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Against liturgical seasons

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.  


  1. This story is why I’m not a Franciscan. I’m the one who doesn’t answer the door, because the music is too beautiful, the whisky that good, and the fire that nice and warm.

    But the point is good and right. There is a kind of seasonal fundamentalism out there that leads to no confession, for example, in certain liturgical season s. But more importantly, I think that an important cure for a cross receding from vision is to make sure it remains central in our Eucharistic prayers and our Eucharistic piety more generally. This should, to my mind, go without saying. But this isn’t a foregone conclusion by any means.

  2. Just to state the obvious: *Neither* the Cross *nor* the Resurrection should ever be out of our sight.

    In the deepest of Christian mysteries, it takes the power of the Resurrection working in us to be able to walk the way of the Cross.

  3. It seems that you are asking a question of two domains: essentially a sociological question about time and a question about the sort of time that functions in liturgy.

    If we consider the second, we should look at what liturgical documents themselves claim. Even in the bowlderized travesty known as the RCL, the kairotic temporality of liturgy shines through (as the traditional blessing of the Paschal candle puts it, “all times are his”). Right before we read the passion on Palm Sunday, we hear the kenotic hymn from Philippians:

    Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name

    so the resurrection is context for the passion, the empty tomb for the cross. And this coming Sunday the reverse is the case. Thomas, the great apostle to the East, is not willing to accept the wishful thinking of the other disciples that Jesus isn’t really dead. His demand for the bona fides of this apparition isn’t some miracle, it is the cross:

    “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

    Thus the passion is the only context for the resurrection, the cross for the empty tomb.

    So how close to Good Friday can we, must we, liturgically proclaim the power of the resurrection? and how close to Easter must we proclaim the necessity of the cross? Our liturgy demands “the Sunday on each side”, and indeed demands both the cross and the tomb for every Sunday.

  4. I have a feeling I’ve been preaching to the choir! The comments here are all quite on target, at least in my mind. Except, as Preston notes, “the foregone conclusion” is hardly one that is embraced in many churches these days. The Eucharist itself, of course, can’t rid itself of the Cross, if only in the words of Institution. But, with the optionalizing of Confession, and the increasing use of alternative eucharistic prayers, even these elements begin to lose their profile. Some of this has to do with the “sociological” side of things, as Knowles says — that is, what churches and their pastors choose to emphasize, and why . (The “why” is an interesting question, and remains a huge challenge today.) The theological reality of Christ’s historically figured life, death, and resurrection, as it intersects and embraces our own lives, is the thing that will overturn all sociological limitations within which we labor. Whether that happens sadly or happily, as it were, is what is at stake.

  5. “Foregone conclusion” is precisely where the sociological mistake is made. The whole structure of Lent and Easter is shot through with assumptions about the sociology of time. When Cyril and John of Jerusalem begin to form what become the rites of Holy Week, they bond chronology and location into an incredibly strong composite. Nobody outside of Jerusalem did “Palm Sunday” until the end of the fifth century, for example. Maundy Thursday is another late addition, and on and on.

    Roman Catholicism, since the 10th century, has been increasingly chronological rather than “kairological”; it’s become a liturgical monody rather than the polyphony of orthodoxy (and, I’d argue, classical Anglicanism). That propensity of “doing liturgy by the calendar” reached a peak, and it is not just Ignatius Loyola who drank from that well. Calvin and Zwingli also accepted this sort of chronological sign-theory from nominalists like Scotus and Occam.

    Why does that matter? Anglican liturgy is a kairotic sliver caught between the children of the Swiss (contemporary protestantism) and those of Rome (contemporary Catholicism), both of whom are relentlessly chronological. Yet these are the two practical sources of our liturgical leadership, and we do not catechize, we accept without conversion. The only logical conclusion is that we loose our kairotic heart, and then wonder how long we have to endure a meaningless celebration of the resurrection.

    There was a cantor at the church from which I was ordained who used to say that the church shouldn’t ordain anyone to the priesthood who could not sing the Orbis factor Kyrie (Hymnal 1982, S84) from memory. I wonder if we shouldn’t add to his list of memorized items John Donne’s poem which begins

    Tamely, frail body, abstain today; today
    My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.
    She sees Him man, so like God made in this,
    That of them both a circle emblem is,
    Whose first and last concur; this doubtful day
    Of feast or fast, Christ came and went away;

    Time is layered for us. We cease to be Anglican if we forget that reality. We can’t be true to the witness given us if we never learn it.

