How do we keep love from petrifying into law?
In Christ we’re freed from the crushing obligations of law—freed to love each other from the heart. But freedom so easily turns into expectation and expectation into self-imposed obligation.
Take Valentine’s Day. It’s a day that someone somewhere dreamed up to pamper a loved one. Others spontaneously imitated it and made it a fun thing. Somehow St. Valentine’s name got attached to it, although the old fellow did nothing particularly relevant to deserve that (mostly the stuff of legend).
Here’s the thing. In a spontaneous burst of generosity inspired by your love for another, you might surprise him or her with a sincerely meant Valentine’s card or gift. Fine. But next February another Valentine’s Day stares back from your calendar. Your Valentine is just as dear to you as last year. But what was once a spontaneous act is now anything but. Now there’s an expectation that you equal or better last year’s performance. Love has turned into expectation. After a few more cycles it’s law.
Like candy, the first experience is a wonderful surprise. But it inevitably leads to withdrawal. Eat just a single chocolate truffle, and you’ll know exactly what I mean.
What does this have to do with church? Think about it. Who decided to make Christmas Christmas? Where does the Bible ever tell us to observe Advent or Lent? Why are many of our congregations once again offering Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday services?
Personally I have no problem with any of it as long as it remains free-willed, from the heart, and edifying to the congregation and its mission. But could we somehow also invoke a variation of the Old Testament Sabbath year law that canceled all debts among God’s people (Deut. 15)? Such a rule would allow us to add on whatever services and celebrations we want. But every seventh year we’d be love- not duty-bound to do away with all of them except Easter. We’d flush ’em out, including the civic ones like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
We’d let them lie fallow. Then we would be free to (re)introduce those and only those that spring freshly from the heart, creating room to surprise each other with really good fresh ones (remember “Festivus”?).
Our Christian calendar needs spring cleaning by God’s Spirit now and then. Paul reminds us in Colossians, “[God] disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them. . . . Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths” (2:15-16, NRSV).
Why keep Easter celebrations? Because Paul goes on to exhort us, “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:1-3).
See, Easter isn’t something we celebrate just one Sunday a year. We live it every day of every year. So we can sprinkle “special” days in wherever we want—provided love, not law, shall beckon.