Shuck and Jive

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Mythology of the Church Calendar

Back to my project on Theology for the 21st Century. Other posts can be found to the right of this blog. I want to start with a few thoughts on Jesus. One of the first tasks, as I see it, is to begin to separate the myth from the man, the historical Jesus from the Christ of the creed, or the pre-Easter from the post-Easter Jesus (Borg).

For me to separate does not mean to discard either one necessarily. Many progressives (ie. Borg) are quite comfortable with the Christ of creed. Others are not.

One of the first steps is to take a look at the liturgical calendar in order to see how the Christ myth influences our worship and theology. Since Vatican II, Protestant churches have developed an interest in the church calendar. In 1983 ecumenical Protestant groups came up with the Revised Common Lectionary. Here is a visual:

The church calendar is based upon the Christ myth. It has nothing to do with the historical person of Jesus. The church is year can be both comforting and challenging. It puts one into a rhythm for spiritual development. Here is the church year in calendar form.

The year is divided into three cycles, Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost (Ordinary Time). The church calendar is further divided into three years, A, B, and C. In year A, the gospel readings are taken from Matthew. Year B is for Mark, and C for Luke. John is used in all three years as the Gospel text for the big hitter seasons such as Easter.

The Christmas Cycle includes Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany.

Advent looks the birth of Christ as well as his second coming. The readings contain apocalyptic texts and texts from the Hebrew prophets interpreted in such a way that they point to this mythology. The church (cleverly, I might add) co-opted the Winter Solstice, the darkest time of the year (at least for those in the northern hemisphere) to establish the birth of Christ, the "light of the world."

The Western Church celebrates Christmas on December 25th. The Eastern Church on Epiphany or January 6th. Epiphany is manifestation or revelation. The gospel readings following Epiphany feature his baptism, his call of the disciples, signs, wonders, and healings.

The Sunday that provides the hinge between the Christmas Cycle and the Easter Cycle is Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday. This is the fiction where Jesus goes on the mountain with Peter, James, and John and is transfigured before them. A voice speaks from the heavens that Jesus is God's son and everyone ought to pay attention.

Following this Sunday is Ash Wednesday and the Easter Cycle. It begins with forty days (excluding Sundays) of Lent. This is the way of the cross and discipleship. The Lenten season concludes with Holy Week and the crucifixion.

Easter Sunday celebrates the Resurrection. Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon following the Spring Equinox. Again, the church cleverly used the Spring Equinox to date the Resurrection. Spring, flowers, new birth, etc. Following Easter Day is the Easter Season. The gospel readings include appearance stories and teachings.

Thirty-nine days after Easter (the 40th day) is followed by the Ascension (always on a Thursday). This ends the Easter cycle. Forty-Nine days after Easter (the 50th day) is Pentecost Sunday. This is the day that commemorates the arrival of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles. Again, none of this is historical. It is all myth or fiction. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but it is what it is.

Now we are in Ordinary Time. This is the season of the church or the Holy Spirit. Following Pentecost, the church threw in Trinity Sunday. Included in ordinary time are the readings from the whichever gospel is the one for that year. There is no particular order or emphasis.

The church year ends with Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. This Sunday emphasizes that Christ is enthroned over all Creation.

In outline form:

Christmas Cycle
Four Sundays of Advent
Christmas Eve/Day (always December 24-25).
Epiphany (always January 6)
Baptism of the Lord Sunday
Season of Epiphany

Transfiguration Sunday

Easter Cycle
Ash Wednesday (followed by 40 days of Lent excluding Sundays)
Five Sundays of Lent
Palm Sunday
Holy Week (includes Maundy Thursday and Good Friday)
Easter Sunday (needs to be calculated by the moon)
Season of Easter
Ascension Thursday (forty days after Easter including Sundays)

Pentecost Sunday (forty-nine days after Easter including Sundays)
Trinity Sunday

Ordinary Time

Christ the King Sunday

A few points of observation:

1) None of this as I have said goes back to the historical person of Jesus or his earliest followers. This would be as foreign to them as the Toyota Prius. This took centuries of development by the church. A further complication for we children of the Enlightenment is that this schema was produced in a pre-modern, three-tiered universe.

