I know the stretch of Interstate 80 through Iowa and Nebraska like the back of my hand. For almost two decades, my husband and I have driven through these states as we traveled to see family. When we first took the journey, it was just the two of us. Later, we brought our kids along with us on the road. Even though the stretch of road we traveled has stayed the same over the course of these many trips, no two journeys have been the same. We encountered treacherous weather conditions, saw wildlife up close and personal, and witnessed near-accidents. When these unforeseen things happened, we were thankful we already knew the path. The familiarity of the road we were on gave us the flexibility to face the new and unexpected things as they happened—which, they always did.
I have spent more of my life than not in churches that follow the liturgical calendar, sometimes called the church year. The years that I spent away from the liturgical calendar made me long for the familiarity of the terrain I had grown up traveling. I longed for that familiar drive home, the one that I knew like the back of my hand. Although I am sure every person who follows the church year has their own reasons for doing so, I follow the church year because the familiar landmarks, stories, and journey orient me. They form and transform me. From the dust of Ash Wednesday to the cry of “Hallelujah” on Easter morning, the liturgical calendar helps me to find my bearings in a chaotic and disorderly world.
Even though the liturgical calendar is familiar terrain for me, for those who are not used to it the liturgical calendar might seem disorienting at first. While the rest of the world counts down to a new year with celebration on December 31, the church begins the new church year with preparation during the season of Advent. While ads market age-defying serums, the church year sets aside a day for wearing a cross of ashes and saying the words “dust you are and to dust you shall return.” As Tish Harrison Warren wisely wrote in her book Liturgy of the Ordinary, “Christians exist in an alternative chronology.” This means that for all its familiarity, its rhythm, and its rhyme, sometimes the church year is at odds with the pace of everyday life.
While I have many reasons for following the church year, I want to share my top three reasons for following the liturgical calendar:
1. The liturgical calendar disorients me. We are shaped every day by our habits and routines. Whether our morning routine is pressing the snooze button a few times or infinitely scrolling on Facebook until the morning slips away, the things we engage in regularly mold us into who we are. The problem is, many of these routines include things we have done so often that we are no longer aware of them, or what they are doing to us. The liturgical calendar can be a holy disruption to those mindless habits that are in desperate need of shaking up.
Ash Wednesday stops me in my tracks and asks me if I’m making the most of my days. Pentecost shakes me out of my comfort zone when I am feeling uncertain about my gifts and reminds me that the Holy Spirit was given to men and women, young and old. Holy Saturday frustrates my desire to jump over the grief of Good Friday, and invites me to sit and weep outside the tomb. The liturgical calendar consistently sends holy interruptions to wake me up and get me back on track.
2. The liturgical calendar re-orients me. The liturgical calendar doesn’t just disorient me, it helps me find my bearings again. After the frantic pace leading up to Christmas, the liturgical calendar gives me the gift of the twelve days of Christmas (the period between December 25 and January 6). These twelve days help me not to put so much pressure on myself to have one perfect Christmas Day. They also give me space to celebrate and live into the mystery of the birth of Jesus without all the pressure of the gift-giving and party-planning that dominates most of the month of December. The days following Christmas Day have become a gift that I treasure.
Sundays like Trinity Sunday and Transfiguration Sunday bring mystery back into my life. As a person who loves seeking answers (and spends a lot of time reading and looking things up), I need to be reminded again and again that I cannot—and do not need to— know everything. The liturgical calendar re-orients me to the beauty and healing balm of mystery. I cannot know everything there is to know about God, and this is a good and beautiful thing.
3. The liturgical calendar shapes me through stories and rituals. I love sharing stories with my extended family. It seems like whenever we get together, we reminisce about the way Granny could crochet anything by feel, or how Grandma made the best homemade everything. We talk about the time someone caught a big fish (that seems to get bigger with every re-telling), and about the memories we made in the mountain house. As we tell these stories again and again, we are knitted together as a family. These stories are who we are; they make us a family each time we tell them, even though we have told them a thousand times before.
The liturgical calendar shapes us individually as we hear and tell the stories of our faith year after year. The church year also forms us into the church as we share and tell, remember and relearn, hear and teach the stories of our faith. We remember our baptism together, journey toward the cross together, and whisper to one another, “Remember when God….”
As of now, we are in an in-between season. Christmas has ended and Lent has not yet begun. We are on the journey, looking ahead to Ash Wednesday on the horizon and wondering what new and unexpected things we might encounter along the way. Much of the trip will be familiar, but that familiarity gives us the opportunity to open our eyes wide and see something new. The journey might be familiar, but that does not mean it is a boring one. As we travel the road, it will be like we are driving those last few miles before we arrive back home. We know these landmarks. We recognize this terrain. If we just continue on this journey, we will be home.