My three year old woke up on November 1 and joyfully announced, “It’s Halloween!” She had had such a blast the night before, trick-or-treating, handing out candy, and rocking to the live music at our neighborhood block parties, that she wanted the festivities to continue. When we reminded her that Halloween only happens once a year, she dissolved into tears. It was sad and sweet and completely relatable.
We long for good things to keep going — celebration, the joy of community, music, feasting. We were made for it to go on eternally.
On t-shirts, bumper stickers, and in high school yearbooks around Austin, I often see the lyrics of a Robert Earl Keen song quoted: “The road goes on forever and the party never ends . . . .” These lyrics speak of what we long for — hope of an endless joy. But the reality is that this side of heaven, in a world broken and bleeding, any party that never ends would at some point cease being a party and would become a mockery, cruel and oppressive.
There can be a tendency in our culture to think things ought to be shiny and happy and fun fun fun at all times. We want entertainment and crave a thrill. We project perfectly happy lives on Facebook and Pinterest. We are tempted to move from celebration to celebration — a month of Halloween to three months of Christmas to the Super Bowl, Mardi Gras, Cinco De Mayo, and on and on. You gotta fight for your right to endlessly party. Evangelical culture can respond by trumpeting boundless victory in the Christian life and a happy, clappy triumphalism.
And this is why the liturgical calendar helps keep me sane. Because it reminds us that there can be no celebration without preparation. It keeps us from cheaply proclaiming hope before we’ve adequately waited, mourned, and sat in the ache of longing. We aren’t ready to celebrate until we acknowledge over time through ritual and worship that we and this world are not yet right and whole.
Advent begins this week. I am unusually eager for it to begin.
It’s been a rough month. A dear, faithful friend lost his child suddenly. Another friend who I look up to as a mentor is hanging by a thread as cancer takes its toll. Marriages around me are failing. And this Advent Sunday as the culture buzzes about jingle bells and store wide sales, I will sing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” with my community and it will be a prayer from my gut, from my weary, shivering soul, for my friends and for the world and for me. Advent gives me permission to not party yet. To rest and wait. To hope expectantly for a redemption that I only now glimpse distantly and hazily on the horizon. It’s a time to grieve, to be angry, to long, to lean in, to hope. And to do so with the global and historic church.
But then come twelve days of Christmas. Then come angels and shepherds and Gloria in excelsis Deo. And I’m called to celebrate. I don’t know whether my soul will feel like celebrating by then or not. But it doesn’t matter because I’ll be called to celebrate nonetheless. And so I will. I will proclaim the fact — the real fact, regardless of how I feel — that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, that Hope came, the Dawn broke. I will pour champagne. I will sing “Joy to the World” — the blessing has, in fact, flowed as far as the curse is found.
And here again is why the church calendar keeps me sane. Because people like me who are prone to melancholy and who tend to believe the lie that despair is more real than rejoicing need to be told by the church, “Okay, enough mourning and aching for now. It’s time to rejoice. It’s time to celebrate because whether you care to admit it or not, you have a lot that needs celebrating.” It calls me out of cynicism without degenerating into sentimentality.
I catch myself thinking that whatever I feel at this moment is the truest reality there is. But the liturgical calendar tells me otherwise. It tells a story big enough to sweep me up into it. It calls the shots. It gives me a time to ache, a time to prepare, a time to celebrate, a time of repentance, a time of feasting. It says that something defines time that is truer than my circumstances and my feelings about them. It establishes a regulative tempo for my emotional life beyond what I feel is presently most “authentic.”
And mercifully, it reminds me that not only is there mourning and repentance, rejoicing and feasting, but that there are long slogs of the Ordinary. Life has times of deepest grief and groaning and times of profound joy and Hallelujahs. But much of it is neither. Much of it is small and unnoticed and hums along, years spent in work, sleep, maintenance, and everydayness. And this too is honored in the church calendar. In the long ordinary, neither the valley nor the mountaintops but the plain planes of life, God is still with us, working and rooting us when it seems like not much is happening. And this also is part of the story of the gospel. And this also is part of the story the church tells us in its changing seasons.
Part of what it means to be human is living in time. And living in time is always communal and ritualized. All of us mark our lives by days, months, and seasons. I didn’t know the church had its own way of marking time until around college, but I still marked my time communally — by sports seasons, by academic years, by the changing weather. When I discovered that time itself is part of the way that we Christians are the church together and a means by which we can learn the gospel together, it was a magical and alluring discovery, like finding a beautiful, unknown room hidden in my old, familiar home.
What I didn’t know at the time was how living into these seasons would provide balance and sanity — the way it would help order my deep, at times conflicting, feelings of pain, joy, gratitude, boredom, malaise, passion, and hope. The liturgical seasons have become to me like banks of a river, providing structure and limits to the torrent of my emotional life. Or like cairns on a trail — something those before me have left behind to help guide, direct, and orient my heart, season after season, year by year.