Monday, December 5, 2011

Book Review: The Liturgical Year by Joan Chittister

A few days ago I wrote about the alien nature of the society Jesus set up (i.e., Christianity) and mentioned that we even have our own calendar. One of the best resources I've found for grasping the profound meaning and purpose of that calendar is Joan Chittister's book The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life. It is part of the Ancient Practices series edited by Phyllis Tickle and published by Thomas Nelson.

Ms. Chittister is a Sister in the Order of St. Benedict so, as might be expected, her book approaches the christian calendar from a Catholic perspective. But this is done with a light touch so a Protestant reader (or Orthodox, for that matter) will certainly profit from reading this book. From the perspective of history, our calendar has its origins in a time long before there were divisions in the Church.

Sister Joan goes into the history of each season in the calendar, but never at such a length that it becomes tedious. She is much more interested in the spiritual significance of the days and weeks of the christian year, what they teach us and how they draw us ever closer to Jesus himself...

And this is perhaps the most important accomplishment of The Liturgical Year. Sister Joan shows us in intimate detail that the christian calendar is not just a set of dates: It is a devotional experience that, if we let it, permeates the most minute corners of our lives. As she describes it, "The liturgical year is about putting down our worship of the self and growing more into the One who calls us," (pg. 41).

To follow the christian calendar, she says, is to do 4 rather serious things:
First, we are making the past present in a new way. Second, we are making a public declaration of truth about the life of Jesus and its meaning for us now. Third, we are participating as a people in a communal amen to what is a private as well as a public certainty about what it means to be Christian. We are... reaffirming to ourselves and to the world of our own time what being Christian demands and what our personal and our public life should be or must become, (pg. 30).
We can follow the regular, secular calendar with little regard to any of the days, except a few birthdays and anniversaries. But to follow the christian calendar and start our year at Advent says to the world, "I take this stuff seriously."

Easter, Christmas, and the Saints
The most serious aspect of the Christian Movement, of course, is the fact that we worship a God who allowed himself to be tortured to death for our crimes.  Easter and Sunday -- the "little Easter" -- are the earliest celebrations we have, instituted by Christ himself, observed from the start of his society. The whole christian calendar revolves around Easter, reaches its climax at Easter. Sister Joan goes into great depth about this pivotal Feast because, as she tells us, "Nothing else in the Christian culture so completely explains all other things Christian as well as Easter does," (pg. 54).

But the calendar begins with Advent and Christmas, as does the book (after some introductory chapters). Yet even this joyous, celebratory season is ultimately about Easter. Advent begins the year because it makes Easter possible. We rejoice at Christmas for the incarnation of the one whose willing sacrifice and subsequent resurrection rescues creation. "Christmas, then, like all the other feasts of the liturgical year, is really about Easter," (pg. 56).

Sister Joan leads us throughout the circle of the year, guiding us to see Christ and his victory at every step. For those who determine to follow Jesus, the christian calendar is a tool to build the rhythm of his life, his way, into ourselves. Year by year, as we focus on his life and what it entailed, his heroism in making his stand for the Truth gradually works in us to make us heroic followers.

One chapter that Protestant readers may feel a bit squeamish about is on "The Sanctoral Cycle" -- the commemoration of saints in the calendar. Although in biblical terms any of Jesus' followers is a "saint," the Catholic faith makes a point of commemorating saints that have displayed holiness to a heroic degree. When Billy Graham went to the hospital the other day I was reminded that we Protestants have our own practitioners of  "heroic holiness" as well. The first ones specially picked out as "saints" in the Christian Movement were the martyrs, and we still have more than enough of those with us today. Even if we don't follow the calendar on this point it is important that we remember who our heroes are.

Each of us in the Christian Movement are called to be saints, Sister Joan says: "To think like [Jesus] thinks. To do what He would do. To make Him the center of our lives -- not our work or our money or our status... Fidelity to the liturgical life is the cement that keeps us grounded in Jesus," (pg. 179 - 180).

The Liturgical Year is an excellent primer for following our own calendar, marching to our own drummer, and living our "alien lifestyle."

Full Disclosure: I received this book free from the publisher through Thomas Nelson's BookSneeze® book review program. I was not required to write a positive review, and the opinions I have expressed are my own.

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