There was a time when the sacred canopy of the church so enfolded the reality of a culture that its rituals and dramatic enactments appeared part of the given fabric of life. Like keeping a season such as Lent, or walking through Holy Week. It was perceived as an actual entity that existed, in and of itself, in time and space. That was the reach of that symbolic universe.
Even with a reticence to state the obvious I will say it anyway: those times are over. There are no longer any “meta-narratives” in which winner takes all, the culture bows, curtsies, and says, “Of course, it’s Holy Week. We’ll be keeping that in mind.” Nope.
What we have, rather, are the particular sacred stories and symbols of particular communities of faith. And whether or not Holy Week or anything else has meaning derives from one’s willingness to fully enter into that story. The reason, today, that the ecumenical church has a “church year” in which the story of our faith is parsed out in chapters over twelve months, is to get the truths seeping into the bones of those who are observant. There is nothing objectively more sacred about the forty days before Easter we call Lent than any other time. But setting aside a particular time to tell and re-tell the stories insures that we visit it often enough, which we usually don’t without it.
My thinking has changed about all this, and it’s probably the product of age. Or I should say the perspective age brings.
I used to think that these arbitrary observances, cooked up by Popes and councils and Bishops, were quite beside the point. Right along with my radical reform ancestors each Sunday is just like any other Sunday. Each day is like any other day. Now is the time so get to it.
All of that is fine and well, especially if you’re a super Christian who just lives and breathes the Spirit 24/7. I mean, why tarry around church seasons? Except that we really aren’t super Christians, not in the long haul. We are weak, flawed people who forget a lot. We get lost and wander around, looking for our moorings. Our knowledge of our guiding stories becomes blurry. And that’s why I view all that differently now.
We basically need the structure of seasons that recount the sacred story over and over again. Our children need that exposure. With each run at it we are given the chance to go deeper, depending on where we are in life. And now I realize I don’t have that many runs at it left, not really. Time like an ever-flowing stream bears all its sons away …
I don’t absolutize church holy days like I used to in my spiritual storm trooper days. And I really don’t expect the culture to get it at all. I mean, really, most people couldn’t care less. They’ll make time for anything but those things. And to tell the truth they only make sense if you participate in the symbol system that provides the sacred drama in the first place.
What I do embrace and find helpful for individual Christians and Christian communities is the way we focus on seasons of spiritual story telling. Advent, Lent, Pentecost – they all give us permission to tell those aspects of the Christian story again, to hear them again, digest them one more time. And that’s good because we’re not so smart when it comes to doing that on our own. In fact, because we are so naturally oriented to what we already believe, we screen out most of what we don’t want to hear. Having it programmed so we have to consider it anyway is a good thing.
At the entree to Holy Week this year we gathered a group of people who were willing to pose – in street clothes – DaVinci’s iconic Last Supper out in public. We chose about seventeen locations around Columbia, Missouri, showed up, struck the pose, and moved on. The impact on the culture around us may have been minimal. Perhaps it provoked thought, unearthed forgotten memories. I don’t know. But one thing I do know is that the people who were in that drama became that story for several hours. They took it to where it’s meant to really live, in the world, beyond the illusion that sacred and secular are separate. And when, on Maundy Thursday, we bring those images of that Supper-gone-to-the-world back into our worship, we will remember why it’s so important to tell and re-tell the story. I mean, really, once is not enough.
Happy Holy Week.