2) That said, the church year, its holy days and seasons, if understood as symbolic, can be a tool for spiritual growth. The use of winter and spring for its major days, the birth of the divine child, suffering, injustice, vindication, rebirth, and hope for a blissful future certainly capture the heart, as well as our unconscious. In fact, I find much it helpful in communicating aspects of the Gospel that I feel are important. I especially like Christ the King (or reign of Christ Sunday) in which I can freely talk about Christ as your political as well as personal savior. It is a good Sunday to speak about Christ as king, as opposed to George W. Bush.

3) The 64,000 question(s). Is it enough? When we become conscious of a myth as a myth, does it lose its power? Is this a relic of the past? Are we in a time in which we need to find new myths and symbols that reflect our modern/post-modern situation? Is it time to re-think Jesus? Who is he for us today? I think that these questions, however we answer them, are the substantive questions for a theology for the 21st century.


  1. John,

    There is of course another alternative altogether. One that says that when the gospels are taken in their proper context, the question of myth and historicity never comes up. The context that you get if you make the fundamental assumption that Jesus lives, present tense.

    That is the fundamental assumption that ALL the gospel writers made.

    The four Gospels follow the rhythm of life rather nicely. Read in the their proper sequence, Matthew, Mark, John, Luke/Acts and back to Matthew again, they serve as a spiritual guide for growing and maturing in the Christ Jesus who lives. Not some guy who lived long ago but the anointed Lord of all who speaks to us today and always now.

    We do not live under a myth nor are we trapped by the verifiable historicity of events that took place thousands of years ago. Both of those constructs serve only to make us loose focus on the Jesus who IS.

    We do rather live in the rhythm of the present moment, good or bad, and the Jesus the gospels show us is the Jesus who is with us now (Emmanuel). The church calendar can help us see him because it too follows the natural rhythm of our lives.

  2. One of the things about being a Presbyterian in Canada is that we sit on the border of different traditions. The Auld Church, for all of its reformed political structure, has always had in it those who believed in liturgy and doing worship "in good and proper order."

    The fact that the Church year is based around the seasons and is a cylce is what gives it its mythic power. Western minds tend to think in straight lines, with beginnings and middles and ends. I think it has spirtitual value to break out of that and spend some time living in a more circular cycle. This year we celebrate Christmas with all of those before us who celebrated and as all of those who follow us willcelebrate, world without end, amen.

    Especially Christmas and Easter, which are obviously stories with deep meanings and need to be approached as such. Luke contradicts Matthew, both contradict Mark, but John is the most beautiful of all. The example of think of is the terrible horrible beauty of the Feast of the Innocents, which reminds us annually how much in our world has not changed since Jeremiah's time and to remember to remember broken places like Sudan.

    I think the fact that these are the teachable moments (like the Trinity) is what gives them their power.

    A very appropriate post as most of us celebrate Thanksgiving and look to Advent.

  3. I've done a lot of reading and thinking about how myth, or perhaps the mythopoetic, works, because I think it is a crucial thing to recapture in order to make sense of the world and to be able to function meaningfully within it. I think that part of our negative inheritance from the Enlightenment is that we treat the world as if it was merely overtly functional, as if it was a "literal" or "objective" place, and it just isn't.

    I think the postmodernism clumsily grapples with this fact, but that part of the best cure for it is essentially premodern - in the mythopoetic.

    In short, what I think is that as moderns/postmoderns, we're past a point where most of us will be able to consciously treat our myths as factual in the usual, reductionist sense. However, our myths still function unconsciously (examples: the myth of America, the myth of the free market, the myth of democracy, etc.)

    These unconsciously functioning myths are the worse-case scenario because they prevent us from understanding ourselves and our world, of actually making meaning rather than getting by.

    What we need to do is to, on the one hand, understand our myths consciously, reflect on them, and even critique then if need be. On the other hand, in the 'poetic' part of mythopoetic, we need to speak and act as if your myths were reductionistically true, as if they were the "objective" narrative we so crave. It is only in this way that they can have their impact on us, that they can shape us, and that they can help us make sense of the world and our place in it.

