Fr James 1 September 2019
We are almost at the start of a new academic year – lots of children eager and excited to start a new school year… and its worth pausing to reflect on the cycle of the church’s year.
I have spent over 30 years of my life in the Pentecostal and Charismatic Evangelical tradition. And I think we can learn a lot from our fellow brothers and sisters. But part of my frustration with the tradition is that it strives for the ecstatic, the euphoric intensity of God’s presence… mountain top experiences. Every Sunday! Every time we’d sing a few worship songs results in a mountain top experience. I’d be delighted with an ecstatic encounter every 5 or 10 years. But such moments can’t be manufactured. And while the ecstatic may be, for some Christians, part of the Christian life, it needs to be framed within a broader rhythm of the Christian life. The church’s liturgical year helps here.
One of the things that I have appreciated about Anglican spirituality, and it shares this with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox tradition, is its yearly liturgical cycle. Like the cycle of nature’s seasons, it has its own particular rhythm. The church’s yearly calendar roots our lives in an alternative story to the narrative we’re often told by the world. It centres our lives around the events in the life of Christ, and around prayer and worship. It takes us on a journey and it includes a range of emotions. This means that we are not stuck with the theme of ‘joy’ or ‘celebration’ as the predominant emphasis every Sunday in church. And therefore we don’t have to walk around with a permanent (forced!) smile on our face when we’re crumbling inside.
In the church’s yearly cycle, there is an ebb and flow to what we might deem the spectacular. Yes, the Christian life includes moments of intensity, where God is very present, as well as times when it seems as though God isn’t very active in the world, or even in the Church. In short, the spiritual life (both corporately and individually) includes rainy seasons and dry seasons.
So, where are we in the rhythm? We have experienced the lean fasting weeks of Lent, the season of lament for the continued suffering and pain we see around us. And then the dramatic journey through Holy Week to the climax of the preparation: Easter. Easter, of course, is the celebratory, feasting season. Easter is the ecstatic season where we may experience the dynamism and excitement of the resurrection. The former Bishop of London says we should drink champagne for the whole of Easter week. Amen to that!
From Easter we move to the Ascension and Pentecost, when the Spirit is poured out upon the Church. Later in the church’s year, we move to the culmination of this earthly life, celebrating the Saints, honouring our loved ones who have gone before us, remembering those who have fought bravely for peace on Remembrance Sunday. We do this recognising that Christ is King and assures us of the ultimate victory over death.
But between Lent-Easter and what’s called Kingdom season, we have what’s called ‘ordinary time’. We move into a season where we learn to live the Christian life in our own world, in the here and now. So, today’s passage from Hebrews describes the classic Christian virtues: love one another; practice hospitality; the Gospel issues a radical challenge to extend hospitality to those outside our particular social circle; with the early church facing persecution, they are told to remember those in prison (and we need to remember that persecuted Christians isn’t limited to some bygone era…we are to remember our fellow Christians persecuted around the world and pray for them). The passage goes on: be faithful to your partner; keep free of the love of money. From this list from Hebrews, it’s clear that struggling with sex, money, power and suffering isn’t just a 21st century challenge.
This season of ordinary time is when we simply and faithfully embody and live out the Christian life. Ordinary time is the focus on a sort of mundane holiness. And it’s the predominant mode of the Christian life.
Coming to church each week, we are invited to simply stop and slow down for an hour and become really present. We are invited to become attentive to ourselves, reflect on what’s happened during the last week. To become aware of experiencing ‘heaven in the ordinary’. It’s easy to think that this is a useless waste of time, and that nothing happens.
There are miracles in the midst of the mundane. Or, rather, the mundane is miraculous. Psalm 139 reminds us of this. The woman with child is a vessel of the extraordinary. For in her womb God is knitting, making – creating. God’s wonderful yet creative yet silent work. Pausing for an hour in church on Sunday, or being silent for 10 minutes each day, helps our restless souls to be still and more attentive to the millions of miracles that occur all around us … and in us.
This notion of ordinary time, of looking for ‘heaven in the ordinary, makes another very important point: the power to change the world doesn’t only consist in the lives of great people like Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King and so on, as important as their contribution has been. It’s all too easy to have a perspective of the Christian life that focuses primarily on people or practices that are exceptions or set apart from the ordinary fabric of human life and relationships. We focus on Superman Christians. And this certainly resonance with today’s culture, so fascinated it is with fame.
But the power to change the world lies in the ordinary. Heaven in the ordinary is where ‘ordinary human beings are accepted as they are, and where what they do, however routine, is valued and affirmed’ (John Davies). We are encouraged to look for and affirm the spirit in the everyday – at work, school, at home. Because history is changed through the sum-total of ordinary people’s actions, attempting to live out the classic Christian virtues in our everyday life.