Joy in Lent. Sadness on Easter. Doubt in Advent. Grief on Christmas Day. If you observe the Christian year, you will eventually experience a contradiction between the seasons of the church year and the seasons of your heart. The law of averages wins out. Life is too uncertain to be fully synchronized with the seasonal themes of each Christian season. In fact, it’s probable that at least one liturgical season each year will contrast your inner life. What do we do when there’s no visible intersection between the church’s rhythm and the soul’s rhythm (or arrhythmia)?
‘What if I don’t connect with [insert major holy season here]?’
Well, it’s going to happen. We cannot control life events or force our emotions to feel something that simply is not there. What about newlyweds who have a springtime wedding? They return from honeymoon bliss, ready to start their new life together, and the church is talking dust and ashes. What about new parents or grandparents who just welcomed a new baby in late November? It’s kind of difficult to feel the waiting vibe of Advent after a family’s waiting just ended. A person who receives an ominous diagnosis might be numb on Christmas. Losing a job before Easter makes it difficult to feel the resurrection victory of Christ.
But the church hasn’t adopted a seasonal calendar to teach us how to feel. The Christian year teaches us faithfulness and obedience to the way of Christ. Faithfulness does not require feelings. Faithfulness requires authenticity and obedience to Christ.
The themes of the Christian seasons give spiritual direction, but they are not an emotional map. We rehearse the story of Israel, Jesus, and the church so that we become more deeply ‘conformed to the image of Christ.’ When we’re scattered and tossed by a torrent of emotions, we need the story of Christ to direct us. The Christian year anchors our scattered stories in the story of Jesus.
A Dissonant Melody
Still the contrast between the soul’s rhythm and the church’s rhythm brings a sense of disruption and loneliness. Best prepare yourself for past or future moments when you’ll feel a deep antithesis between your heart’s melody (or elegy) and the songs your church sings.
It’s kind of like dissonant tones in music. As Jeremy Begbie demonstrates in this masterful presentation on songs of lament, dissonant notes seemingly clash, yet they form chords that shape the music’s forward movement. Great composers feel these tensions and allow them to remain without instant resolution. In a melody’s dissonant sequence, we sense that resolution is on the way, even if it hasn’t arrived yet.
On any given Easter Sunday, there will be weary souls who cannot form words to pray on their own, yet they’ll be standing in a sea of ‘alleluias.’ It may take all their strength to just stand upright, or even walk through the door at all. Perhaps the alleluias will lift their hearts, shining light in the darkness. But maybe it won’t. Pressuring people to find their personal Easter miracle just because it’s Easter Sunday doesn’t square with the law of love. Just sing together. The sounds of robust alleluias and the faintly audible cries of bleating sheep belong together.
They belong together like dissonant tones seeking fuller resolution, the resolution of all things in Christ at the end of history. Those in joy and those in sorrow sojourn together to the new heaven and new earth. Our emotions do not need to be synchronized to walk together in community with Christ. Christ binds us together in his call to love another in season and out of season.
Together with Christ in Joy and Sorrow
Paul gave this direction to the Corinthian church as their joys and sufferings varied across the church: ‘If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.’ (1 Corinthians 12.26) To the church at Rome he wrote: ‘rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.’ Let not the joyful forsake those who mourn. Let not those who mourn retreat from celebrating the joy of another. Sharing joys and sorrows always belongs together.
As we approach Holy Week, remember that the Lord joined suffering and victory in himself. His life was filled with dissonant tones, celestial melodies and solemn laments converging in one life. At his birth, he is praised by shepherds and angels, then pursued by Herod in murderous violence. He is acclaimed as Israel’s greatest prophet; he is rejected as a prophet in his hometown. He is the Man of Sorrows; he is the risen Son of God. He is acquainted with grief; he reigns at the right hand of the Father.
Even when we can’t make sense of the times or how to live within them, we always look to Christ, the Victim-become-Victor over suffering and death. We look to Christ until he reconciles and renews all things in ways that we cannot possibly ask, think, or imagine. On that Day and that Hour, there will be no confusion, no separation of hearts and minds between the joyful and the sorrowful. We will have one heart and one mind before the throne of God. The strange paradox of joy and suffering from our lives will be transfigured into an eternal joy, inexpressible and full of glory.