It is not true

The old Danish Christmas carol, repeated endlessly on Christmas Eve, dancing round the tree—or, in a big house, snaking in and out the parlour doors—asks if Christmas will last till Easter. The refrain goes,

Nej det’ ikke sandt,
Nej det’ ikke sandt,
For ind imellem kommer fasten.

It is not true,
It is not true,
For in-between comes Lent.

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Lent was not acknowledged in the chapel culture of my childhood. Even Christmas and Easter derived their sentiments rather more from popular culture than otherwise. A reason being a stern idea of life as linear, a personal pilgrimage from sin, through struggle, to victory in Jesus, every person making the journey alone. With corresponding disinterest in the repetitions of the liturgical calendar, in its consecration of sacred space and sacred time through the year and the seasons.

The sacred time of that chapel world is called Dispensationalism, an idea that defines modern evangelical Christianity. Traceable to a British writer named John Nelson Darby (1800–1882), Dispensationalism spread largely through the influence of the so-called Scofield Reference Bible.

My father’s Bible, marked up through a lifetime of use, is a Scofield. Evangelists toured with great wall charts showing the Dispensations, and sold copies at the door. My mother’s highest encomiums for a preacher were reserved for these openers of the Bible’s deepest, hidden codes and messages. I remember such a fellow from my childhood. Tubby, Reverend Tubby. I think from Texas. I had for years a celluloid bookmark with his Chart of the Ages printed across it. I invented such a character in Sister Patsy.

Dispensations are the successive orders governing human history. Each initiated by a violently disruptive event. The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, the Flood, the destruction of the Tower of Babel, The tablets of Law (and the great slaughter) at Sinai, the crucifixion of Jesus and the levelling of the Temple in Jerusalem, Jesus’s Second Coming and the Battle of Armageddon. A bloody catalogue, quivering with vengeful gratifications and dire apocalyptic dreams.

Anyone puzzled by the political allegiances of American Evangelicals should know more of this tradition.

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Chagall, The Tree of Jesse

Epiphany is now past—in our household a superstition against taking Christmas decorations down before January 6th, or leaving them up afterwards. Next will come Lent, the season of belt-tightening and stock-taking, of not much practical effect but satisfying anyway. However you fail your resolutions, Easter will come. Then Christmas again. But not so fast, for in-between come Whitsuntide, Trinity, Advent.

Sacred time and sacred space. Just as there is no place on earth that does not lie within the outfield of some baseball diamond, within the outstretched arms of its infinite foul lines, there is no place, no neighbourhood, that does not lie in some diocese and some parish, whether you know about it or not. And whether you are there to observe it or not altars will be stripped and then blossom again, canticles and vestments will change with the seasons, in majestic and predetermined order, bestowing a quiet grace on all within their bounds.

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