On a plane ride a few weeks ago, I found myself seated next to the founder of a Protestant church. He laughed because he was sandwiched between two Catholics, a married man who had been in Catholic seminary for a little while on his right and me, a Catholic high school Theology teacher, on his left. The conversation was pleasant, but the pastor shared one thing that seemed rather significant to me. Although he founded and now pastors an extremely contemporary church, he said his personal prayer is quite liturgical. This point fascinated me because it spoke of the true desire for liturgy is woven into the fabric of our beings.
As humans, we are bound to worship, whether our focal point is God or something else varies for the individual. Perhaps overly simplified, the liturgy is our communal worship, the traditional rites we follow to offer praise, thanksgiving, and supplication to God. Of the various liturgies in the Catholic Church, the highest is the Eucharist, the Sacrament of sacraments. Beyond the structure of this liturgy is the structure of the year. Too often I take for granted the beautiful gift that is found in the yearly passing through the major points of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Several years ago, I heard it said that in the Church’s wisdom she developed the liturgical year to satisfy mankind’s love of change and stability. Having never before thought of it like that, I experienced a new perspective of something that had always been present in my life. In delving into the rich rhythm of the liturgical year, I have discovered that the feasting and fasting, as well as the ordinary and extraordinary times, provide a healthy balance in life. Since humanity often tires of the same thing, the Church moves us through different seasons to celebrate and recall the different parts of the mystery of Christ. Yet constant change is difficult and so the seasons are cyclical, each new year of grace seeking to lead us deeper into these same mysteries of Christ but in a fresh way.
While the Gregorian calendar tells us a month is left of this year, the liturgical calendar is reminding us that a new year is close at hand. Personally, I like that the two calendars that govern my life are slightly off center. It reminds me that I am in the world but not of it. As a follower of Christ, it calls me to acknowledge that His grace should cause me to see the year in a different way since my sight is imbued with an otherworldly perspective.
With the Church on the brink of a new year, let us consider the gift of the changing liturgical seasons.
Advent: Waiting for Christ’s Coming
The year starts off with joyful anticipation. Joining our hearts and minds with the Israelites, we wait for the coming of the Messiah. Yet knowing that Jesus has already come and ascended, we wait for His Second Coming at the end of time. This pregnant season of waiting calls to mind St. Paul’s words in Romans 8:22-25:
We know that the whole creation has been groaning with labor pains together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
We do not wait without a purpose. As parents of a newborn prepare for the child’s birth, so we make our hearts ready for Christ’s new birth into our hearts and our birth into eternal life. While Advent is culturally forgotten or seen merely as a time of wrapping presents and sending Christmas cards, it should cause us to remember that we need to make Him room, in our hearts and in our lives.
The best Advent I ever had was the semester I took an Old Testament Scripture class in college. For months we made our way through salvation history, learning about the covenants that God repeatedly offered man and the ways humanity broke those covenants. We ended the semester with a unit on the prophets and, for the very first time, I encountered a taste of the longing that the Israelites must have experienced. Scripture passages that I had heard before were filled with a new life, a new pleading that God would send a Redeemer. While I knew the Savior had already come, I experienced the “wait” in a new way and thus experienced the joy of Christmas in a new way.
Christmas: God with Us
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only-begotten Son from the Father….And from his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (John 1: 14, 16-17)
When the rest of the world is throwing out the Christmas tree, the Catholic world is just starting the celebration. The Octave of Christmas leads into the Christmas season. In the Church’s generosity, our four weeks of Advent preparation provide room for the several days of feasting that surround the second highest feast in the Church’s liturgical year.
The scandal of the Incarnation should arrest us. We linger at the manager, gazing with tenderness at the face of the God-man. This mystery is one we have heard over and over, so often that it no longer seems to be mysterious. We take it as a matter of course that God would take on human flesh. Yet Christmas should call us to see the birth of God as the superabundant, ridiculously generous gift that it truly is. The God who created the entire world loved us so much that He became one of us. Entering the fray, He revealed the heart of the Father and showed us the pathway to Heaven.
Ordinary Time: Laborers in the Vineyard
Most of the liturgical year is spent in Ordinary Time and that makes sense. We know the ordinariness of life and our spiritual lives see the same in the daily grind. It cannot always be times of feasting or fasting. Sometimes we simply carry on with our daily life. We have the joy of planting and harvesting yet in between is the necessary time of growth and pruning. There is a section of Ordinary Time between Christmas and Lent and then a much longer time following the Easter season. The gift of Ordinary Time is that it calls us to seek holiness in the mundane and the ordinariness gives the times of feasting a greater joy.
