church calendar

Surviving the Easter crush, 2013

There must a law, deep in the cosmic base code, that if parents dress their nine children in Easter white -- especially when the New England snow is melting -- at least one will fall into the mud. "It was tough," said Simcha Fisher, describing this Easter's obstacle course, "but we survived all that and made it to Mass."

This was not an ordinary Mass, of course. The Fishers -- with children ranging from 15 months to nearly 15 years -- were trying to get into the 11:15 a.m. rites on the day when their New Hampshire parish would be jammed with those known, in commentaries on modern church life, as Christmas and Easter Only Catholics (CEOs), Poinsettia and Lily Catholics or even Two-Timers.

In a kind of Easter miracle, the Fishers found adequate real estate in a pew. "The church was, of course, packed," noted Fisher, in a telephone interview. "The family in front of us was dressed to the nines and they seemed to be trying to break the world record for the consumption of gum" during Mass.

Fisher knows that this narration sounds whiny. After all, this year she approached the most important day on the Christian calendar even more aware than normal of the tensions between Christmas and Easter Only worshipers and the faithful who attend week after week. As Holy Week came to a close, the National Catholic Register columnist had committed herself, in print, to being more hopeful and welcoming this Easter.

That's nice, but what are church-going Catholics supposed to do when faced with CEOs chattering during Mass "like they're in a football stadium," while turning the "Resurrection of our Lord into a photo op, turning what should be the most joyous holy days into an occasion of sin for faithful Catholics," she wrote.

It's one thing to promise to be more understanding, he noted. It's something else to struggle with the reality of legions of almost visitors.

"I really am glad that they're there," wrote Fisher. "It's got to be better than never going to Mass, and I do believe that the Holy Spirit could easily use that opportunity to send a powerful word, a lingering image, a stray idea into the mind or heart of a fallen-away Catholic, and a casual visit that was made just out of habit, or to please someone's grandma, might be the first step to coming back home to the faith. And yeah, they're not being reverent. Neither am I, by going through the motions while grumbling in my heart.

"But I know my limits. I know I'm not going to suddenly turn into Mother Teresa, especially if I show up 40 minutes early and STILL have to spend the whole Mass on my poor tired feet, trying to keep nine kids docile and attentive when the strangers who did get a seat are playing on their Gameboys. With the sound on."

At some point, this crush will affect whether some believers -- even the most faithful -- are willing to endure the tension in Easter pews, noted Joe Carter, senior editor at the Acton Institute. Recent numbers from LifeWay Research indicated that only 58 percent of self-identified Protestants, 57 percent of Catholics and 45 percent of nondenominational church members said they were likely to attend Easter services. It's legitimate to ask why so many believers are staying away, he argued.

Perhaps this trend can be explained with the help of a quip by baseball legend Yogi Berra, said Carter. When asked why he no longer frequented a popular restaurant, Berra said, "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded."

Fisher said that, before opting out of Easter rites, frustrated parents could seek less popular services in the parish schedule, make strategic plans to arrive 45 minutes early and have family pep talks with their children about what to expect. And then there is the "Hallmark trap" in which worshipers are tempted to expect a picture-perfect Easter packed with emotional goodies.

It's easy to mutter, "But I DESERVE a flood of peace and grace and joy on Easter, because it's the Resurrection, dammit! But there's no guarantee Easter will work out that way," wrote Fisher. "We need Easter because we're crappy people who get mad at other people, even during Mass. ... Thank God the graces of the Risen Lord don't come to us only when it's a picture-perfect Mass."

When is Christmas, anyway?

For those who follow Christian traditions, Christmas begins when the darkness of Christmas Eve yields to bright midnight candles and the Mass of the Angels or the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The Christmas season then lasts 12 days, ending with Epiphany on Jan. 6.

But things aren't that simple in modern America, the land of the free and the home of the malls. For millions of us, today's Christmas begins when "Feliz Navidad" beer ads start interrupting National Football League broadcasts and Holiday movies surge into cable-TV schedules previously crowded with Halloween zombie marathons.

Or perhaps the season begins with those Christmas church bazaars around Thanksgiving. Then again, many begin saluting friends with "Merry Christmas!" about the time public institutions start holding Holiday parties and seasonal concerts -- in the early days of December.

In other words, it's getting harder and harder for Christians who try to practice their faith to answer what was once a simple question: When is Christmas?

