Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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I love the fall (I’m speaking of calendars here, not doctrines). The temperature cools, but remains comfortable, invigorating, and inviting. The autumn leaves are gorgeous, surrounding everything with brilliant hues. Fresh apple cider comes on the market, high school football games begin, and the aroma of burning leaves triggers happy memories of childhood and the anticipation of the new school year. Watching children in their back to school clothes carrying new book binders still elicits a sense of fresh possibility.
Unfortunately, as a pastor I used to hate the fall. The more relaxed pace of summer is over, evenings at home are surrendered to the round of endless meetings and home visits, the church school program has to be cranked up with the inevitable unpleasant surprises of teachers who finally decide at the last minute they don’t want to teach anymore, another year of confirmation begins with lovely teens who would love to be just about anywhere else. Sundays become a marathons instead of the brief couple of hours on a summer Sunday worship schedule, and everyone knows that the stewardship campaign has to get underway soon with its inevitable anxieties. Denominational ministry spared me some of the woes of the local church pastor, but replaced them with annual confronting of budget woes along with the endless round of fall association meetings, most we must admit, not overwhelmingly exciting.
Part of the problem for me, however, was the fact that we were beginning a new church program year (and the culture was beginning a new school year with all that accompanies it) at the same time the liturgical calendar was heading toward its conclusion. Worship just didn’t connect with what was happening in my life or in the culture for that matter. The texts for September Sundays may be evocative and engaging, but green has gotten old and the month generally offers no major feast day of any sort around which to reorient one’s spirit for the clerical demands at hand. Rally Day doesn’t quite cut it. My mother used to recall the great Sunday School Parades in Brooklyn when, as a child, she joined thousands of other children marching through the streets in a grand ecumenical celebration of the Sunday School movement. Today we hand the teachers a flower and ship them off with a prayer after the children’s sermon. My own congregation will be blessing school book bags, a creative rite that holds the potential for really connecting kids’ lives with liturgy, though in a city where some schools mandate clear plastic bags to make it harder to take weapons to school, such a ritual may carry extra meanings we might prefer not even to think about.
What we really need is for Advent to be moved back to September. Imagine beginning a new school year and the church program year and taking on the professional challenges of fall church life surrounded by the rich blue liturgical themes of anticipation, hope, and promise, not to mention the call to repent, turning around and beginning a new path. Christ comes to meet us as we wake up to the fullness of communal life. Think of the intersections between the inner life of the spirit and the daily fall activities of church life awakening again. Think of having Advent detached from the commercial craziness of the Christmas season. Think of singing Magnificat as the politicians trot out their tax and spending proposals in the fall campaign!
OK. I realize this isn’t going to happen. But isn’t it time for our liturgical gurus to acknowledge that, at least in North America and Europe, we have a calendar problem? I know that pressure for “relevance” is a delicate topic for liturgists. I know it’s important for the liturgy to offer a countercultural experience that isn’t beholden to our calendars, a time that transcends our own measure of time. Yet Jews are able celebrate their holiest days of repentance and renewal in a season when the school year has the whole culture resetting itself and their religious institutions awakening from summer slumber. Obviously this is more an accident of calendars complementing each other than any planning. But shouldn’t there be a way for Christians to creatively craft liturgies and festivals that accompany and enrich the rites and rituals of the secular “new year” in the fall?
I don’t have any great solutions for this and realize I may be sounding more like an old Andy Rooney rant than offering a serious reflection. But if my experience of the fall was difficult and disorienting, I would guess it is true for a lot of pastors and perhaps many lay people as well. Liturgy should shape life. But life does inform liturgy. Disconnected from each other they are both impoverished. No need to be clever or cute. But surely someone can think deeply about our calendar problem and propose ways short of deconstructing the Christian calendar to help our culture and our churches navigate the fall days with spiritual depth and vitality so that they become eagerly anticipated doorways into new beginnings rather than days of dread to be survived until Thanksgiving gives us a breather.
John H. Thomas