The Church of Six Seasons
The Church of Six Seasons
No matter how much the Church engages with the wider world, comments upon it, or takes stands in opposition to one social or political trend or another, the Church also has an internal life that proceeds on a parallel track, regardless of what the rest of the world is doing. The Church year is organized around its own calendar, which has nothing to do with secular holidays like Guy Fawkes Night or Memorial Day, or even with summer, winter, spring, and fall. In fact, Church World is about to enter a new season, which begins this year on May 20 and ends at midnight on December 1. That season is called “Pentecost.”
Like much of what Christians call their own, the Church did not invent Pentecost. Its origins lie in the Jewish festival of Shavuoth, a celebration commemorating the giving of the Law by God to Moses at Mount Sinai. The festival was observed fifty days after Passover. The English name of Pentecost itself derives from the Greek word for “fiftieth day.” So, whereas the Law came down from above for the Jewish people, Christians commemorate the day of Pentecost as the day the Holy Spirit descended from heaven to the disciples of Jesus after his ascension to heaven, just as he had promised. Pentecost is the last of the six seasons on the Church calendar.
The Church year begins with Advent, a season four weeks in length set aside for preparation for the birth of the Christ. In secular terms, this is known as Shopping Season.
Christmas season follows, also known as the Twelve Days of Christmas. This is the appropriate time to sing all the carols of Christmas that celebrate the birth of Jesus. Of course, we have been hearing them incessantly since at least Thanksgiving by this point, so the reality for most of us is that we are heartily tired of them well before the end of the season on January 6.
The season of Epiphany begins with Three Kings Day on January 6. Epiphany commemorates the manifestation – the perception – of Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, to the Magi or Wise Men, the three Astrologer-Kings. With various Scripture readings, the Church follows Jesus as his identity as the Christ begins to unfold to those around him, from his presentation at the Temple to the wedding feast at Cana to his baptism by John in the Jordan River.
The season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and continues through the Easter Vigil that ends at the dawn of Easter Day. Lent, like Advent, is a season of preparation, this time for the Passion of Jesus. The word “passion” comes from a Latin word meaning “suffering.” For forty days, not counting Sundays, Christians follow Jesus as he moves ever closer to death of the cross at the hands of the Roman occupation forces, under whose political rule he lived and died.
Easter Sunday begins a season of celebration for the resurrection of Jesus from death. In most of the Christian world, the name is rooted in the word Pascha, which derives from the Hebrew Pesach – Passover. Pesach celebrates the Exodus from Egyptian slavery of the Hebrew people. Easter, in parallel thinking, celebrates the Christian freedom from death itself, for as Christ rose above death, so, Christians believe, will we.
This, of course, brings us to the longest season of the Church year, that of Pentecost. What is Pentecost about?
To be a disciple means to put one’s feet in the footsteps of Jesus and, in the power of his Spirit, to continue in one’s own historical time and place his mission of announcing and signing the coming of the reign of God.
Together as church, the community of disciples is in a unique way called to be the instrument of the reign of God in history. Since peace and justice are among the most powerful signs of the reign God present in this world, it belongs to the essential mission of the church to make these realities more visible in our time, so marked by oppression, violence, injustice and threat of total destruction. Following Jesus on this way may well cost disciples their lives–the servants are not greater than the master. But the community of disciples must go on witnessing throughout the conflicts of history, drawing courage from their memory of Jesus, from their experience of his continuing presence in the Spirit, and for hope in the final victory of the coming reign of God.
—Elizabeth A. Johnson in CONSIDER JESUS: WAVES OF RENEWAL IN CHRISTOLOGY.
In other words, Pentecost is a time for intentionally applying our faith to the issues we face in everyday life.
Christians appropriated the Jewish worship calendar and adapted it to their purposes as they began to build their own annual cycle of worship of Christ as Lord. In our Wednesday morning study group, we are following John Shelby Spong’s examination of this process as we read his book, Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes. This is an enlightening study of the origins of many of our own Christian worship traditions.
And as we enter into this new season of Pentecost, as Wil Gaffney writes in this month’s Sojourners, “We still assemble, a church made up of many nations, waiting for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to rekindle the embers of the holy faith that survives the empire’s best effort to extinguish it. The rumor is that God’s people will survive the present age and its empires, all evidence to the contrary.”
The six seasons of the Church year are more than an alternative cycle; they are a structure designed to support those who believe in Jesus in a world that pays him lip-service, but seeks to undermine God’s reign each day. The Church will rise above this time, too. We always have. We always will.
See you in church?