The traditional understanding of Christian eschatology is decidedly linear, moving from a defined creation to a defined end of time. While this model of time has more corroboration from the natural sciences today, it is in many ways less intuitive than the “cyclical” model that other religions follow. Over the course of history, this likely made the Christian view of revelation more difficult to accept than the pagan religions that Christianity supplanted in much of the world. As Sarah Jane Boss put it in Empress and Handmaid, a contemporary work of Anglican Marian theology:
From a psychological point of view, the possibility of following an invisible God to an unknown destination depends upon worshippers having within themselves a deep sense that they are being upheld and cared for, and that they have hope for the future. Without this support, the challenge of the Christian God is too frightening or depressing to be bearable. (p. 21)
For Boss, who is influenced by psychoanalytic theory, Marian devotion provides an avenue for the Christian believer to feel this support and this hope. Empress and Handmaid sees the provision of hope for an unknown, irreversible future as a “maternal” function. Up to a point, I agree with this. Where I believe Boss’s theory comes up short is that she devotes little time to discussing the many ways that “Christian time” is not linear. To be sure, ultimately Christian revelation teaches us that we live in a universe with a beginning and an end, and that our own lives have beginnings and ends as well. In the day-to-day of living and thinking with the Church, however, we go through a profoundly cyclic process: the liturgical year.
Prior to the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the Tridentine Roman Missal followed a one-year cycle of scripture readings at Mass. When the revised Lectionary was introduced in Advent 1969 along with the Missal of St. Paul VI, Sunday scripture readings were put on a three-year cycle and weekday readings on a two-year cycle. From the point of view of the Sunday readings, any given liturgical year can fill one of three slots within this larger three-year cycle. In Year A the Ordinary Time Gospel readings are from Matthew; in Year B, from Mark; and in Year C, from Luke. (Liturgical year 2021, which begins today, is Year B.) This gives each of the three years a subtly different theological emphasis due to the different emphases and concerns of the three Synoptic Gospels. (For example, one hears much more about what might loosely be termed “social justice” in Luke than in the other Gospels.) Within this broader three-year cycle we have each individual year, proceeding through the usual steps of Advent, Christmas, Ordinary Time, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Ordinary Time again, and so on, until before we know it it’s Christ the King Sunday again.
Another mainline Protestant source, Laurence Hull Stookey’s book Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church, further asserts (pp. 49-50) that each liturgical year consists of three cycles running concurrently. The Lent-Easter cycle focuses on the movable feasts of spring and early summer and also affects the numbering of the Sundays in Ordinary Time. The Advent-Christmas cycle focuses on the fixed winter holidays but includes observances at other times of year such as the Annunciation (March 25) and the Nativity of John the Baptist (June 24). The dates of these other feasts are determined by “a combination of Luke 1 and 2 and obstetrics” (James F. White, Introduction to Christian Worship, p. 63). Finally, the sanctoral cycle overlies the other two cycles and focuses on the feast days of the saints.
Since the three cycles overlie one another and are all going on within the same calendar year, they can “collide” such that a feast from one cycle has to be prioritized over something from another cycle. So, for example, if one enters a Catholic church at 4 pm on March 24, one could find oneself partway through a Good Friday service, at the beginning of a vigil Mass for the Annunciation, or at some point during a Mass for the feast day of St. Óscar Romero, depending on the year!
The three-year-long lectionary cycle, the individual liturgical years within it, and the three concurrent cycles going on within each liturgical year, remind me a little of the “wheels within wheels” appearance of some of the angels described in the Book of Ezekiel. The scientifically-minded might also picture the physical process of the Earth’s movement through space: the Milky Way shoots away from other galaxies in a linear fashion as the universe expands, but while this is going on the Solar System cyclically orbits the galactic center, and the Earth cyclically orbits the Sun.
For so much in life, there is no going back. As the Japanese playwright Shuji Terayama said:
When I say that I hate history, what I basically mean is that I “dislike returning home.” There’s nowhere we can return to. It’s meaningless to talk about returning to “medieval times” or “primitive psychology” or “the mainland” or “religion” or “hard and fast solutions.” No matter how much Sheckley and Bradbury vex themselves over the creation of a time machine, the past is always our first “lost home” … we can “go,” but we cannot “return.” (quoted in Steven C. Ridgely, Japanese Counterculture: The Antiestablishment Art of Terayama Shuji, p. xvi.)
While I, unlike Terayama, love history, I understand all too well what he means by this. There is no going back to childhood, or to the perceived moral certainties of the Cold War or World War II, or to medieval Christendom, or to Eden. In a way, we shouldn’t even want to—we are called to pray and work for a better world to come. The desire to return—to go back to our “lost home”—is a human desire, but not necessarily a divine one. Aquinas says somewhere that it was more conveniens (Julian of Norwich’s Middle English writing renders this concept as the word behovely) that Christ should die for us than that humanity should be saved by some other means; the medieval carol “Adam Lay Ybounden” goes a step further and says that it was better than if humanity had never fallen to begin with. To this rather extreme manifestation of the old concept of Felix culpa (which is attested in the exsultet of the Easter Vigil liturgy—”O happy fault”) I owe much of my own ability to tolerate seasons of change.
We can’t go back to childhood. We can’t go back to moral certainties in the political sphere. We can’t go back to Christendom or to Eden. But it’s pretty easy to believe that we can go back to the First Sunday of Advent, next year as this year.
Featured image: Advent Wreath in the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption, Jakarta, Indonesia. From Wikimedia Commons.