Zelophehad’s Daughters

Why Do Mormons Have No Liturgical Year?

Posted by Kiskilili

Of course, Mormons generally celebrate national and cultural holidays in whatever country they live, and this tends to include traditional Christian festivals such as Christmas and Easter (whose own roots extend into pre-Christian paganism). But while church attenders on or around these dates may hear a vague nod in the direction of acknowledging the importance of the events a given Christian holy day is intended to commemorate, there is nothing peculiarly Mormon about these services; even the most important Christian holy days play little (and sometimes virtually no) role in public Mormon worship, whereas other religious commemorative festivals sacred to the Christian calendar, but that lack any accompanying secular fanfare from commercial establishments, such as Lent and Advent, are entirely absent from Mormon consciousness. (Ironically, is it nothing but shopping-mall Santas and the aggressive promotion of plastic eggs that insures even these two holy days a marginal place in our worship services?)

It’s not that Mormons lack a sense of sacred time entirely. Mormons place much more emphasis on Sunday as the sabbath than many, perhaps most, other Christian denominations, although the Mormon sabbath derives more from Old Testament commandment than it does from a weekly commemoration of the Resurrection. Mormons also undergo particular rituals marking seasons of life, more pronounced for men than women. But the closest the Church comes to a sense of sacred, cyclical time focused on the year may be the semiannual conducting of General Conference (and the Christmas Devotional–see below), which, tellingly, can supplant Easter entirely in Mormon worship services should it fall on that date. It is interesting to note that while General Conference does fall on predictable dates, it does not commemorate any event in sacred time, nor does it seem more than haphazardly and pragmatically situated in its yearly cycle.

What lies behind this absence (besides an obvious lack of official revelation designating holy days)? Has the Church absorbed a lingering Puritan suspicion of holidays that lack biblical or scriptural precedent? (The Puritans, for example, in proverbially draconian fashion, had a habit of suppressing Christmas celebrations whenever they came into power.) Is it part of a more general trend of distancing ourselves from other Christians, many of whose practices are rooted in medieval developments the Church deems apostate? On the one hand, the religious dimensions of Christmas have clear implications for our worship, to the degree that we attribute significance to Jesus’ birth. On the other hand, while it is as much our sacred history as that of any other Christian, it is not structured in a uniquely Mormon calendrical frame, which typically denies December as Jesus’ birth month. In light of these facts, it may seem only natural that we commemorate the religious event itself, as if in abstract, but with no sense of sacred time or a need for specific religious ceremony. Given their origins, there’s no reason for Christmas or Easter, with all their vestigially pagan pomp and pageantry, to be sanctified by the Mormon calendar.

Another possible inhibition when it comes to adopting a liturgical year may be found in our doctrinal understanding of ritual. Programatic behavior that occurs in designated places at designated times is essentially ritualistic in nature, and Mormon theology seems to keep a relatively tight reign on its rituals, their rationale, and their signfiicance to the community. Do the sorts of rituals that might otherwise mark sacred time throughout the year fit uneasily in a Mormon theological approach to ritaul, centered as it is almost exclusively on necessity? That is, does the Mormon conept of ritual as a sequence of individual induction ceremonies necessary for finally making the transition to eternal life have too few mechanisms for incorporating and processing rituals that recur and are cyclical, and thus can (and should) be undergone multiple times?

One such mechanism is employed to account for the weekly recurrence of the sacrament as a renewal of other rituals ordinarily experienced only once in a lifetime. This explanation seemingly has some potential to account for rituals that are repeated at designated intervals as a way of renewing those more essential rites undergone only once. Perhaps, though, the extravagant claims made for the sacrament as a renewal of all other ritually realized covenants has foreclosed the possibility of any other recurrent rituals finding a place in Mormon theology. Is there simply no doctrinal room left in the theological neighborhood for another cyclical ritual to take up residence?

A second explanation construes repeated temple rituals as proxy work for the dead, a rationale that obviously does not lend itself well to rituals marking sacred time, given the Mormon belief that the dead have escaped time.