"Unfortunately, most Americans -- especially evangelical Protestants -- have so distanced themselves from any awareness of the Christian calendar that their decisions about that kind of question have been handed over to the culture," said the Rev. Russell D. Moore, dean of the School of Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

Many evangelicals fear the "cold formalism" that they associate with churches that follow the liturgical calendar and the end result, he said, is "no sense of what happens when in the Christian year, at all." Thus, instead of celebrating ancient feasts such as Epiphany, Pentecost and the Transfiguration, far too many American church calendars are limited to Christmas and Easter, along with cultural festivities such as Mother's Day, the Fourth of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving and the Super Bowl.

In Baptist life, the faithful once knew that Christmas was near when their church choirs pulled out all the stops, hired some outside musicians and performed a semi-classical "Christmas cantata" or a few selections from G.F. Handel's "Messiah." As recently as the 1960s, these cantatas were usually staged the Sunday before Christmas. These days, the Christmas concerts are creeping forward in December church bulletins, closer and closer to Thanksgiving. Ditto for all of those special children's programs and official church Christmas parties.

"I've been watching to see when pastors schedule their Christmas sermon series and when music directors start inserting Christmas songs into their services," said Moore. "The question these days is whether Christmas will even last until Christmas. ...

"All of this is being driven by travel, family events and what's happening all around us. Right now, our churches are running about two weeks behind the culture."

If that's the case, then church leaders who truly want to get in sync need to pay closer attention to our culture's highest Christmas authority -- the National Retail Federation. It's press release projecting holiday sales numbers is "the official starter's gun" that unleashes the madness, said Washington Post reporter Hank Stuever, author of "Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present." This year, that statement was released on Oct. 6 and the official verdict was "average," or about $465.6 billion in sales.

"Once those numbers come out, that's when you know -- there's no stopping it. Here comes Christmas, whether you're ready or not," he said.

Stuever said that from his outsider perspective, as a lapsed Catholic, it's obvious that many clergy are "still paying a lot of lot of lip service" to Jesus being the "reason for the season and all that. I understand what they're saying, but surely they can see all of the materialism that's on display out in their parking lots and in their pews. ... Once Christmas gets rolling, everyone just goes bonkers and it's hard to claim otherwise."

This year, he added, it will be especially interesting to see how many leaders in "all of those big-box churches" cancel their Sunday morning services instead of daring to clash with family Christmas tree rites in American homes.

Moore stressed that he will be in his Highview Baptist pulpit on Christmas morning and, here's the key, his children know why.

"To even think that we have come to the point where we do not worship on the Lord's Day because it is Christmas is, to me, absolutely absurd. Where's the logic in that? What are people thinking?"

Baptists face Christmas, present and future

This is the time of year when many pastors sit in their offices muttering, "It happened again." The Rev. Rick Lance knows all about that. He has long been one of the true believers who battle the waves of "Happy Holidays" messages that define one of their faith's holiest seasons as the civic tsunami between Halloween and the inevitable wrapping-paper wreckage on Christmas morning.

The problem is that whining doesn't work. Thus, Lance has grown tired of preaching his all-to-familiar annual sermon on why the faithful should "keep Christ in Christmas" while making fewer pilgrimages to their shopping malls.

If people actually want to celebrate Christmas differently, this countercultural revolt will require advance planning and real changes.

"To continue playing the game of 'ain't it awful what they have done to Christmas' may be a cop-out," argued Lance, the executive director of the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions. "After all, we contribute to the commercialization of Christmas. We are a part of the supposed problem of abuse that the Christmas season has experienced. ...

"A revitalization of Christmas will not come from Wall Street, Main Street, the malls or the halls of Congress and the state legislature. The chatter of talking heads on news programs will not make this a reality."

It would help if their churches offered constructive advice. That's why it was significant that, just before Dec. 25, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service published several commentaries by Lance and others raising unusually practical questions about how members of America's largest non-Catholic flock can fine-tune future Christmas plans.

For example, Christians for centuries have marked the pre-Christmas season of Advent with appeals to help the needy. It's significant that Baptists -- who tend to ignore the liturgical calendar -- have long honored one of their most famous missionaries and humanitarians by collecting missions offerings during this timeframe. This Baptist missionary to China even has her own Dec. 22 feast day on Episcopal Church calendar.

Thus, Lance noted that, this year "my wife and I decided to make our largest gift ever to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions. … This may be a small step, but we believe it is a step in the right direction."

