Setting the Spiritual Clock, part 2

This post concludes a two-part series highlighting key points in Paul Louis Metzger's book "Setting the Spiritual Clock: Sacred Time Breaking Through the Secular Eclipse." For the first post, click here.

Last time we looked at Metzger's introduction to the Christian worship calendar, and his analysis of Advent and Christmastide, the first two seasons in the liturgical year. In this post I highlight what he writes concerning other primary festivals and seasons, beginning with Epiphanytide, in which Christians celebrate the great truth that, in Christ, God is with us.

"The Adoration of the Magi" by Edward Burne-Jones
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Epiphanytide: God is with us

The festival day known as Epiphany (or sometimes The Epiphany) and the season it begins, known as Epiphanytide, are about the revealing of Jesus to the world. The English word epiphany, from the Greek word epipháneia (meaning manifestation or appearance) is used in several places in the New Testament to refer either to the birth of Jesus, to his appearance after his resurrection, or to his return at the end of the age. During Epiphanytide, several key events in the life of Jesus are addressed, typically including the encounter of the Magi (wise men) from the east with the Christ child, and Jesus' baptism some 30 years later in the Jordan River. Both events are 'epiphanies' by which Jesus is revealed for who he truly is. Metzger comments:

We find certain parallels between Jesus' manifestations as a small child to the wise men from the East and his determination to be baptized as an adult in the Jordan River. The wise men honor him as a divine king, as they come to worship him and present him with their gifts (Matt 2:2, 11). Later, as Jesus is baptized, the Spirit descends upon him, and God declares him to be his beloved Son with whom he is well-pleased (Matt 3:16-17).... Just as the wise men honor Jesus as divine royalty, God acknowledges him as his beloved Son in his baptism and anoints him by the Spirit. Jesus' baptism signifies his anointing as king or firstborn of all creation, the most exalted among the kings of the earth (see Ps 89:27; Col 1:15). Moreover, the wise men's third gift, myrrh, and John's baptism of repentance signify Jesus' connection with us in our human frailty. As the writer of Hebrews claims, "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin" (Heb 4:15). (p. 53)

As Metzger goes on to note, though both of these revelatory events declare the "profound mystery of the incarnation" (p. 54), we should not view the true identity/nature of Jesus in a merely abstract way. Instead, we are to believe in and follow this God-man who has been revealed to us. Indeed, we are called to be his disciples. In that regard, Metzger quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who in Discipleship wrote that "only the believers obey, and only the obedient believe.... Discipleship is commitment to Christ. Because Christ exists, he must be followed" (p. 58).

Another event in Jesus' life typically celebrated during Epiphanytide is the miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana. Metzger comments:

Besides demonstrating that Jesus can be the life of the party, and that he cherishes marriage, what is most important for the purposes of John's Gospel as well as Epiphanytide is that this miracle serves as a sign aimed at creating faith. As with all of Jesus' miraculous signs recorded in John's Gospel, the point as far as John is concerned is that people believe.... The turning of water into wine creates faith in the hearts of the disciples. They have an epiphany. In other words, they see Jesus' glory and believe in him. (p. 61)

Metzger then concludes his look at Epiphanytide with this exhortation:

As we engage Jesus... during Epiphanytide, may we realize that Jesus' miraculous signs great and small in our midst are not ends in themselves, nor aimed at creating a buzz or fanfare. Their intent is to reveal Jesus in his glory so that we might find eternal life through abiding faith in him (John 20:30-31). (p. 62)

Transfiguration: transitioning to Lent and later

Metzger next addresses the Feast of Transfiguration, which closes Epiphanytide and is a transition to the season of Lent, "the season preparing Jesus' people for the Lord's passion and inviting us to participate with him in his suffering," (p. 66). Metzger also notes that the Transfiguration "serves as a sign of encouragement as it foreshadows Jesus--the Son of Man--coming in his kingdom glory at the end of the age" (p. 67). From this lofty perspective, we glimpse the glory we will share with Jesus when the fulness of his Kingdom is revealed and we too are transfigured (glorified) through resurrection. But that time of our glorification is not yet, so we descend with Jesus from the mountaintop and proceed on through the Christian year to the season of Lent.

Lent: die to self to gain Jesus

Addressing Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday and leads up to Easter Sunday, Metzger notes that this season focuses on
purification from sin involving selfish desire, while also highlighting the need for death to self in pursuit of vital, life-giving union with Jesus. Lent is counterintuitive to two contrasting types in contemporary culture: first, the prosperity gospel devotee who only values celebration; and second, the nihilist who perceives all life as suffering and all suffering as meaningless. Regarding the prosperity gospel mind-set, Lent instructs us that there can be no uniquely Christian abundant life that does a detour around fellowship in Crist's sufferings.... Regarding the nihilistic framework, Lent also instructs us that suffering authentically as a Christian never entails suffering for suffering's sake, but suffering for Jesus' sake. (p. 71)

Holy Week: Jesus dies to bring new life

Metzger challenges us to view Holy Week (which stretches from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday), as "the beginning of a holy war" (p. 97). He elaborates:
We're not talking about a holy war of Christendom defending the Holy Land or preserving some semblance of Christian America. Rather, we have in mind Jesus presenting himself as the royal priest who confronts the religious and political establishment fixated on temple worship, nationhood, and empire, so as to free and lead his people our of Egypt and into the Promised Land. 
We need to ask ourselves based on Holy Week, what kind of life does Jesus die to give us? The American Dream and the life of health and wealth to which we feel accustomed and entitled? If so, Holy Week becomes a very hollow week. Rather than build stockpiles of ammunition to protect his self-interests or build our stock portfolios, Jesus' aim is to share life with us--forever in the miraculous freedom of divine love. From Palm Sunday to Jesus cleansing the Temple, weeping over Jerusalem, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, Jesus reveals just how far he is willing to go. He takes away our false hopes and faulty aspirations for making nation states and our individual lives great again by dying to such drives and the vicious circle of eye-for-an-eye retribution that secures the gains of greedy empires and persons. The Holy Week cycle destroys this circle and leads us forward to Easter and newness of Life. (p. 97)

