Friday, June 05, 2009

Holidays and Holy Days

We are in the middle of the Hallmark Cycle, when clichés are accounted as testimony and smarmy marketing passes for a summons to doxology. It is deeply ironic, and not a little troubling, when traditions and congregations that eschew the Temporal or Sanctoral Cycle nonetheless bedeck their sanctuary furniture and walls in red, white and blue; or recognize the congregations youngest mother (a dicey exercise these days), or use the third Sunday in June to score points for certain kinds of theological language.

Do you remember how Scrooge skewered Christmas as a “false and commercial festival, devoutly to be avoided”? He hadn’t seen Mother’s Day yet.

My prejudice against the Hallmark Cycle is based on the observation that, for the most part, these occasions are valentines to ourselves. We pat each other on the back and sing, “For we are jolly good…” whatever it is we happen to be celebrating that particular feast day. Our praise is offered in the “reflexive mood,” as it were, for are we not the Greatest Generation? The best mothers and fathers ever in all the world? The creators and protectors and guarantors both of our world and way of life?

Okay, so maybe I am a curmudgeon, theological, liturgical and otherwise. And, truth to tell, my feelings on this matter have sometimes made for difficult pastoral conversations—if only because otherwise devout church members fail to discern the danger of self-congratulations in the guise of worship. I will not burden you with the true story of a parishioner who came to me with the request that I observe Submarine Day (the ship, not the sandwich) and hope that the choir might learn the Navy Hymn for the offertory? “Want me to preach on Jonah?” I asked. He was not amused.

Or the lady who was livid, furious, apoplectic that I did not give the morning service over to the Boy Scouts on “their nationally recognized” day. Nationally recognized or not, I countered, the second Sunday in February belongs to no one save God and the Christ; we do not give our worship or worship time to institutions and organizations.

The Prayer of Confession at the heart of most liturgies tells a truth far deeper than the pentameters of greeting card poets, but I try to remember that, as Fr. John Shea has written, all humans are wired with the need to celebrate special people, visit special places and celebrate special times. All of us transcribe our individual stories in terms of ancestors, locations and determinative occasions.

Saints, sites, seasons: all humans need them, and in fact the faith we proclaim is full of all of those special, sacred things. What is at issue for the church, however, is the power of lesser narratives to shear believers away from the distinctive Story that constitutes us as a people. If, by our worship, we “exchange the glory of the immortal God for images resembling human beings,” if we trade “the truth about God for a lie and worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator,” then that is of more than passing concern. To have “no other Gods before God” is a command both constitutive and prophetic.

That is what I tried to tell the woman who was upset that I did not observe the National Day of Prayer. “We pray three times a week already,” I told her. “We do not need Caesar to remind us about such things. Does the name Nebuchadnezzar ring a bell?”

She huffed, “Well, I think it is the most important day there is.”


Anonymous said...

Finally somebody verbalized what I feel about all the Hallmark "feel good about feeling guilty and spend money in our store" holidays. Well thought out, well written and hits the spot.

I guess I am a theological, liturgical and otherwise minded curmudgeon too...

Anita said...

I'm going to send you my friend Stacey's web address so you can "browse" her Angry Gurl merchandise. Her cards especially have your same loathing anti-Hallmark feelings. I think you two might get along very nicely. She has a lot of good stuff also, but the cards are me favorite!

Aelred said...

Fascinating post.

Still, I wonder if the story of Naaman in 2 Kings 5 doesn't temper the complaint a bit. After Naaman is washed clean of leprosy and then raises concerns about having to go home and bow with his master to his master's false god, Elisha grants a sort of pastoral compromise for Naaman to do just that. Curious biblical precedent there.

As for the National Day of Prayer--I've not participated in one nor am I inclined to. Ever. But unlike the cited example of Nebuchadnezzar, the National Day of Prayer is not a day to worship the emperor.

However, now that I think about it, perhaps there's something to the argument about ignoring Caesar's call to worship and pray. It gets me off the hook for a worship service during that busy time of year just before Advent begins because, after all, the only reason we are celebrating the Eucharist at Thanksgiving (Eve) is that the emperor decreed the 4th Thursday in November be set aside for worship.

Tom Steagald said...

I fear the NDP is in fact a celebration of the empire, if not the emperor. My real complaint is the way that the whole celebration gets politicized and seems to be a salvo in the culture wars.

I actually have some of the same difficulty with Thanksgiving--but it is not so obvious, I think. Still, have you seen the opening scenes in "Shenandoah," the great old Jimmy Stewart film? "Lord we plowed the land and planted the seed and cultivated and harvested it but I promised my wife before she died that I would thank you for it so I thank you for it even though we did all the work. Amen." That is not exactly it, but that is the gist of it...forever exegeted for me the way most people regard that day.

Amy said...

I was with the McHenry's in your town recently and shared with them how I had discovered your blog. I really like this post. Wish it could be in a Christian Century article or out there for a wider audience, in addition to theolog. I'm a Lutheran pastor getting ready to serve in an Episcopal church in Charlotte and have noticed that churches just tend to assume that these hallmark days as you say, will be celebrated in the church. Gosh... Please keep blogging!

Tom Steagald said...

Hey, and Thanks, Amy

I submitted a similar post to CC a year or so ago but it was rejected. You can recommend it, if you wish, to (just don't tell them I gave you this bit of coaching!).

Steve Thorngate, the editor of Theolog, might have some pull, too. I do think it is am important topic, but then again, I wrote it.