One big problem is that America is a highly complex culture that observes at least three versions of Christmas, with the secular often bleeding into the sacred. They are:

* The Holidays: Formally begins on Black Friday after Thanksgiving. The season slows around Dec. 15, with few events close to Dec. 25. Shopping malls and lawyers define these Holidays.

* Christmas: This season begins in early December in most churches, with many concerts and festivities scheduled between Dec. 7 and Dec. 20, so as not to clash with travel plans by church members. There is at least one Christmas Day service.

* The 12 days of Christmas: This celebration begins with the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ on Dec. 25 and continues through Epiphany, Jan. 6. This ancient tradition is all but extinct.

So what are believers supposed to do next time to restore faith to the Christmas season?

The Rev. Todd Brady of First Baptist Church in Paducah, Ky., urged parents to think twice before -- literally -- adding Santa to their outdoor Nativity scenes.

"Children in today's world already have a difficult time distinguishing between fantasy and reality," he said. "Christmastime often blurs even further the line between what is real and what is not real."

Church historian Nathan Finn also asked parents to weigh the implications of discussing that magical list that determines "who's naughty and nice." Children quickly realize this is an empty threat.

"Far more troublesome is the sub-gospel message this tradition sends. Santa is cast as the judge of all children," he noted. The problem is that the real Christian Gospel insists that, "every kid deserves the coal. Every parent deserves the coal. I deserve the coal. ... There is nothing we can do to change our circumstances and move ourselves from the naughty list to the nice list."

The bottom line: The true meaning of Christmas isn't that Santa Claus is the highest authority on sin and grace.

"We are moved from the naughty list to the nice list," stressed Finn, "not because of something we do, but because of what Jesus had done for us."

Quest for the common Easter

Motorists across America saw a strange sight this past Sunday morning if they stopped at a traffic signal near an Eastern Orthodox sanctuary and then, shortly thereafter, passed a Catholic parish. What they saw was worshippers singing hymns and waving palm fronds as they marched in Palm Sunday processions at these churches. Similar sights will be common during Holy Week rites this week and then on Easter Sunday.

There is nothing unusual about various churches celebrating these holy days in their own ways. What is rare is for the churches of the East and West to be celebrating Easter ("Pascha" in the East) on the same day. This will happen again next year, as well as in 2014 and 2017.

This remains one of the most painful symbols of division in global Christianity. While Easter is the most important day on the Christian calendar, millions of Christians celebrate this feast on different days because they have -- for centuries -- used different calendars. The Orthodox follow the ancient Julian calendar when observing Pascha, while others use the Gregorian calendar introduced in 1582, during the reign of Pope Gregory XIII.

"It was a calendar issue then and it's a calendar issue now," said Antonios Kireopoulos, an Orthodox theologian who is a leader in interfaith relations work at the National Council of Churches of Christ. "This is about calendars, but it's much more than that."

This clash between liturgical calendars in the East and West, he said, also affects how churches pursue their missions. "We are talking about the central event of our faith, yet we remain so divided about it. ... That has to raise questions for those outside the faith. If the resurrection is so important, why can't we find a way to celebrate this together?"

Seizing the temporary unity represented by the shared Easter dates this year and next, Kireopoulos and National Council of Churches General Secretary Michael Kinnamon recently renewed an earlier call that challenged leaders on both sides to pursue a permanent solution to this clash of the calendars.

Their letter restates three recommendations from the 1997 Aleppo Conference, which was hosted by the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch. That gathering called for Christians worldwide to:

* Honor the first ecumenical council of Nicea by celebrating Easter on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox, which would maintain the biblical ties between the Jewish Passover, Holy Week and Easter.

* Agree to calculate astronomical data by using the best available scientific methods, which was a principle established in Nicea to settle an early controversy about the date of Easter.

* Use the meridian line for Jerusalem as the reference point for all calculations, once again honoring the biblical narratives about the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The problem, of course, is that making a change of this magnitude would require a broad spectrum of Christian leaders -- including the pope and numerous Orthodox patriarchs -- to agree on something that stirs deep emotions among the faithful. Orthodox leaders continue to wrestle with splits linked to a 1923 decision to celebrate Christmas according to the Gregorian calendar.

The final Aleppo document recognized that it would be especially hard for Eastern believers to change their traditions.