    One example of this is liturgical speech in contrast to critical speech. You shouldn't mix the two, but this happens a lot. Liberals tend to use critical speech in a liturgical situation (say, in a sermon), and conservatives tend to use liturgical speech in a critical situation (say, a Bible study). This just leads to confusion, at least for me, where critical-analytical sermons bore me and uncritical/literalistic Bible studies aggravate me - because their functioning is reversed. (To be clear, the above example is just drawn from my own experience and observation.)

    There's a context for both to function, but confusing them deprives both of their power, and can even corrupt it. (Here, by 'liturgical' I mean faith-speech or confessional speech, 'mythopoetics' in my useage, etc.)

    Anyway, sorry for the long response. Your post just got me thinking.

  4. Doug,

    I just have to say wow!

    "Liberals tend to use critical speech in a liturgical situation (say, in a sermon), and conservatives tend to use liturgical speech in a critical situation (say, a Bible study). This just leads to confusion, at least for me, where critical-analytical sermons bore me and uncritical/literalistic Bible studies aggravate me -"

    Couldn't possibly have said it better, and I have tried many times.

    Brilliant! Spot on.

  5. Thanks all...

    Very thoughtful and much appreciated. You are all good conversation partners for me as I admittedly do struggle intellectually with how to grasp the tradition.

    Excuse me while I ramble a bit.

    Perhaps it is a spiritual matter for me. I suppose I will give ammunition to my opposition for saying this, but I am not always quite so confident that Jesus IS, at least intellectually. In fact, intellectually, I usually think that he ISN'T.

    I am a believer in spirituality. I am all about a higher power, in fact, I call that higher power Christ. I image Jesus living with integrity, compassion and abandon. I can image Jesus as a power within me. Some portions of the Christ myth are helpful. Usually, it is the human being Jesus whose presence is alive 'in Christ.' I guess.

    I affirm what Paul says, when he says 'not I but Christ in me.' I know what it means to give myself over, to surrender my will, ego, desires to Christ, and to experience serenity...sometimes. I especially know what it is to fight it and to be stubborn. But I do know what it is to let go.

    That is how I try to live. Be true to truth. Live the way. The only way to live it is to let the higher power, Christ in my case, live through me.

    Perhaps I am seeking the wrong thing with a 21st century theology, trying to think my way into a better way. Too much thinking, not enough...what exactly?

    I don't think I am alone in this, and to say it openly may allow others to say something similar.

    This is why social justice issues are more easily grasped than spiritual ones for me. I can battle for gay rights or peace and justice and so forth much more readily than deal with Jesus, let alone all of the other theological gobbledy gook.

    I have absolutely no interest in fundamentalism or even evangelicalism for that matter, although folks who find either of those helpful are fine with me until they use their "theology" to beat up on people.

    But even the social justice oriented evangelicals leave me flat on the theology. I like those folks for sure. If orthodoxy or Karl Barth or whoever helps you do justice and love kindness and end this freakin' war, then go for it.

    I am sure there are more people like me (I know there are--they tell me) who are a bit adrift with Christianity.

    I sure like my church and I like the freedom to explore and the freedom to be wrong which is a great Presbyterian tradition (at least I hope), and I am a big believer in communities.

    I love wisdom where ever it may be found, psychology, science, mythology, literature, music, etc.

    I know that using words like myth and fiction in regards to the gospels and the creeds make people nervous or angry because it assumes that Jesus isn't real.

    That isn't what I mean by that, but nevertheless that is how it always comes across.

    I have no other words to convey what I mean. Maybe I don't know what I mean.

    As I see it, to suggest that the Enlightenment is the problem is skirting the issue. We are in and of the Enlightenment and we cannot get out of it.

    We are reductionistic. It is the same for Islam and Judaism. We cannot reverse what our intellects have discovered, even if what they have discovered make us lonely.

