Our churches are chronologically challenged, and it is one reason why they fall apart. Christians come and go because we are too much bound to the order of the seasons. There may be a “time for everything,” but we need to realize that these times are all mixed up. And they are mixed up because of who God is and how God loves us.
To be sure, we like to keep things in order. Easter follows Good Friday. Resurrection follows the Cross. The sequential aspect of this relationship is obvious, and the Church calendar that we use tracks with the narrative Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life in just this direction. Most stories are chronologically ordered, in any case, and when they are not, listeners tend to get confused.
So, in the Church’s chronologically ordered liturgical life, what length of time is required, after Easter, before we are permitted to talk about the Cross again? How long after Pentecost? There are good reasons to change the colors of the altar hangings, to bring back the Alleluia, and to festoon the sanctuary with flowers. But it is not clear to me that the Cross of Christ — and the crosses of our own lives as disciples — are things one ever “gets through” in order to reach the Resurrection. Not in this frame of existence, anyway.
Paul will speak of being “transferred” from darkness into the risen life of Christ (e.g. Col. 1:13; 2:13; 3:1). But he will also speak, even now, after the incomparable gift of knowing Jesus, of a resurrection yet to come, yet to be known even, and only then by joining in Christ’s sufferings and being made like him in just this place. He prays still that he “may know him and the power of his resurrection,” something he has not yet “attained”, and will only do so by first “sharing” in Christ’s “sufferings” (Phil. 3:10-11; Cf. Rom. 8:17). All this, Paul explains in his great “letter of joy,” Philippians.
I have always been challenged by one story of St. Francis, taken from the early collection of short tales about his life known as the “Little Flowers,” or Fioretti in their original Italian. These were based on a yet earlier Latin version, and probably contain a host of memories by Francis’ immediate followers. The story in question is often known as “Perfect Joy.” Brother Leo, one of Francis’s most intimate and favored friends, is walking along with the saint through the bitter cold of winter. Francis calls out to Leo, with a series of statements regarding the nature of “perfect joy.” Is it converting a host of unbelievers? No, Francis asserts. Is perfect joy given in gifts of healing and exorcism? No. Is it found in wisdom and Scriptural understanding? No. “What then is perfect joy?” Brother Leo asks.
As they march along the frozen landscape, in a marvelously constructed interchange, Francis then goes on to create an accumulating array of increasingly disastrous imaginary experiences that might befall the two of them. Suppose, Francis imagines, we finally reach our destination, in the worst weather, and our brethren refuse to let us in? Suppose they insult us? Suppose they beat us? Suppose we are left outside to freeze? Finally, at the end of this pile of painful and otherwise degrading mishaps, Francis gives his answer:
If we bear all these injuries with patience and joy, thinking of the sufferings of our Blessed Lord, which we would share out of love for him, write, O Brother Leo, that here, finally, is perfect joy.
How can this be “perfect joy,” let alone the “rejoice always” of Paul’s Philippian exhortation? Is not such a joy only that which is given in the Resurrection, and finally in a vision of divine life — the Beatific Vision — when all tears are wiped away? Yet here, Francis locates perfect joy within an extreme moment of shared life in the crucified Jesus.
The original Latin version of the story translates this joy as laetitia perfecta. It is not an exact biblical phrase. Laetitia and gaudium are often linked in the Latin Bible Francis and his followers knew. And the phrase “perfect joy” is similar to the gaudium impletum that we find in John in several places (e.g. John 15:11; 1 John 1:4). The contexts here are significant. And perhaps most significant of all is when Paul uses the phrases in Philippians 2:2: “Make my joy complete,” he says, in the prelude to his famous hymn on Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection in Philippians 2:5-11: the slave-God is obedient even to death and then highly exalted above every name. “Make my joy complete”, Paul begins, by “being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind …. Let this mind be in you, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (2:2-5).
To move from Francis back to Paul is to find perfect joy lodged in a place where Christians engage each other so profoundly in their mutual love, that they die for one another, even in the midst of unjust treatment at the hands of their brothers and sisters. And this is joy, first, because it is the very body of Christ, the incarnate Son of God. To see this body is to be filled with joy.
It is joy, second, because in loving a brother or sister in Christ to such an extent is to be joined to this body that is the Son of God’s.
It is joy, finally, because being so joined to this body is to be taken up in the joy that is God’s own life. Perfect joy finds the life of God in the lived life of Jesus. That life, obviously, is ever a single life, given in the Gospels, that moves from birth to death to resurrection, in an eternal traversal of human time.
But this eternal traversal means that resurrection does not simply follow crucifixion. If we were to press the chronological sequence too strongly, we would very precisely end up with the prosperity gospels that now abound: “Do this, and you will get that.” These false gospels involve strictures against negative thinking: thinking that expects suffering in life and in the Christian life in particular and that is thus “anti-Victory.” These false gospels are also part of all our insidious false appraisals of who Christ Jesus is, and what it means to be a disciple of him in the context of Church and world. The difficult texts in John’s Gospel (e.g. Jn. 12:28; 13:31), where “glorification” seems to come with crucifixion and being “lifted up,” where divine life is thus a strange amalgam of being hung and being risen — these texts press us to hold chronology far more loosely. If we are to live with Christ, we will live with one who is both crucified and risen for us and in an order that often makes no sense.
That will mean that our chronologies get all mixed up, in ways that will often try us. So be it! Mixed-up chronologies try us, of course, in the same way that love tries us — love tells us that something is worth everything even when it seems worth very little. Our mixed up chronologies of Christ properly try us by driving us into, among, and to the side of people for whom love is repellant. Resurrection before crucifixion and crucifixion that smacks of resurrection will rightly try us, for at the moment of our deepest compassion for others, we will be rewarded only with suffering of body in response.
A mixed up Christological chronology will try us by making love utterly non-dependent upon lovableness. Indeed, perfect joy is the mark of the Christian who knows how to live in chronological dissonance, not simply because we are stuck on earth and “not yet” in heaven, but because Jesus is the one Lord of heaven and earth. And he is always Lord, above and below. Only because of this, can there be a church at all, and can we live with one another in it.
I am not really against liturgical seasons. For one thing, they hold us, in the midst of our forgetfulness, to the breadth of the Scriptural God. Again, they remind us of God’s temporally-bound engagement with the world. But they are also very limited, in the face of a whole Gospel that alters time itself.
The featured image of the rood at Fuentidina Chapel was taken by Simon Fischer (2009). It is licensed under Creative Commons.