Last week, I wrote about how time tells us a story. Time acts on us; it tells us what is important to us, and it frames a story within which we are invited to live.
The early Christians were aware of the formational nature of time. They had inherited the practices of meals and feasts from their grafted-in Jewish heritage. More significantly though, most early Christians were surrounded by the events and festivals of religious cults connected to the political powers of the day. For most of early Christianity, this meant the imperial cult of Rome and its worship of Caesar.
Christians had been saved out of these pagan, sometimes destructive or abusive worshipful rhythms. But these festivals and observances had marked every year of their lives. How could they reimagine their moving through time in ways that would help them grow increasingly into the likeness of Jesus of Nazareth who they were giving their lives to follow?
What emerged over the following centuries was a Christian Calendar, a way to walk through a year that commemorated the acts of God in history. At first, individual seasons or festivals were remembered. The obvious ones, Easter and Christmas. But we learn as much from remembering times of struggle and sorrow, if not more, than we do remembering times of joy. The longer, slower seasons of Advent and Lent remind us of the waiting and testing periods experienced by the people of God. But as these church communities remembered what God had done in the past, the Calendar also became weighted with hopeful expectation and stirred participants to expect the return of Christ… that future final redemption that would set the world right.
The Christian Calendar invites us to walk through the story of God in order that we can get a sense that we are experiencing the story of both Jesus’ life and God’s action amongst His people. It is one thing to tell a story in one sitting, it is another to walk through it over extended time.
When we summarise a story, we communicate what is needed within the time we have been given. This can often be a summary of events and an overview of the important facts and ideas. In our current age, this has often impacted how we share the gospel; it gets ‘boiled down’ into simply a list of facts to be believed. In order for the gospel to be the immersive reality that transforms us from the inside out, it actually needs to be understood at a level far deeper than these one-time presentations can penetrate.
The Christian Calendar allows us to be immersed in this salvation story over time. It creates the slow, saturating process required to have our worldviews, thoughts, and actions increasingly transformed.
A simple presentation of the gospel may be how we enter the door of the kingdom of God, but to move on … to move in… we need something richer, more compelling and true to the realities we so desperately need transformed and redeemed in our lives. As humans, we cannot simply live from abstract ideas; we need the texture, depth, and variance that a story offers us. As Simone has already excellently communicated, there is significance in God’s revelation to us being a narrative and not a series of abstract propositions or spiritual laws.
When I was younger, there would be certain TV dramas that ran at 9pm every Wednesday through the dark nights of winter in England on BBC1. The day after, everyone at school would talk about the twists and turns… which character had done what and where they guessed the story might go next. The following week, on Tuesday, a flurry of anticipation would create conversations where we would guess what might happen… or what we hoped might take place.
Something about following the narrative over time captured us; we were walking alongside this story altogether. At times, we even decided which character we most identified with in the midst of the story. The fact the story was immersive over time was what drew us to feel as if we were almost a part of it, as if our hopes and desires might even participate in the outcome.
The Christian Calendar has the ability to transform us because it is a story told over time, and, therefore, a story we can inhabit.
A while ago, a friend told the story of how he and his wife decided to tell their children the Easter story, step by step, each night before they went to bed throughout the week before Easter Sunday. On Good Friday, as Jesus was executed, the children reacted in tears and protests. The parents wondered whether they had made a bad decision to tell the story in this staggered way, but they continued with their plan. On Easter Sunday, as they came to the story of the Resurrection the children leapt and cheered as if it had happened that very day… even before their very eyes.
That is the “bet” (for want of a better word) that the Christian Calendar is taking. It is trying to tell us the gospel in ways that the story gets inside of us, and we get inside the story.
Take a moment to reflect
What would it mean to change your relationship to Scripture in ways that embraced it as story?
By that, I don’t mean fiction, but rather a representation of the flesh and blood people who have journeyed with God over history. Can we change our way of reading that can too often be little more than a ‘boiled-down’ list of facts or moral meanings? Are there truths and moral meanings in the Bible? Certainly! But, those alone will not transform us in the ways we are told to anticipate by the very writers of those scriptures.
The next time you read the Bible, approach it in a way that invites the Holy Spirit to draw you into the story rather than seek just to take something out of it. If you need practical help to engage in this way you could try out the Lectio Divina discipline that Tonya outlined here this week.