Last weekend, I gave a presentation on liturgical living at the Catholic Rural Life Festival in Maine. The festival, begun just a few years ago is an opportunity to nurture and uplift rural, sustainable, Catholic life in Maine. With workshops, prayer, and an amazing farm to table supper, the CRL Festival is working to unite a far-flung, Catholic community in the most unchurched state in the Union.
I was asked to share my experiences living out the liturgical year, and as I planned my talk, I realized just how much poorer contemporary Catholic culture is than the lush, celebratory faith of long ago. As our society has lost its connection with the land, and its intimacy with nature, we’ve also lost so many of the feasts that unite our faith and our world.
But, they don’t have to stay lost. Wherever you live, and however far from the wheel of natural and liturgical seasons you’ve strayed, there’s always a chance to look reach back into the tapestry of folk traditions and rural feasts to find inspiration.
Knowing the Feasts
One of our biggest limitations in living out the liturgical year is ignorance. Most of us just weren’t raised in a Catholic culture. We know the basics, but the imagination that once prompted Catholics to stage processions, sing songs, light candles, and bake cakes has never been formed. The once innate awareness of the liturgical seasons is lacking.
In our homes now, we have the opportunity to reclaim the beautiful traditions and life-giving celebrations. We have the opportunity to shape a Sacramental imagination in our children. It takes some work to rediscover seasons of the liturgical year, but you can start slowly.
There’s a hierarchy of feast-days, and as you begin observing them, you’ll find family favorites as well. Name-days, family devotions, and cultural favorites may become some of your best-beloved celebrations. But start at the top. Start with Easter and move into the Nativity feasts. It’s essential to share the celebration of these Holy Days with the Church. Don’t neglect the primary feasts for the sake of your family’s favorite devotions, instead, unite them all into a beautiful, yearly cycle of worship.
The Primary Feasts
Everyone has a favorite feast day, but the feast that ought to be our first and foremost is, of course, Easter. The day when Christ “trampled upon death and has given life to those who are in the tomb.” After Easter, the Nativity feasts especially honor the three saints whose holy births brought hope to the world.
Easter (1st Sunday after the First Full Moon of Spring)
The pinnacle of our year, the Feast of Feasts, Easter is a day when Joy reigns supreme. If we celebrate only one feast, it must be Easter. The Day when Christ Triumphs over the grave. All of our faith rests on the Resurrection of Jesus, so let’s celebrate fully.
The Church calendar only celebrates the birth of 3 people: Jesus, Mary, and John the Baptist. Tradition tells us that this is because of all people in history, only these three were born without original sin. Christ of course is sinless, His Mother was conceived without sin, and His cousin, St. John is said to have been cleansed of original sin when, in the womb of his mother, Elizabeth, he leapt for joy at the approach of his Lord.
The nativity feasts: on the 25th of December, the 24th of June, and the 8th of September are delightful and easy feasts to celebrate at home. They can be cozy, intimate, and full of childlike celebrations, or they can be grand, seasonal celebrations that welcome winter, summer, and the harvest. Bonfires are popular on the nativities of Christ and St. John, while seeds, flowers, and crops are traditionally blessed on the Nativity of Mary.
The Seasonal Feasts
Each season has its particular feast as well. Two of these feasts are also Nativity feasts: Christmas and St. John’s Day. Two celebrate our heavenly protectors: Mary and St. Michael.
One of the blessings of the Church’s intimate relationship with rural living is just how tied to the land and seasons many of our feast days are. Along with the primary seasonal feasts, each culture within the body of the church has embraced certain saints for seasonal needs.
The primary seasonal feast days are Christmas, Lady Day (Annunciation), St. John’s Day, and Michaelmas. Each feast is close enough to the astronomical seasons to stand as a start to the season.
Christmas (December 25)
Only 3-4 days after the winter solstice, when Christmas arrives, we welcome the birth of the Son – in Whose Light we live and grow and have our being. The whole world changes, the darkness recedes and hope returns to the world.
For those of us living close to the land, the return of light fits naturally with the coming of Hope Himself. While we know there are bitter, cold days ahead of us, each day the days lengthen and the night’s pass away more quickly.
Lady Day (March 25)
The feast of the Annunciation celebrates Our Lady’s “fiat”. Her whole-hearted welcome of Christ into her body and the fertility of the Virgin Mother announces the coming of spring. The world is full of new life, beauty, and abundant joy. Day has finally overwhelmed the night. After the equinox a few days before Lady Day, the days are longer than the nights. Warmth is returning to the earth.
Traditional speculation has always linked the Conception of Christ with the first day of creation. Many believe the Christ became Incarnate in the womb of Mary on the anniversary of the first day of creation. As, long ago He said “Let there be Light”, now again, with His Creation’s Consent, He says once again, “Let there be Light” in the world, and Himself becomes that Light.
St. John’s Day (June 24)
Traditions surrounding St. John’s Day are almost as numerous as those surrounding Christmas. These days, as our culture moves further and further from our rural roots, St. John’s Day celebrations are forgotten and abandoned. Just 2-3 days after the summer solstice, St. John’s Day welcomes us into the heart of summer.
The days are long and hot. The gardens, fields, and woods are full; and yet we know that “He must increase, I must decrease”. We begin to prepare for the dying away from the world that Christ calls us to. Even in the glow of midsummer, we are reminded that we are made for more than this world can offer.
MIchaelmas (September 29th)
The feast of St. Michael at the end of September follows the autumnal equinox and encourages us to step into the dying of the year in confidence. On the feast of Michaelmas, we celebrate the conqueror of Satan, who flung him to earth and defends us in the battle for our souls.
This autumn feast reminds us of our need for protection. We’re entering the hard seasons again. Darkness is growing strong around us and the days are brief and cool. As the world arounds us falls and fades, we celebrate our heavenly protector, who defends us against the wickedness and snares of the devil.
These primary feasts introduce us to a lived faith, a faith that is woven into the cycle of days and seasons. We start to see Christ again in the changing trees, the early morning light, and the poppies growing wild.
Now, it’s time to add in other feasts. The name-days of family members are a fun place to start. Take time to really celebrate the feast of your child’s patron, your husband’s patron, and your own patron saint. In our family we bake a little cake to put on the altar and a larger to share as a family after dinner. We put an image of the saint somewhere prominent, light candles, and put out flowers.
There are so many, beautiful feasts open to us. So many of them have deep ties to the land and season; and so many of them can help us connect to nature in ways we never expected.
As I invited the participants at the Catholic Rural Life Festival to welcome the seasonal feast days back into their lives, I realized just how much celebrating those holy days has changed how I relate to the earth and it’s Maker. “Ritual and belief beget and support one another” (Lewis, CS. The Discarded Image); filling my life and the lives of my children with living rituals builds in us a life of faith.