    So, here I am. A minister within a tradition that has authority, and literature, and history, and worship, and I have no idea how to make sense of it.

    Sometimes my existential angst is darker than on other days. Sometimes it is not. But I do show up everyday.

    I read, argue, give in, worry, mock the neo-cons, laugh at edgy jokes, be a friend to my congregation, try to be responsible with my family, live life, and wonder what the hell it is all about.

    For all that I am grateful.

  6. A sacred post.

    I bet anything you have the gift of intercessory prayer.

  7. Advent, Lent, and Easter are my least favorite times during the church calendar.

  8. Seeker,

    Tell me more. Is it because of its mythology that is to be taken literally? Advent is troubling because of its literalism toward Jesus's "birth" and to the second coming whatever.

    What would make Advent meaningful to you?

    I ask that because much of what you say resonates with me.

  9. Jodie,

    Wow, thank you. I never really thought about that for me. Meditation is more my style, but our church does a lot of praying for a progressive bunch. Lots of prayers for healing for peace in many different ways.

    Kind of unusual as this is the most liberal church I have ever been in, yet it takes its spirituality seriously.

  10. Why unusual?

    Intercessory prayer isn't for people who are busy telling everyone what God expects of them.

    Rather, its about listening to people and telling God what they need and expect from God - whatever it takes and screw all the doctrines and confessions that get in the way.

    (all that religious red tape)

    It comes being honestly in touch with your own humanity and loving theirs for what it is.

  11. Is it because of its mythology that is to be taken literally? Advent is troubling because of its literalism toward Jesus's "birth" and to the second coming whatever.


    That's exactly why. The birth stories that are celebrated during Advent obviously aren't literally true, but they are celebrated as if they were. There was no virgin birth, there was no slaughter of the innocents or magi or a star or shepherds. It is all mythology. Not that there's anything wrong with that, per se. I read "The First Christmas" by Borg and Crossan, and it gives a wonderful interpretation of the birth mythologies that are focused around how Jesus was proclaimed the Lord rather than Caesar. But the Advent stories are not presented as mythological and our Christmas culture is so dominated by literal interpretations of the event that it all just leaves me cold.

    As for what would make Advent meaningful for me, I think that the Borg and Crossan book represent a good starting point.

  12. Jodie,

    "It comes being honestly in touch with your own humanity and loving theirs for what it is."

    Now that is a definition of intercessory prayer I can live with!


    I have ordered the B&C book. I struggle as a preacher with Advent, always have. It is really a season anticipating God's surprising restorative justice, and yet the mood of Christmas and shopping is so overwhelming that preaching about Advent (all the literalism aside) makes me a real bummer man.

    Christmas and shopping is an addictive behavior to cover for our inauthenticity. But it feels good. Advent preaching is hard because it makes us realize that this not so good for anyone.

    But the message of Advent was to those who already knew it wasn't good, who wanted hope. So it must be a message of hope beyond our (my) materialistic addiction. A hope for a new way of living. But it sounds so off key in the midst of us active addicts who do not want to hear it.

    Advent is a very important season. I think part of the addiction is to turn to literalism so we miss its radical message of truth and hope.

    We settle for stinking thinking, needing to believe in virgin births and etc. so we don't have to hear the reality of its deeper message.

    Just a theory!

  13. Wow, Pastor John,

    I guess my thinking is pretty far removed from most of the folks who post over here. For instance, when I read the book of Acts, I don't feel that this whole treatise has the flavor of myth at all. It reads pretty much like an historical narrative, I think. Some writers even feel somewhat in the style of the Greek historian, Thuycides.

    Well, of course the gospel writers used various sources, and did not even set out to write complete biographies of the life of Christ. Their theological viewpoints and emphasis come through, and there's minor variations.

    But, I don't think this means there was no concern for any historical detail, or for truth in these accounts.

    For instance, the writer of Luke-Acts begins:

    Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us,
    just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word,
    it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus;
    so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught. Lk. l:1-4.

    Again, I just get the real sense, reading through, say, the book of Acts, that the apostles did not mean the resurrection of Christ, or other details of our faith just to be interpreted metaphorically.

