Sunday, February 26, 2012

The seasons of the church, and of our lives

Text: Mark 1:9-15 (Jesus in the wilderness)

On this first Sunday in Lent, we hear again of Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness. The church uses this passage to call us to our own 40 days' journey in the symbolic wilderness of Lent. It calls us to prepare for Holy Week and Easter through practices of confession and repentance. And it calls us to follow Jesus on the road to Jerusalem and to new life beyond the cross . . .

This past week, we marked the first day of Lent with an Ash Wednesday service in Rockglen, which I appreciated. But when I awoke the next morning to write the first draft of this sermon for a service at Rolling Hills Lodge, two troubling thoughts came to my mind. The first was about how our personal calendars often do not line up with church seasons like Lent.

The second was about the timing of Lent in our calendar this year. 2012 is a leap year in which we add an extra day to February in order to keep our secular calendar in line with the seasons. Because of this fact, I wondered if this year there might be 41 days in Lent instead of 40.

I was mistaken, of course, although it took me two counts of the days in Lent to convince myself that I was wrong. The only effect that the existence of leap day, February 29, this week will have on the church calendar is that Easter will be marked on Sunday April 8 this year instead of Sunday April 9, as would have been the case if 2012 were not a leap year.

Calendars of all kinds, including the church one that sets the dates of Lent and Easter, fascinate me. The interaction of the movements of the earth, sun and moon are devilishly complex, and they have caused great difficulties throughout history for both religious leaders and scientists in creating calendars.

The church calendar is focused around two main celebrations, Christmas and Easter. Christmas has had the fixed date of December 25th since the Fourth Century, while Easter is what we call a moveable feast. Easter always falls on a Sunday, but the calendar date changes from year to year.

The December 25th date for Christmas is purely a church convention. No one knows at what time of year Jesus was born. However, it makes spiritual sense that the early Church placed the celebration of Jesus' birth near the shortest day of the year, December 21st. At a time when the 90% of us who live in the northern hemisphere crave the return of light, the church has us celebrate the birth of Jesus, the light of the world.

Sometimes I wish that the date of Christmas would move at least a little -- perhaps to be celebrated each year on the first Monday after the winter solstice. But since we usually celebrate birthdays on a specific date and not a specific day, I can understand why the church chose a fixed date for Christmas.

Easter is more complex. All four Gospels say that Jesus was raised on the first day of the week, which in our calendar is Sunday. So Easter is always placed on a Sunday. All four Gospels also link Jesus' crucifixion to the Jewish festival of Passover. Their agreement is not perfect: Matthew, Mark and Luke put the crucifixion on the day after Passover, while John puts it on the day of Passover. Nevertheless, the link with Passover is clear.

The date of Passover is based on the Jewish calendar. Like many ancient calendars, the Jewish one is a lunar -- that is, it follows the waning and waxing of the moon. This practice contrasts with solar calendars like ours, which are based on the yearly return of the seasons.

The seasons exist because of the tilt of the earth's axis relative to the sun and the time that it takes for the earth to revolve once around the sun, which is  approximately 365 and one quarter days. By the way, that extra quarter day is what necessitates the occurrence of a leap day every four years.*

But back to the Jewish lunar calendar . . . the phases of the moon do not divide evenly into the 365 days of the solar year, so lunar calendars quickly move out of phase with the seasons. Since farmers need to know the timing of the seasons, most lunar calendars make adjustments. The Jewish calendar does this not with leap days, but with leap months, which occur every two or three years in a 19-year cycle. These leap months mean that the date of Passover, while always close to the start of spring, moves about the solar year quite a bit over these 19 years.

To get around the problem of the erratic timing of Passover, early church leaders came up with the following formula for Easter. We celebrate Easter on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. This formula keeps Easter more or less in line with Passover and the moon while fulfilling the need to have it fall on a Sunday in early spring. The formula also means that Easter can come as early as March 22 and as late as April 25th on our solar calendar.

Beyond the connection with Passover, there is also a deep spiritual significance to celebrating Easter in early spring. Just as Christmas is a celebration of the birth of light in the time of year with the longest nights, so Easter is a celebration of new life at a time when plants are starting to sprout. It also results in the two most important dates on the church calendar, Christmas and Easter, being relatively close together -- in some years, within less than three months of each other.

Hmm . . . all that from pondering the problem of leap day for Lent this year!

The other, perhaps more important, thought that came to my mind after Ash Wednesday's service was about how our personal calendars often don't jibe with official ones. The church says that Lent began on Wednesday, and so we are urged to repent and prepare. But what if we have been in a personal wilderness before Lent -- a wilderness  perhaps marked by sickness or loss -- and so we are already deep in a Lenten mood long before Ash Wednesday?

Or maybe our situation is the opposite one. Perhaps we have had an experience of conversion and repentance into new life before Easter arrives on the calendar. Perhaps it is a repentance that has been triggered the resolution of a conflict; or by a confrontation with addiction that, with grace, has yielded to peace, joy, and greater unity with God's Spirit.

Those of us already in a personal wilderness may not need the church to call us to follow Jesus' into the wilderness this Lent, for we are already there. Those of us who have just emerged from a wilderness experience may be living in the light of Easter long before April 8th this year, for which one could only give thanks . . .

And yet there are those spiritual and psychological reasons behind the creation of church calendar. Personally, I am grateful for the reminders this calendar gives me each year to attend to different aspects of our spiritual journey -- preparation in Advent and Lent, celebration at Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost and spiritual growth in the long Season After Pentecost .

This week, regardless of what is happening in my life or the life of our communities, I welcome the reminder of Lent to look inward, to listen for God's call, and to journey with Jesus on the difficult but gracious path to Jerusalem.

Lent is not meant to be an easy time of year. Practices such as meditation, fasting, self-reflection and penitence can be painful. But Lent and its observance are pregnant with all the possibilities that lie dormant in the wilderness of winter and which burst into new life in spring and Easter. Because of this, I look forward to journeying with you during the 40 days of Lent. This journey, as it does every year, will take us through the pain of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday to a glorious celebration of new life on Easter Sunday.

All of us as individuals and communities have some seasons that feel like time in the wilderness and others that feel like time in a lush garden. No matter where we might be today, we have heard again the wonderful words that Jesus spoke after his time in the wilderness: "The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."

Our reading says that it was the Spirit that drove Jesus into the wilderness after his baptism. It is the same for all us, I believe. We are not fully in charge of lives. It is God's Spirit that blows us where it will. And although the journeys of our lives sometimes involve pain, we know that God's Spirit is always leading us back to the Love that is our source and our destiny.

This Lent, as we seek forgiveness and try to repent, we know it is God's grace that gives us fulfilment at the end of Lent's journey in Easter and at the end of any life's journey. Life, like Lent, is always a journey from God to God.

And so as we enter deeper into Lent this week, we repeat our refrain . . .

Thanks be to God. Amen.

* In fact, The solar year is just a little bit less than 365 and one quarter days, by just under 11 minutes.. Those 11 minutes further necessitate the feature of our calendar that it skips leap days in all years divisible by 100, like 1900, but not in ones that are also divisible by 400, like 2000!

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