Twisted Church Spire

Several years ago, I was privileged to contribute a piece as a guest to the Covenant blog of The Living Church. Many thanks to the blog’s (former) managing editor, Zachary Guiliano for publishing this piece on the liturgical nature of time. You can read this article below or in its original format here.

This post really covers two different topics. First, how does the Church tell time daily, weekly, and annually? This much should be obvious. Second, and perhaps more importantly, how does the incarnation, life, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus the Christ influence our understanding of time? Further, is liturgical time real time?

It is safe to say — and perhaps overly apparent — that the Church tells time differently than the rest of the world. Rather than marking time by the seasons, political and military holidays, or the movement of plants and stars named after Roman gods, the Church tells time according to Jesus of Nazareth. Beginning with the first Sunday in Advent as we await the birth of the boy who is King, and ending with Christ the King Sunday, every aspect of the Church’s life can be understood within the context of Jesus’ own story.

Annually

As such, the new year is not the first of January but the first Sunday of Advent; the highest and holiest day of the year is not the fourth of July (America) or even Christmas (Hallmark) but the annual celebration of the Paschal Mystery: Easter. The feasts and the fasts of the Church help us to remember the saints and exemplars who have gone before, those who have embodied the way of Christ tangibly among us. The year then flows accordingly: Advent for the first coming of the Messiah, Christmastide as we celebrate his birth, Epiphany as we embrace the manifestation of God in Christ, Lent to recount the temptation of the Lord as we prepare for Holy Week and Easter, Holy Week as we journey through Jesus’ last days on earth, Easter for the church’s celebration par excellence, Eastertide as a reminder of Jesus’ post-resurrection and pre-exaltation days, Pentecost to remember the gift of the Holy Spirit, Ordinary Time as a corporate journey through Israel’s history and the teachings of our Lord, and finally Christ the King Sunday as we once again proclaim his kingship.

Such an annual cycle has a profound influence theologically and within the constructs of Christian formation. This is a time that is other than the time of the world, it is counter to the story and narratives of the powers and principalities that be, it is in short real time.

Weekly

The same is true of our week. We mark our week around one day: Sunday. Sunday is the first, the third, and the eighth day of the week. This is bizarre; it sounds as confusing as attempting to explain the Trinity, but it is nonetheless true.

Sunday is the first day of the week and the first day of creation. It is the day of the Sun of Righteousness, given that Saturday is the Sabbath, the day of rest. It is the third day,because it was on Sunday that our Lord was raised from the grave, having conquered sin, death, and the devil; having “trampled down death by death,” he was raised to new life, echoing his bold claim from earlier in John’s gospel, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Finally, Sunday is the eighth day because the resurrection changes everything: it is the first day of the new week, the first day of the new creation. It is the breaking in of God’s Kingdom in the here and now. John marks his Gospel according to days, and the Sunday of the resurrection is both a continuation of the first day but also its fulfillment.

Nothing can ever be the same after the resurrection of Jesus, and time is no exception. Our week centers around the Church’s Sunday worship and celebration of the Eucharist — all other days gain their meaning in relation to this day.

Daily

Even our daily time is accounted differently. For those who follow the ancient tradition of the church time is marked by hours or offices of prayer. The Book of Common Prayer (1979) lists several such times: morning, noon, evening, and compline. Time then is measured by our ability to intercede and worship before the Lord, offering all that we are and all that we have to him, rather than by the workday or weekend schedule. The daily prayers coincide with both the Sunday Eucharist and the Church calendar, taking on new dimensions as we progress through the week and year. As we trek through the Psalter and the canon of Scripture, and as we sojourn together through the life of our Lord, our time is transformed into something different, something more, something almost whole.

Liturgical Time

What then do we do with liturgical time? It has often been said that as an individual steps into the nave for the liturgy “time ceases.” The indication here is that liturgical worship is somehow an escape or removal from time, that it is somehow against time as we know it. Not only do I find this unhelpful, I also find it untrue. Liturgical time is not the cessation of time; this could not be further from the truth. Liturgical time is in fact the thickening and deepening of time, it is time made more real; no, it is time made most real. Just as Jesus’ Kingdom is utterly for this world, so too is liturgical time absolutely for time as we know it in the Church.

The Sunday ordo celebrates the annual, weekly, and daily cycles of the Church’s prayer,and it proclaims, presents, and enacts the story of God in Christ. The dually climactic nature of Word and Table reaches a crescendo in the Eucharistic prayer when this sense of time is most fully revealed. The anamnesis is the reaching back into the past, dragging forward into the present, and making real of the sacrifice of Jesus. Similarly, we look forward to the day when God will be all in all; our eschatological hope gives us a foretaste of glory eternal and divine in the Eucharist. What we presently encounter is the crashing in of past and future into the now; it is the meeting of Christ’s salvific actions at the time of Passover and his coming again at time unknown. And yet we somehow experience it in a real, tangible, and robust sense on a weekly basis.

Liturgical time is thick. It is different. It is new. And it is utterly real. Our experience with and encounter of the living God through the sacrament of sacraments is the pinnacle of the Church’s worship. It is living with the reality, and in the light, of Jesus’ incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and exaltation as he reigns over all things. Our understanding of time is irrevocably and undeniably tied into the Paschal Mystery. We ought to be more intentional about telling time liturgically because to do so is to tell time according to Jesus rather than the competing and counterfeit narratives of this world.

This post was first published on June 28, 2017 for my former blog, The Liturgical Theologian, on Patheos.

