Final Calendar Section (Anatomy, Part 4)

Here’s the last section on the Anatomy of the Calendar running from Holy Week through the end…

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Holy Week

Holy Week constitutes the space of our deepest yearly meditation upon the passion of Christ and ushers in the Three Great Days that are the highlight of the Church Year. It’s also the space of a single week and, if a family follows typical American church-going habits, it’s possible for them to miss all but one day (Palm/Passion Sunday) or even the whole season altogether! It can be said without exaggeration that this is the season where faithful attendance at—or at least attention to—the public liturgies of the Church matters the most and renders the most. Both the prayer book and the Revised Common Lectionary provide material for every day of the week, with The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday receiving their own distinct liturgies in the block between pages 270 and 285 of the prayer book.

Palm Sunday was conflated with Passion Sunday in the mid-20th century by the Roman Catholic Church; this move worked towards the process of leveling the grades of Lent, but also recognized by means of the title what was actually going on in the service. That is, Passion Sunday didn’t have a passion reading—Palm Sunday did. Indeed, there is little in the liturgy of Passion Sunday to signal a further shift towards the cross and passion than other Lenten Sundays: neither the Gospel (John 8:46-59) nor the other propers seem more passional than normal. By contrast, the celebration of Palm Sunday had included the reading of the entirety of Matthew’s Passion (chapters 26-7) from at least the 7th century!

For most Episcopalians this change makes no difference—the 1928 prayer book was the first American or English book to identify the Fifth Sunday in Lent as “Passion Sunday” and it directed no liturgical changes at this time. Only those who followed old traditions or Roman Catholic customs of the timing for veiling images and crosses, dropping the Gloria Patri from the end of the psalms, and singing different hymns at the Office noticed and then had to decide whether to keep doing it following the Fifth Sunday in Lent or whether to shift these practices to Holy Week.

All of the days of Holy Week have been prayer book service days since the very first prayer book. Following the traditional pattern, the passions from the four gospels were read through the week: most of Matthew’s passion was read on Palm Sunday, Monday and Tuesday recounted Mark’s passion, Wednesday and Thursday read through Luke’s passion, and John’s passion was read on Friday; Saturday finished off the end of Matthew’s passion with the burial of Jesus. Our current Holy Week chooses to move in a chronological direction rather than a comprehensive one: the Passion Gospel of Passion Sunday comes from the gospel appointed for the year, the days of Holy Week read from John’s narrative beginning at chapter 12 which begins “Six days before the Passover…” (The Revised Common Lectionary only offers John’s sequence; the prayer book lectionary that it replaced offered both the John readings and alternatives from Mark on Monday and Tuesday, Matthew on Wednesday, and Luke on Thursday.) Oddly enough, the Daily Office lectionary of Year One also prescribes similar but not identical readings from John 12 for Monday through Wednesday.

Holy Week is fundamentally about the journey to the cross. We accompany Jesus, his apostles, and the disciples on the last walk into Jerusalem and through the days that follow. The services of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil are best seen as a single liturgical unit with long pauses between its movements. For me, I can’t help but hear strains of Renaissance settings of the Book of Lamentations floating all through Holy Week—as Lamentations was the heart of the Daily Office services and some amazing settings were composed for Tenebrae, the Office of Shadows that occurred in the early mornings at Matins and Lauds. We can take our cue from them: Holy Week has a restrained grandeur in order to communicate in beauty the horror of human hatred that we unleashed upon the Lord of Life.

Recognizing that, it’s important to take a moment and consider our perspective: how we interpret these moments and where we find “us” within the events of the passion. Some of the greatest devotions of the Passion—like the Stations of the Cross—come from the imaginative-affectional tradition of devotion. In these sorts of devotions, we use images, readings, hymns, and prayers to give ourselves the sense of being there, to imagine exactly what we would have seen and heard, and then to feel the emotions that seeing these things would bring upon us. Certain traditions are better at this than others. For instance, I’d suggest that “Were you there?” from the African-American experience stands strongly in this tradition. And, while we may not normally think of them as “feely” type people, many of the passion devotions from late Sarum England, just before the Reformation, place great emphasis upon this imaginative-affectional spirituality. However—as I have spent time working with and ready through these devotions, I have identified what I believe to be a fundamental flaw in their imaginative construction.

