The Christian calendar year: the story of stories
by Steve Bell
(Editor’s note: See review of Bell’s Pilrim’s Year Series after this article)
It may seem unlikely that someone like myself, brought up in pragmatic prairie evangelicalism, would be writing about the spiritual tradition of the Church calendar year. Truth be told, it is a tradition that has profoundly shaped my Christian self, and deeply informed my work as a troubadour for Christ.
Most Christians, knowingly or not, follow the liturgical calendar in some form or another. When I was young, my family set time aside to observe Christmas, Palm Sunday, Easter and Pentecost Sunday. It gave a certain shape to our year that had us devotionally recalling significant moments in history where God revealed God’s self in profound ways. It never occurred to me, however, that our observances were a truncated version of a much richer tradition.
In the coming months, I’ll highlight certain aspects of the Christian calendar tradition that have been particularly meaningful to me, which I have written about in a seven-volume series called Pilgrim Year. The entire collection includes books on the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter and Ordinary Time.
Together, these recurring seasons, with their remembrances, fasts and feasts, retell the living story of God and God’s good creation – a story which has been entrusted to the Church; a story that often runs as a counter-narrative to stories broadly told in the wider culture. We must not be naïve about such things, for stories really do matter. They fashion a rich bed of receptive imagination from which all manner of possibilities are either opened up or closed down. Indeed, if one wants to know the cause of the inspiring and/or bewildering behaviours of any given individual or culture, one need only investigate the foundational stories they tell.
Certainly, stories that tell of a random and meaningless universe will produce a different culture than stories of an enchanted, meaning-drenched cosmos. The radical capitalist story of human relationships necessarily playing out as a blood-sport of self-interested individuals in a zero-sum game produces a different result than the story of a supra-abundant universe created in the image of the Triune God, whose very being is one of dynamic relational and self-donating love. Consider the stories behind popular reality shows such as The Apprentice and Survivor where there is only one winner and many losers, and in which every relationship is eventually sacrificed on the altar of self-interest. Compare them with the gospel stories, which tell of the God of creation emptying himself for the flourishing of all. One begins to grasp that such stories are so much more than pleasing fancies to while away our leisure hours. Some stories enrich and enliven. Some, quite frankly, are dangerous.
The Church tells and retells her sacred stories year after year, much as a mother to her children who ask for the same stories night after night. And like any good child’s tale, they continue to reward well into adulthood. Each time we rehearse these stories, we unearth something new, precisely because there is so much more to receive, but also because our capacity to receive has deepened.
We Christians are many things, but for sure we are keepers of The Story. We tend it like a fire in the darkest of nights, and we live by its blaze and glory during the day. We should not be scandalized if it sometimes harmonizes with stories from other cultures or faiths, because if indeed the world is “charged with the grandeur of God” which will “flame out like shining from shook foil” (as Gerard Manley Hopkins, one of our finer poets, has said), then we should be rather surprised if it didn’t.
I have pilgrimaged through these stories my entire life, and I feel like I am only starting to know them. But to the degree that I have absorbed them as a living tradition, they have fashioned in me a unified mind, body and soul capable of loving God and loving all that God loves.
Let me take a stab at summarizing the tale of which each individual story of the Pilgrim Year is an illuminating piece. This is the best I can do right now, halfway through my 58th year. I would hope that in five years it will develop and deepen some… and five years after that…and after that…
God is love. We have come from God and we are returning to God. All that is, is God’s good idea, bears God’s imprint and character, and radiates God’s life.
God sustains all.
We have been made for union with God and with each other. Humans in particular have been given the charge to steward creation and serve as its priest, gathering all creation in one voice in praise to the glory of our Maker. Though it is dimly perceived because of sinful self-will and self-orientation, we yet live in a meaning-drenched universe.
Because we come from God and are returning to God, the Christian life is essentially a pilgrimage after the One who has both made a way and by whose light we can see the way.
Steve Bell is a storyteller through and through. For 30 years he has offered encouragement to audiences throughout North America through concerts, song-writing and teaching. With a vocational calling to “refresh Christian faith and spiritual tradition for the weary and the wary,” Steve is known as much for his award-winning musical career as he is for his social commentary and theological insights. He has written numerous articles for online and print publications and has penned books on Scripture and the Liturgical Year. He lives with his wife Nanci in Winnipeg, Treaty 1 Territory and homeland of the Métis Nation.
Steve’s Pilgrim Year series (Novalis Press) is a 7-volume collection of reflections based on the Christian calendar year. It is available for purchase at www.pilgrimyear.com.
Review: Steve Bell, Pilgrim Year Series
by Dr. Bruce Hindmarsh
Growing up in Winnipeg, I knew of Steve Bell long before his solo career, back when he was a prominent part of the local music scene as a member of the group, Elias, Shritt and Bell. We later worked together for the non-profit organization, Youth for Christ, when Bell was leading young people in worship in juvenile detention centres. (Jailhouse Rock, literally.) I remember being more than a little surprised, though, by the sort of reading he was doing. It is not every singer–songwriter or youth worker you meet who reads John of the Cross or Hans Urs von Balthasar on the side. I quickly became aware that there were real depths to this Steve Bell.
