Catholics can rightfully wish each other “Happy New Year!” on Sunday, December 2nd, because it is the beginning of a new liturgical year in the Catholic Church. This column seeks to clear up two common confusions: (1) the difference between the liturgical year and the secular year, and (2) the meaning of Advent.
The Church’s Liturgical Year
The new liturgical year, also known as the Church year, begins with the First Sunday of Advent, which falls on December 2nd this year, and ends on the Saturday after the Solemnity of Christ the King twelve months later, which is another way of saying that every new liturgical year begins in the old calendar year. Our 2019 liturgical year begins in what is still 2018 according to our secular calendar.
The liturgical year celebrates the whole truth about Jesus Christ. Quoting Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us:
In the course of the year, moreover, [Holy Mother Church] unfolds the whole mystery of Christ. . . . Thus recalling the mysteries of the redemption, she opens up to the faithful the riches of her Lord’s powers and merits, so that these are in some way made present in every age; the faithful lay hold of them and are filled with saving grace. (CCC, 1163)
Just as the calendar year has its seasons, so the liturgical year has its own seasons. When we are not in the Seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter, we are in Ordinary Time. Advent and Christmas celebrate the Incarnation—the taking on of human flesh—of Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. Lent and Easter celebrate the salvation that can only be found in God the Son. Ordinary Time celebrates the life of Christ.
Scripture Readings during the Liturgical Year
Sacred Scripture is read at Sunday Mass according to a three-year cycle—Year A, Year B, and Year C. Year A features the Gospel of St. Matthew; Year B features the Gospel of St. Mark along with Chapter 6 of the Gospel of St. John; and Year C features the Gospel of St. Luke. The Gospel of St. John is featured during the Easter Season in all three years and on select Sundays and major feasts. The First Reading, which is usually from the Old Testament, has been chosen to reflect the Gospel Reading of that Sunday in some way. The Second Reading is from the New Testament and is usually from one of the letters, or epistles, written to early Catholic communities. Each Second Reading takes selections from a particular New Testament book so that the book is read sequentially from Sunday to Sunday until it is covered.
During the new 2019 liturgical year, we will hear from the Gospel of St. Luke since we will be in Year C. In the Second Reading, we will hear from the First Letter to the Corinthians, the Letter to the Galatians, the Letter to the Colossians, the Letter to the Hebrews, the Letter to Philemon, the First Letter to Timothy, the Second Letter to Timothy, and the Second Letter to the Thessalonians.
At weekday Mass, the readings of Sacred Scripture are based on the liturgical season. Every Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter, the same Scripture passages are read. During Ordinary Time, no matter what liturgical year it is, the Gospel reading begins with selections from the Gospel of St. Mark, continues with selections from the Gospel of St. Matthew, and concludes with selections from the Gospel of St. Luke. The First Reading in Ordinary Time, however, which can be from either the Old Testament or the New Testament, is based on a two-year cycle—Year I and Year II. Year I occurs during odd-numbered years, and Year II occurs during even-numbered years. During the new 2019 liturgical year, we will hear the Year I readings which will be selections from Hebrews, Genesis, Sirach, Tobit, Second Corinthians, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, First Thessalonians, Colossians, First Timothy, Ezra, Haggai, Zechariah, Nehemiah, Baruch, Jonah, Malachi, Joel, Romans, Wisdom, First Maccabees, Second Maccabees, and Daniel.
It might seem that someone who went to Mass every day over the three-year cycle would hear just about the entire Bible. However, according to Father Felix Just, SJ, over the entire three-year cycle 14% of all the verses in the Old Testament (excluding the Psalms) and 72% of all the verses in the New Testament are read at Mass. By my calculation, that amounts to 27% of the Bible.
The Season of Advent
The First Sunday of Advent occurs four Sundays before Christmas. The first three weeks of Advent are always three full weeks. The Fourth Week of Advent ends the day before Christmas, and so the length of the Fourth Week depends on when Christmas falls. In the Fourth Week of Advent of the new 2019 liturgical year, there is only one Advent weekday since Christmas falls on a Tuesday.
