“For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (2 Corinthians 5:4).
There is a kind of life in the midst of death.
Two days a week, I work in the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Toronto (Canada). It’s a forty-five minute commute on public transit from our apartment (on a good day). (Honestly, public transit is probably one of my biggest spiritual struggles, but that’s… a whole other post/ topic to discuss with my spiritual father.) Luckily, there are two redeeming points about this commute. The first is that my husband works in the same office, so we often travel together. (I find it hard to be as grouchy as I’d like to be to the total strangers around me when he’s there, because I know he will tease me about it all day. Marriage is purifying like that.)
The second redeeming factor is that, after getting off the bus, we have to walk across the Don Valley to get to the Metropolis.
If you’ve never been to Toronto, the Don Valley is this gaping crevasse of beauty stretching right through the middle of the city from Lake Ontario northwards. There are bike trails and parks that line the bottom of the valley–it’s one of my favorite spaces in this crazy city.
The Don Valley is pretty any time of year, but it’s especially beautiful in autumn. And I’m perpetually afraid of “missing” it–like, the height of the autumn-ness. So I monitor the valley closely this time of year. This morning as I walked to work, it seemed for the first time that fall is really upon us. About a third of the trees had begun to change colors, and I knew it is only a matter of time before they all change.
Part of me wanted to stop time, to stay in this moment. Like St. Peter wanted to stay on the Mount of Tabor. Like Christ tarried in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. We know when death is coming, and our hearts shrink back.
But we cannot forestall death. Nature, all around us, is relinquishing. But before loosening her grip on the year, she will burst forth with all the life and color and beauty that is within her.
There is a kind of life in the midst of death. And there is a kind of exuberance, extravagance even, in the midst of grief.
I have been thinking about this. And I have been thinking about the cycles of the Church year since posting last week’s infographic.
I think back to how I used to teach the Christian liturgical year when I was a history instructor at the college level. About the standard historical way of thinking about these two cycles of the church year: there are two (some say three–long story…) cycles of the year, the paschal cycle and the fixed cycle. And how the first one began with the celebration of Easter, the other began just slightly later with the celebration of saint days. And from there, gradually, we get all the Christian holidays–some of them fixed, some of them not so fixed. And it’s maybe a little strange–this whole fixed vs. moveable thing–but that’s just how it is, and stranger things have happened in history. Like the develpoment of bicameral legislature, an imperfect solution to tensions built into reality, you just have to kind of accept the two cycles and not think too much about it. Anyway, that’s the standard story…
But the more I think about it, and the more Paschas I experience in this life, it seems that’s not the case at all. That, in a sense, there is only one cycle. And it revolves around the resurrection.
The saint days, for example, may move around in time differently than Pascha, but the resurrection is still the their origin–conceptually, theologically, and even temporally. Because the resurrection of Christ is the assertion of life over death, the trampling down of decay, the conquering of that which makes us alienated from God in our being. And in a general sense, it is also the conquering of time, or at least the version of time we experience as the engine of mortality.
We could not commemorate the martyrs of saints (termed in the early Church their “birthday” into the eternal kingdom) without the resurrection. Nor, I think, could we celebrate Christmas or Theophany or any of the other feast days, major or minor. That is to say, we could, but they would be little more than anniversaries, rigid memories of an ossified religion. The Christian calendar came out of the universal call to redeem and be redeemed, to resurrect and be resurrected, to lay claim to Life in the midst of decay and mortality and time and change.
The entire fabric of the liturgical year and its cycles keep the resurrection and transfiguration in the ongoing present. It’s a present-ation of salvation. A “gathering” of time, as Fr. Alexander Schmemann put it. Throughout the two cycles of the Orthodox year, we gather up all the Life we’ve been given, and carry it with us–and we keep carrying it with us, all the while learning how to relinquish our own grip on (lowercase “L”) life.
All the while learning that there is life in death, and eternity in time.