Christmas is the season of the great exchange. Greeting cards are exchanged, as are social invitations and visits. Gifts are exchanged around the Christmas tree on December 25—and at store counters on December 26. But none of that begins to approximate what is meant here by “the great exchange.” For in the depths of its meaning, Christmas is about the exchange of divinity and humanity, of eternity and temporality, of life and death.
The season’s familiarity and its immense popular appeal obscure the fact that Christmas is a mystery comparable to that of the Pasch and fully dependent on faith in the Paschal victory. The wonder of Christmas is not, as might be supposed, “How can a virgin bear a child?” The virginal conception of Jesus is not in itself the mystery but is rather one way of pointing to the mystery, of indicating that what occurred at Bethlehem is outside the bounds of both human experience and explanation. The marvel is that the creator of the cosmos comes as creature for the purpose of setting right all that has gone wrong on this tiny planet. The wonder is that the Eternal One who can be neither created nor destroyed willingly becomes subject to both birth and death.
—Laurence Hill Stookey, Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church, 105
The need for a theology about the Day of Pentecost is seen by reflecting on how readily Christians misunderstand the nature of the church. For many people the church is a voluntary organization of individuals. . . .
The church is a community called together by the Spirit of the Risen One. It is not something we choose to do (and equally well could choose not to do), but something to which we are summoned. The Greek word for church (ekklēsia from which we derive “ecclesiastical”) means “those who have been called forth or summoned,” much as one is summoned to appear in a court of law. And we are called as a body of interdependent parts, not as separable individuals. The free-spirited individualism of our age is a manifestation of Babel, not Pentecost, as should be evident from the intransigent divisions and intractable conflicts such individualism fosters. The Risen One, who is present at all times and in all places, seeks to bind together by the action of the Spirit all things that have been wrongly separated. Participation therefore is not something we do on the basis of personal choice or need; participation in the Body of Christ is inherent in being Christian. The church, not the individual, is the irreducible unit of Christianity. Further, the church is to be a sign of the future: No matter how haltingly and imperfectly, the church seeks to enact in the present world the justice and grace that characterize the eternal reign of God. Therefore Christians participate in the church not so much for what they can get as for what they can give, for what they can offer as an alternative to the dominant ways of the world.
—Laurence Hill Stookey, Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church, 76-77
In the cosmic newness revealed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ we find the promise and foretaste of our own transformation. We are privileged to be participants of the divine nature. Therefore the church celebrates the resurrection of Christ and of the whole creation as the center of a weekly cycle, every Lord’s day, and as the center of an annual cycle, every Easter.
Laurence Hill Stookey, Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church, 38
Easter preceded by Lent is the primary annual cycle of the calendar; secondary to it is Christmas preceded by Advent. This is true both theologically and historically. It is the resurrection that interprets the birth of Jesus. Apart from the resurrection, Jesus has no more claim upon us than Socrates, Abraham Lincoln, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Anwar Sadat: He was simply one among many good leaders who managed to meet an unjust death.
This theological assertion is buttressed by historical facts: (1) What is presumably the oldest of the four Gospels pays no attention whatever to the birth of Jesus, beginning instead with the account of his baptism; and Paul makes only passing references to Jesus’ birth (as in Galatians 4:4 and Philippians 2:7). Only later did Matthew and Luke attach enough importance to the nativity to comment upon it extensively. (2) Even more significant: Although the resurrection was observed liturgically in the church from its very inception, the earliest recorded liturgical observance of Christmas Day falls well into the fourth century.
—Laurence Stookey, Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church, 49-50
Laurence Stookey (Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church, 53) reminds us that our common Easter images of springtime, blooming flowers, eggs, etc. are totally Northern-Hemisphere in their orientation: south of the equator Easter falls in the autumn!
“Easter” is the period of eight Sundays [until Pentecost], comprising fifty days, often called as a unit “the Great Fifty Days.” For the explosive force of the resurrection of the Lord is too vast to be contained within a celebration of one day.
Easter is not one closing day at the end of a lengthy period of Lent. Easter is one extended rejoicing in the resurrection that more than exceeds in length the Lenten disciplines. The first day of the season, Easter Day, is the opening of a protracted celebration, even as the Resurrection is itself the opening to a vast new reality.
“The First Sunday After Easter” implies Easier is over, having lasted only one day. But “the Second Sunday of Easter” (for the same date) indicates that Easter is an extended season, whose essential character is shared by all of its parts.
–-Laurence Stookey, Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church, 54, 56-7
Many active Christians would say that Christmas is their chief festival. Closer to the mark, but still missing it, are those who would say that Easter Day is the principal feast of the church. What is amiss about such assessments? Simply this: No observance that occurs only once a year can connote the continuing work of God in daily life. Therefore the chief festival occurs weekly, and from it all else is derived, including those annual festivities that may be more visible and certainly are the more popular cultural occasions. . . . It has become a maxim of late that “every Sunday is a little Easter.’” But it would be more accurate to say that “every Easter is a great Sunday.”
—Laurence Stookey, Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church, 44,54