The Liturgical Year
When you think of a year, probably the calendar year or maybe the academic year pops into your head. But the Church has a special year, called the liturgical year, to mark the celebration of her liturgies. The liturgical year celebrates God’s time, which is eternal and timeless. We do this by remembering the past, celebrating the present, and looking toward the future.
The liturgical year is built around important historical events – such as Jesus’ birth, death, and Resurrection – in which God’s saving power was made real. The liturgies in the liturgical year help us remember God’s saving power made real in those historical events. They celebrate that God is saving us in the present moment, and they look forward to the time when God’s plan of salvation will reach its ultimate fulfillment in Christ’s future Parousia (second coming). Let’s take a quick tour through the seasons of the liturgical year. The chart above can help you follow along.
The liturgical year begins in November or early December, on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. These four weeks are the liturgical season of Advent. Advent means “coming, and this season is a preparation for the coming of the infant Jesus. The mood if hopeful anticipation, and the Scripture readings focus on the God’s promise to send a savior to deliver us from sin and death. It is a time to take life a little more slowly and to focus on what we need to do to allow God to enter our hearts more fully. This is a challenge in our culture, with all the shopping, concerts, and parties that happen during this time. Many church families mark the passing of the four weeks by lighting the candles of an Advent wreath.
The Feast of Christmas, on December 25, celebrates the birth of Jesus and the mystery of the Incarnation. God entered the world as an infant, fully human in every way. It is a joyful feast, during which we remember that God is with us, brining hope and joy to the world by sharing in our humanity.
The Feast of Christmas is really the start of the Christmas season, which lasts until the Baptism of the Lord, the third Sunday after Christmas Day. In days past this was the traditional times the people would exchange gifts, go caroling, and have Christmas parties. In some cultures gifts are still exchanged on the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6), which celebrates the Magi from the east visiting Jesus. Many Christians are returning to the practice of having parties, caroling, and gift exchanges during the Christmas season in order to reclaim Advent as a quiet, more reflective time in preparing for the joy of Christmas.
We generally have a routine that helps us do the ordinary things that make up daily life. This routine is needed so that we can integrate some of the lessons and experiences we had during times of joy and new life, or sadness and loss. The liturgical year has the same balance. After the high of the Christmas season, we enter a short period of the Ordinary Time.
During Ordinary Time the Scripture readings focus on the events of Jesus’ life between his birth and his death and Resurrection. It is a time when we reflect on the things Jesus lived and taught so that we might make our values and periods. The first periods is between Christmastime and Lent, and the second period is between the end of the Easter season and the next Advent.
Lent and Holy Week
Lent is a solemn, reflective season of the liturgical year that is preparations for the mysteries of Easter. It begins on Ash Wednesday and lasts forty days, until Easter (the forty days do not include the Sundays during Lent). On Ash Wednesday people come to Church to receive ashes on their forehead, a reminder that without God we are simply dust. The Forty days of Lent recall the forty days that Jesus spent in the desert before the beginning his public ministry. During Lent Christians are called to renew themselves through fasting, prayer, and almsgiving (giving money and service to those in need).
Holy Week begins a week before Easter Day, on Palm Sunday. During Holy Week we remember the events of the final days of Jesus’ earthly life, beginning with his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. The last three day of Holy Week bringing everything to a climax in a series of three special liturgies, called the Triduum. Following are very brief descriptions of these important days in the liturgical year:
Holy Thursday. In the liturgy we remember the Last Supper and Jesus’ gift of himself in the Eucharist. A foot-washing ritual is part of the liturgy, reminding us that Jesus calls us to serve one another as his followers. On this day we also recall the institution of the priesthood.
Good Friday. In this liturgy we remember Jesus’ Passion and death. The liturgy is somber and starts and ends with a bare altar. During the liturgy we venerate (show love and respect for) the cross in some way, in appreciation of Christ’s sacrifice.
Holy Saturday. The liturgy on Holy Saturday, the Easter Vigil, is held at night. It is the greatest celebration of the liturgical year, recalling and reliving the joy of Christ’s Resurrection. The celebration incorporates rituals of darkness and light, of water blessing, and lots of Scripture reading. But the highlight is the Baptism, Confirmation, and the First Communion of the catechumens, those people who have been preparing to become Catholic.
Easter and the Easter season are the primary focus of the liturgical year. East celebrates the wonder and joy of Christ’s Resurrection, the central mystery of our faith. The Easter season goes on for fifty days after Easter, until the Feast of Pentecost. During this time the Sunday reading focus on the appearances on the risen Christ and on the growth of the early Church (found in the Acts of the Apostles). It is a time of joy and hope, for death has been overcome and Christ has made us all heirs to the Kingdom of God. Because of the events of Easter, we dare to hope for our own Resurrection and eternal life with God.
This season is marked with two special feasts. Forty days after Easter, on the Ascension of the Lord (although this is a Thursday, it is celebrated in many dioceses on the following Sunday), we remember how Jesus said farewell to his disciples to live in glory with his heavenly Father and to be present to all his followers without the limitations of time and space. Fifty days after Easter, we remember the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles at Pentecost. After Pentecost the second period of Ordinary Time continues until another liturgical year begins on the first Sunday of Advent.
Sources: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: www.usccb.org
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Edition