There are several moments from classes when I was in seminary at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D. C. that have stayed with me in the years since I graduated. I remember the class “Methodist History and Doctrine” when Dr. Doug Strong’s summary of the Wesleyan Way of Salvation brought so many things together for me and made me feel in my bones that I was a Methodist, and was a major catalyst for where I am today. I remember Dr. Amy Oden reminding us in “Church History” every class to ask the “So what?” question when we studied the past. I remember Dr. Sondra Wheeler’s passion for clear thinking and her ability to challenge students to be consistent and carefully consider and probe unexamined ethical assumptions. I remember Dr. Scott Kisker sending us out into the streets of D.C. to ask people about what grace meant to them. And I remember Dr. Kendall Soulen saying that you could put a host of different things as descriptors of Jesus, but at a very basic level the gospel was simply, “Jesus saves.”
I learned a lot in seminary and had some amazing teachers. Perhaps the image that has stayed with me more than any other came from Dr. Laurence Hull Stookey’s “Corporate Worship” course. Dr. Stookey was discussing the Christian calendar, and he was trying to help us see that the purpose of the Christian calendar was more than a circle where you do the same things over and over again. He described the Christian calendar as being like a spiral staircase: you come to the same point in the circle each year, but you have ascended higher up the stairs each year than you were the year before, or at least that is the purpose of the Christian calendar.
Dr. Stookey’s image of the Christian year being like a spiral staircase has helped me understand why Christian time is itself a means of grace. Every year we go through seasons of repentance, self-denial, and fasting. Each year we also go through seasons of celebration, rejoicing, and exultation. And every year we go through seasons of ordinary time, when we are in a season of “regular” living.
I have come to appreciate many things about the Christian calendar. I appreciate the way the Christian calendar helps you practice what real life is like. As I have ascended the spiral staircase, I have become better at rejoicing – really celebrating –what God has done for the world – and for me. I have also learned how to grieve, to lament, to say no to myself and others, and to notice the heartbreaking extent to which things in the world are not ok. Perhaps what has surprised me the most about the major rhythms of the Christian calendar is that I have come to appreciate ordinary time, the gift of unextraordinary days, even seasons when you experience normal rhythms and routines.
This week, Holy Week, is the highlight of the Christian calendar. To speak in a way that I suspect Dr. Stookey might not approve, Holy Week is like the Super Bowl of the Christian calendar. It is packed with meaning and is like the entire Christian year packed into one week.
Observing Holy Week has had a significant impact on my life. There are many different ways I could mark my growth as a follower of Jesus Christ, but a major part of my growth as a Christian came when I started to attend Holy Week services. Attending worship on Thursday and Friday of Holy Week is a highlight of my year as a follower of Jesus. Attending these services has prepared me to celebrate – really celebrate – the news that Jesus Christ is risen.
As I have, by the grace of God, ascended the spiral staircase of the Christian calendar, I have discovered that Christians (myself absolutely included) have a lot of room to grow in discipline and self-denial. I have been surprised to find that Christians are often actually worse at celebration than they are at self-denial. Easter is not one Sunday, it is eight weeks. But I have yet to attend a church that has had the celebratory stamina to throw an eight-week party. I have been to some amazing Easter Sunday services, but I don’t remember a single worship service from the sixth Sunday of Easter.
It is here that Dr. Stookey would want to remind us all that every Sunday is a little Easter. Christians celebrate (but do we really celebrate?) the resurrection every single Sunday.
I urge you to do whatever you have to do to attend Holy Week services this week. We need to prepare to celebrate this Sunday. And God, in God’s graciousness, has given us an entire week to prepare to celebrate the best news the world has ever heard.
Dr. Stookey would, I think, also want me to tell you that you can’t get to the resurrection without the crucifixion. The cross of Christ is itself a potent means of grace. But our ability to celebrate the empty tomb will always be impoverished if we show up to hear the astounding news of an empty tomb, but have not heard all that happened so that death’s power could be broken from the inside.
No matter what your previous experience of Holy Week has been, there is room to enter more fully into the amazing grace of God. We can continue walking up the staircase, growing in holiness with each step.
By the grace of God, may we each experience a more meaningful Holy Week this week than we ever have. Amen.