Setting the Spiritual Clock

This post is the first in a series recapping the content of Paul Louis Metzger's book "Setting the Spiritual Clock: Sacred Time Breaking Through the Secular Eclipse" (click the link for a preview).

This year (2021) the new year in the Christian worship calendar begins on Sunday, November 28--the first Sunday in the season known as Advent. As we approach the liturgical new year, it's a good time to reflect on the meaning and purpose of the Christian worship calendar. Paul Louis Metzger helps us do just that in his new book. 


As Timothy George wrote in recommending Setting the Spiritual Clock, the book gives us "a delightful walk through the entire Christian year. At once devotional and practical, this book is a useful guide for pastors, worship leaders, and faithful Christians of all traditions" (back cover). Other reviewers note how the book helps safeguard against the encroachment of secularism into the life of the church, particularly its worship. It does so by helping us reset our spiritual-liturgical clocks to Jesus' time. Said another way, it helps us worship through the course of the year in a way that is fully Christ-centered and gospel-shaped. With this post, I start a series looking at the book. It will do so by providing key quotes along with some comments. This will give you a feel for the book, and I hope you will then read the full book for yourself. I highly recommend it.

Introductory material 

Metzger dedicates the book to worship leaders with these words:
May the church calendar be a rich resource to the communities of faith they serve.... May all of us realize that God's timetable does not follow the secular calendar. No matter what happens during this or that trying season, may we all take to heart our participation in God's eternal story, which the liturgical calendar features from Jesus' first advent to his second coming. (p. xii) 

To the church at large, Metzger offers this admonition:

We who are Christians should be sure to mark our calendars to reflect the Christian story. Stories shape our lives. Just as the children entered a new world of Narnia in C. S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, so we must enter the world of the Bible and calendar events that mark the seasons of our Christian life cycle, year in and year out. Otherwise other stories--no matter how great and lofty as those of grassroots movements, great individuals or nations are--will eclipse the Christian narrative. This book is a sustained attempt to set our spiritual clock according to the liturgical or church calendar, which circles the glorious Son as he breaks through the secular eclipse. (p. 4, italics in the original)

Metzger emphasizes the biblical roots of an annual worship liturgy by referencing the liturgical practices of Israel under the old covenant, noting that

Jesus practiced the Jewish tradition and participated in its community-building experiences, including the pilgrimage feasts.... Each of the pilgrimage feasts shaped the Jewish people as a missional movement that obeyed God's Law to cultivate virtuous love of God and neighbor and prepared them for worship in the Messianic age when they would dwell in the Promised Land of rest.... If Jesus did not find these liturgical celebrations to be dead tradition, but essential to his spiritual practice and mission, shouldn't we do the same and honor the Christian calendar when it reflects and extends the biblical story? (p. 9)

 As Christians, we do not practice the Jewish liturgy (which pertains to the old covenant), but a liturgy that pertains to the new covenant, which is to say to the story (narrative) of the life of Jesus. This liturgy is a gift entrusted to the church by which we are enabled "to set our spiritual clocks according to the Christian calendar" (p. 11), thus ensuring 

that the Savior rather than a secularist paradigm shapes our narrative, imagination, and sense of time in the church. Without this orientation, we will not survive as authentically and distinctively Christian in our secular pluralistic age. (p. 13)

Following the introductory material, Metzger provides a series of essays that look at each season in the Christian calendar. What follows below and in other posts in the series are excerpts from each of these essays. Though Metzger engages and spring-boards from interaction wit the Roman Catholic tradition, he dialogues with other traditions. Thus Evangelical Protestants, Mainline Protestants and Orthodox Christians will all find what he shares to be of benefit, strengthening their appreciation of the way the Christian calendar focuses on Jesus and his story, which is the gospel. 

Advent: Jesus is Coming

The new Christian year begins with the month-long festival season known as Advent. As Metzger notes, "ultimately, Advent is about Jesus moving history forward--not backward--toward its climax when he comes again" (p. 15). He then notes that in some traditions, Advent has four themes that are reflected in four candles in Advent wreaths: the prophecy candle, signifying hope; the Bethlehem candle, signifying faith; the shepherd candle, signifying joy; and the angel candle, signifying peace (p. 16).

Prophecy: hope

The first candle in the Advent wreath "draws attention to the prophetic expectation of the Messiah's appearance." Reflecting on this message of Advent, we are led to ask ourselves, whether or not we are expectantly waiting on Jesus appearing at the end of this age. In view of the seemingly eternal delay of Christ's return, "have we moved on to entertain other 'messiahs," other plans and other hopes?.... The Advent season helps us reframe our imaginations and expectations" (p. 18).

Bethlehem: faith

The second candle "celebrates Jesus' arrival in the world.... The emphasis is on faith and notes Mary and Joseph's sojourn to Bethlehem" (p 19).

Shepherd: joy

The third candle "signifies the shepherd's joy at the news of the Lord Jesus' birth" (p. 22). "What serves as the basis for the joy with which we celebrate the Advent season? The joy that Mary and the shepherds experienced... the result of 'the glory of the Lord' that 'shone around them' (Luke 2:9)" (pp. 23, 24).

Angel: peace

The fourth candle signifies "peace in keeping with the angelic host's declaration: 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom his is pleased!' (Luke 2:14)." Metzger continues:
What bearing does this declaration have on us here and now? As you go about taking care of last-minute Christmas shopping and preparing for Christmas festivities, or as you sit alone viewing anxious news reports across the globe, know that God's glorious peace does not come about through normal means. Not does God's favor rest on supra-ordinary types. Rather, God's peace and glory come to us through this baby lying in a manger in the face of imperial oppression old and new. (p. 27) 

Christmastide: Jesus is Born!

In the traditional Christian worship calendar, Christmas is not a single day, but a season that lasts in some traditions for 12 days and in others for 40. Given that Christmas is a season, it is often appropriately referred to as Christmastide.

As Metzger notes, "salvation is the focus of the biblical narrative" (p. 32), and though the birth of Jesus is not the fullness of that narrative, it nevertheless is of great importance, for 
if [Christ] had not assumed our humanity (i.e., become incarnate), he could not have healed us. Jesus assumed our humanity in order to redeem us. Or as Gregory of Nazianzus would put it, "the unassumed is the unhealed." Again, 'He has not assumed what he has not healed; but that which is united to his Godhead is also saved.' So now, what's the big deal about Jesus' birth? Only our salvation involving Jesus' full humanity, and our full humanity, too. Jesus as the Christ could not have healed our humanity if he did not share in it fully from birth to death. (p. 32)
And so the focus of Christmastide is the Incarnation: the eternal Son of God assuming our humanity via the womb of Mary, while remaining divine. Jesus: fully human and fully divine.

Metzger also rightly notes that this understanding of Christmastide helps offset the secularization of Christmas in which the focus is on often unrealistic and deceptive images of a life free of sorrows, pain and struggle. But as Metzger notes,
Jesus' birth in a manger under Rome's oppressive rule and his early life under threat by Herod's murderous pursuit should tell us that God does not promise to give us our best life now. After all, Advent does not simply point to Jesus' first coming at his birth, which multitudes of Christians celebrate today, but also to his second coming at the close of history. (p. 33) 
In the next post in this series, we'll pick up the story of Jesus by looking at the church's celebration of the festival season known as Epiphanytide, which overlaps with the first phase of Ordinary Time in the liturgical calendar. So stay tuned.

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