsed, from treatment in a London hospital in order to deport her to Ghana. In Ghana, the same kind of dialysis was not available at any price. In both cases, the death sentence was clear and cold. At the same time, the spiritual question was equally direct: though legal, was either action really, authentically, truly Christian? What is the spiritual answer to such situations? And how does the Christian decide? Does mercy ever trump law?
If the liturgical year is understood as it is supposed to be—the church's proclamation, lodestar, and participation in the life of Christ—then it is, at very least, the place a Christian can go to begin to determine the answers to questions such as these. Pope Pius XI, ardent thinker and author of thirty encyclicals between 1922 and 1939, called the liturgical year "the principal organ of the ordinary magisterium of the church." The language may seem foreign to many of us now, but the ideas are not. In other words, the liturgical year is one of the teaching dimensions of the church. It is a lesson in life.
From the liturgy we learn both the faith and Scripture, both our ideals and our spiritual tradition. The cycle of Christian mysteries is wise teacher, clear model, and recurring and constant reminder of the Christ-life in our midst. Simply by being itself over and over again, simply by putting before our eyes and filtering into our hearts the living presence of the Jesus who walked from Galilee to Jerusalem doing good, it teaches us to do the same. As Jesus lived, despite either the restrictions or the regulations of His age, so, the liturgical year teaches us, must we.
In the liturgy, then, is the standard of what it means to live a Christian life both as the church and as individuals. The seasons and cycles and solemnities put before us in the liturgical year are more than representations of time past; they are an unending sign—a veritable sacrament of life. It is through them that the Christ-life becomes present in our own lives in the here and now.
It is in the liturgy that we meet the Jesus of history and come to understand the Christ of faith who is with us still.
The point is, at one level, a rather shocking one. Can the spiritual life possibly be that simple? And yet the point becomes even less ambiguous as the years go by: the liturgical year, we come to realize, is the cry of the centuries to every new age neither to forget nor to forsake the vision of the first Christian age or the challenges of this one. It is, in fact, the life of Jesus that really guides the church through time. It is the life of Jesus that judges the conduct of the time. It is the life of Jesus that is the standard of the souls who call themselves Christian in every age, however seductive the errors of the age itself.
In every age, the liturgical year exists to immerse its world in the current as well as the eternal meanings of the Christian life.
Then, after years of repeating the messages of the feasts and probing their meanings for our own lives, we come to a point where we look back over the decades and realize that little by little the slow drip, drip, drip of the Christian ideal has insinuated itself into the deepest parts of our psyches. We, who squirmed through Lent as children and stood only half aware through long Easter readings as young adults, who wore Ash Wednesday's ashes with equal parts of pride and embarrassment as adult sophisticates, become conscious as the years go by of the tendrils of hope and desire, of commitment and conviction such practices have rooted in our hearts. We come to know ourselves to be more than simply an empty self. We come to know ourselves to be Christian.
As the self dissolves into Christ, we come to see ourselves as one people together and, at the same time, distinct persons who have developed clear and common attitudes toward the rest of life. We come to realize that we have gained this perspective almost unconsciously from the life of the just and compassionate Jesus, who slipped quietly into our minds in the course of the relentless repetition of the liturgical year. Now we know why we are bothered by the sight of a man carried from a hospital given to saving lives to a prison dedicated to extinguishing them. We come to understand why we turned away uncomfortable from a television interview with a helpless woman who would soon be taken off dialysis to die in her impoverished country of origin because her visa had run out in the one that had the resources to save her.
The liturgical year is the process of slow, sure immersion in the life of Christ that, in the end, claims us, too, as heralds of that life ourselves.
The continuing proclamation of the Scriptures, the centrality of the Gospels as the foundation of every liturgy, and the ongoing reflection on those readings in homilies year after year do two things: one of them communal, the other personal.
Excerpted from The Liturgical Year by Joan Chittister. Copyright © 2009 Joan Chittister. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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