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.
- 28 November 2007