Spiralling Forward: Marking Time through Ritual
Photo by Grant Whitty/Unsplash
By Shelley Worthington
“For everything there is a season, and time for every matter under heaven.” ~ Ecclesiastes 3:1
I was raised to understand time as linear and, as I get older, I reflect on the years that have passed and how they uniquely contribute to who I am and how I want to live.
But while I recognize the forward momentum of time, I also mark the passing of days, weeks, months and years through liturgy, a sacred and cyclical experience of time through ritual. Liturgical time is like a spiral that regularly connects me to something that has been going on for centuries.
Liturgy is most commonly understood as the order of activities and rituals that are followed in a church service. While I write from a Christian perspective, it also applies to rituals and orders in Muslim and Jewish traditions. Christian liturgical rituals have developed from Jewish traditions and have evolved over 2,000 years.
Liturgical time connects me with something ancient. It tells a story that impacts me differently each time I revisit it. Year after year I experience the story of the unfolding of God’s kingdom through scripture, song, prayers and ceremonies, and each time I am transformed somehow. Liturgy provides space for times of celebration, repenting, renewing, healing and resting. Its spiral capacity happens by remembering an ancient story and, through it, I discover meaning and depth in my own story.
The way humans understand time using calendars has varied over time with lunar calendars, solar calendars, the Roman calendar, the Julian calendar and the Gregorian calendar—all of which have different beginnings for the year. While the modern Western Christian church follows the Gregorian calendar, the most widely used civic calendar in the world, its liturgical calendar organizes the year into spiritual seasons and events starting the fourth Sunday prior to Dec. 25, the beginning of Advent.
Christian liturgy centres on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. During Sunday morning worship services, liturgy is the vehicle that brings ancient rituals and stories of the past into the present. It connects daily life with the sacred. The long list of festivals that take place throughout the year can be broken down into a couple major celebrations.
First, Christians celebrate Sundays, a weekly remembrance to honour the resurrection of Jesus. It is a mini-Easter.
They also celebrate Advent, a preparation season that leads into Christmas and the celebration of Jesus’ birth. It is understood as part of Jesus’ incarnation cycle. Joan Chittister’s description explains Advent’s grounding effect in the lead up to the busy holiday season: “Advent is about learning to wait. It is about not having to know exactly what is coming tomorrow. … We learn in Advent to stay in the present.” Its focus on patience and waiting gives space for my soul to catch up when time seems to be slipping by.
Its focus on patience and waiting gives space for my soul to catch up when time seems to be slipping by.
Lent then begins the resurrection cycle. It is the season before Easter, which is also understood as the Paschal cycle, or Passover. It is a much older season of the church and Chittister beautifully describes Lent not as a ritual, but as “time given to think seriously about who Jesus is for us, to renew our faith from the inside out.” This season is the very centre of the church, as it is about the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and involves reflecting on suffering, death and new life.
The third block of time, called Ordinary Time, occurs in two periods: after Epiphany and after Pentecost. These periods involve feast days and are mostly focused on routine and education but, most importantly, as Chittister points out, they are a “time for making the faith the force of daily life.”
Liturgy is about order, but it is also more than following an order of things. In The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life, Chittister describes the liturgical year as a “process of coming back year after year to look at what we already know, on one level, but are newly surprised by again and again.”
Liturgy also helps me experience time in a prayerful way. In certain world religions, church bells have been used to help track time and remind people of the time to pray. Morning and evening are common times for prayer, as well as before meals.
My daily schedule usually revolves around meals, and the same is true for the Christian liturgical service. The meal is symbolic of the many events in the Bible that involve food, including the meal Abraham had with strangers and the meals Jesus shared with his followers.
During the sacramental celebration of the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, the ordinary meal and the sacred are folded together, and the ancient is woven into modern life. It is an experience of remembering things from the past and encountering them now. During the Eucharist ritual, bread, wine, time and space are blessed with the divine presence. Each time I eat a meal or “break bread” with my neighbours, I am reminded of the Eucharist.
In liturgical time, the act of remembering keeps me connected to the sacred and forms time into a spiral moving forward rather that a straight line.