Finally, an instance of less precisely prescribed ritual behavior can be observed in priesthood blessings, which are administered according to need and request and are viewed not as necessary, but often simply as important to providing of comfort. Could this angle allow purchase for seasonal liturgical acknowledgment of events sacred to our own history? Or, when the element of sincere, spontaneous and unpredictable need is removed and substituted by a routinely recurring time scheme that focuses on seasonal rather than individually fluctuating circumstances, would the justification for such an event evaporate with the unique causes that form its stimulus?

The Christmas Devotional may stand as the single Mormon seasonal celebration actually tied to external calendrical events, and as such may demonstrate both the possibilities and the limits. The devotional fits neatly into a Mormon system essentially as an extra church service modeled on General Conference and presided over by the highest echelon, commemorating the season in which Jesus’ birth is celebrated by the delivery of addresses appropriate to the Christmas spirit. It fits because it gives an appealing religious cast to a holiday whose celebration is already widespread and entrenched in this country, but does it in a way that does not infringe on any other religious practice, taking as it does the guise of a fireside, the format in which so many other extra-church gatherings of a more impromptu nature are held. It may be that anything in the way of official liturgical seasonal celebration must be presided over by Church leaders and televised from Salt Lake City, since, if it were administered on the local level but were nevertheless relatively prescribed in its particulars and progamatic in tone, it would qualify essentially as ritual and thus would fit uneasily into Mormon doctrine.

16 Responses to “Why Do Mormons Have No Liturgical Year?”

  1. 1.

    K.,

    Good question, and I like your thoughts on it. But I don’t think you’re taking all relevant facts into account.

    What do you make of the Mormon propensity for large-scale, seasonal pageants, for instance? The Hill Cumorah Pageant is among the most well-known. There are also Christmas-light shows and pageants at temples. And of course, there are innumerable Pioneer Day pageants and shows, which _are_ connected to a particular day (which happens to be an LDS-specific holiday, no less!).

    So, it’s a curious mix. LDS culture doesn’t include a lot of traditional liturgical calendar celebration, but is often pretty happy to replace this with our own brand of homegrown seasonal festival.

  2. 2.

    (For one temple pageant example, see http://www.lds.org/placestovisit/location/0,10634,1792-1-1-1,00.html . LDS.org notes that “The [Mesa Arizona temple] Easter pageant began as a sunrise service in 1928. Now it is the world’s largest annual outdoor Easter pageant, with a cast of over 400.” Others at http://www.lds.org/placestovisit/alphabetical/0,10659,1614-1-1-2,00.html . Plus, there are all of those handcart reenactments that happen in July.)

  3. 3.

    Gasp.

    You mean July 24 *isn’t* a holy day?

    Heretic.

  4. 4.

    I don’t actually feel the need to celebrate another holiday or festival. Most countries and cultures provide enough of their own without extra religious ones. What’s wrong with just going about your business?

  5. 5.

    Peter, I don’t think Kiskilili is necessarily trying to advocate for any particular changes to our attenuated liturgical year as much as she’s trying to reflect on possible theological and historical reasons for it.

    What’s wrong with just going about your business?

    Excellent advice, but I’m afraid it’s far too practical to be consistent with the spirit of the rampant and irrelevant speculation that characterizes the Bloggernacle. Sure, there’s nothing at all wrong with just going about one’s business, but it’s not really what the Bloggernacle’s about. We live to ask pointless, impertinent, sometimes downright nosy questions to which there can be no definitive answers, and then debate them at great–nay, interminable–length. ;)

  6. 6.

    I think you answer part of the question with the discussion of low-church mentality predominance in Mormonism given our yankee Methodist roots.

    I wonder if a lot of the lack of a liturgical calendar comes from the strong millenarianism that prevailed in the early church. When you think the second coming is right around the corner, and that’s what you focus on, the commemoration of the past kind of recedes. You still commemorate personally significant events (hence the sacrament), but there’s not as much a focus on commemorating historical events. The focus is on the future. Other than the official church historian, the church hardly thought about recovering the past at all at least until Joseph F. Smith did his “pilgrimage” to the prophet’s birthplace.

    I think the Church has done more recently to focus on commemorating the past, what with all the pioneer trek madness and President Hinckley’s push to recognize the prophet’s birthday. It just hasn’t had the time to develop into a standardized calendar. After all, the liturgical tradition took many centuries to develop in mainstream Christianity; we’re not even 200 years old yet.

