Continuing with our journey through the documents of the Second Vatican Council, I would like to take a look at the liturgical year. We are just around the corner from the beginning of a new Church year that begins with the First Sunday of Advent. There are really several liturgical calendars in the Church that overlap one another and unless you spend lots of time celebrating the various liturgies during the year, as priests and daily mass attendees do, it is easy to become confused. The Church celebrates a hierarchy within its liturgical celebrations. This means that some celebrations are more important than others. The most important liturgies of the year take place each year during Holy Week and culminate with the Triduum which begins on the evening of Holy Thursday and ends at the Easter Vigil on Saturday night.
Let’s start out by looking at the seasons of the liturgical year. Just as there are seasons that correspond with the weather, there are seasons in the liturgical year that help to remind Christians of the fullness of the salvation won for us by Christ. The five seasons of the Church year are Advent, Christmas, Ordinary Time, Lent, and Easter.
Advent begins the year as our season of anticipation. We recall earlier times in salvation history when God’s people awaited the birth of a savior. We also look forward to Christ’s second coming in glory. I have always enjoyed this season as the days grow shorter, when we wait in the quiet darkness for the light of Christ to break forth.
Christmas in the secular world often ends December 26. The liturgical calendar, however, gives us 12 days of Christmas to celebrate this feast day beginning with Christ’s birth and ending with the feast of Epiphany that recalls the manifestation of the Lord in three events: the visitation of the Magi, the Baptism of the Lord and the miracle at the Wedding Feast of Cana.
At the end of the Christmas season the Church enters into what is known as Ordinary Time. Many people seem to think of this season as being kind of , well, ordinary. I suppose in many ways it is and from my perspective that is a good thing. The bulk of our lives take place in within the realm of the ordinary and this applies equally to our lives of faith. I do think that too many people miss the fact, however, that Ordinary time is when we move our attention from a specific part of the life of Christ in order to celebrate the fullness of God’s saving action in the world.
Lent is one of the more intense seasons of the liturgical year that calls all Christians to repentance and purification. We spend this season in preparation for Easter by engaging in more fervent prayer, fasting and almsgiving. This is an especially important time of year for those who are entering the final stages of preparation for the sacraments of initiation.
Easter is the high point of the Church year and we celebrate with this season that lasts 50 days, culminating with Pentecost when we recall the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the early Church. It is a season when we recall our own baptism and our call as Christians to carry the message of the Gospel to the whole world.
These seasons are the setting within which the liturgies are set. The principal celebrations of the Eucharist take place each Sunday. Each week these recall Christ’s resurrection and are meant to be the Church’s continual Easter celebration, just as each Friday should recall Good Friday. This is the root of our penitential practices that Christians keep every Friday of the year. The Sunday celebrations follow a three year cycle with regards to the readings that are proclaimed. Each year focuses our readings on a particular Gospel (Year A is Matthew, Year B is Mark and John’s Bread of Life Discourse, Year C is Luke) which allows Catholics to continue to deepen our understanding of the mysteries of Christ’s life over time.
There is also a liturgical calendar that applies to the celebration of masses during the week that do not take place on Sundays. This calendar follows a two year cycle of semicontinuous readings. The Gospel readings are the same every year, but the first reading for mass alternates every other year.
In addition to these calendars is what we call the sanctoral calendar and one can see how even regular churchgoers can become confused. This is a calendar that is marked by various celebrations of saints and important events in the life of the Church. This calendar also has a hierarchy that helps us determine the degree of solemnity of the liturgy. There are four levels of celebration, the highest being called a solemnity, the next are ranked as feasts, followed by memorials, with the lowest level being called optional memorials. Every Sunday is celebrated as a Solemnity, as are all holy days of obligation. Days that fall under the category of Feasts would include those that commemorate the Apostles and other major saints. Many saints who are popular in the universal Church fall under the category of memorials, and those less well know usually end up being optional memorials.
On the part of those who are responsible for presiding at or planning liturgies, this is quite a bit to keep up with. For the average Catholic it is probably not something that most people think about as deeply, though I would guess that when we do our jobs right as clergy there is a definite change of feeling as we make our way each year through the various seasons. I for one, appreciate the continual changing that comes with these different times of the Church year in the same way I am currently enjoying the change from Fall to Winter.
What is your favorite Church season?