Sunday, October 31, 2010

Wait for it...

Many Anglicans join in the annual rituals of rolling our eyes when Easter eggs appear in the shops before Lent has begin, or when Christmas fare stocks the shelves in October.

The same people however are doing some odd and unreflective things about liturgical time. Most obvious is the tendency to anticipate feast days. In quite a few places, Churches appear to celebrate any major feast, or feast associated with their life like a patronal festival, anything up to a week before the actual day.

Is this a problem? Well it's not a problem like poverty or pain, to be sure. In dealing with liturgical questions like those Percy addresses, it's always important to keep things in perspective - God will cope.

The problem is worth analysing however, because it is symptomatic of some broader issues about the wider reality of liturgy and ritual. Time itself is an important medium in the structure of Christian life, and failure to appreciate the underlying logic of the liturgical year is at best a missed opportunity. At worst, it may even reflect and reinforce problems that have real ethical and theological weight.

The tradition of the Church is fairly clear. Feasts are not celebrated before it is time for them. Feasts are actually preceded by fasts, not preliminary feasts. We all know this in theory, because of Lent and Advent (a particular challenge, admittedly). The Prayer Book of 1662 contains a table of "Vigils, Fasts, and Days of Abstinence" whose significance seems not to be understood by the framers of some later books, but Vigils in theory precede most feast days.

All this is a bit counter-intuitive to us, and we might well ask why. Scott Peck, of The Road Less Travelled fame, suggests that "delay of gratification" is one of the fundamental disciplines necessary to live a good life. Peck's language in that book is not theological, but it was not hard for many readers (and later him) to see the connection with spiritual discipline.

The structure of liturgical time reflects the call to such discipline, and the creative tension between feasting and fasting. If graphed, liturgical time would not merely be a gentle curve rolling from feast to feast, but a more angular and challenging trajectory, with lows as well as highs and - most remarkably - the two linked. That is to say, liturgical time is supposed to be a medium within which the logic of cross and resurrection is mapped and lived. This is why it is not trivial.

As things are, time has become a rather tame and sad thing in the Church's life. Leaving aside the neo-puritan dismissal of its significance, the catholic remnant in Anglicanism tends to baulk at the demands and promises of time. We see the passage from season to season, or from fast to feast, as a move from one flavour of liturgical ice-cream to the other.

Percy will write further about the temptation to do everything on Sundays - a related but distinct problem.


  1. Does this count apply to those who would celebrate All Souls concurrently with All Saints?

  2. Good point-if we fasted more, the feasts would certainly be more festive!

  3. to DD - Percy would entertain a proposal to (re-)combine the feasts, but for theological reasons...

  4. Percy notes that anticipation has become quasi-official in some places recently with the weird tendency to celebrate Epiphany on the Sunday after Christmas. O tempora...