Religion doesn’t happen in buildings. That’s one of the hardest things for people to get, I think. And it’s mainly because religion itself has become so concerned with cathedrals, grand mosques, and ornate synagogues. There’s nothing wrong with those things. In fact, I spend a lot of time visiting those sorts of places to get an understanding of various religious expressions and practices. The architecture of religion tells a great story. You can see it by studying its historical development as well as the current practices of more equalitarian, circular, single-level worship spaces. You learn a lot from the buildings. But, that is not where religion happens.
Even though some families build a small chapel area in their homes or a prayer nook facing Mecca, religion doesn’t happen in the home either. Your private prayer corner is not where God lives.
A lot of fringier elements in Christian Protestantism like to think that true religion takes place in the depths of the human heart where only God can see. But, that’s not it either. Seriously, that’s not it.
So, where is religion?
Religion, from the beginning of time, has happened within time itself. The very first words of scripture have to do with time: In the beginning… In fact, the very first thing that God blessed and made holy was not any of the things that had been created, but time itself! And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy. Later, at Sinai, God made a people holy. You shall be to me a holy people. Later still, there was the tabernacle, or holiness in space. The tabernacle was sanctified by Moses, but God’s own voice sanctified time. Time is first in holiness. Time is where religion lives.
The sanctity of time is also why we are so exacting with our liturgical calendars. In the 4th century, Hillel II saw that the Sanhedrin system would come to an end and so he invented a calendar that has worked well for the Jews up to the present time. Christians, who even to this day can’t agree on the date of Easter, did eventually give up the Metonic cycle and settle on April 21 as the vernal equinox for finding Easter. And even Muslims now use modern astronomy to calculate the beginning of Ramadan, though there are some Imams who do still stand on a hillside in the desert looking for the crescent moon. Some traditions die hard. We go to great lengths to get it right, though, because each day matters.
We are now in the middle of The Great Fifty Days of Easter. It’s a time when we consider what it means to be a resurrection people; we read about the acts of the apostles, and we think about how we can live out the promise of new life in our own lives. But we don’t always count the days. We should. There is a great Hebrew tradition of counting the days between Pesach and Shavuot… counting each one, because they each matter. The Great Fifty is just a parallel of the days of counting the omer. These “Christian” festivals were first Jewish festivals. And before the Jews observed them the Canaanites did. So, there might be something we can learn from one another about the time between the festival days themselves, about counting, and growing into whatever’s next.
We can’t skip over the fifty days of Easter and go right to Pentecost? The Hebrews didn’t leave Egypt and then receive the Torah the next day either. We all need time to prepare, to get ready for the next festival. If the time between festival days didn’t matter we could just have all the festival days in January and not worry about it the rest of the year. But, that’s not how it works.
But, how do we get ready for something like receiving the Holy Spirit. I mean, that’s pretty big. Is it even possible to be ready for something like that?
I think that the treasury official from Ethiopia is instructive on how we can begin to get ready for Pentecost He was studying, you’ll remember. He was trying. But he knew that he didn’t grasp the meaning of the text and so he invited Philip to join him and explain it.
At any time, but especially during these days of Easter, we can invite one another into our world, ask them to sit down and explain it all to us. And, like the treasury official, we might be surprised what we learn.
Who can you invite for a sit-down this week? What does it mean to invite someone into your chariot? Are you humble enough to say that you don’t understand it all? Can you learn from someone whose position in society is beneath your own?
There are about 25 days left in this great house of time called Easter. There is much to learn. The good news is that we are not alone, we have one another. Look around and see if the mystery doesn’t send you an unlikely teacher, someone you might not ordinarily have anything to do with. See what you can learn.
Linda McMillan lives in Sakaka, al Jouf Province, Saudi Arabia.
Image: Sundial Sculpture, PuDong. 2016. By Linda McMillan