"In some countries in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, where the Christian churches have lived with the challenge of other religions or materialistic ideologies, loyalty to the 'old calendar' has been a symbol of the churches' desire to maintain their integrity and their freedom from the hostile forces of this world," it said. "Clearly in such situations implementation of any change in the calculation of Easter/Pascha will have to proceed carefully and with great pastoral sensitivity."

Orthodox leaders know that the Easter gap will keep getting wider -- with Pascha creeping into the summer in about a century.

But change is hard. As old joke says, "How many Orthodox Christians does it take to change a light bulb?" The answer: "Change? What is this 'change'?"

"This is not a matter of one side finally giving in and the other winning," stressed Kireopoulos. "This is a matter of finding a way to proclaim -- together -- what we all believe about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. ... What we hope is that, once again, we can follow the principles of Nicea and find a way to move forward."

Have yourself a megachurch Christmas

During the last five days before Christmas, at least 55,000 people were planning to attend the eight multi-media worship services at Willow Creek Community Church.

The leaders of this famous megachurch outside Chicago can be precise about this number because that is how many people had, at mid-week, visited and claimed seats in the 7,200-seat auditorium. A few solo seats remained.

"We don't sell the tickets, of course," said spokesperson Cally Parkinson. "Most people really like the E-Tickets. It's convenient to know that you'll have a seat and it helps us prepare for all of those people in the church and the parking lots."

These 75-minute Christmas services began on Tuesday night and continued through the popular Christmas Eve triple-feature at 12:30, 3 and 5:30 p.m. This is, as Parkinson likes to say, the Super Bowl for this "seeker friendly" congregation.

Any way you look at it, 55,000 people is a big Christmas. Willow Creek's leaders are used to that. They are not, however, used to handling a barrage of questions -- primarily from journalists -- about their decision not to hold a Christmas service on Christmas Sunday.

Many other big congregations decided to use the same strategy, which meant the "Churches Shut Doors on Christmas" headlines spread nationwide. The timing was perfect, in a year when the "Put Christ back in Christmas" debates were bigger and louder than ever in the public square.

"I think the whole Christmas wars story was being driven by TV talk shows and politics and we just turned into the next day's story," said Mark Ashton, who serves as "pastor of spiritual development" at Willow Creek. "Ironically, when all is said and done, this could turn into the biggest outreach event that we've ever done as a church."

Willow Creek has, as a rule, never held services on Christmas Day, he explained. The exception came in 1994, which was the last time Christmas fell on a Sunday. After hosting the usual throngs in the pre-Christmas services, hardly anyone -- which at Willow Creek means 1,000-plus people -- returned that Christmas Sunday. This is serious, since it takes 1,000-plus people to operate the children's ministries, youth groups, food services, bookstore operations and parking lots when the megachurch opens its doors on an ordinary Sunday.

Thus, Willow Creek's leaders decided to create a 12-minute DVD this year containing a story -- entitled "Emmanuel: God With Us" -- about a young woman in Chicago struggling to understand the meaning of Christmas. The church produced 25,000 of the DVDs for home use by families on Sunday.

"We don't think that we're skipping worship on that Christmas Sunday," said Ashton. "What we're doing is decentralizing it. ... We're hoping to end up with 20,000 mini-services in homes in the Chicago area and all across America."

The goal, for Willow Creek leaders, is finding a way to create the most "spiritual experiences" for the most people this Christmas, he said. It helps that most megachurches are not tied to the ancient traditions that steer other flocks.

In a statement released to critics, Willow Creek leaders explained that in their community, the "normal Christmas rhythm is to celebrate Christmas with a Christmas Eve church service, then spend Christmas Day with family and friends. Most nondenominational churches reflect this same pattern. Some liturgical churches, like the Episcopal or Catholic churches, are tied closely to a church calendar. They always celebrate Christmas Day as a high point on their calendar. So if they departed from this tradition, it would be a big change."

In other words, Willow Creek remained true to its own goals and its own philosophy as a church. Keeping the doors closed on Christmas Day was not a change in a worship tradition -- it was an expression of a modern reality.

"Our goal is to serve people in ways that make the most sense and have the most spiritual impact on their lives," said Ashton. "It's not just a matter of giving people what they want. It isn't just consumerism. We challenge the socks off people with the messages they hear while they're in our services. ...

"But we also notice how people vote with their feet. We notice when they want to attend services and when they do not. We take that into account."