With some of the big holy days that follow immediately on the heels of Christmas now behind us, and looking forward towards those final days of Christmas and towards Epiphany I’ve been thinking about feast days in our calendar and more deeply about the notion of Christian time.
I have been involved with various churches in my life and all handle holy days in different ways. Some mark it in the bulletin but will say no more about it, others put in the bulletin and mention it only by name in the sermon, while others don’t let the major days pass without a celebration of the Eucharist. Even more, others have adopted the tradition of transferring feast days that occur in the week to the Sunday, but I’ll come to that.
So often how these days are handled by a church comes down to convenience. Celebrations of the feast day through the week are often viewed as something that won’t garner a large congregation, or are simply too much to ask of a congregation (codswallop); the feast day is then either not marked in any significant way or simply moved to the most convenient Sunday. It’s this attitude of convenience that has in so many congregations made the keeping of the Daily Offices something that belongs to antiquity; much of the rationale behind revised lectionaries hinges on an assumption that either Morning and Evening Prayer are not being said in parish churches, or are not being attended and thus a revamping of the lectionary is needed to get Christians their weekly dose of Old Testament. In the case of the offices there is an inherent devaluing of Morning and Evening Prayer if we assume nobody will show up, and in the case of transferring the celebration of holy days to the most convenient day there is an inherent statement behind made that our Christian life is strictly a Sunday activity.
But, following the Church calendar is not an easy thing to do; if we follow it strictly we might have at least 80 days of penitent fasting throughout the year, various days besides Sunday when public worship is happening, celebrations of people we may never have heard of for reasons why may not completely yet understand, and besides all of this we wrestle with our secular calendars and schedules as well. However, the error that altering feast days for convenience feeds into is subordinating the Church calendar to our secular schedules; rather we should be viewing the Church year as something which perfects the secular, not confounds it; it is redemptive, not destructive. This isn’t to say we need to forsake our secular calendars for the Church’s either, but that we don’t have to choose between one or the other. What we must do is place our time at the mercy of the Church calendar and of God. To do this is an act of self-denial and it may be uncomfortable, but anything less and we undermine the importance of each special day marked on our Church calendars or in the beginning of our prayer books.
A perfect example of this are feast or Saints’ days.
In a sermon I preached this Autumn I said that what appeals to us about people like Batman or Spiderman are that they are people who do the amazing and seemingly impossible, they capture our imagination and seem to enchant our own lives, even from the pages of a comic book; who hasn’t read Harry Potter and not wished in however small a way that they went to Hogwarts? Saints aren’t a great deal different. They are people who did the seemingly impossible, martyrs who accepted torturous ends or miracle-workers who were able to do super-natural things; we read about them and celebrate them with feasting days because of the way they continually remind us that the Kingdom is present even here and now. They redeem the time and enchant our lives through theirs, they remind us that our vocation is to be like them.
Feast days are meant to stand as signposts for us throughout our year, like lights shining in the dark to point us towards our end. We may not be able to mark each one with an actual feast but we can certainly mark it in reciting the Daily Offices and given Collect for the day, attending public worship, or even by wishing our friends a happy and joyous Feast of the Circumcision, or a blessed Feast of St. Andrew. These lights-in-the-dark, these theophanies, are meant to enchant, to make holy the mundane, enchant the secular, and to point us to the next great signpost in the Calendar.
Any hope of following more faithfully the Christian calendar has to begin with seeing each celebration as intentionally placed; St. Stephen, St. John Apostle, the Holy Innocents, Thomas Becket, these aren’t commemorations thrown after Christmas for convenience’s sake. Why we celebrate the birth of Christ on one day, and commemorate Stephen, the first martyr, on the next is a question that should lead us to consider the danger in devaluing festal days by not-recognizing or by moving them. Theophanies are given for the purpose of drawing us into God, when secular time consumes us recognition of feast and saints’ days is that which ought to re-orient us. To move them or to forget them is to place ourselves not at the mercy of theophany, but at the mercy of our secular time.