This week marks the 20th anniversary of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. For starters, Alan Jacobs of Wheaton wrote a delightful piece on Harry Potter in 2000 and the piece was recently re-published by First Things. Anyone who knows me will know that I am a diehard-Potter fan. I discovered the books early into the series, I believe it was in between the publishing of Chamber of Secrets and Prisoner of Azkaban. Since my adolescence, I have read the books with vigor, attended 4 midnight book releases, watched the movies with a mixture of joy and zealous criticism, listened to the books while I paint, and most recently I attended Harry Potter in Concert with the Kansas City Symphony at the Kauffman Center. I feel a bit like Paul at this point in giving my credentials—only slightly joking—but I do this to suggest that I am not some squib jumping on the HP bandwagon.

I was listening to the original NPR announcement of Harry Potter this morning—it can be found here—and something grabbed my attention. Margot Adler predicted that the word “muggle” would become a big thing in common language and then shared an audio clip from Rowling discussing it further. Within the HP series the term “muggle” simply means “non-magical person.” However, Rowling shared that she began receiving letters and emails from fans who began expanding the term for modern, non-literary usage. In this form the term came to mean something like “dull and unimaginative person.” And I cannot tell you why, but it was like a lightning bolt scared my brain (see what I did there) and it got me thinking:

What if there are liturgical muggles? What if the loss of the sacramental imagination is like the difference between magic and muggle (or at least squib)? I suppose the easiest place to begin is first with the sacramental imagination and its loss.

…Before I go on, please hear: I am not suggesting that the liturgy is an actual form of magic or that words spoken over bread and wine is a spell or an enchantment like Stupefyor Avada Kedavra. I am not looking to debate hocus pocus (hoc est enim corpus meum) or medieval superstitions. If you find yourself arguing with me on these points then you’ve missed my meaning entirely. The reader may continue…

We are heirs of the Enlightenment. Our collective sacramental imagination has shifted over the course of 2,000 years. The ways in which we interpret information, tell stories, share experiences, and view the world today as Christians in the democratic, capitalist West is different from the earliest centuries of the church in the East and in Rome, it is different from the medieval church, it is different from the overwhelming majority of church history. Why does this matter?

Because we no longer actively view the world as being full of God’s glory, imbued with his presence, overwhelmed by his love, rich with encounters of him, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ lyric, “The earth is charged with the grandeur of God” makes no sense to us. Our imaginations, our sense of awe and wonder, our belief in the movement and action of the Holy Spirit is greatly diminished. There is a reason that Harry Potter, Lewis’ Narnia, the Force in Star Wars, and many similar stories capture our imaginations. It’s because it is so other than what we know and what we are used to. It’s not that these stories view magic positively but that they show a world teeming with possibilities, of a world where the supernatural is bumping against the natural regularly, where things aren’t always as they seem.And that brings me to the liturgy…

Our post-Enlightenment, Protestant worship has seen a minimalist approach to liturgy and a dwindling view of enchantment, wonder, awe, and terror before God. These have been replaced with rationalism, with Bible, with Sermon. In many Protestant, evangelical churches the sermon is the centerpiece. Rather than a dually climactic service where Word and Table play off of and interpret each other, these worship services are almost exclusively comprised of worship songs and a long, highly intellectual (though not always) sermon. The mind is what matters here, and how it affects the hands and the feet afterward, but the body is left relatively alone.

Enter the liturgical muggle.  Remember that I am using muggle as a “dull and unimaginative person.”

This is the subtle shift from sacramental worship to rational worship, from Word and Sacrament to more and more Word. I think, and I may be mistaken, that it is obvious how this shift would result in making liturgical muggles. But those in more historical, liturgical conditions aren’t entirely off the hook. This isn’t an us vs. them situation. It is entirely possible to be(come) a liturgical muggle within the liturgy because, for me, liturgical muggles are those who have lost the sacramental imagination.

Even amid liturgical worship, we have lost a sacramental consciousness, awareness, and imagination as the sacraments have less and less to do with reality and more to do with vague and ethereal signs and symbols. Baptism becomes more about the confession of faith (or covenant promise) than the reality of and individual being washed in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, of being made a new person, of being anointed with the Holy Spirit. Or Eucharist is about nourishment for the spiritual journey, or a political act of the highest degree (don’t get me started), or a sign of socio-economic equality in the Kingdom of God and not about bread and wine becoming Body and Blood, joining the worship of the cosmos in the heavenly throne room. I could go on and on and on here, but suffice it today that for liturgical muggles water, oil, bread, and wine are always just that. There is no imagination, there is no magic (be careful here) per se. Worship is dull and unimaginative because it is focused exclusively on what our minds can handle and conceive rather than that God is doing in and among us, breaking into our midst regularly, sacramentally.

In my opinion, and I say this with all sincerity and humility, we need to guard against making more liturgical muggles and losing even more of the sacramental imagination. Our Christian worldview needs to shift, and shift pretty dramatically. A deeper, richer, more robust view of the Sacraments will help us avoid becoming liturgical muggles. At the end of the day, rationalist worship or rationalist Christianity is a separation of mind from body, of head and heart, of brain and soul. It may not appear that way, it certainly wasn’t intended that way, but it is it’s own form of escapism, of isolationism, of segregation. The reintegration of these elements, the reintroduction of Sacramental teaching and imagination will result in a holistic, fully-formed, fully informed, fully alive worship and a Christian spirituality that is committed to working within the world we inhabit rather than railing against it constantly.