    • I don’t really think you can characterize all of Roman Catholicism 900-1500 (and beyond) as “chronological” rather than “kairological.” Honestly, I’m not wholly sure what that would even mean. We’re not the first generation or branch of the Church to discover that liturgical time is supple.

      • Zachary, I wasn’t aware that I categorized all Roman Catholicism 900-1500 as “chronological”. Nor did I assert that we were the first generation or branch to discover that liturgical time is supple.

        What I am willing to argue is that from the time of the earliest sacramentaries extant in the 7th century, through the Ordines Romani into the 11th century pontificals to the third edition of the Roman Missal of Paul VI, one sees an increasing tendency toward more rigid, linear, and historicist (“chronological”) performance of time. There are significant exceptions to that tendency as well, from Berengar’s rejection of Radbertus, to Nicholas of Cusa’s challenges to Scotism, to von Balthasar’s “conversations” with K. Rahner. However the tendency of time to be flattened, along with the tendency for symbols to become simply signs seems an almost unavoidable trajectory within that ecclesial tradition.

        And as far as discovering that liturgical time is supple, I’d suggest a careful reading of Augustine’s Epistle 55 or De Musica, book VI, would disabuse anyone of claiming that discovery, either in the English tradition, or anywhere close to our time. And Augustine clearly thought he was relating something that was quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditur (to quote a near contemporary of his).

        What I would (and thought I did) claim is that the polyphony of time is very close to the core of liturgical theology for Anglicans, whether from Anselm in the 11th century, to Robert Groseteste in the 13th century, to Cranmer and Hooker in 16th, to Donne, Herbert and Traherne in the 17th, to Wesley(s) in the 18th, to Keble and Pusey in the 19th, to Frere, M. Ramsey, Farrer, Thornton, and even R. Williams in the 20th and 21st century.

  6. Walter,

    I think it remains unclear what you’re really getting at. A sweeping gesture at diverse liturgical books and manuals from (now) 600-1500, countered by an equally sweeping gesture at various Western theologians, nuanced by another sweeping gesture at English authors of diverse traditions from over a millennium (with Augustine in there as well), doesn’t really clarify things either.

    I’m genuinely curious about what you’re actually saying. But I’m not sure that grand gestures at Western (or Roman or English/Anglican) styles of thinking are all that easy to make, nor do they tell us much.

    The rigid performance of liturgical seasons need not point to a ‘chronological’ or ‘historicist’ approach to the performance of time. Indeed, the rigid performance of liturgical seasons is as much a disruption of chronology, allowing the past and future to constantly irrupt into the present. That such irruptions occur regularly does not make them rigidly historicist. Moreover, liturgical prayer within the Western tradition constantly plays with chronology and layers events within other ones. Even in the most rigid ‘performance’ of liturgical time, we’re not in danger of being especially chronological.

  7. Perhaps it is useful not so much to contrast “kinds” of time — e.g. “chronos” vs. “kairos” in the traditional NT scholarly categories of the mid-20th century, or even “diachrony” vs.”synchrony” in more contemporary literary parlance — although this has its heuristic place; but rather to think in terms of “layered” (in M. Knowles’ phrase) or malleable chronologies (I spoke of “mixed up” and “dissonant”). That is, there are not so much different “kinds” of time as there are different ways of apprehending it. And if all time is God’s — however we apprehend it — then we need to order our discussion of time in a way that can approach God’s character as fully as we are able, and hence have a richer sense of temporal reality and existence.

    In terms of ecclesial development, I have no stake in making any judgments except about the present! There were, after all, many ways in which liturgical experience was “mixed up”, and to that extent, appropriately counter-balanced, in the past, through a range of simultaneous practices that were never coherently systematized (and that was good!): regular confession in the midst of liturgical seasonal orderings; Christianized communal events that did not track exactly with the Church’s calendar, not to mention pastoral engagements, with their own liturgical forms — especially around illness and death — that were constant intrusions, as it were. And this was true, quite frankly, among all traditions. Our era, for lots of cultural reasons (including changing patterns of health and the cultural understandings of physical life) has tended to thin out the rich texture of these elements, so that certain frames of chronological ordering become dominant and exclusive. That, it seems to me, has some negative theological and ecclesial consequences.


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