The following piece was written a long time ago (at least five years). At the time I was Brethren in Christ, but torn between the appeal of the liturgical tradition(s) and unprogrammed worship practiced by Quakers. At some level I am still torn; there is a lot to learn from our liturgically oriented brothers and sisters, as the paragraphs below show.
The Church Calendar
I cannot recall my first observation of Advent. I suspect it was without frills: five candles surrounded by evergreen sprigs, accompanied by hopeful sermons about divine love. Recently Advent has become more elaborate: five drip-less candles, well-ordered evergreen all around the sanctuary, a Christmas tree, dozens of poinsettias, and sermons focusing on hope, divine love, and the incarnation. For weeks, I am encouraged to prepare for the Lord’s advent. The church looks, smells, and sounds good. Preparation is the watch word.
Imagine my shock upon learning the “church calendar” celebrates the life and death of St. Stephen on December 26. In 24 hours, we rush from loving and innocent images of a new born child to the bloody fatal stoning of the first Christian martyr. And there is more: December 27 celebrates the life of St. John the Evangelist who was exiled and imprisoned on the Isle of Patmos. In 48 hours, “high church” Christian worship focuses on birth, death, and imprisonment. Unfortunately, the calendar doesn’t take a break from this litany of suffering. The Feast of the Holy Innocents, the children murdered by Herod the Great in his zeal to kill baby Jesus, is held on December 28. A birth, a martyrdom, an imprisonment, and a massacre within 72 hours. I still haven’t found anything to prepare me for that.
I often ponder these four “holidays,” asking, “What were they thinking when they compiled the liturgical calendar?” I don’t know. But I think they were insightful. Just because God appeared as an infant and lived among us doesn’t mean evil disappeared. We have, and always will have, to contend with the likes of King Herod. But Advent tells us we aren’t alone in this world where evil also exists. And St. John the Evangelist’s inclusion reminds us that we have an important role: we are witnesses to the fact that God’s chosen is the source of life, even in the midst of pain, suffering, and exile. That was John’s message in his gospel (John 20:31). Finally, St. Stephen’s day reminds us that the baby born yesterday grew up. And when he learned to speak, he said, “Take up your cross, and follow me” – a call to imitate him in our pained, yet loved, world.