    Folks totally scoffed and mocked the apostolic witness relating to the resurrection of Christ. Poor Paul was basically accused of being out of his mind, his great learning thought to have driven him crazy. (They all weren't shaped by enlightenment thinking, either. :) ) Too early for rationalism. (LOL)

    Hey, but they all kept right on preaching Jesus as Lord, and didn't quit, even at threat to their own lives.


  14. Christmas and shopping is an addictive behavior to cover for our inauthenticity. But it feels good. Advent preaching is hard because it makes us realize that this not so good for anyone.

    John, I actually don't do Christmas shopping anymore, and I am happier for it. My parents have passed away, I no longer exchange gifts with my siblings, and I have no children. My significant other and I have agreed that we don't want to exchange Christmas gifts. We instead give gifts to one another spontaneously during the course of the year, whenever we just feel like it.

    I think I stopped enjoying the whole Christmas shopping season shortly after I stopped believing in Santa Claus. Christmas is great for children, but it is, as we all know, for adults little but a massive paean to capitalism.

    I mentioned the whole mythological aspect of Advent. I also have problems with all the Jesus-worship that surrounds it, but then I am a heretical unitarian and I don't consider Jesus to be God. The religious aspects of the holiday would be more meaningful to me as a celebration of what Jesus had to say about the Kingdom of God, rather than solely on him as an individual.

    I think you would enjoy the latest book by Borg and Crossan, although I think that a lot of what it says is comes from Crossan and reflects a lot of what he wrote in "God & Empire". I was trying to do the Lennon & McCartney thing (guessing which part of the book was written by which author). I figured that part 2 was mostly written by Crossan, for example. I wasn't so sure about other parts. :)

  15. Mystical!

    (In my best Rev. Billy voice):

    Good for you sister! You have repented and avoided the shopocalypse! Change-elujah!

    I didn't mean to give a sermon on shopping. That is what I am working on for tomorrow.

    I will post it (if I think it is good) and it should give an idea of what I think Advent is about, which is as you say, the kingdom of God on Earth.


    I think Acts is more in line with a heroic novelette. Acts of Andrew, Acts of Paul and Thecla, etc. are like it, even as Acts of the Apostles is better written.

    It contains certainly some historical details and persons but is largely a romantic telling of the founding movement. Luke's theology of the church in a story form.

    Westar has started an Acts Seminar (the Jesus Seminar guys) and are doing interesting work on Acts, seeking to discover what may be historical in it.

  16. There's also some work that's been done by the classic scholar Dr. Colin Hemer, and years ago by FF. Bruce relating to the historicity of Acts, if you're interested, John. :)

  17. Luke-Acts:

    Not a history book in the sense of a dispassionate accounting of chronological events. Not a mythical epic in the sense that a mythical epic makes no attempt to connect with historical events.

    (The other "acts" narratives were rejected from the canon on the basis that they lacked a historical basis altogether)

    What it is however is a multi-layered and multifaceted narrative that among other things is a) a compilation of lessons learned in narrative form, b) a theological narrative justifying the existence of a gentile church, c) a spiritual guide for how to adapt and move on when the Holy Spirit takes us into new and uncharted territory, d) the redemption of Peter and Paul as icons of the early church .... and so much more.

    I think that arguing that it is all "history" misses the point, but spending time trying to distill the history out of it does the text irreparable violence. Its close enough. The historical narrative is like the door to a Gothic cathedral. You have to go through it. If you blow it up you can't get past the debris. Nor can you spend your whole life starring at it.

    The gold is accessed through the historical narrative, but lies beyond it.

  18. Some good points, Jodie, I think.

    Are you also a Presby. clergyperson? You sound very knowledgable.:)


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  20. Oops, I was just going to comment on Mystical's point, and the post disappeared.

    My main comment is this:

    I think there is value in determining the history as best we can of early Christianity. We can in the end uncover very little, and much is educated guess work.

    I don't think historical criticism of a text destroys a text. The text is still there, but now you know more about why it is the way it is.

