In the liturgical calendar of Anglicans, Episcopals, and most others, Christmas Eve marks the end of Advent. The days of celebration carry into the season of Epiphany–and the great cycle begins again.
There was a time when I did not appreciate the seasonal cycle, a time when I found the calendar repetitive and the liturgy limiting. Innovation was required: Something new and different. I should be able to speak great new words, find great new inspirations, see and express God in a brand new way. Individualism, by golly! Freedom from the old! Thus, I broke free of “constraint” and chose something more modern, more evangelical, more rapturously young and vigorous! Because, of course, if you quest for knowledge, you should neglect the aged and wise. What could those with more experience of life possibly tell you?
It is interesting, looking backward on these things. Not unlike many a young person seeking to be unique and different, I joined a large group of people exactly like myself. Of course, you are very unlikely to be challenged in such circumstances. And we must have challenges if we are to grow. When Jesus explained the Bread of Life to his followers–that you must eat his flesh and drink his blood to have a portion in him–many said it was a hard teaching. Too hard for some, as it turned out, but not too hard for the disciples who proclaimed “you have the words of eternal life.”
Difficulty does not equal complexity, necessarily–or not in the sense we often use that word. God is always asking us to be like children, after all. Rather, what makes a teaching “hard” is the wrecking of our tiny boat on the rock that is higher than we–running up against that which stretches us, which shakes us, which demands more of us than we yet have to give.
And strangely, that is what I said I wanted when I left the old for the new. But the new, in its newness, cannot speak to the wisdom of ages.
Saints, seraphim, martyrs and matrons… From the early Judaic fathers to the early Christian tradition and beyond, human beings have found comfort and joy in the seasons of faith even as they have the seasons of earth. C.S. Lewis remarks that, in fact, the two are intimately connected. He called our human tendency towards change the” law of undulation”–and that comfort is derived from the fact that all seasons are different, and yet repeatable and familiar: New and Old together and in harmony. Like the Sabbath, the cycle was made for Man, not Man for the cycle–it is here for our use, personal and yet familiar.
And so, I returned to a liturgical and episcopal faith, not because I found any particular fault in the others, not because I think there is no other way to worship, not because I am convinced of my own superiority. Far from it (well, as far as any of us get from being in love with our decisions). Rather, I returned to discover that the same old liturgy sparkles with astounding depth and shocking freshness…that the words that moved our forefathers and mothers still move me…that like the first flush of spring and the first golden bough of fall, this liturgical cycle brings me joy and light.
And, at this season of distraction and commercial tinsel, I find peace in the deep quiet of my elders. The cathedral speaks to me in the heavy dark, a majesty that, I think, can only be cultivated in the space of ages. At least, I have found it only in places of history–in castle ruins, in abbeys, in the eyes of wise old age, and in the elder liturgies of elder denominations.
Tidings of Comfort and Joy, indeed.
Merry, merry Christmas.
Psalm 96 Page 725, BCP
Sing to the LORD a new song; *
sing to the LORD, all the whole earth.
Sing to the LORD and bless his Name; *
proclaim the good news of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations *
and his wonders among all peoples.
For great is the LORD and greatly to be praised; *
he is more to be feared than all gods.
As for all the gods of the nations, they are but idols; *
but it is the LORD who made the heavens.
Oh, the majesty and magnificence of his presence! *
Oh, the power and the splendor of his sanctuary!
Ascribe to the LORD, you families of the peoples; *
ascribe to the LORD honor and power.
Ascribe to the LORD the honor due his Name; *
bring offerings and come into his courts.
Worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness; *
let the whole earth tremble before him.
Tell it out among the nations: “The LORD is King! *
he has made the world so firm that it cannot be moved;
he will judge the peoples with equity.”
Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad;
let the sea thunder and all that is in it; *
let the field be joyful and all that is therein.
Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy
before the LORD when he comes, *
when he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness *
and the peoples with his truth.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness–
on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.