It’s been a long time since I posted anything other than a sermon here. Not surprisingly, my activity on creative projects is inversely correlated with the academic semester being in session. As I move out of coursework into a less structured part of my program, I hope I’ll be able to be on this page a little more frequently. We’ll see.
Last night I went to celebrate the feast of the Ascension at the Church of the Advent in the City. One of the best things about Anglo-Catholic parishes is that they tend to take the liturgical year very seriously. Ascension Day is a principal feast of the church. It’s right up there with Easter, Christmas, and Pentecost as a day the Prayer Book envisions us celebrating with all our liturgical and programmatic resources. But many of our congregations tend to neglect it because it always falls on a weekday (Thursday, to be specific, forty days after Easter Sunday).
That’s a shame, from my perspective. These feasts can be terrific occasions for congregational fellowship and for helping people encounter the church’s year more deeply. I remember being a child and being excited and curious when from time to time we would go to church in the evening on a schoolnight–what was going on here?
The Ascension is worth celebrating. It’s a feast of paradox when we celebrate both the real absence and the real presence of Christ. Absence: Jesus no longer present with us here, visible and touchable, as he was to his friends both during his ministry and in those mysterious appearances after his resurrection. Jesus exalted to the right hand of God, preparing a place for us as we await the day when the love of God triumphs completely over evil and death. Jesus longed for and not seen.
Yet also, presence: Jesus with us always, even to the end of the age. Jesus present in the sacraments, touched and tasted. Jesus present in the Word proclaimed, in the faces of the gathered church, of all who suffer and whom we are called to serve, and of every human being created in God’s image. Jesus filling all things, his gracious presence immediate to all of creation so that every crag and wave and creature resounds with the cosmic song of the Logos. The Ascension is a holy paradox indeed.
As I was teaching a short segment on the liturgical year a few weeks ago with students at CDSP, I brought in a picture of a head of romanesco. Romanesco isn’t in season in May, so it had to be a picture only:
This unique (and tasty) cauliflower is a fractal in vegetable form. The cone-shaped head is composed of lots of cone-shaped florets, each of which is made of lots of cone-shaped buds. Those buds have tiny buds on them, and so on. It’s recursive: the shape replicates itself at level after level. The whole and the parts interact in a pattern of beautiful complexity and order.
The liturgical year is a little like this. The shape of Christian worship is the paschal mystery: the pattern of self-giving love that is the very life of the Holy Trinity. For us that pattern is seen most centrally in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is seen also in his incarnation, his life and ministry, teaching and healing, in the ascension, in the sending of the Spirit at Pentecost, and in the lives of faithful followers ever since. In worship we encounter that paschal mystery at the lifelong level of our individual birth and death; at the yearly level as the cycle of feasts and fasts comes around again and again; at the weekly level as the Lord’s Day brings us to gather again with sisters and brothers at the holy table; at the daily level as we pray with the evening and morning light.
If the church year is a romanesco, the Prayer Book calendar sees the principal feasts–Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity, All Saints, Christmas, Epiphany–as big florets. These are the hinges of the annual level, shaping each year into an encounter with the paschal mystery in its different instantiations. Then there are Sundays, each one a paschal feast in its own right, punctuating our lives at the weekly level. Then come those days called “major” feasts: these are celebrations of New Testament events and saints, like the Transfiguration or the Visitation or St. Mary Magdalene. One of the treasures of our common life that I think many Episcopalians aren’t aware of is that it is on these three types of days that the Prayer Book envisions all our parishes celebrating the eucharist. Principal feasts, Sundays, major feasts: these are the particularly eucharistic days, celebrations of the paschal mystery in its many facets.
Then there’s the daily level–the ordinary day-in-and-day-out of life. This is what the daily office is for: praise and prayer in the everyday, the people of God joining together in the common prayer of the church celebrated in parishes or in households or on buses. There can be a place for the eucharist at this daily level too, if a parish has the resources for it; weekday eucharists are an ancient and venerable part of liturgical history. That’s where what the Prayer Book calls “days of optional observance” comes in. It’s at this level that Episcopalians have spent a lot of time in discussion recently. But it’s important not to get so stuck wandering around in the buds that we lose the shape of the whole romanesco.
How many of our parishes celebrate regular weekday eucharists, maybe at noon or in the evening, once or twice a week, and yet skip holding principal eucharistic liturgies on the Ascension or the Epiphany?
What might it look like instead to celebrate these feast days with all the festivity we can muster, doing our best through planning and publicity to make sure these are central events in our congregation’s life, and taking the opportunity for an evening gathering to share food and drink and conversation together?