Stephen March describes his experience of how the liturgical year provides a framework for spiritual growth, and reflects in particular on the liturgies of Good Friday and Easter
Although I was intellectually prepared for the experience of living liturgically, having followed a course on Christian Spirituality during my theological studies, I was not emotionally prepared for the culture shock of finding myself in a worship environment so different to all that I had previously experienced.
Times of preparation
As I encountered Catholic liturgical spirituality, one of the key things to strike me was that the year had a spiritual shape. In my previous experience I had never really encountered the idea of a church calendar. Christmas was certainly celebrated, as was Easter, but not much else. Neither were there any preparation periods before we arrived at these high points.
It was therefore a new experience to realize that each year the liturgical church retraces the whole of salvation history. It was also quite a surprise to discover how seriously the high points of the church year are taken. The idea of four weeks’ spiritual preparation during Advent and of forty days’ preparation during Lent was quite amazing.
As someone for whom the idea of discipleship was a key concept and a high priority, these bi-annual opportunities to take a spiritual inventory of one’s life, to re-focus and to re-centre on the true priority of human existence are of great potential value. I could wish that the churches of my experience had such a wonderful framework for maintaining spiritual vitality and of encouraging spiritual growth – both communal and personal.
Another thing that has been very powerful to me is the interruption of key elements of the life of the church at decisive moments within the liturgical year.
In the Catholic world you quickly grow accustomed to celebrating the Eucharist at every gathering of the congregation. So when on Good Friday you don’t, it produces a spiritual shock which jars the spirit. It is an annual reminder to Catholics that the precious Eucharist which nourishes and sustains their faith was not always available to mankind. It is Christ’s death on the cross with its untold suffering that the Eucharist commemorates and re-presents. The momentary withdrawing is a reminder that such a gift is not to be taken lightly or ignored.
The power of the physical
The fact that the Good Friday service culminates with the adoration of the cross – a ceremony where one approaches a bare wooden cross and kisses it – hammers home the message of the absent Eucharist.
The first time I approached the cross to kiss it, I was very uncomfortable. I was forced to express physically the reality of my theological conviction that Christ’s bloody, agonizing death was the act that opened up the possibility of my salvation. It is hard enough to arrive at an intellectual acceptance of this fact,
but to have to confront it physically as well is even more disturbing – a deeply uncomfortable experience. Which, I suppose, is exactly why Catholic spirituality has included this act within its Good Friday liturgy.
It is the genius of Catholic spirituality to have found ways of whole-body involvement in worship. These physical gestures have a way of getting ‘under the radar’ and taking us to powerful places of encounter with Christian truth.
Another powerful moment of interruption within the celebrations of Easter are the silencing of the church bells from Good Friday evening until Sunday morning. As our flat is only 100 metres from the church bell tower, we are very much aware (!) of the bells that peal the hours of the day, and also the Angelus three times a day. One grows accustomed to them and after a while they only just register on the conscious mind. But when they are suddenly stopped on Maundy Thursday, it generates an eerie quiet. When finally the bells peal out again on Easter Sunday morning, it comes as a great relief and a real joy.
Again the liturgical churches have found a simple yet powerful way of using the human senses to lead the faithful to the heart of Easter, and of witnessing to the wider community of the import and significance of the Easter event.
The power of continuation
My three sons had not been baptized prior to our arrival in France (in our tradition, only adults were baptized). Thus when my sons expressed the desire to be baptized, it seemed only logical for them to pursue this within the Catholic church community where we worship and live out our faith. After a public expression of their intention to seek baptism and a process of catechism lasting several months, the moment arrived when they were finally ready to be baptized.
Their baptism took place at the Easter Saturday vigil. Thus, on what was viewed as Easter Sunday morning, at the very same moment that Christ rose from the dead, the symbolic act of their dying and rising anew with Christ took place. What wonderful, powerful symbolism!
To celebrate this act at this particular moment, knowing that from the first centuries of the Christian church this has been the traditional moment for baptism, was immensely symbolic – a powerful reminder that we are merely one more link in the chain of the Church and that our salvation is intrinsically linked with those who have gone before and those who will come after.
My experience of living liturgically has sometimes been uncomfortable; it has often been confusing; but on the whole it has been immensely enriching. Whilst I still miss some of the aspects of the spirituality of my prior experience, e.g. a greater focus on evangelism, a higher priority on discipleship, a more practical application in preaching, etc., I have nonetheless become very attached to many elements of liturgical worship – elements that I would not now wish to lose from my spiritual life.