Worship: What happens when religious holy days and secular holidays overlap?

Chocolates or ashes?

Clergy like me like to gripe about how culture calendars usurp church calendars. We’ll have to be especially creative this year as Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day and April Fool’s Day is also Easter. Oh my.

How we tell time is a spiritual exercise. Our calendars direct the seasons of the soul and mark the holy days (holidays).

Christians follow a calendar that tracks the life of Christ. It begins each year with Advent, reimagining the coming of God in Jesus as the babe in the manger and yearning for the coming of God’s final union with the world at the end of days. The seasons then move from Christmas to Epiphany to Lent, during which times we follow the ministry of Jesus and learn to follow in his steps today. Holy Week climaxes with his crucifixion on Good Friday, and the world begins again on Easter Sunday with his resurrection from the dead. Easter season yields to Pentecost, when the Spirit that empowered the earthly Jesus is given in a new way to the church. The latter half of the church year then is devoted to how the resurrected Christ continues his liberating work through the church. This longest season of the year is Ordinary Time, so called because we order our daily lives by the agenda of Jesus.

Jews and Muslims order their lives with similar calendric approaches. The three major pilgrimage festivals of Passover (Pesach), Pentecost (Shavuot) and Tabernacles (Sukkot) highlight the Jewish year. The Muslim month of fasting known as Ramadan ends with the Feast of Eid Al-Fitr. The pattern of fasting before feasting is common to all faith calendars. Likewise, the originating narrative of the religion is annually rehearsed, featuring Moses or Jesus or Muhammad, along with the people they formed.

The lunar calendar undergirds these religious calendars, thus joining the natural and supernatural rhythms in one dance. What annoys religious leaders is when the commercial calendar, the school calendar or the sports calendar takes precedence. Neither Hallmark, nor Congress, nor the NFL determines our holidays. Mother’s Day is not a religious day. Memorial Day does not commemorate martyrs. Super Bowl Sunday doesn’t change the menu at the Lord’s Table.

Do you see the challenge?

This year some of us will celebrate romantic love with ashes on our foreheads. We may indeed need to repent of our lack of love in order to renew it, but my guess is that restaurants will be busier than churches and people will be giving chocolates rather than giving them up for the start of Lent. Penitence and indulgence are hard to reconcile.

Easter is a little easier, since an old tradition of the church has the preacher starting the sermon that day with a joke. Resurrection Sunday was the ultimate fool’s day. On Good Friday, the Devil was tricked into believing he won with the death of Jesus; Easter proved the joke was on him.

Maybe the spiritual will conquer the secular this year after all. Time will tell.

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