Liturgical Seasons and the Seasons of Our Lives

                                                   View from the Hospital

Contributed by Executive Director, The Rev. Tara K. Soughers, PhD

My faith community is a form of Christianity in which the seasons of the year are very important.  Like many faiths, we recognize the gathering darkness of winter, and the coming of new life in the spring.  However, our recognition of the seasons goes further than that of many others: every part of the year has its own liturgical season, and the themes, readings, and even the emotional color of our worship changes in response to the liturgical season.

There are certain disadvantages to this system.  There have been times when the somber and penitential mood of Lent is at odds with the mood in other areas of life.  There have also been times, when the exhortation to experience Easter joy for 50 days can seem almost impossible.  In those times, seasonal liturgical worship is a discipline.  Like many other spiritual disciplines, the difficulty of following a practice varies.  At times, I can find myself wishing that the season reflected my moods more closely.  It would be easier to rejoice when all was going really well in my life: rejoicing in times of grief is indeed difficult, and sometimes impossible to do.  Yet, I am immersed in a communal celebration  in those times, reminded me that worship is not primarily what  I do for my personal edification, but what we as a community do together.

But if there are those times when my emotions are out-of-synch with the liturgical season, there are also those times when the meaning and discipline of the liturgical season adds a layer of meaning to the events of my life that infuses those events with a depth that can hardly be overestimated.  This year, Easter and Holy Week were just such a time in my own life.

The events of Easter and Holy Week are centered on our affirmation, as a faith community, that God can bring life out of death.  On Good Friday, my brother had a lung transplant.  It is a dangerous procedure, and there are no guarantees that one will even survive the surgery.  In addition, this gift is given at the cost of another’s life.  The parallels could hardly be closer.  On Good Friday, we remember of the death of Jesus, who gave his life that others might live and live more abundantly.  As I flew across the country to be with my family, I was keenly aware of the connections between the liturgical season and my own personal season.  Having previously accepted the discipline of living out the liturgical seasons allowed my faith to inform my life, granting me the assurance that God can indeed bring life out of death.

My brother made it through surgery, and actually he has been doing remarkably well.  He was blessed with a healthy set of lungs, and with these lungs, he is not only off oxygen, but he is already breathing 300% better than he had before the surgery.  In fact, the surgeons said that his lungs were some of the worst that they had ever seen, and the lungs he got very beautiful.  It was a reminder that God often gives gifts extravagantly.

So this year, when I got to Easter, I was indeed already celebrating that gift of life that came through the sacrifice of another, so that my brother might have life, and have it more abundantly.  I was filled not only with Easter joy, but also with a profound thankfulness for the gift of life that God gives us in so many ways and for the ways that God can transform even death into life.  As a Christian, it was not a new understanding, but my understanding of what my family and I experienced was deepened by the discipline of following the liturgical seasons, and my understanding of Holy Week and Easter will be forever deepened by what happened in this year, when I personally experienced the passage from death into life in my own family.

Holy Week Pilgrimage to Jerusalem

In the late 4th century CE, a Spanish nun by the name of Egeria made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and described what she saw to her sister nuns. The pilgrimage industry had grown substantially in the previous 50 years or so since Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine had arrived in the Holy Land, determined to find the sites where the stories about Jesus had occurred. Once found, Helena worked to erect churches on those sites, and those Christians who had sufficient resources, both in time and money, could experience what it must have been like to walk with Jesus during his earthly ministry.

It is not surprising that during the week before Easter, there were rituals at the various sites associated with the Jesus’ last days on earth. The week began on the Saturday of the weekend before Easter, with the remembrance in Bethany of the day that Jesus rested with his friends. On the Sunday before Easter Sunday, there was a re-enactment of Jesus triumphant procession into Jerusalem, greeted by people bearing palm branches. On Thursday, the congregation gathered in the cave where Jesus met with his friends and kept vigil all night. On Friday, the congregation gathered to kiss the wood of the true cross (which Helena also discovered), and from the sixth to the ninth hours, lessons were read, hymns sung, and the congregation mourned. On Saturday, a paschal (Easter) vigil was held.

While those who were able to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Easter got the benefit of walking through the events of Jesus’ last days, most Christians would never be able to make the trip. So, many of the rituals that were originally celebrated in Jerusalem at the holy sites were taken back to local parish churches. In that way, all Christians were able to make this sacred pilgrimage. These services became basis for Holy Week observances, and are still observed, much the same way, 2000 years later.