The Liturgical Year
The Liturgical Year is the way in which the Catholic Church marks time and experiences the presence of Christ through the natural rhythms of life and creation. All of our lives follow a rhythm or pattern over the course of a year. We celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays, which brings substance and significance to our lives. The Liturgical Year does the same, highlighting important events, beliefs, and aspects of our Catholic faith.
The Liturgical Year is based on the change and flow of the seasons in nature, at least as experienced in the Northern Hemisphere, and is used to connect believers to the Christian experience. Much of the imagery used in prayers reflect what is going on is creation. Advent, which takes place mostly in the month of December, plays on the theme of light in growing darkness as is experienced by the decrease in daylight hours. The Easter season, which takes place in springtime uses images of new life to reflect the reality of the new life that we experience in the resurrection.
The foundation for the Liturgical Year is found in the flow of seasons and feasts that we inherited from our Jewish ancestors, especially as it was experienced during the time of Jesus. It, of course, evolved over the millennia to the point that it is today. The Liturgical Year is often envisioned as a spiral, marking time as we await the return of Christ at the end of time. Each season has a focus from the life of Jesus that we are invited to experience. Though the pattern each year is the same: Advent to Christmas, Lent to Easter, and the regular flow of Ordinary Time, what we are encouraged to keep in mind is that each year we are different and we are invited to use the year to pay attention to the way we continue to grow and mature.
Sunday is the heart of the Liturgical Year. It has been known since ancient times as a “little Easter.” The reason we gather each Sunday to celebrate Liturgy together is to remember that Christ rose on the first day of the week, a Sunday, and to remember that we are a resurrected people who live and act in the world as a people transformed by the loving action of God in our lives.
Advent marks the beginning of the Liturgical Year. The focus of Advent is twofold: to look forward to the return of Christ at the end of time, and to prepare for the season of Christmas. The season of Advent uses rich prophetic texts, mostly from the prophet Isaiah, which looks forward in hope for a more peaceful and just world, a world that we can imagine but that often seems impossible to attain. It is a vision of the world where there is no more hatred and division between peoples, a world where “swords are beaten into plowshares,” a world where the human heart is in sync with the heart of God.
Christmas is a season, rather than just a day, that focuses on the reality of Emmanuel (God is with us). Religions often make “outrageous” claims about themselves, and one of the “outrageous” claims that Christianity makes is that God took on human form and lived as one of us. We believe in a God who shed what it meant to be divine in order to take on a human form and become a person who had to learn to walk, to talk, to learn a trade, to earn a living, to know the joy of friendship and love, as well as the reality of pain and betrayal. Advent invites us to embrace the heart and vision and God, Christmas reminds us that we, as a community, has a place deep in the heart of God.
Lent is a word that literally means “springtime.” It is a 40 day season that begins on Ash Wednesday and concludes on Holy Thursday. The original focus of the season of Lent was a final preparation time for those who would be baptized at Easter. As the practice of baptizing people shifted from adults to infants the focus of the season added another dimension as a season of renewal for those who were already members of the Church. All Christians during the season of Lent are encouraged to put into practice the instructions of Jesus heard in the gospel reading heard on Ash Wednesday, to dedicate our lives to prayer, to fast, and to perform works of charity. Through these actions we prepare for the Easter season.
Triduum is a word that means “Three Days” and is the high point of the Liturgical Year. On these three days (Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter) we celebrate one long liturgy that lasts for three days. We begin on Holy Thursday as we remember and live the Last Supper with the washing of the feet, on Good Friday we commemorate the passion and death of Jesus, and on Easter we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus and our liberation from sin and death.
That celebration of the resurrection continues for 50 days in the season of Easter. Throughout that time we recall how the risen Lord appeared to his disciples and how his disciples were encouraged to spread the message of salvation to the very ends of the earth. Easter concludes with the celebration of Pentecost, recalling how the Holy Spirit settled on the apostles and continues to guide us in the present day.
The season of Ordinary Time takes up over half of the Liturgical Year. The word ordinary is not meant to mean “common” but comes from the Latin word “ordinal” which means to “count,” and it is the way that the Church counts Sundays in the time between the seasons Christmas and Lent, and between the seasons of Easter and Advent. During this time we encounter Jesus in his earthly ministry: healing those who were sick, reconciling those separated from the human community, and preaching the Kingdom of God.
The number of Holy Days varies from country to country, and diocese to diocese. These days make up feast days of significance to the local community and treated just like a Sunday with extra Masses being celebrated. In the Archdiocese of Denver we celebrate five Holy Days: Immaculate Conception of Mary (Dec. 8), Christmas Day (Dec. 25), Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God (Jan. 1), The Assumption of Mary (Aug. 15), and All Saints Day (Nov. 1).