The Church has an ancient tradition of a Liturgical Year. The different aspects of the faith are celebrated on different days and during different ‘seasons’ throughout the year, in order that during the course of a single year, the entire history of Redemption and the different aspects of the faith are able to be properly celebrated. During these different times, different prayers are said in the Church’s liturgies and different religious practices called for. There are also striking similarities between the seasons of the liturgical year and the seasons of the natural year.
The liturgical year is centered on the two greatest Mysteries of the Christian faith, which are the Incarnation and the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. The great solemn feasts that recall these respective mysteries are what the entirety of the liturgical year is built upon, and there is a parallel in the observations of these great mysteries. Each observance begins with a season of penance, in which we are meant to prepare and purify our hearts for the great festive celebration. Then the great day is celebrated, followed by a season of joyful celebration. Each celebratory season ends with another great feast that transitions into a less intense, but still quite important season in which we reflect upon and apply the mystery, both in the midst of ordinary daily life and through other appropriate observations. So before 1969, the layout of the liturgical year was as follows:
Advent– period of anticipation and preparation for Christ’s coming
Christmas– celebration of the actual birth of Christ, leading up to Epiphany when Christ was manifested to the nations
Season after Epiphany– period of reflection and application upon Christ’s manifestation and the beginning of his ministry, and ultimately leading up to the time of His Passion
The Paschal Mystery
Septuagesima (eliminated in 1970) and Lent– period of penance and spiritual renewal in preparation for the observance of Christ’s Passion, ultimately leading up to the Easter Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday
Easter- celebration of Christ’s Resurrection, Ascension, and ultimately Pentecost
Season after Pentecost- period of reflection and application, or Christian life in the Church
Since 1970, the seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost have been merged into one season of Ordinary Time, but the principle remains that this is a time to further reflect on the mysteries of the faith and the many tenets of the faith that all have their origin in these two basic mysteries. In future posts I hope to explore in more depth the various liturgical themes celebrated during Ordinary Time. For now, however, I would like to conclude this post with a discussion of how the celebrations of the Incarnation and Paschal Mystery correlate with the natural year.
Some Basic Themes of the Liturgical Year
Advent is the first season of the liturgical year and is a time when the Church recalls the sorrow, but also the joyful anticipation, of the Israelite people longing for the coming of the promised Redeemer. It is also the time when the Church emphasizes our own waiting for the Second Coming of Christ on the last day. It occurs during the four weeks before Christmas. Christmas Day is appropriately placed within a few days of the winter solstice, the darkest time of year, when (as it were) light is just beginning to return. This reflects Christ’s identity as the Light in the world, enlightening the darkness of sin and unfulfilled longing. The preceding weeks of Advent are appropriately a time of waiting for light to return.
Easter is placed in early spring, within a month of the vernal equinox. The beginning of spring, when the earth returns to bloom and new life is seen abounding in nature, is the obvious appropriate time to recall the Resurrection of Christ to new life and his victory over death.
The liturgical season of Lent that precedes Easter is ultimately a time leading up to Christ’s Passion and Death. Hence, it is a more intense time of fasting and penance than Advent. This is actually correlated to a default situation common before modern times, that by late winter and early spring, the supply of food from the previous harvest was running low, and therefore people would inevitably fast during that time, until spring food became available again. Hence, Lent was strategically placed to give the annual fast a spiritual significance.
Hence, we can see that the Liturgical Year has connections with the natural year and uses the cycles of nature as perfect opportunities to help turn our minds to particular spiritual things.