  7. 7.

    One minor quibble: April General Conference does, in fact, commemorate something sacred: the founding of the Church. In years past, this Conference always included April 6th, regardless of which day of the week it was. It no longer does now that we’ve shortened the whole affair to a Sat/Sun event.

    Also, though queuno is being sarcastic, I think you can make a pretty strong case that, for those of us still in the Rocky Mountains, July 24th is, in fact, part of a liturgical year. Is not the annual parade a religious ceremony, despite lacking a lot of the trappings of ritual? Isn’t it a very Mormon approach to take the religious aspect out of the chapel and into the streets?

  8. 8.

    alea – I admit to being a bit sarcastic, but you have to realize that July 24 isn’t just for those of you in the Rocky Mountains. It’s apparently celebrated by every freakin’ stake in the Church, without any consideration to the *local* pioneer heritage.

    Even stakes in South America celebrate July 24. Stakes in Ohio — *Ohio* — celebrate July 24.

    Despite my initial sarcastic tone, I maintain in all seriousness that July 24 and April 6 are as close to a common day of celebration around the entire Church.

  9. 9.

    (somehow forgot to finish my thought but I don’t think the post is lost)

    The incessant Pioneer Day celebration on July 24 used to bug me when I wasn’t living in Utah, but a few years ago, Elder Robert S Wood gave us some compelling thoughts in a stake conference about how Mormons everywhere should recognize Pioneer Day, even if they have no Utah connections.

    Nowadays I encourage locals in Texas to research both the historical pioneer aspects of the local area, augmenting that with July 24…

    queuno,
    who has serious Utah Pioneer cred, but outside BYU, never lived a day of his life there (I was the BYU freshman considered a “gentile” because I came from the Midwest, despite having three campus buildings named after ancestors).

  10. 10.

    As a former Episcopalian, I miss the liturgical seasons dearly. There is a sense of breathing in and out with the passage of the year. There is anticipation of the birth of Christ and the triumph of Easter. When I first realized that conference could take the place of Easter, I was shocked and horrified. In my ward, there are a couple of Easter lillies on the front table, and a couple of hymns that were relevant. One Easter, I was serving in the nursery and a kid threw up on me, and that was my Easter. We used to have processions and flowers and music-filled Easter vigils. I will miss them forever.

  11. 11.

    I appreciate your comment, Kaliki. I’m very attracted to Episcopalianism for the reasons you mention: the music and processions and sense of solemn grandeur that accompanies holy days.

    Thanks for all the other comments as well. You’re all of course right to point to pageants and pioneer parades as part of the Mormon experience of the year, and that may amount to something in the way of a “sacred calendar.” And maybe it’s just my own biases that prevent me from considering them liturgical commemorations exactly–but other sacred communal events in the Church typically occur within sacred space (chapel or temple) and are relatively solemn (if not extremely so).

    Of course the dividing line between the sacred and the secular is ultimately arbitrary; for example, Santa Claus, today an icon of Christmas’s commercial secular dimension, is in origin a saint (a bishop who lived in Turkey in the 4th century), and it wasn’t so long ago that he was still being portrayed in all the regalia appropriate to his position: with a bishop’s mitre and rosary and crucifix. Just as one could make an argument that Santa Claus belongs to the realm of the sacred, one could certainly argue that pioneer parades and pageants are an event sacred to the Mormon community. But I personally see them more in line with Young Men’s stake basketball championships, which are also important to the Mormon community, and are cyclical, but are nevertheless neither central nor sacred.

    Such celebrations, as fundamentally Mormon as they are, are relatively spontaneous, festive, and local rather than official, religious, and global. (I haven’t ever noticed any Pioneer Day celebrations where I live–perhaps I haven’t paid close enough attention?) Again, this may just be my own religious predilections: I adore high church ritual. I’m less attracted to sentimental temple pageants. :)

    Peter, I’m not actually proposing the adoption of another holiday (though heaven knows I’ll take whatever days off work I can get! ;)). I’m musing more on why the possible holy days and holidays we have do not have a specifically religious component to their observance, and whether that’s endemic to Mormon sensibilities or the result of happenstance. In asking this, I’m considering, as a hypothetical, Mormon holy days that could potentially replace the Christian liturgical calendar if the reason we reject it is its origins, not the idea of a liturgical year itself.

