For the Life of the World 15

This post continues with my thoughts on sections 4-5 of the third chapter of For the Life of the World. Here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  second podcast on chapter three which more or less tracks this post.

Fr. Schmemann now turns from the “day” to the “year.” And he does so in a way I found unexpected. In order to understand the “Christian year,” you have to understand what it means to feast. And we have largely lost that understanding today. (Oh, we have no problem consuming great quantities of anything. But that has little to do with knowing how to feast.)

To speak of it [Christian year], however, is even more difficult than to speak of Sunday, because for the modern Christian the relation between this “Christian year” and time has become incomprehensible and therefore, irrelevant. On certain dates the Church commemorates certain events of the past — nativity, resurrection, the descent of the Holy Spirit. These dates are an occasion for a liturgical “illustration” of certain theological affirmations, but as such they are in no way related to the real time or of consequence to it. Even within the Church itself they are mere “breaks” in the normal routine of its activities, and many business minded and action-oriented Christians secretly consider these festivals and celebrations a waste of time. And if other Christians welcome them as additional days of rest and “vacation,” no one seriously thinks of them as the very heart of the Church’s life and mission. There exists, in other words, a serious crisis in the very idea of a feast, and it is here that we must begin our brief discussion of the Christian year.

I want to note that Fr. Schmemann is primarily speaking to Orthodox above. He is not critiquing other groups. He is critiquing the life of the Orthodox Church. I would say the situation is much, much worse elsewhere, especially in those of us who have abandoned all semblance of a Christian year.

Feast means joy. Yet, if there is something that we — the serious, adult, and frustrated Christians of the twentieth century — look at with suspicion, it is certainly joy. … Consciously or subconsciously Christians have accepted the whole ethos of our joyless and business-minded culture. … The modern world has relegated joy to the category of “fun” and “relaxation.” It is justified and permissible on our “time off”; it is a concession, a compromise. … With all these spiritual and cultural connotations, the “Christian year” — the sequence of liturgical commemorations and celebrations — ceased to be the generator of power, and is now looked upon as a more or less antiquated decoration of religion. It is used as a kind of “audio-visual” aid in religious education, but it is neither a root of Christian life and action, nor a “goal” toward which they are oriented.

And, of course, in traditions like my own we’ve largely discarded even the “audio-visual” aid. And in so doing, we no longer experience time together as a shared experience. We no longer know how to properly feast. We’ve rendered “church” itself irrelevant.

To understand the true nature — and “function” — of feasts we must remember that Christianity was born and preached at first in cultures in which feasts and celebrations were an organic and essential part of the whole world view and way of life. … A feast was thus always deeply and organically related to time, to the natural cycles of time, to the whole framework of man’s life in the world. And, whether we want it or not, whether we like it or not, Christianity accepted and made its own this fundamentally human phenomenon of feast, as it accepted and made its own the whole man and all his needs. But, as in everything else, Christians accepted the feast not only by giving it a new meaning, by transforming its “content,” but by taking it, along with the whole of “natural” man, through death and resurrection.

And that is important, as Fr. Schmemann moves to that peculiarly Christian lens.

“Through the Cross joy came into the whole world” — and not just to some men as their personal and private joy. Once more, were Christianity pure “mysticism,” pure “eschatology,” there would be no need for feasts and celebrations. A holy soul would keep its secret feast apart from the world, to the extent that it could free itself from its time. But joy was given to the Church for the world — that the Church might be a witness to it and transform the world by joy. Such is the “function” of Christian feasts and the meaning of their belonging to time.

Fr. Schmemann then proceeds to illustrate his point in this section using just Easter and Pentecost as examples. They are rich illustrations, but not really the sort of thing that can be summarized. In the podcast you’ll find a good discussion of the feasts and what they mean within the context of the Christian year.

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