After Jesus was found in the temple at age twelve, the Scriptures have complete silence about His life until He is thirty and starting His public life by being baptized in the Jordan River. Eighteen years of Our Savior’s life are lived in quiet, ordinary moments in Nazareth. The Gospel of Luke says, “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man.” That is the only bridge between the child Jesus and the man who is baptized by John. Much of the growth in our spiritual lives occurs in finding God in the ordinary events of daily life. St. Josemaria Escriva said, “Either we learn to find the Lord in the ordinary everyday life or else we shall never find him.”
Lent: A Broken, Contrite Heart
The time of the year that we buckle down and get to work is Lent. While this time of penance can be difficult, I find it far easier to enter into the battle knowing that Easter is the victory line. During these forty days, the passion and death of Jesus are called to mind. Realizing that many things take the place that God should have in our lives, the Lenten season is a time of stripping away the excess and seeking the Lord.
The three pillars are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Contrary to how I often view it, this time in the desert is not about seeing how strong you are or how much you can sacrifice. It is good to push yourself and to offer up things that truly cause an ache in you. However, it is far more about focusing on God’s grace. This past Lent I gave up coffee. Sundays are not counted as part of the forty days of Lent and so I drank coffee on the little weekly Easter. I found myself wanting to be strong and give up coffee entirely. While that might have been a partially good desire, I quickly recognized that it sprang largely from pride. I wanted the ego boost of saying I sacrificed coffee for over a month. Giving it up for six days and then having it on the seventh day didn’t quite satisfy my ego. The focus of Lent is not doing really hard things, but is rather about making room in my day, my finances, and my heart for God to have first priority.
Triduum: The Three Days Yet One Liturgy
The Triduum is probably my favorite season of the year. Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday are interwoven to create one liturgy that is spread out over three days. I cannot imagine skipping from the last Sunday in Lent straight to Easter Sunday without passing through the most climactic part of the year. So many traditions fill these days as we travel with Christ through the final hours of His life.
On Holy Thursday we recall the institution of the Eucharist and the priesthood. We wait up with Jesus as He travels from the Upper Room to the garden to await His betrayal. Good Friday finds us embracing the cross and encountering the hunger within our hearts and stomachs. Holy Saturday is a time of waiting by the tomb with St. Mary Magdalene and preparing for the glorious Resurrection.
Easter: Christ has Risen
Alleluia! Alleluia! The feast of feasts is Easter when we celebrate Christ who conquered sin and death. For me, the best Easters follow the most penitential Lents. If I’m fully immersed in the forty days of fasting, the several weeks of feasting that follow are truly beautiful. Like the Octave of Christmas, the Octave of Easter reminds us that the Church does not move on from major feasts very quickly. Instead, each day during that week of Easter, the Church keeps telling us that it is still Easter Sunday.
While the Church takes fasting seriously, she is also diligent about rejoicing. I know several people in religious life and when they feast, they truly feast. Pope Benedict XVI said, “We are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song.” When we circle back around to Easter, we see how our identity as Christians is found in the joy of our salvation won by Christ on the cross. Yet we must pass through the cross in order to experience the joy of the Resurrection.
Solemnities, Feasts, and Memorials: Moments of Grace during the Liturgical Year
The Church gives another gift beyond the flow of the liturgical year. While we pass from one season to another, each focusing on a part of the life of Christ that we should contemplate, our year is also interspersed with solemnities, feasts, and memorials. Living in the heart of the Church makes random days that the secular world doesn’t notice into days of great feasting. We honor different saints, titles of Jesus and Mary, and events important to the life of the Church. I attended a Franciscan college and learned about many Franciscan saints that I had never even heard of before. The wealth found in the treasury of the saints is immense. Bearing this in mind, the Church scatters their feasts around the year, causing us to stop and consider the holy lives of pilgrims who have gone before us.
The structure of the year for the Catholic is ever-changing and yet always remains the same. Seasons pass but will return again the next year, satisfying our desire for change and our desire for permanence. I encourage you to try to live more fully the life of the liturgical year during this new year of grace. When we live in the heart of the Church, it beautifully transforms our year and draws us into deeper union with Christ.