    Great comment, JKC. I’m really still not sure exactly what I think about the lack of a Mormon liturgical year, although I suspect, as you say, that it’s largely an inheritance of low church sensibilities. I wonder how millenarianism might have played a role? As you say, it could well have oriented the saints toward the future and away from the past. On the other hand, our scriptures point us to religiously significant events in the past, and all of our claims to authority are grounded in an appeal to the distant past. It could well be that the Church’s young age plays a role in this as well–what are pageants today could conceivably be liturgical commemorations in the future–but one could argue that we’re too young to have any ritualistic activities at all. Yet we do.

    Thanks for your correction, Alea–I had no idea General Conference was so scheduled to commemorate the organizing of the Church, although it certainly makes sense!

  12. 12.

    I must admit to being quite enamored of Advent and Lent in particular, and I’d love to find a way to sneak them into the LDS calendar. My off-the-cuff speculation is that our lack of a liturgical year is due to cultural accident rather than anything unique to LDS theology; as you and JKC note, we come from a low church heritage. The situation seems somewhat akin to that of not using crosses–I can’t think of anything in our doctrine would require this, but our avoidance of the practice is so entrenched in our tradition that we’re somewhat suspicious of it, have come up with doctrinal rationales to explain the situation, and are likely to associate the practice with apostasy. My experience is that Latter-day Saints frequently associate ritual of the high church variety with unnecessary pomp and vain repetitions, and see it as a less authentic form of worship. (Though our own ritual practices, of course, aren’t interpreted that way.)

    I’m also intrigued by the questions you raise about ritual, and its place in our culture. I like your point about how we seem to want ritual to be necessary in some way to justify its existence–thus the official reason for repeating temple worship isn’t for the experience per se, but in order to further the work of saving the souls of the dead. How much (if any) room do we have for ritual for the sake of the experience itself, as opposed to ritual as a means to another end? Kaimi’s example of pageants might fall into such a category, though I suspect that many would justify the existence of such pageants as facilitating the goal of missionary work. But the sacrament might also perhaps fit into this category–as you note, we’ve closely connected it to other necessary saving rituals, but in and of itself it isn’t strictly necessary, and one could certainly say the same thing about the yearly Primary program, Conference, or Pioneer Day celebrations.

    Really, my guess is that what would be required for Mormons to adopt the liturgical year would be an influx of converts like Kaliki, who come from high church traditions.

  13. 13.

    Great comment, Lynnette–you’re probably right that it has to do with little more than accident of history; for similar reasons, perhaps, we’re sometimes wary of discussing Mary, almost as though we believe she’s been irretrievably adopted by Catholicism. This time of year I sometimes experience Advent envy; Advent looks like such a cool idea.

  14. 14.

    How about a liturgical month? We begin each month with testimony meeting and end each month with home teaching. We teach from different stuff in RS/Priesthood depending on the week of the month. I know this isn’t exactly liturgy, but at least it’s cyclical. :)

  15. 15.

    The fellowship of churches of which I am part (independent Christian churches/churches of Christ) also does not follow any liturgical year, generally. Sadly, most congregations just go along with the secular calendar. My guess is that the Mormon lack of a liturgical calendar goes straight back to its frontier low-church Protestant roots.

  16. 16.

    I think that following a liturgical year would be perhaps too confining to fit with our LDS “style”. After all, it’s much more than Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter–the liturgical calendar defines the content, both spoken word and music, of almost every worship service of the entire year. I think that this would limit the ability of leaders to determine the spiritual needs of their congregations and plan sacrament meetings accordingly.

    With that said, we have been celebrating Advent as a family this Christmas season. We celebrated Holy Week last Easter. I love the concepts of both seasons and felt like we could incorporate them in an appropriate way into our family life.

    I personally love Pioneer Day for many reasons, some deeply personal and spiritual, and I feel cheated when my ward leaders do nothing to acknowledge that day in Sacrament meeting.

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