Our English word Advent comes from the Latin words ad (“to”) and venire (“to come”), and so Advent means “to come to” or “arrival.” There are actually two arrivals, or comings, celebrated during the Advent season. Both are comings of God the Son, Jesus Christ.
It is very obvious that Advent celebrates the coming of Christ Our Lord, Son of God the Father and Son of Mary, to Bethlehem as a new-born baby delivered from the blessed womb of His mother. This is the First Coming of Christ in human history.
The Bishops of the United States have many good resources for celebrating the First Coming during Advent.
Not as obvious, however, is that Advent also celebrates the Second Coming of Christ when He “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead” (as we say in the Nicene Creed) at the end of human history, the end of time, in order to complete the establishment of the Kingdom of God which began with His Incarnation.
That Advent also celebrates the Second Coming is admittedly confusing since we celebrate Advent immediately after we celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King and as we are getting caught up in the joy of Christmas. Only when we understand this second celebration of Advent do the readings at Mass during Advent make sense.
At Sunday Mass in the 2019 liturgical year, not only will we hear—on the Fourth Sunday of Advent—about the Visitation to Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist, by Mary, pregnant with Jesus, as we might expect. But also on the First Sunday of Advent, we will hear about the Second Coming. And on the Second and Third Sundays of Advent we will hear from John the Baptist preparing us for the public ministry of Jesus. At weekday Mass, we will hear Gospel readings not only about events immediately before the birth of Jesus, but also about Jesus’ preaching on the Kingdom of God and about the miracles He performed to provide examples of the Kingdom. We will hear Old Testament readings not only about the coming of the Messiah, but also about the Kingdom to be established by the Messiah.
The Divine Plan of Salvation
So Advent is an opportune time to make sure we understand God’s plan of salvation. It goes like this:
God freely created human beings and the rest of the universe out of the abundance of the perfect and absolute love shared among God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit so that we human beings could share in that love. The first humans were created in the state of Original Grace with what we can call the Original Harmony: that is, perfect exterior harmony between them and God, between them and Nature, and with each other, as well as perfect interior harmony between mind, will, emotions, and body.
The first humans were not content with their perfect human existence but committed the Original Sin by seeking to be equal to God. As a result, they fell from grace, and so evil, including death, entered what had been a perfectly good universe. Not only is the universe fallen, but so is human nature with its now weakened mind, will (which remains free), emotions, and body that are at war with each other.
God immediately began to save humanity from the Fall. God gave all humans the gift of reason so they could choose to obey the Natural Law – namely, His revelation through nature of all that is objectively true, good, and beautiful; and a desire for transcendence from all that is imperfect. But God supernaturally revealed Himself to Abraham, who responded to that revelation and became the biological father of the Chosen People of the Old Covenant and the spiritual father of all who accept the New Covenant offered by Jesus Christ. After Abraham, throughout salvation history, God made Himself and His Will ever clearer to the Chosen People by His words and actions, especially through Moses, David, and the prophets.
God’s perfect revelation is Jesus Christ because He is not only fully human but also fully God. During His First Coming, the theme of Jesus’ words and actions was the Kingdom of God. Jesus died on the cross in order to atone for Original Sin and the personal sins of all of humanity so that human beings could enter the Kingdom of the All-Holy God. Jesus rose from the dead with a glorified body in order to reveal what existence in the Kingdom will be like for those who accept Him as Lord: a restoration of every part of the Original Harmony, which includes a glorified body for everyone in the Kingdom for all eternity, and thus perfect existence and perfect happiness.
The Kingdom of God will be completed at the Second Coming of Christ. Until then, there will always be evil and sin, including within the Catholic Church, even in its hierarchy. But Christ, after His Ascension, remains mystically present to humanity, especially through the Holy Spirit. The more we accept the doctrine, moral code, Sacraments, and prayer of the Catholic Church founded by Jesus Christ, the more we live in the Holy Spirit.
When mindfully celebrated, Advent reminds us that we live between the First Coming of Christ and His Second Coming. Advent calls us to grow in faithfulness to Catholic doctrine, morality, worship, and prayer as the best way to grow in relationship with Christ born in Bethlehem. Christ came to offer us the fullness of life. It is never too late to take Him up on His offer or to grow in our acceptance of that offer.
Happy New Liturgical Year!