Eastertide: Jesus is risen

Eastertide is a season in the liturgical calendar that extends from Easter Sunday through Pentecost. It looks forward to Jesus' return at the close of the age, and looks back to the prior seasons of the church year, including the momentous events of Holy Week. Metzger comments:
Holy Week is like a garment, blanket, or tapestry made of one cloth, and without any holes in it. There is one golden thread that ties together all the events the church celebrates this week. That golden thread is Jesus and his mission. So while we may tend to think that everything culminates at Good Friday with the cancellation and eradication of sin in Jesus' death on the cross, or perhaps that it all comes crashing down and gets swept away on Holy Saturday as Jesus lies buried in the grave, we need to realize that the story's not over. Jesus rises from the grave. But even here we must be careful to guard against thinking of the events as simply one patch on a very spotty quilt. The entire Bible is the story of God's deliverance and healing of the nations and world through his Suffering Servant and chosen people. (p. 117, emphasis added)
As Metzger goes on to note, in addition to explicating the theme of deliverance, Easter also validates Jesus' claims and actions prior to the cross. It also speaks to the "elevation of believers from sin and death to eternal life" and points to the "beginning of the new creation and vocation to victorious and abundant life in the Promised Land" (p. 118). Reflecting further on the meaning and import of Eastertide, Metzger notes that 
Jesus' resurrection does not depend on our faith. However, Jesus' bodily resurrection should deepen our faith and move us beyond self-centered cowardice to courageous compassion, where we descend to the depths and care for nameless beggars in body and soul, and the weak and unwise, like ourselves. (p. 129) 

The Ascension: Jesus has some serious hang time

The church calendar includes a celebration of Jesus' ascension, which occurred 40 days after Easter Sunday. Sadly, as Metzger notes, the ascension is "one of the most neglected aspects of Jesus' public ministry" (p. 140). Emphasizing the transformative impact of the ascension on the lives of Jesus' followers, Metzger offers this:  
The ascension did not lead the early church to escape the world, but to live with their feet firmly hitting the ground running forward in mission. The ascension mobilized Christians to live victorious, holy lives in the midst of severe difficulties and persecution....

The apostolic community took the ascension very seriously. The ascension of Jesus coupled with the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost make it possible for them to stop staring at the heavens and move forward here on earth by becoming Jesus' witnesses--which involved suffering unto death in many cases--in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.... (p. 141) 

Pentecost Sunday: happy birthday to the missional church

Pentecost, the 50th day after Easter Sunday. Seen as the birthday of the church, it has its roots in an Old Testament festival. Understanding those Jewish roots helps us appreciate the import of Pentecost for both the church and all the world. Metzger comments:
The old Testament backdrop [to Pentecost] is the Jewish festival of Shavuot or the Festival of Weeks....[which] occurs fifty days after the Passover celebration. The Passover celebrates God's deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. The Festival of Weeks celebrates God's giving the Ten Commandments to Moses at Sinai for his people. Just as the Law came down from heaven to Israel, so the Spirit of God came down from heaven to the church on Pentecost, fifty days after Jesus' resurrection following Passover. God's Spirit internalizes the Law in God's people, in keeping with the New Covenant... One might argue that Israel began as a nation with the giving of the Law at Sinai. So, too, the church began its history with the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost. (p. 146) 

Ordinary Time: follow Jesus in the Spirit to the end

The Christian year does not end with Pentecost, but continues on until Christ the King Sunday, the last day of a lengthy season in the liturgical calendar known as "Ordinary Time." That it is called "ordinary" is not to say that this season is mundane, or unimportant. To the contrary, the church calendar views all of history as enchanted so that even what the liturgical calendar calls "Ordinary Time" is by no means ordinary.... In contrast with a view of time in a secular sense, 
ordinary time in the Christian sense is... the opposite of disordered time, or time-out-of-sync, time-out-of-whack, which inevitably harms our engagement of God, others, and our world. Ordinary Time involves the quality of kairos whereby Jesus' person, teaching, and work break in and shape every aspect of our temporal existence. Time is on his side. (p. 152)

Wrapping up

Metzger covers far more territory related to the Christian calendar than I've addressed in this brief series. He has sections on other sacred and secular festivals, and he provides more detail on the one's that I've over-viewed here. I encourage you to read his very fine book--it's a valuable resource for those who plan worship and for all who wish to learn more about the days we Christians celebrate. 

Let me close now with a final quote from the book:
The church calendar helps orient us as it circles the Son in all his glory. When we circle him throughout the year, time is on our side since time belongs to him. Following the church calendar proves instructive for those who follow Jesus. It involves praying with the psalmist as he beseeches God, who is from everlasting to everlasting (Ps 90:2), who is the Alpha and Omega (Rev 22:13), to teach us to number our days so we might have a heart of wisdom (Ps 90:12).
Take heart. He who came in the fullness of time will give fullness to our lives. Jesus is the reason for the seasons, not just Advent, but every season in the Christian calendar, including Ordinary Time. No day is ordinary, no soul is out of joint, no life is out of time, when we order our heartbeat and footsteps to the rhythm of his life and teaching throughout the ecclesial year. So, let's set our spiritual clocks according to the liturgical calendar, which circles the glorious Son as he breaks through the secular eclipse. (p. 249)