From Steve Thorngate, Evening Worship Leader
I’m writing this on the Feast of the Annunciation of the Lord, the day the church remembers Mary’s rather eventful visit from Gabriel. To our 21st-century eyes, it might look like a pretty weird feast. Even if the whole virgin-birth thing doesn’t cause any problems for you, it still seems odd to be so committed to the notion that December 25 is Jesus’ birthday that you also mark his divine conception exactly nine months before. (Incidentally, it’s also the Annunciation of My Daughter Anna; her due date was Christmas Day, though she missed it by many weeks.)
The church calendar can seem fussy, esoteric, oddly specific. There’s little historical evidence that Jesus was born on December 25. Yet this date dictates a whole chunk of the year’s feasts and fasts, of assigned themes and readings. Why?
One important thing to understand is that the church calendar’s most basic purpose is not to trace the life of Jesus over the course of a year, hitting the historical anniversaries as best we can. It’s to mark the changing seasons of the natural world-and to align our life of faith with this cycle of natural time.
In other words, we don’t celebrate Christmas on December 25 simply because it’s our best guess as to when Jesus was actually born (though historically, this is certainly part of it). We do it because-in the Northern Hemisphere, anyway-it’s right after the winter solstice, which means the days are about as short as they get but they’re starting to get longer. The darkness of Advent is giving way to the light of Christ.
As for the timing of Easter, it’s related to the Jewish festival of Passover, which, depending which Gospel writer you ask, fell either right before or right after Jesus’ death. This connection is more than a curiosity of interfaith history. Easter, like Passover, is closely connected to the vernal equinox, the coming of spring-to the thaw and the arrival of new life. Easter hymns about burgeoning plant life are dealing in more than just metaphor.
Spring, of course, comes gradually. And, as Debbie Blue writes, this is what our current season, Lent, is about:
Lent is intimately connected to the coming of spring. The word means “spring” in Middle English, from the same origin as “lengthen”: a lengthening of days. The Latin prefix “lent-” simply means “slow,” and this is how we experience Lent in Minnesota. Spring comes so damn slowly here. We are so deprived in winter-of color, light, sound, smell, vitamin D. We hardly have to make a decision to fast; we’ve been thrust into a sensory deprivation chamber. Lent is an almost unbearably slow wait.
Easter is coming, and boy, do we need it.
Yes we do-here in Chicago, too. So often we think of Lent in spiritual terms of repentance, or fasting, or accompanying Jesus in the wilderness, or personal discipline. All good things! But it’s also helpful to see Lent as the painfully slow passage from winter to spring, from inertia to energy, from death to life. This Lent, notice the spiritual dimension of this physical change; attend to it. Consider the good things God has for us as the sunlight continues to stick around just a little longer each day.
“Seasons of faith” isn’t just a metaphor for the spiritual life’s ebbs and flows. The actual seasons literally shape our faith, and always have. According to the forecast, you’ll read this in warmer weather than I’m writing it in. On the Feast of the Annunciation, I’m shivering in my chilly apartment. It reminds me that the darkness of December is just another natural cycle away, as is the light that will once again follow.