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.”