Wednesday, May 19, 2010

An Evening with Father Christy: Putting the "Holy" Back Into "Holiday"

Having briefly detoured onto Douglas John Hall, I return for my third and final comment on that evening spent listening with Fr. Christy. The tone of these final reflections will be markedly different from those previous, because frustrating as Fr. Christy’s lecture was he was nevertheless Orthodox and thus inevitably had something to offer me, an explanation which challenged my Western conceptions of religion by its very foreignness. The particular topic is the church’s celebration of holy days.

I come from a tradition which represents the ultimate extreme of the Reformations rejection of all external form and ostentation of the Roman Catholic tradition. If it stank of papism, high church, or tradition the Restoration churches ran from it as from the plague. Since the celebration of any holidays is never prescribed for Christians in the New Testament, the celebration of them is unnecessary. What is both unnecessary and still required of some many “denominational” Christians must be evil. Thus, not only do Restoration churches not celebrate minor holy seasons like Lent, Advent, Pentecost, the Ascension, the Annunciation, and other insignificant events in the life of Christ, but they have even wholeheartedly rejected any religious celebration of Easter and Christmas. You will often find in Churches of Christ both Christmas trees and Santa themed parties but very rarely a nativity. I have attended more church sponsored Easter egg hunts in my life than I have services in celebration of the resurrection. At most, the preacher will structure his sermon to match the basic themes of nativity or passion, but this is a courtesy afforded even to non-religious holidays like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and (most despicably of all, in my opinion) Independence Day.

I have been more or less complacent with the status quo for a long time now. I refuse to attend church anywhere during the week of Christmas or Independence Day (which, sadly, falls on a Sunday this year), and I make a point of attending Easter and Lenten services at churches not associated with the Churches of Christ. Beyond that, I have adopted a ‘no harm, no foul’ attitude about holy days. I wish I celebrated them more – I even tried to mimic traditional Orthodox practices at the latest feast of Transfiguration – but I see (or at least I saw) no pressing need to introduce them to them into my life or into the life of the church. Two events conspired to change that.

This last Easter was of particular importance to me. The combined observance of Lent and Easter in both the East and the West had a substantial spiritual impact on me, focusing my thoughts on the unity of the church total and the profundity of its Easter message. My various Lenten observances further prompted me to redefine and deepen my spiritual and intellectual identity. In the midst of this spiritual revivification, my professor related to us an encounter he had with an elder in his church. The man approached him, quite sincerely, complaining, “I don’t understand why the denominations insist on celebrating the resurrection on Easter. It isn’t as though we actually know what day Christ was raised.” My professor was rightly appalled and explained as best he could that we could quite easily pinpoint to the day when Christ died. Easter, he lamented, no longer fell precisely on that day because of various ecclesiastical adjustments to the calendar, but (unlike with Christmas) the date of Easter is not entirely arbitrary.

Which lead me to my first realization about holy days. The celebration of holy days serves a didactic function in the church. A person who truly understood the chronological significance of Jesus’ death, coinciding as it was with the Passover and the remembrance of God’s salvation of His people through their obedience and sacrifice, could never have made such an obvious blunder about the date of Easter. The incident my professor related is representative of a profound ignorance which pervades the church about the particulars of the life of Christ. (I am not speaking here merely of the Restoration churches, but more broadly of low church Protestant denominations and Evangelical groups that have largely abandoned any sort of serious yearly study of the Scriptures.) The focus has shifted so thoroughly onto contextualizing the Gospel that simply knowing the Gospels has been lost in the shuffle. We have lost a real sense of the life of Christ as it progressed historically, in time. It is not merely a parable that is meant to be mined for culturally relevant paranaesis; it is the life of a real man, temporal as we are, who lived day to day and who died on a particular day. Having snapshot-ed and dissected Jesus for our purposes, we have abandoned both the conception of him as a real man who, like us, experienced life sequentially with particular events representing major historical moments in time (a concept that ought to dominate our Christology and which enlivens our understanding of the mystery of Incarnation) and the knowledge of the particular facts about that life. Such a loss of knowledge has more tragic, though more furtive, consequences than academic blunders like the ones my professor related.

The second event which awakened me to the value if not the necessity of Christian holidays was Fr. Christy’s lecture. Commenting on the upcoming (now past) observation of the Ascension, Fr. Christy drew out the analogy of the Church as bride in a potent apology for the celebration of holy days for the Orthodox and a trenchant criticism of the abandoning of holy days in many Protestant denominations. If the Church truly is the bride of Christ and Christ our bridegroom, then our relationship to Jesus and his life ought to reflect that relationship on every level, according to Fr. Christy. It is typical, expected, and perhaps even required (though I realize that personally I present a rather glaring exception) that spouses should commemorate the significant life events in each other’s past: birthdays, anniversaries, Valentine’s days, etc. Even loved ones who have passed will still have not only those aforementioned days remembered, but also the day of their death. We commemorate – through both joyous celebration and solemn remembrance – the momentous occasions in the lives of the people we love. How is it not appropriate then that the Church, as the bride of Christ, should not want to make a celebration or memorial of every significant event in the life of Jesus which we have recorded.

Here is illustrated the existential function of holy days in the life of the church. Fr. Christy painted a beautiful picture of a church that did not merely study the life of Christ (something which, as already mentioned, is itself abandoned in many churches) but lives the life of Christ with him every year. When the savior is born the church celebrates that birth. The whole body walks with him as he travels through Judea teaching, preaching, and healing. They ascend with those select disciples onto the Transfiguration Mount and behold with wonder the manifestation of Moses and Elijah. They taste the mix of triumph and anxiety as they enter to Jerusalem for the last time with the Lord. The church, who cherishes Christ as more than a deliverer but as a lover and a spouse, truly weeps as he is tortured and executed. They wait with eager anticipation for the promise of resurrection and exult at its arrival. They watch Jesus ascend on the clouds and confess the promise that he will again return on them. When her own birthday, Pentecost, comes, the church rejoices in her own rebirth. The observation of these holy days is more than merely an intellectual exercise intended to remind us that Christ lived a real life; it is a corporate reliving of that life. How spiritually impoverished are we who have lost sight of that?

I will be the first to admit that reality is not nearly as picturesque as Fr. Christy has painted it, and the actual experience of innumerable Christians who either do not understand or do not care about this existential function testifies to the flaw in any system. Nevertheless, it is a great travesty that rather than trying to purify the experience and educate the participants that we have merely condemned the practice altogether. We forfeit not only the knowledge which, to borrow from the language Gregory Palamas, comes from intellection but also the knowledge of the heart which comes through our direct experience of God. If the church really is the body of Christ on earth, then perhaps it is time it started living out the life of Christ more fully. This is an emphasis which is by no means ignored in the modern, Evangelical rhetoric, but it has been restricted to missiological and charitable applications. I submit that a church that is not experiencing the personal life of Christ, the human life shaped as it was by the momentous events of its story, cannot properly, truly, authentically express the outworking of that life for the lost and the poor. Before we can be Christ to the world, we must know what it is to be Christ. Superficial as it may sound, the observance of holidays is a substantial means to that end.

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