The approach of Lent has provoked discussion among some friends about the appropriateness of it all. Should we do it? What’s the value? I’m throwing out some thoughts that are not fully formed or set so, feel free to challenge them, but it seems to me there is a wisdom in the ecclesiastical calendar that we see reflected in way God has ordained for time to pass each year: dressed in the garb of Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall.
There are rhythms of life that are inescapable and absolutely essential. We would be worn to a nub if it was “always winter and never Christmas” — or if every day was a celebration or if there were no celebrations at all. If every day is the same, then life loses it’s mystery and glory.
Our lives follow the rhythm and pattern God has put into the seasonal cycle for most of the world. Winter is a necessary prelude to and preparation for the new life of Spring. Plowing and planting are essential if there is to be a Summer of growth and development into fruitful maturity. And without the growth of Summer there could never be the glorious finale of Fall with its harvests and in-gatherings.
We see this same general cycle in our lives. We are born “out of the darkness” of the womb and have a season of preparation and training. Seeds are planted in our youth and manhood which grow and bear fruit as we grow in maturity during our “Summer” years. Then, we reach the season of in-gathering. The labor of our lives begins to bring in the harvest (both joyful and disappointing) as we see the fruit of our labors and the results of our lives and examples mirrored and lived out in the lives of our children and their children. Finally, we come to the “wintertime” of our days. Our strength diminishes, the color is lost from our heads (either through baldness or grayness), our limbs lose their vigor and we prepare for the last night before the new dawn of eternal Spring.
This is the rhythm of our lives and each year, we go through a mini-lifetime as we pass through the four seasons God brings. Thus, every year is a micro-record of our lives AND a micro-history of the history of the kingdom. Since our lives are hidden with Christ, it is also a micro-history of the life of our Savior. The ecclesiastical calendar trains us to mark our time based upon or oriented around the life of THE Man, Christ Jesus. Peter Leithart (who wrote about this a year or so ago) puts it this way:
[T]he church calendar takes us through the whole of human history, moving from the beginning of the creation to its end. Between Christmas and Easter we compress Jesus’ lifetime of 33 years. Roughly following the seasons, we go from the darkness of Advent to the new birth of light of Christmas and the gradually growing light of Epiphany. Then we follow the Savior’s time of suffering in the forty days of Lent which is followed by the new life from the grave at Easter. Then 40 days later, we have Pentecost and the season of growth and maturity through the summer and the harvest in the fall which brings us back to the last days of the year which point to the judgment. Observing the church year means living rhythmically.
And as it is in the passing of the seasons, so it is in our lives, there is a repetition of “work” and “rest” or seedtime and harvest, or celebration times and times of soberness and sorrow. We too have seasons of darkness that precede seasons of joy and triumph. Our joys are never unmixed. In the midst of them we always have sorrows of some nature. And our seasons of darkness are never completely dark (praise God). There are always joys intermixed to lighten them. We learn through this that “weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” Sorrow will not have the last word. And the church calendar impresses this upon us. We move from darkness and apparent death, to life and fullness. Tears, sorrows, and death never have the last word. Every day is undergirded by hope.
The church calendar disciplines us to think of life in terms of the life and work of Jesus — and that changes the way we think of our days and the events of our lives. Again, Peter Leithart:
We don’t mark Advent and Christmas and Epiphany, Lent and Good Friday and Easter and Pentecost out of nostalgia or sentimentalism. We mark these days in order to protest against the rationalism and gnosticism of our time and to discipline ourselves to begin to think differently about time itself. As Eugene Rosenstock-Hussey said, we mark these seasons to declare the truth that time is “not a quantity, but a melody.” Time is a song, or a symphony. It moves us to a glorious end which is another beginning. We observe these seasons so that we don’t get stuck in the dream world of modernity. No joy, no real grief, no sense of the gravity of time and events.