Despite a fine and expensive education, I am still a peasant at heart. I like and need the natural rhythm of the year, the swing and shift of seasons and times. When I was a Baptist child, it seemed that Christmas and Easter came on us suddenly, with just the usual run-up of holiday television specials (not many of them, those years ago), the town tinsel and plywood decorations, and the once-a-year toy department at J.C. Penney’s store. The church didn’t prepare us. Easter was even more of a surprise – sometimes it fell while we were stil covered with snow.
The ultra-Protestantism of the Baptist Church of forty and fifty years ago had long lost the seasons of preparation. There was no anticipation. I rather envied Roman Catholic friends who had periods of fasting (giving up candy, for the most part) and the seasonal lessons in church. They had something to look forward to. I once asked my mother about Lent. Not necessary, she said. And maybe for a struggling family in rural Maine, there wasn’t much to give up anyway.
As an adult in the Episcopal (Anglican) Church, I was introduced to the church calendar. I landed in a church with a priest who was quite Orthodox in outlook, and we kept the seasons and festivals, and were encouraged in the fasts. It was a theological epiphany for me, that self-discipline might have a purpose rather than just keeping the rules!
I need the structure of the calendar. I like it that the seasons of the church match the seasons of our natural year. (Although I wonder how the Southern hemisphere deals with that.) The fasts come at the times when our peasant ancestors didn’t have that much to eat, anyway, and the social structure of the church encouraged prudence and rationing. The long Lenten fast, without meat, eggs or dairy, and carefully guarding the stores of wine and vegetable oils, meant that there was enough for everyone until spring. (Assuming the crops came in and no natural or civic disasters!)
Keeping the feast days of the saints ties us in to their example of faith, a reminder of heaven and glory beyond the mundane world. They are little festivals reflecting the joy of Easter, a foretaste of the feast to come.They keep us living with a foot in each world, in today and what is to be.
Anglicans were once noted for their everyday piety. Anglicans went to daily morning and evening prayer, attended the festivals in their own parishes and neighboring towns, enjoyed the rhythm of the liturgical year along with the natural year. And that daily piety and practice means that we follow the readings of the Bible much more closely. We become immersed in the Word, hearing it daily. It starts to fit together then, and makes more sense. This is one of the problems of modern Biblical illiteracy, why the “God of the Old Testament” seems so different from the “Father in Heaven” of the New Testament, why the gospels seem divorced from the epistles. There’s no continuity because we approach them only once a week, chopped up, disconnected, fragments of what was once a complex picture. We see the interior of the scriptures through the tiny keyhole of Sunday.
Outside of teaching the daily discipline of the lectionary (and I am not always good at keeping it myself) I don`t know what to do about this. House churches, or at least synagogue like gatherings in neighborhoods, led by educated laypeople, might be an answer, if groups could meet at least once a week besides Sunday. Daily prayer in the churches might be another way, if people would make the time to attend. But that may be long lost, with parishes consolidating, sharing priests, tearing down rather than building more churches.
But it would be a good and great undertaking, to restore the calendar to the church that originated it.