The Rev. Dr. Juan M.C. Oliver, Custodian of the Book of Common Prayer and member of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, contributes this article to Music, Liturgy, and the Arts.
I’ve been thinking about ritual and time, or ritual time. Anthropologists will tell us that ritual almost always takes place in a special place and at a special time, even if this place and time are in flux, or temporary. We mark off a “when” and a “where” and that marking off has some significance. Places of worship are theologically at least, much more than a convenient shelter. They offer, as Suzanne Langer said about architecture, “the semblance of an ethnic domain,” —that is, the place of a people, whether they be a family in their home or students in a school, or, in our case, an assembly at a place of worship.
In a similar way, we also parcel off time, usually in cyclical ways, to mark ritual time. In secular life, this takes place on the holidays of the year, or the weekend as a week-marker, even the morning routine of getting everyone ready for school and work. In liturgical time, there are cycles of the year, the day and the week. Perhaps the oldest for us is the marker of the week, Sunday, the first day of creation, the day of Resurrection, the “eighth day” of the world at its fulfillment in the coming of the kingdom of God, the eschaton. By assembling on Sundays Christians proclaim —simply by gathering at this time- that we live in expectation of something wonderful to happen, here, among us, in this world.
I have been thinking about time because Advent is about to begin, and of course, expectation is of its essence. To the unsuspecting visitor, Advent might look like we are looking forward to Christmas. This is true as far as it goes, but it can also be taken a bit too literally. First, we are not getting ready just for Christmas. The readings (especially if you observe a seven week Advent) are about much more than the remembrance of a birth two millennia ago. They are about the restoration and fulfillment of this world through the arrival (adventus) of God’s rule of justice, peace and love, in other words, God’s basileia, the divine royal authority; this world as GOD would have it, God’s reign or kingdom.
Except of course, all this is being communicated by metaphor and symbol. And that’s where we get in trouble. For as citizens of a scientistic world, in which only what is measurable is real, we tend to fall into understanding sacred time in literal, rather than iconic ways. To stay with Advent: starting about this time you will hear belly aching about why we should not decorate until December 24, “because it is not Christmas yet.” This is taking liturgical time way too literally, I think, and a noxious misunderstanding of the iconic ie., symbolic, or sign-like nature of liturgical time.
Iconic time is time infused with meaning. From the secular meanings of Memorial and Labor Days as the bookends of summer, to Thanksgiving as meaning something like “the blessing of family and friends” to the sacred or religious meanings of Christmas: God with us, the humanization and enfleshment of God, the “marriage” of God and creation, divine humility, the sacredness of all things bright and beautiful, the presence of Light in darkness, —all these coexist at different levels, from different angles in the twelve day celebration of Christmas. Add to these the coming of God’s reign of peace and justice, the healing of the world, the final fulfillment of creation, etc., and you have a profoundly rich feast, so profoundly rich that like a very bright bonfire it shines back all the way into November and forward all the way to February. I for one will not cover my eyes to avoid seeing it. My tree will be going up soon after Thanksgiving not because it’s Christmas, but because I am excited about it.
For who said that decorations, songs, visiting friends, etc, are only celebratory? Can’t they be expectant? Why shouldn’t we let the grace of Christmas flood our lives as soon as the first hint of it appears? Sure, be wise, do not overshop, overdecorate, over anything. And take time up to pay attention, to savor ponder ALL of Christmas’ meanings, relish the halcyon days, and let Christmas install in you a hunger for the coming Reign of God, when the whole earth will be “full of the knowledge of God,” –all the time.
JUAN OLIVER has served in a variety of ministerial positions as vicar, interim rector, acting canon to the ordinary, and as an academic and professor. Dr. Oliver has published widely on worship and Latino ministry. His most recent project, A House of Meanings was published in 2020. He is the Custodian of the Book of Common Prayer and lives in Santa Fé, New Mexico.