These materials tend to identify heavily with the disciples and with the women who accompanied Mary. That is, we see images or texts will describe vignettes where we have graphic depictions of what is suffered by both Jesus and Mary in the events of the capture, the judgment, the torment, the crucifixion and the death. (The Fifteen Oes of St. Brigit are a classic example of this should you desire to see them for yourself.) The problem here is that the identification of “us” is consistently and relentlessly with the disciples. We gain a clear sense of “us” and “them.” “We” are those who follow Jesus; “they” are those who slay Jesus. The devotions themselves with this stark contrast lead us to experience the crucifixion of Jesus not as humanity’s inhumanity to the Son of Man, but as the experience of what the Jews did to Jesus. Given the emphases of these devotions, it’s no surprise that medieval and renaissance pogroms sometimes coincided with Palm Sunday and Good Friday. This kind of Christian anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism is absolutely deplorable and has no place in our faith. In addition to that, it’s also bad spirituality.

This kind of devotion which allows us to create and foster an “us” and “them” perspective on Holy Week misses one of the big patterns of Scripture and undermines a proper understanding of the season and its liturgies. We misconstrue the basic teachings of the Church and the Scripture on sin if we fail to account for the fact that “we” are “them.” This is not a new insight. Indeed, in the period of the Reformation itself and in a lot of Counter-Reformation Roman Catholic spirituality this point is made sometimes to the point of excess. A good example of the proper reversal is “Ah, holy Jesus.” The second verse in particular makes the turn that the Sarum materials lack: “Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? Alas, my treason, Jesus hath undone thee. ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee: I crucified thee” (Hymnal 1982, 158). We stand both as the disciples and as the crucifiers. The impact of Palm Sunday is muted if we fail to make the connection that the same crowd that shouted “Hosanna” was the same crowd that shouted “Crucify him!” and that, we need to be able to locate ourselves within both crowds. It is only with this perspective that we can hear the Good Friday Reproaches properly as words directed at us rather than condemnations of “the Jews.”

It is a shame that more people don’t come to the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services. Again—I realize they’re not on Sunday and thus fall outside the usual pattern. However, patterns lie at the heart of this. We say that God is love. We say that Jesus is God incarnate and, therefore is the most perfect exemplar of love. But love is a very broad word. Considering all of the things that the word “love” is used for in American culture these days it includes quite a range of things! Surely we mean something more significant, something more meaningful. Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are about a life patterned by love and therefore about the nature of love and the consequences of love. Christ came to preach love. Had the content of love been some ooey-gooey feel-good message of self-satisfaction, no one would have demanded his death. That’s not the love that Christ preached incarnate. He preached a love—and enacted a love—that made people deeply uncomfortable, that challenged the status quo, and that was not afraid to speak openly against sin, hypocrisy, and pride—particularly amongst those who saw themselves as most religious. Holy Week warns us of the consequences of preaching true love.

Maundy Thursday lays bare the strength and power of humble service. The maundy or commandment from which the day gets its name is the Gospel exhortation to love one another as Christ has loved us. All three of the great liturgical actions of the evening offer a powerful—and disturbing—example of what this love and service looks like. The Last Supper is an intimate gathering of friends, yet its elemental symbols and pregnant words reveal a host of deep meanings. The washing of the feet offers a vision of a leader who is strong enough in humility to perform the role of a menial servant in the midst of his friends. (And, in this present age can be far more intimate and therefore intimidating when a relative stranger offers to touch and wash our feet!) Lastly, the stripping of the altar portrays in symbolic terms the stripping away, the falling away of all supports and defenses and shields.  Don’t kid yourself—Jesus could have run. But he didn’t. Therefore it is only fitting that we give John the last word: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13)

Good Friday is our great festival of paradox: we celebrate the day that mortals slay the immortal, the day the Lord of Life gives himself up to death. And we call it “good,” firm in the conviction that in his dying the power of death will be destroyed. Most of our acts this day involve paradox in one form or another. We lift high and venerate a very simple yet effective instrument of torture.  We address a long series of collects to the one who did not respond to his own Son’s cry from the cross. We receive from the reserve sacrament in the absence of a consecration a meal which proclaims his presence and power.

If not many make it to Maundy Thursday or Good Friday, fewer still appear for Holy Saturday and yet we do have a service for it in the book. It’s a simple Service of the Word about which there’s not much to say. It’s the last service of Holy Week for as the sun sets we prepare to turn the corner and head into Easter.

