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14 March 2012

Liturgy in the Southern Hemisphere, Part 1

I promised a post about Lent, and here it is, at least in part.  I've had some difficulty describing what Lent is like for me this year and this evening,  while out on a run, it became crystal clear to me what the problem is.  The Liturgical year, all of it, is totally based on the seasons in the Northern Hemisphere.  I've lived in the Northern Hemisphere all of my life, save for a wee 6 week period in 1995.  That was in the middle of summer/winter and close to the equator so it really didn't make much difference.  Not to mention, I didn't join a Liturgical church until later that year so all of that meaning was lost on me.

For those readers who have no idea what I am talking about, perhaps I can give you the "Reader's Digest" version.

First, the entry in Wiktionary for Liturgy:


From Latin liturgia, from Ancient Greek λειτουργία, from λειτ-, from λαός (people) + -ουργός, from ἔργον (work) (the public work of the people done on behalf of the people).


liturgy (plural liturgies)
  1. A predetermined or prescribed set of rituals that are performed, usually by a religion.
  2. An official worship service of the Christian church.

Churches that follow a traditional "liturgy" (eg. Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Orthodox, etc) also follow a calendar based on the seasons of the year.  This calendar starts with Advent, which is the period 4 weeks before Christmas.  In the Northern Hemisphere, this is a time of shortening daylight, and Christmas comes very close to Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year.  After Christmas is the season of Epiphany, and then comes Lent.  Lent is a period of about 6 weeks leading up to Easter.  Again, in the Northern Hemisphere, Lent is a period of lengthening daylight and Easter celebrated using Springtime symbols.  After Easter, there is another big celebration at Pentecost and then a LONG period called "Ordinary Time" or the season after Pentecost.  This takes up the summer months and goes into the fall, up until the beginning of Advent.

Since 1995, this rhythm has become part of me.  My body is very tuned into the change in seasons and in daylight/darkness.  What's happening in the church year (periods of anticipation, celebration, repentance) have become intimately intertwined with my body's experience of the changes in light, color and weather.  Advent means that my world is dark and I'm waiting for the LIGHT, Jesus, the Light of the World to come and dispel the darkness.  Lent and Easter mean the days are getting longer as the period of reflection and repentance drives away the darkness, ultimately resulting in the triumphant victory of Jesus over sin and death, and the celebration of new and eternal life.  Even the season after Pentecost, those "ordinary" Sundays during the Summer have a particular feel, associated with fewer people in church, very long days and eventually a winding down to the fall and harvest season, Thanksgiving, and preparation, again, for Advent.

This year, not long after the start of Lent, I relocated to the Southern Hemisphere.  To put it simply, my mind and my body are CONFUSED.  It is hard to comprehend Lent when the days are getting shorter and the chill in the air is getting crisper.  The leaves on the trees are turning red and brown and falling off.

In order to organise my thoughts around this, I looked up the word "Lent" in the Wikitionary.  Here's what it says:


Shortened form of Lenten, from Old English lencten. Related to German Lenz (springtime), which is derived from a word related to long, because of the longer days.

Ah ha!!  LENT is a springtime season, and the word is derived from the same word as "long" because the days are getting longer!

So what are we, in the Southern Hemisphere to do?  Apparently, from what I can tell, although the seasons are opposite, the church year and the holidays are exactly the same.  I suppose it would be too confusing, otherwise.  Afterall, Christmas and Easter need to be the same all over the world, don't they?  
I guess what I mean to say, here, is that my "Lenten discipline" this year has had more to do with just trying to reset my body and remember that this IS the season of Lent, of repentance, of reflection and introspection, than it has with any particular thing that I've given up or added into my routine.  An important, though somewhat peripheral, issue is the overwhelming sense of "Northern Dominance".  In my mind, it goes along with European Dominance and Male Dominance.  Some white men decided that it made sense to align the Liturgical calendar with the seasonal calendar.  And, in the Northern Hemisphere, it makes perfect sense!  

But putting aside any conspiratorial overtones, Lent has been a challenge for me this year.  On Ash Wednesday, Father Clark Sherman (St. James Episcopal Church) preached a very brief sermon asking us to imagine standing butt naked in a large room (which I imagined like an old operating "theatre" where people can sit up on balconies surrounding the center of the room).  Imagine, he said, that the room is full of people watching, it is dark, and suddenly the lights go on.  What are you gong to do?  In some ways, it has been the most effective introduction to Lent that I've ever heard.  The point of the question is to consider standing naked, in the light, in front of God and allowing God to see us and take us, just as we are, every wrinkle and flaw and blemish, and enfold us in God's forgiveness and love and healing power.  This is my Lenten discipline:  to be real and genuine, to not shrink back from the light for fear of my weaknesses being exposed.  

