Monday, December 23, 2013

Christmas, Devotion, and Liturgical Laxity

Given the length of some recent posts, it seems worthwhile to make a short(er) one for a change.  Yesterday, the By Common Consent blog unveiled a post by Kevin Barney titled "Non-Christmas Programs in Sacrament Meeting Today".  The thread and the comments offer numerous anecdotal examples of wards not exactly holding fast to even the minimum cultural expectations of the fundamentals of the liturgical year.  Things like talks on Christmas Sunday that have nothing to do with Christmas or even with Christ, and the same for Easter Sunday, with substituted topics being matters such as tithing or missionary work, without any tie-ins to those holidays.

I don't point this out to pick on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  For the record, although I've attended my share of LDS church services, I've usually taken those particular days off from that practice, so as to focus more intently on the pure gospel.  And, also for the record, the wards I've been involved with have, from what I have seen, been pretty diligent in seeking to honor Christmas, at least.  The Lexington Kentucky Stake puts on what I'm told is a quite grand and lovely Christmas celebration.  

My home church, of course, is very diligent to make quite the big deal out of Christmas, and quite the big deal out of Easter Sunday.  The whole of the Advent season is used as a celebration of Christmas, leading up to tomorrow night's Christmas Eve service, with a unique cantata each year.  As far as 'major' points of the liturgical year are concerned, my one complaint on that front is that Good Friday gets consistently rolled into Easter celebrations, without much pause to separately experience the overwhelming depths of the rest of Holy Week.  

Still, I know something of what Kevin Barney and other BCC regulars are rightly lamenting.  An area of my growing irritation with American Evangelicalism, or at least with the social circles represented by many churches in my denomination (my own included), is the co-opting of the church by hyper-patriotism.  (The LDS Church suffers from some of the same issues, but expressed in different ways.)  For instance, this past year, Trinity Sunday, a liturgical holy day, fell on the day before Memorial Day, a national holiday of understandable importance.  At my home church, the services for Trinity Sunday offered no awareness that it was Trinity Sunday, but had plenty to do with Memorial Day: using "Battle Hymn of the Republic" for the prelude, singing "America the Beautiful" as our first song, a choir medley of "Statue of Liberty" and "God Bless America", and so forth.  The sermon had no relation to either Trinity Sunday or Memorial Day.  

My point is, more than just the LDS tradition has issues with what we might dub 'liturgical laxity'.  The difference is just that, in being too often inattentive to the most major liturgical occasions of the Christian year, LDS wards can readily be lax in a way that can be culturally offensive - note the sense of embarrassment about the perception that these forms of liturgical laxity might give visitors about the Christian devotion (or apparent lack thereof) in LDS culture.  And yet, my home church has not often made quite enough of a celebration out of Pentecost each year, and surely this is likewise a major liturgical occasion within the church, even if not in the surrounding culture.

So should we recover these liturgical rhythms?  I certainly think that we should.  I have had a few associates who, of course, would take a staunchly contrary view.  Some were Jehovah's Witnesses, who of course consider such holidays irreparably tainted by paganism.  (I recall some similar sentiments, albeit attenuated, in a sermon by Orson Pratt.)  To them I simply say, if God can redeem people sunk in the mire of pagan ideologies and pagan practices (and the New Testament makes expressly clear that he can), why cannot God redeem days and their practices and allow his Son to triumph over the principalities and powers?  Other associates come from a rather rigid strain of the Reformed tradition that maintain that the church has no authority to institute days of celebration and that setting apart any special day for celebration detracts from our ability to honor the object of celebration every day, as we ought.  As for them, I hope that they do not feel that their wedding anniversaries are an insult to their regular celebration of love for their spouses!  Moreover, this grossly misunderstands the benefits of a temporal rhythm, of experiencing certain sorts of transitions over time.  These sorts of movements were part and parcel of Israelite faith - and I would of course dispute the Puritan contention that no celebration is acceptable other than one that God has expressly commanded in scripture. 

The real question, then, is how we can best recover these liturgical rhythms more fully.  Certainly, different traditions will want to set different limits.  For my part, within my Christian tradition, I will not want to explicitly emphasize every feast day of every saint canonized by the Roman Catholic Church or the Orthodox Church.  (I admittedly have a fondness for the Feast of the Three Holy Hierarchs, however.)  Latter-day Saints may not want to fully adopt explicit celebrations of Pentecost or Christ the King Sunday - and much less Trinity Sunday!  (And Latter-day Saints may have other unique elements of their own liturgical year to add - today is, after all, Joseph Smith's birthday - though hopefully not to the detriment of some of the more fundamental Christian feasts; I trust that we are all familiar here with the cases of Joseph Smith nativity celebrations being poorly received by some outside of the LDS community, and for understandable reasons.)  But perhaps for most of us, whether Evangelical or LDS, a bit more of a communal attachment to the liturgical year couldn't hurt.  I don't have any particular recommendations ready at hand.  What do you suggest? 

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