Mardi Gras

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I grew up in a decidedly non-liturgical tradition in the Christian Reformed Church. In fact, I recently elicited gales of laughter from my colleagues on the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship staff when I admitted to them that even one year after I graduated from seminary, I still had very little sense for the Christian Year. During my first year of ministry, an issue of Reformed Worship magazine arrived in the mail. This particular issue covered the Season of Epiphany, and so I asked my wife if she had ever heard of that word, which at the time I pronounced "eh-pee-fanny." At the Ada CRC where I grew up, every Sunday was a little Easter and every Sunday was a chance to proceed through the Heidelberg Catechism, too. We were neither detained nor derailed by things such as Advent, Epiphany, or Lent. Indeed, I never heard those terms and was not exposed to them even in Seminary, as my anecdote just showed.

If I ever heard of Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday, I assumed it was some secular thing and had no chance to understand it was connected with something called Ash Wednesday and the beginning of a more austere season of fasting and giving things up in order to focus on the sacrifice of Christ. Probably had I asked about such things, my queries would have been back-handed and dismissed with terms like "popish" and "empty ritual" and "superstition," which were the terms I most often heard expressed whenever anything remotely "Roman Catholic" came up.  

Recently some family members attended a funeral mass for a Roman Catholic friend of theirs. Afterwards they told me that many of the rituals of the service seemed so foreign to them and, just so, felt rather odd to them, too. But then we got to talking about the deeper meaning behind touching the waters of baptism upon entering the church, crossing oneself, connecting the funeral for the dead man to his baptism long ago. There is, of course, great depth of meaning to all that. The conversation about this was the more existentially relevant and striking in that these members of my family have been lamenting for some time the evacuation of meaning in their own Protestant congregation where the rhythms of worship--including Confession & Assurance and a connection to the Creeds--have all but disappeared in the last few years.

And indeed, my own observation is that "worship" in a lot of places now consists of singing, singing, singing, a brief prayer, more singing, an offering, and then a sermon. Times of confession are routinely (if not regularly) absent, pastoral prayers are frequently skipped in some places, a greeting from God at the beginning and a benediction from God at the end seem likewise to be liturgically expendable.

Today [Tuesday] is Mardi Gras and whatever excesses get associated with this day and however it's been co-opted into an excuse for outrageous secular parades and parties and the like, it is also a day to turn a meaningful corner into the Season of Lent. And so maybe it's a day for us Reformation types—who long ago dispensed with lots of rituals, traditions, and even the whole Christian Year—to consider re-infusing our worship and our sense of calendar/time with all that liturgical stuff that I never heard about growing up. People today seem increasingly to yearn for a sense of tradition, of history, of a deeper meaning to the passage of time than just what your Google Calendar can convey. So perhaps it's time for some re-connecting to larger traditions.

Recently I was struck by a remarkable video showing Pope Francis giving warm fraternal greetings (via video) to a group of fundamentalist pastors at a conference led by Kenneth Copeland. The pope's words in the video were an amazing call to Christian fellowship and a mending of historical ecclesiastical fences. But it was the reaction to the video that floored me as Copeland led that large gathering of pastors in an extended time of earnest prayer for the Pope followed by their making a video reply of their own in which they all extended their hands to bless Francis.

Maybe most of those pastors have no clue what Eh-Pee-Fanny is, either, but we live in a time of some curious re-alignments in the worldwide Church. Speaking for myself, I welcome that as well as an embracing of ancient rituals, meaningful and thoughtful liturgies, and a sense of ecumenical connection with all those who together confess Jesus as Lord in Lent and at all times.

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Hello Scott,

Thank you for this article.  I also grew up in a non-liturgical ("free") church tradition, which I appreciate.  But in recent years, I've been wanting more--more beauty, more ritual, more depth.  And like you, I'm finding it in the pattern and practices of the Christian year.  The ongoing challenge I have is how to engage my people in these practices.  I'm doing it slowly, trusting that, as James K. A. Smith teaches, they will form us all into more devoted students of Christ.

Have a blessed Lenten journey!

--Leon

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Yes Scott I can identify.  I grew up in the CRC of the 1950's and 60's in Leota MN.  I never heard about the liturgical year until way after Seminary. I had a hard time accepting it mainly becasue I did not think it proper to relive the history of redemption in our personal lives.  "It is finished" seemed to me to mean enough with the sin problem.  The cross is behind us.  I still have trouble with this business of repeating the story of redemption to be honest.  Why can we not live in the power of the resurrection every Sunday and every day?  Is this not a waste of time? A tyrranical hold of the evil one to keep us in the defeat of our sin rather than in the once for all victory of our Lord?  Is this not pretending that we live in Romans 7 and have not yet moved on to Romans 8?  I do not think our Pentecostal brothers and sisters practice this, I doubt whether more conservative Reformation churches do such as the Protestant Reformed, URC, or even PCA? Also Advent has been turned into a  mini-lenten season.  Sometimes I long for the good ole Leota days when we liturically sinned with a passion.

In response to Larry: I don't think rehearsing and remembering the story or the cross is exactly a way to live in the thrall of the devil or to do an end-run on the victory of Easter.  What do we do each time we come to the Lord's Table but remember: "This is my body . . . my blood."   We do remember the cross--we never put it behind us.  It is the locus of our salvation that leads us with gratitude to Easter and beyond.   And anyway, I don't think the rhythms of the Christian Year per se keep us down or away from Easter.   In fact, if you want to see something that really whallops one with a sense of sin and penitence, few things do this as well as the very serious Preparatory Form for the Lord's Supper that the CRCNA traditionally used the week before the sacrament.   Just sayin' . . .