In the day to day rhythm of my current transition, I am finding that the only way I can cope IS by being real and honest.  Asking questions, admitting my ignorance, apologising, and asking for help.  And, as I try to incorporate the Daily Devotions from the New Zealand prayer book, I must also acknowledge that I am baffled by how this Liturgy works, here in the Southern Hemisphere.  I've asked a few people, and no one really seems to know.  Of course, if one has grown up here, and the rhythm of the seasons and their relationship to the church year have become incorporated into their bodies and their minds, they wouldn't know any different.  And so, I suppose, my challenge is to keep an open mind and an open body and stay alert to what is going on around me.  It goes back to being guided by Grace.  This is all new and different.  Instead of trying to impose my presuppositions of "the way it should be" onto my current situation, I need to remain open and willing to accept new interpretations and new ways of looking at an ancient framework that was developed to incorporate a totally different seasonal mindset.  What if, for example, I find out that the point of Easter isn't really to focus on the external manifestations of resurrection and new life, but instead to rely fully on the FAITH that Christ IS risen indeed, and it doesn't matter WHAT the calendar, the sun, or my body say about it.  It is the TRUTH!  What if I were to actually LIVE as if it were the truth?  What would that look like?  As I journey through Lent, I must focus on where that journey took Jesus--to incredible darkness and suffering and sacrifice on MY behalf so that I no longer need to be enslaved by the bonds of sin and death and suffering and isolation but can be healed and welcomed and embraced by God in the promise of new and eternal life.  If this year, my sacrifice is the comfort of familiarity that comes with the synergy of the seasons, that is a minuscule price to pay in comparison.  

It is now my bedtime, and I have just read the Devotional for Wednesday evening from the New Zealand Prayer book and I want to leave you with this:
Creator of the universe, infinite and glorious,
you give us laws to save us from our folly;
give us eyes to see your plan unfolding,
your purpose emerging as the world is made;
give us courage to follow the truth,
courage to go wherever you lead;
then we shall know blessings beyond our dreams;
then will your will be done.
Thanks to you, Lord Jesus Christ,
for all the cruel pains and insults you have borne for us;
for all the many blessings you have won for us.
Holy Jesus, most merciful Redeemer, friend and brother,
may we know you more clearly, love you more dearly,
and follow you more nearly, day by day.
God of peace,
be with us through this night which waits for us;
bless us if it brings us sleep;
support us if it brings us pain or anxiety,
till we come once more to the morning light of another day.


Rebecca said...

I apologise for the weird colors...for some reason whenever I cut and paste from Wikipedia, it whites out the background and I have to add back in another color, but none of the options match my actual background color. I'll figure this out eventually, I'm sure!

Joe Canner said...

Interesting example of practical etymology (or perhaps Applied Linguistics, which is what Bobby is studying). Having never been in a liturgical church, this never to occurred to me while we were in Malawi, but it was, indeed, disconcerting to celebrate Christmas in the summertime. Thanks for the insights!

Bill said...

You could try cutting and pasting into a basic text editor (like Notepad on Windows or TextEdit on the Mac), before you cut and paste again into Blogspot. That's a quick and dirty way I often use to filter out the extraneous color and other formatting of text … then you can reset the color to what you want.

A really good and thoughtful post. I love how you're using the change of locale to bring a creative approach to your experience of the liturgy, and making it your experience. My Buddhist teachers often encouraged me to "break up" or "shake up" the spiritual practice, in the sense of continuing the practice while finding ways to experience it in new ways. This helped me to engage again with the practice ... making it real and "mine", and less stale and mindlessly reactive. A lot of Christians seem to be afraid of "messing with the recipe" (probably just because they're not ready to yet), but I believe any living spirituality eventually incorporates all of our gifts ... including reason, instinct, and creativity.

AFDr.Mom said...

That was very interesting. I do not attend a liturgical church but i can uderstamd if that's you rhythm how it would be totally messed hon and the fact that it is northern hemisphere and European based is something I never thought of.
Thanks for posting. I've enjoyed your others and look forward to more.

RuthAnn said...

I also love the liturgical seasons and their expressions. I spent a year in Africa and went through very similar disequilibrium. You have expressed it well. I enjoy your writing.