The Easter Season

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the Liturgical Renewal Movement is the restoration of the Easter Vigil. The dual emphases on Baptism and Easter come together in full flower in the splendor of a well-celebrated Easter Vigil. I can say without exaggeration that hearing the singing of the Exultet before a newly-lit Paschal candle in the midst of a darkened nave at the end of a long Lent is truly one of the top spiritual moments of my year.  The Vigil sets the tone for the rest of the Great Fifty Days as the Church celebrates the coming of Easter and the on-going power of the resurrection. Another related thrill comes the next morning as Morning Prayer kicks off with the Alleluia-laden “Christ our Passover (Pascha Nostrum).” Likely the oldest season of the Church year, it follows gospel chronology effortlessly, celebrating the bodily Ascension of Christ on the Thursday forty days after the resurrection and ending with Pentecost, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the birth of Church on the fiftieth day after the resurrection.

The first week after Easter, from the Sunday of the Resurrection to the Second Sunday of Easter is another special octave; every day is a prayer book Holy Day with special readings assigned for Eucharist and the Office, and no other feasts are allowed to fall within this week. If March 25th (the Annunciation) or a feast of the apostles falls within its span, they are transferred out to the days after the Second Sunday.

Easter is the season when we meditate upon the resurrection and acquaint ourselves with the affection of joy. As I said of the affections earlier, this is not an emotion or an expression—it is a pattern of being. It is—thankfully—not about feigning a feeling or attempting to put on a happy face. It is more subtle, deeper, richer, than that. This is simply the joy of living, the joy of resting in the presence of God, and in being in the presence of those you love. It takes its cue from the resurrection, the triumph of life, the ultimate sign that love is stronger than death.

The Church does not follow its usual pattern of fasting during Easter because of the celebratory nature of the season. Likewise, in some churches it is the custom to not kneel during Easter for the same reason. This prohibition of kneeling is sometimes connected to a canon from the Council of Nicaea—the church council back in 325 AD that agreed on the wording of what would become the Nicene Creed. A canon from that council does prohibit kneeling both on Sundays and throughout the Easter season. However, it comes from a liturgical environment where kneeling and multiple prostrations was the regular rule. It was a liturgical culture entirely unlike ours. Thus, it seems odd to impose one part of its practice during Easter (standing) and ignore the more regular and consistent part throughout the rest of the year (kneeling and prostrations). Furthermore, the council was attempting to establish liturgical uniformity upon the Church through this canon. It is, therefore, ironic that John Cassian and his friend Germanus coming from Gaul by way of Palestine questioned the Egyptian monks about it during their tour there around the year 385; apparently they were used to both kneeling and fasting during Easter from their time in the Palestinian monasteries. Whatever uniformity the council was attempting to achieve, it did not achieve.

The Season after Pentecost

The Season after Pentecost is referred to in some Calendars as Ordinary Time. This is not supposed to suggest that it is ordinary in the sense of being normal and not important, but rather that the Sundays are counted in an ordinal fashion. Unfortunately, this fine distinction is usually easily and quickly lost. This is the long green season that occupies somewhere between twenty-three and twenty-eight weeks out of the year depending on when Easter falls. As far as I’m concerned, it is most closely connected with the affection of faithful endurance!

The beginning of this season can be a little tricky particular for those who are diligent in their use of the Daily Office. Sundays in this period are counted, as the table on page 32 of the prayer book shows us, as Sundays after Pentecost. However, the collect and the readings are established be reference to a numbered Proper which is anchored around a calendar date. Thus, an ordinary average Sunday like Proper 15 will be whatever Sunday falls closest to the date of August 17th (and we can find this out by looking through the Season after Pentecost either in the collects, the Eucharistic lectionary or the Daily Office lectionary.) The logic here is that the fixing of Propers to calendar days minimizes the effects of a constantly moving Easter season. Thus, we can always count on the same readings showing up in the summer and fall. The difficulty comes at the very start. The season after Pentecost begins on the Monday after Pentecost. The problem is that the collect for the week is typically that of the preceding Sunday—but not in this case. Instead, we locate the Proper that falls closest to the date of Pentecost, use its collect, and begin lectionary readings from this point. The first Sunday of the season itself is the Feast of the Holy Trinity, one of our Principal Feasts. The week following the feast continues with the collect of the Sunday that would have been and continues the lectionary readings in course. Thus, due to the placement of Pentecost and the Feast of the Holy Trinity, the two earliest possible Propers, Proper 1 and Proper 2, will never actually be celebrated on a Sunday, although their collects and weekday readings may be used when Easter falls at its earliest dates.