As Bell’s solo career has taken off, his spiritual and theological depth as a person has been reflected in his music. For example, more than twenty years ago, he recorded a version of John of the Cross’ Dark Night poem that I still often play for my students in class when we read this 16th-century Spanish mystic. It captures perfectly, in music and lyrics, the heartbreaking beauty of John’s call into “this happy night / That unites the lover and the loved.” And there is so much more. Bell has some twenty albums now, and there is a scarlet thread that runs throughout all the words and music, touching deep places with thoughtfulness, honesty, and compassion. There have been awards and recognitions, of course, too many to count, and a documentary on his remarkable career, Burning Ember: The Steve Bell Journey. His skill as a musician has been recognized repeatedly by many of the greats. But, above all, it is this deep well of thoughtful devotion, fused as it is with exquisite artistry, that keeps me coming back to his music.
There are some musicians who, when you hear them in concert and they stop to talk between songs, well… you just wish they wouldn’t. In contrast, Bell has often been described as a modern troubadour, whose music, story-telling, and teaching is a whole experience. Attending a concert leaves you entertained, for sure, but also somehow enlarged as a human being and encouraged spiritually. I have been reading about the early Franciscans who would travel as spiritual troubadours, singing their vernacular laude, and telling stories to ordinary folks in the marketplace. I think Bell would have been at home among these people.
The Pilgrim Year book series and accompanying CD is in many ways a natural culmination of Bell’s musical and story-telling career. In seven beautifully-designed booklets, he takes the reader thoughtfully across the terrain of the church year, and is a pilgrimage for the soul.
Bell wisely chose not to provide readings for every day of every season, but to provide an introduction for each booklet (like a frame for the painting), followed by eight to ten meditations on related themes or select “red-letter days” for that season. These are short reflections to linger over, not daily disciplines to be pounded out. There are booklets for Advent, Christmastide, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Eastertide, and Ordinary Time. With their rich colours, the booklets seem to fan out like liturgical banners. He provides some teaching as he goes – taking up the role of a personal guide pointing out what he has seen and enjoyed on this journey from his own exploration. It is evident from the quotations he provides, that Bell has continued to read deeply and widely, and he incorporates a rich selection of poetry. He makes especially good use of the sonnets written by his friend, the English priest and poet Malcom Guite. And of course, the lyrics of Bell’s own songs are woven into these reflections throughout. So, for example, for the feast of St. John the Evangelist (December 27), the meditation concludes with the lyrics of “This is Love.” This is Bell’s beautiful rendering of the seventeenth chapter of the Gospel of John. Although it reads well on the page, you really need to listen to the music for the full experience. Some of these songs are on the accompanying CD; all of them are on the Pilgrim Year website.
The flow of the whole series can be captured from Bell’s review of the church year in his introduction to the last booklet, Ordinary Time. We are brought back to the presence of God in our daily lives. But how did we arrive here? Steve sums up the journey: “We began by passing through Advent, where we considered the mystery of the human person, whose dignity is to accept the invitation to participate in the drama of salvation as maternal spouse of God, co-operating to bring Christ’s life to the world.” Advent led to Christmas, “where we apprehended the humble incarnation of the cosmos’ Creator and reflected on the astonishing humanity of Jesus.” The pilgrimage continued with Epiphany: “We meditated on the miracles and events that revealed Jesus’ divinity, and we came to understand the two natures (human and divine) of Christ, to whom our souls are wed.” Next, we pressed on into the penitential season of Lent. “We pondered the devastation wrought by our infidelities and the myriad inordinate attachments and desires that draw our affections away from our Lord.” Then the terrain changed again. “During Holy Week, we walked alongside Jesus to the cross, where he assumed and redeemed those devastations so that we might truly and freely love, as well as know, we are beloved of God.” This came to climax at Easter with “a sustained reflection on the miracle of resurrection and the eternally evergreen life on offer through Christ’s victory over death.” And then finally the cycle was complete with Ordinary Time, a season in which “we come to realize the astonishing holiness of our daily lives as a consequence of all we have previously considered.” He concludes with the ringing words of his version of the Sanctus, Benedictus: “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord / God of power and might / Heaven and earth of your glory are full / Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest!” I cannot even read those words without hearing in my head Bell’s voice in a rushing crescendo of joyful praise. With this, the Pilgrim Year is finished, or, rather, we are ready to begin it all again.
Dr. Bruce Hindmarsh is the James M. Houston Professor of Spiritual Theology and Professor of the History of Christianity at Regent College. He is the author of The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism: True Religion in a Modern World (Oxford University Press, 2018)