    Purely from the point of view of seeking an accurate history as we can, I think Acts is far more fiction than history. The Gospels as well for that matter.

    To say that doesn't mean much. Now the question is why is the fiction written in that way? What was going on?

    I would also say, that one could certainly understand the Bible as word of God even if it is mostly fiction.

    What? God can't write fiction?

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  22. I deleted my post because I wasn't satisfied with what I wrote, but I still have a copy of it, so here it is:

    The Gospel writers had a certain artistic vision that often influenced and structured their works to suit overall themes. Examples of artistic license abound. Mark's account of the passion, for example, divided the events into neat, tidy three-hour intervals. Matthew created all sorts of mythological elements in his story to present Jesus as the new Moses--thus having Jesus's family fleeing to Egypt to escape a slaughter of the innocents as a sort of reverse echo of the Moses story, or having Jesus give his sermon on a mountaintop. Matthew's birth narratives are clearly unhistorical, as are Luke's (and the two birth narratives cannot be harmonized anyway).

    Luke was not a historian. He didn't have Wikipedia at hand to check his facts. His story about the census under Quirinius was historically false. But that wasn't the point. But Luke needed to get Jesus born in Bethlehem to fit his thematic portrait of Jesus, so he came up with an unhistorical story to explain it, complete with shepherds and such. Luke-Acts expressed an overall narrative arc that began in Galilee, moved to Jerusalem, and then ended up in Rome. His accounts concerning Paul's experiences don't always jibe with Paul's own accounts. So be it. His story of Jesus's ascension to heaven presumed a three-tiered cosmology that makes no sense to the modern world but which made sense to his audience (as Spong points out, if Jesus travelled at the speed of light, he'd still be traveling through space and would not even have left the Galaxy.)

    That isn't necessarily the point, of course, as long as people get over this idea that the Bible has to be inerrant. Learning to see the mythological value, to appreciate the agendas that drove the narrative arcs and to see the deeper truths that they were telling, requires moving beyond the simple idea of Biblical inerrancy. The value of mythological narratives lies not in their complete historical accuracy.

  23. Can God write fiction?

    In the beginning that's all there was! See John1:1


    No, I'm not a Presby clergyperson. I was raised by one who was raised by one. Actually >both< my parents were raised by Presby clergy people. So it runs in my blood and in my DNA.

    But no, not me.

  24. our church does a lot of praying for a progressive bunch. Lots of prayers for healing for peace in many different ways.

    Kind of unusual as this is the most liberal church I have ever been in, yet it takes its spirituality seriously.

    Sorry to backtrack, but I've been without Internet access for several days.

    This doesn't surprise me in the least, John. A lot of mainline Protestant churches are attracting and keeping people based on the spirituality and indeed mysticism of Christianity. The churches that are growing the fastest in the PC(USA) are neighborhood churches that are active in their communities and (as the report from Louisville says) "take the Bible seriously, but not literally". Rather than try to fit God into the terms of the physical world, many of these churches succeed in sharing that sense of awed wonder at a God that is much more vast than our minds can comprehend. Rather than get hung up on whether Quinirius was really governor of Syria when Jesus was born, these churches emphasize loving God and neighbor, and a huge part of that is prayer.

    And BTW, I don't know if I'd call Karl Barth an evangelical. Mind you, my knowledge of him comes almost entirely from the late, great Shirley Guthrie.

  25. You all are amazing and thoughtful. The lectionary is a lovely thing, and it's one of the few things that we can all agree is just a habit that we are in! We agree to be in because we generally like to cooperate with other churches, but we're free to depart from it whenever. Not even the miracle-believers like me believe that the lectionary was handed down from on high. :)

    Question though, prompted by that pie chart, actually. Doesn't the entirety of Ordinary Time--that big green chunk and the smaller green chunk--focus on the life and teachings of Jesus? At least if you stick to the gospel readings? I think most, if not all, of those are all narratives of Jesus' life. We don't really talk about the birth, cross, or resurrection during that time (unless we decide to refer to them during the sermon, which a lot of people obviously do.)