As noted above, the Sundays of the Season after Pentecost hold the lowest order of precedence and it is permissible to celebrate a Holy Day in place of the Sunday if it should happen to fall on a Sunday. Note, however, that it’s not proper to move a feast that falls in the week onto a Sunday unless it is the feast of the parish’s title (i.e., the saint or mystery that it is named for) or its patron (i.e., any saints whose relics might be enshrined in the church). The only other feast that may be transferred to a Sunday is the Feast of All Saints because of its status as a Principal Feast. Anything else requires the bishop’s permission.

The Last Sunday after Pentecost is officially titled in the prayer book as just that: “The Last Sunday after Pentecost” and is “Proper 29, the Sunday closest to November 23.” Just as the Revised Common Lectionary placed Transfiguration Sunday at the end of its Season of Epiphany, the Lectionary and the Roman Catholic Calendar appoint the final Sunday after Pentecost as the Feast of Christ the King. Again—as with the end of Epiphany—the prayer book has not adopted the title but has taken the concept: the collect and the readings celebrate the reign of Christ.

The Days of Optional Observance

Having spoken about the Principal Feasts, Sundays, Holy Days and the Days of Special Devotion, that leaves only one more category of days to be reckoned with from the prayer book’s section devoted to the Calendar: the Days of Optional Observance. These are the “ferial days” or “ferias” which means any day that isn’t a Sunday or a feast. If you add together the 7 Principal Feasts, the 49 Sundays (as three are Principal Feasts), and the 32 Holy Days, that gives a total of 88 prayer book feast days, leaving 277 ferial days in a regular year.

The monthly listing of days between the Calendar rubrics and the list of titles of feasts give us a potential set of people to be celebrated as Lesser Feasts on these days. When Lesser Feasts were first introduced in 1963, there were 115 recommended Lesser Feasts on the list; the latest set of recommendations brought before the church for approval in 2009 (which is still pending as I write in 2013) contained 288 occasions. One of the issues over the latest list is the sheer volume of names brought forward; as you can see, even accounting for some of these falling on Sundays in any given year, it doesn’t leave a lot of open days. The thing to remember, though is this: they’re all optional! You can choose to celebrate as many or as few as you would like.

Because of the cyclical nature of the Daily Office, Days of Optional Observance don’t impact it much—the only effect is whether you choose to change the Collect of the Day. If a Eucharist is being celebrated on a ferial day, the prayer book provides a range of six possible options. They are:

  1. To celebrate a Major Feast that has fallen elsewhere in the week as provided in the prayer book,
  2. To celebrate a Lesser Feast as a Day of Optional Observance appointed in the Church’s Calendar,
  3. To celebrate a Lesser Feast as a Day of Optional Observance not appointed in the Church’s Calendar by using the Commons of Saints,
  4. To celebrate the season by using the propers of the preceding Sunday,
  5. To celebrate the season by using the propers appointed for a day in the given week of the season, and
  6. To celebrate an occasion provided for in the propers for “Various Occasions.”

Because the celebration is optional, all of them have equal standing.

4 Replies to “Final Calendar Section (Anatomy, Part 4)”

  1. ” And, while we may not normally thing of them” – I think it should be ‘think’ of them.

  2. I’ve really enjoyed this series — especially the historical view you bring to the liturgy, and your analysis of these things mean given that historical context, now and over time. I also particularly appreciated your comments on Passiontide and the “stepping” of Lent, and the importance of “them” = “us” in the Stations of the Cross. Something about that always bothered me and I couldn’t put my finger on it, but that’s it: we are them and they are us, and the story loses some of its weight and complexity or meaning if we don’t recognize this explicitly. Man’s inhumanity to man includes our inhumanity to our fellow travelers today, and to not recognize that makes the event of the Passion less contemporaneous and thus perhaps less accessible or meaningful to us in our current lives.

    Thanks very much for sharing this.

  3. Derek, how do you see Trinity Sunday fitting into this? I note for example the change from “Sundays after Trinity” to “Sundays after Pentecost”.

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