Recently I’ve been reading (and being overwhelmed!) by Charles Taylor’s opus A Secular Age which tries to answer the question of why, socially and culturally, unbelief in any god or divinity is conceptually tenable, unlike 500 years prior. Why can we now call ourselves “secular” in a multitude of ways? I am not even half-way through the book, and while I disagree with some basic definitions of gods and religion and how this impacts his reading of society, I am reserving judgment until I finish.
But I want to bring up an interesting point he marks as a juncture between the pre-Modern and the Modern: Time. In Pre-Modernity, there was a distinctive division of time into the common and the sacred. Common time is mere linear progression, from yesterday into tomorrow. It is a mere movement forward.
Sacred time, on the otherhand, is a break through of the eternal. Now Taylor makes room for multiple definitions of what ‘eternal’ is (making a distinction between biblical eternity and Platonic, among others). But the point is a common agreement that on special days (or hours) there is some ‘other’ time breaking into what is merely Human.
Thus, in Medieval Europe, Easter was a moment that connected the participant into the eternal moment of when the Son of God was raised. It was closer in ‘time’ to this moment than, say, the day before. The event, the work of God, was connected through a particular set of rites. This was joint where the eternal plan of God met in the ordinary. This was the purpose of the Church Calendar.
In Modernity, the common time was maintained, but the concept of sacred time was abolished. This did not only occur in time, but in space and in object (the idea of shrines, consecration, and relics). Taylor charts this through the disenchantment enacted by the Reformation, which called the entire domain of ‘white magic’ (Rome’s Sacramental efficiency) into question. For the Protestants, either there was no magic (and this view became the dominant) or all magic was black, and therefore the Pope was acting as a Warlock against the Lord, trying to trap God’s domain into a series of spells and enchantments.
I’m not particularly keen on the use of the word ‘magic’, but this word is truthful. I think there is a way to maintain sacramental efficacy and presence but criticize the medieval practices. In fact, I think this was Chelcicky’s argument against both Romanists and the radical Hussites who made the power determinate by the participants state of faith. Man had no ability in an institutionalized mechanical ex opere operato or in good intentions to bring God down. Instead, it was rooted in the power of Promise.
And that’s where this question must go: Promise. I do not think that the Modern Project can ultimately coinhere with the Biblical projection of Heaven and Earth as overlapping exclusive domains. God’s Time breaks into the Human in strange and magnificent ways. Einstein has undone the Modern supposition that Time is basic, uniform and flat. There are strange complexities at work that man (and definitely I) do not understand.
So, as the Church, we need to recover a means to think about the “Sacred”, in time, place, and space. But this is not a call to return to medieval practice. Yes, like my medieval forbearers, I believe this world is the haunt of many spirits, both agents of the Divine (what we call angels) and the demonic. We are no impermeable, buffered, boundary-set selves that are maintained through mere inner practices. We can be afflicted by demons, or encouraged through angels, and we who are in the Lord are inhabited by the Holy Spirit, the Lord of all Spirits. Not every word in our mind comes merely from our own thoughts.
However, what do we do in such a world? The Apostolic practice is to find our root, per Chelcicky, in Promise.
We must ask: What has the Lord given to us? Well, the Medieval Abomination (I mince no words) came about by abusing the simple promise that the Lord will not abandon us, and will send us His Spirit while He reigns at the Right of Majesty. Thus came the flood of all sorts of condoned practices that made the Church into a Paganized preserve of ‘white-magic’. Now the Church was able to deign the sacredness of ‘time’, in a way that druids or pagans would.
Instead, we need a simple (but not simplistic) biblicism. In what time has Christ promised to meet us? He has promised to meet us in every time we take up bread and wine to remember His Death. This is the Sacred time, place, space. The Bread broken is the Body of the Lord, the Wine drunk is the blood of the new covenant. Here we meet the Lord because the Lord Spirit makes a way, based in His own Word.
But we have no such promises for any sacred time of Christmas or Easter. We have no promise for any bone or relic. We have no promise for offering any prayer up to this or that saint. This is the cut of the problem: whose authority? Does the Church have the ability to innovate in the provenance of the Lord’s Holiness?
While Luther was wrong about what the Pharisees were saying, he was right to call the Medieval Complex Pharisaical (though in ways, he embodied similar thinking). The Pharisees fixed new boundaries for God’s Commands and His Torah. Now God’s clear command (honor your mother and father) could be abnegated for an innovation (claiming your resources for the Temple, and giving the finger to your family). Rome instituted new traditions by which the People of God were held accountable. This is not the Tradition of the Apostles.
What if these traditions came from the Apostles (as the Unwritten Tradition argues)? Well, as Paul said, if he came preaching a different gospel, we have to reject Paul (even Paul!). We must evaluate everything said, counting character and past experiences. But we do not merely nod because of “who” speaks unless that “who” is the very Creator Himself (and yet even He gives us ‘rule-sticks’ for making sure it’s really Him speaking!).
So what I’m recovering is the notion of sacred-time, but we must respect what the Lord has given us. The Holy Spirit promises to meet us in the waters of baptism to initiate a son of Adam into the family of Christ. The Holy Spirit promises to bring us Christ in the sacrament of the Supper. The Holy Spirit promises to forgive sins in our confession of them. And many more.
This is what we call ‘holy’.
However, the Church’s liturgy does not belong to such. Our practicals differ, in the vein of the 39 Articles, on account of time and culture. How we orient ourselves may be more or less faithful to how we are to embody the Scriptures (i.e. James blasting the segregation of poor and rich). This, the disposition of our hearts towards God and each other, is holy. But not the forms (unlike the above promises). Therefore, if we have chairs or not is indifferent. But what matters is what we do with them.
So therefore, the application of counting days is fine, and we may do it in different ways. Let us celebrate the Incarnation in July (if we decide thus). The purpose of a Calendar, if anything, is to mark (as a community) times of intense focus. There’s nothing wrong in this. But these practicals are not holy, nor are they times of the sacred touching the mundane.
Sadly, churches that eschew this end up being captured by our culture’s liturgical practices without much reflection. The Church may interact with these cultural events, or ignore them, but they are not places of celebration. What has Christ to do with the American Revolution? It is not His Kingdom being built, but another revolution in the grand course of Human History. Empires rise and fall.
The Church needs a more robust calendar. The Church of Americana lionizes dead military as ‘martyrs’ who ‘sacrificed’ their lives for a ‘greater good’. What has become of the Church actually celebrating those who gave their lives in service of the Kingdom of God? But the subtle reality is that much of the Americana are, in fact, saying this. What a delusion that has afflicted American christianity.
I’ll stop here because this could go on and on. These are basic thoughts and still have many problems in implementation. But that’s ok. While it may be helpful in the formation of Christians, the majors need the majoring. We need a recovery, especially for evangelical Christians, of the sacredness of the Promises God gives and meets us in. The folk Zwinglianism needs to be eradicated. Why? Because it opens the door to alien and demonic sacralizations. It’s why (in my opinion) the non-conformist traditions ended up, in the end, becoming culturally Erastian.
May we, God’s People in the Name of the Christ, trust the very words He spoke. May we know His Presence in where He promised to meet us, and be open to surprises that His Spirit works. God bless us. God save us. God have mercy on us. Amen.