Making Time For Worship: Understanding Liturgical Seasons (Part 1)
by Michael Barber © 2006
Check the news wires and you’ll see that one of the big stories today is the celebration of Mardis Gras down in New Orleans. Most people are familiar with the annual public displays of wantonness and immorality down in Louisiana. What is often a footnote to the story is that Mardis Gras was historically tied to another day: Ash Wednesday.
The original settlers of New Orleans (and Louisiana in general) were French Catholics. Mardis Gras marks the last day before the season of Lent—a time of fasting and self-denial. The original idea was that it was a day to enjoy those things you might be planning on giving up during during the introspection and penitential time of Lent—sweets, creature comforts, etc. Of course, now its name is synonymous with unbridled hedonism—a total distortion of the spirituality of the season.
I guess that should not surprise us. Our society has systematically secularized the calendar, which is actually pretty odd since throughout history the calendar for virtually all civilizations was primarily a religious expression. Our culture, however, has forsaken "holy days" for "holidays" (note the etymology). As we prepare for and begin the season of Lent I will be posting articles on the importance of the liturgical year—the biblical basis, the practice of Jews at the time of Jesus, Jesus’ own observances, and the practice of the early Church. Moreover, I will focus on the seasonal rites of fasting and penitence. This is an introduction to the concept.
Grace Builds Upon Nature
One of the major axioms of Thomism is the principle that “grace builds upon nature.” In fact, Aquinas said that grace presupposes nature. God does not simply wipe out our humanity in offering us his grace. Grace works within our nature to heal it, to perfect it and to elevate it. This relationship is understood in light of others: the Old Testament and the New Testament, faith and reason, etc.
In other words, it is not as though the natural is evil and the supernatural is good. Creation itself was made to be “good.” In a special way, humanity is created “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:27). Yet, all creation points us to the Creator. This is the theme of Psalm 19:
1 The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
2 Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
3 There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
4 yet their voice goes out through all the
earth, and their words to the end of the world.
In them he has set a tent for the sun,
5 which comes forth like a bridegroom leaving his
chamber, and like a strong man runs its course with
6 Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them;
and there is nothing hid from its heat.
The psalmist goes on to speak of the law of the Lord. The psalmist here is showing that God’s Torah is evident in creation. Likewise, St. Paul seems to speak of this kind of natural theology in Romans 1.
The World As Temple
This ordering of creation to God is seen in the seven-day creation narrative. The six days of work are meant to point us toward the Lord—toward the Sabbath. Here I want to take an extensive quote from Cardinal Ratzinger’s The Spirit of the Liturgy (I won't put it in block):
“Creation moves toward the Sabbath, to the day on which man and the whole created order participates in God’s rest, in his freedom. Nothing is said directly about worship, still less about the Creator needing the gifts of men. The Sabbath is a vision of freedom. On this day slave and master are equals. The ‘hallowing’ of the Sabbath means precisely this: a rest from all relationships of subordination and a temporary relief from all burden of work. Now some pople conclude from this that the Old Testament makes no connection between creation and worship, that it leads to a pure vision of a liberated society as the goal of human history, that from the very beginning its orientation is anthropological and social, indeed, revolutionary. But this is a complete misunderstanding of the Sabbath. The account of creation and the Sinai regulations about the Sabbath come from the same source. To understand the account of creation properly, one has to read the Sabbath ordinances of the Torah. Then everything becomes clear. The Sabbath is the sign of the covenant between God and man; it sums up the inward essence of the covenant. If this is so, then we can now define the intention of the account of creation as follows: creation exists to be a place for the covenant that God wants to make with man… If creation is meant to be a space for the covenant, the place where God and man meet with one another, then it must be thought of as a space for worship” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, 25-26).
That the world was understood as sacred space is clear also from other passages. We'll consider just a couple.
It is not surprising then that ancient Israel saw the world not just as a mere habitat, but viewed it as a kind of cosmic temple. This is evident, for example, in Job 38, which describes the creation of the world in terms evocative of a temple-building project: laying a “foundation” (v. 4); determining its “measurements” (v. 5); establishing its “cornerstone” (v. 6); the description of the angels “singing” like the Levites in the temple (v. 7); setting its “bars and doors” (8-10); the clouds as glory-cloud of presence (v. 9); restricting the entry of the waters, described as “proud waves” (v. 11).
We could also look at the way the construction of the tent and the temple mirror the creation narrative. Moses blesses the tabernacle when it’s complete, just as God blessed creation when his work was done (Gen 2:3; Exod 39:43; 40:9). Moses finishes his work by speaking of the holiness of the Sabbath, just as the Lord sanctified the seventh day at the end of the creation account in Genesis 1 (Gen. 2:2-4; Exod 31:12-17).
So much more could be said about this (e.g., look at the creation themes in Solomon's dedication of the temple (1 Kings 6-8). Suffice it to say, many scholars have recognized temple imagery in the description of creation. For example, Jon D. Levenson: : “The Temple is the epitome of the world, a concentrated form of its essence, a miniature of the cosmos.” (Sinai and Zion, 138). (For more discussion and scholarly support, see my book, Singing In The Reign: The Psalms and the Liturgy of God’s Kingdom.)
The Liturgical Year
From the very beginning, worship is woven into God’s design for creation. Time is sanctified by the Sabbath. In a sense, Genesis 1 gives us the beginning of a liturgical calendar. In fact, when God creates the sun, moon and stars, his express purpose for them is that they will serve “for signs and for seasons and for days and years” (Gen 1:14). It is generally accepted that the determination of seasons and days refers specifically to liturgical feasts and seasons. (Remember, holidays where originally, holy-days.)
From this acorn we will see the oak tree of the liturgical calendar which, like the Sabbath, is finally spelled out at Sinai. We will look at the Old Testament religious calendar and see how out it developed until the time of Christ. We will then move on to consider how Jesus, himself a Jew of his time, observed religious feasts. Finally, we will look at the early Christian liturgical observances and see how they grew out of the Old Testament liturgical year.
Stay with me folks, we’ve got a lot to get to!
(Read Part 2.)