Restoring Christian Memory

July 11th, 2011

This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord—a lasting ordinance. . . When you enter the land that the Lord will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony. And when your children ask you, “What does this ceremony mean to you?” then tell them, “It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.” Then the people bowed down and worshiped.  Exodus 12:14, 25-27 (NIV)

For thousands of years, the Jewish people have gathered in homes and synagogues to observe the Seder, the Passover ritual that is one of the high holy days on the Jewish calendar. Friends and family gather around the table to break the matzo and raise cups of wine in memory of God’s provision in leading the Hebrew people out of Egypt.

There are all sorts of objects that help the participants to remember the story of the Passover—the unleavened matzo reminding the people that they were leaving in a hurry; horseradish to remind them of the bitterness of the life of slavery in Egypt; the Haroset, a mixture of apples, nuts, cinnamon, and wine symbolizing the mortar the slaves used in Egypt; and parsley and salt water to symbolize new life.

Both children and adults are gathered together around the table, for the children have a special role to play in the ritual. At a special time a child speaks (often the youngest child present) and asks the traditional “Four Questions” that help everyone at the table remember the story. From generation to generation Jewish households have gathered to remember the story of the Passover, and this ritual, practiced faithfully, has kept the story of the Exodus alive throughout the ages.

The Power of Rituals

There has been a tendency in contemporary Protestant churches to minimize the power of the rituals in faith and practice. Part of this is the influence of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements, which value spontaneity and the “movement of the Spirit” above what these traditions see as dry and lifeless rituals. Likewise, the emphasis in modernity on the acquisition of knowledge and the development of the intellect has often made experiential modes of learning suspect.

This has been especially true in traditional Christian education, which has often focused on activity but not especially on the rituals of faith that are foundational to the Christian experience. These activities were and are designed to engage and entertain but somehow miss the task of being formational, transforming the mind and spirit to represent the values of the kingdom of God.
As a result, we find ourselves (as my friend Lilly Lewin reminds me) “in a world and culture that no longer knows the story of God,” and having very little Christian memory. We have taught stories from our Christian tradition, but have neglected the story of our faith, leading to a generation of persons who travel from spiritual event to spiritual event with little sense of how the dots connect.

Observing the Christian Year

This is why a congregational practice of observing the Christian year is so important. Every year, from Advent until Christ the King Sunday, churches that use the Christian year as a formational tool rehearse and remember the life of Christ. The entire calendar becomes a ritual of the celebration of Jesus as chronos is transformed into kairos, a moment of opportunity when we experience the living Word in our lives. The Christian year moves us from experiencing the life of Jesus as a series of disconnected stories and instead provides the context of a life lived, just as we live out the ebb and flow of our lives.

It likewise stands counter to the dominant culture. It calls for the waiting and watching of Advent during the time when the rest of the world is hurrying about to “experience Christmas.” And, understanding that death must come before resurrection, it provides a season of death and repentance in Lent when everyone else wants to hurry on to spring. Observing the Christian year becomes an experiential mode of learning about the way of Jesus, and that practice should be infused throughout the life of a congregation.

The Emerging Church in the Postmodern World

What may be surprising to many is that these formational rituals and symbols are also completely in tune with the needs and desires of people living in our postmodern world. Postmodern people long to know the stories of God, especially how the individual stories fit together to make a coherent narrative. They also appreciate the power of symbol and ritual to help these stories come alive.

While the movement within Protestant Christianity during the 1970s and 1980s was to move away from ritual and tradition, eschewing practices like observing the Christian year and using iconic symbols, the Emerging Church Movement that has been growing during the past five years reclaims these practices by recognizing the power of ritualized learning through the use of sacred time, sacred space, and sacred practice.

Reclaiming the Sacred Calendar

Most of the discussion I have been involved with regarding the use of the Christian year has focused on worship, which is, after all, a primary tool for the formation of persons of all ages. What has been discussed less frequently is weaving the Christian year through the entire educational program of the church. Certainly most church leaders are familiar with the notion of a sacred calendar, but far too often the calendar that we hold sacred is more closely aligned with the school year and family vacations than any sense of God’s presence in time.

Most of the Sunday school teachers I have worked with are pushed for time, working from lesson to lesson, with little sense of how the curriculum they use fits together and how it relates to the broader story of faith. For those of us who are paid to think about these things, the never-ending push to program something—anything!—to fill the time each week often leads us to look for the easy option and rarely allows us the time to think about the broader theological questions that are needed in developing an effective discipleship system.

What we lose in the pressures of programming is a coherent sense of how our stories fit into the larger narrative of faith. The stories that draw us together every Sunday are not isolated from our own experience. Rather, they form the basis of what Brian McLaren calls “The Story We Find Ourselves In.” We are players in a story that goes back thousands of years, and that play is acted out each year as we walk in the footsteps of Jesus.

Providing a Framework

Integrating the Christian year into our educational programming provides a framework for helping all of us, children and adults alike, to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be disciples. It reminds us that the way of Jesus wasn’t all nativity and resurrection. Walking in the way of Jesus takes us to places we would rather not go: facing the harsh wilderness of temptation, enduring the press of the crowds needing to experience healing, carrying our cross through the jeers of the masses gathered in Jerusalem. It puts us in the story again and again and again, and that kind of repetition is not easily forgotten.

“But what about the rest of the Bible?” I can hear someone asking. “If we focus exclusively on the Christian year, then we lose the rich tradition of the Hebrew Bible.”

That is only true if we fail to remember that the story of Jesus is not the beginning of the relational tale between God and humanity. The story of Jesus is part of the larger story, and thus our task is not to focus exclusively on that story, but to help others to recognize the intersection between that story and everything that happened before it, going back to the ancient narratives of creation.
Recognizing the Christian year as a component of our educational program gives us resources to make those connections by placing our study of the Old Testament in the context of the Christ story. It provides a means by which we integrate the various stories of faith into a whole.

Passing Down Our Stories of Faith

“When you enter the land that the LORD will give you,” the writer of Exodus wrote, “observe this ceremony. And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them ...”

Observe. Ask. Tell. This is the process of learning. The ancients understood this so many years ago, and their story of faith has been passed down from generation to generation. When will we likewise observe our traditions and ceremonies so that our children can ask questions, and we can tell them the stories of faith? For if we don’t, then our children and their children will no longer know who they are.

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