Liturgical Year
Part 1 Introduction

Chapter y13 Overview of the Liturgical Year

Preliminary Questions

Bibliography

Natural Year / Church Year

How We Read the Bible
Three Lectionaries

Non-Seasonal Time

Seasonal Time

General Liturgical Principles

Classification

Typical Course Outline

Vatican II  CSL Cp. 5

Catholic Update:  Liturgical Year

To Think About

Preliminary Questions

If someone ask you "What is the Liturgical Year?" how would you respond?  

You will find definitions that speak of seasons, feasts, vestment colors, decorations, etc.;  but of all the definitions of "Liturgical Year" and "Church Year" that I have found, I have found that the most accurate and fruitful description for catechetical purposes is:  "The Liturgical Year is the way we read the Bible."

The liturgical year is an adventure in bringing the Christian life to fullness, the heart to alert, the soul to focus. It does not concern itself with the questions of how to make a living. It concerns itself the questions of how to make a life. (Chittister, The Liturgical Year, p 4.)  The Liturgical Year "proposes, year after year, to immerse us over and over again into the sense and substance of the Christian life until, eventually, we are who we say we are -- followers of Jesus all the way to the heart of God. The liturgical year is an adventure in human growth, an exercise in spiritual ripening." (Chittister, p. 6.)

Go to:  Top of This Page --- Liturgical Year Index --- Fr. Tom' Home Page

Bibliography

Calendarium Romanum:  General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the New General Roman Calendar issued by the Sacred Congregation of Rites on March 21, 1969    Published in English by the Bishops' Committee on Divine Worship in Norms Governing Liturgical Calendars,  Liturgy Documentary Series, Number 6.  Washington DC: Office of Publishing and Promotion Services, USCCB, 1984.  Publication number 928-9.  $6.95 paper.  The first half of the text is available online at www.catholicliturgy.com 

Ordo Lectionum Missae:  General Introduction to the Roman Lectionary for Mass.   The text is available online at www.catholicliturgy.com   [The text is also printed at the beginning of the Lectionary.]  

A.G. Martimort (Editor). The Church at Prayer, Volume IV, The Liturgy and Time. New Edition, Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1985.  ISBN 081461

Maxwell Johnson, Editor. Between Memory and Hope: Readings on the Liturgical Year. The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, 2000.  ISBN 0-8146-6025-8. Paper, $39.95.

Joan Chittister, The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life.   Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009. ISBN 978-0-8499-4607-3.

[A classic text updated Paul Turner]  Adrien Nocent OSB and Paul Turner.  The Liturgical Year (Volume 1. Advent, Christmas, Epiphany; Volume 2, Lent, the Sacred Paschal Triduum, Easter Time;  Volume 3, Sundays Two to Thirty-Four in Ordinary Time).  The Liturgical Press, 2013-2014.

See also:  Chapter d37 The Role of Sacred Scripture in the Liturgy

Go to:  Top of This Page --- Liturgical Year Index --- Fr. Tom' Home Page

 Natural Year / Church Year

What is the difference between the natural year and the liturgical year? The natural year with it's seasons (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter) happens all by itself.  The Liturgical Year is a construct.  You have to make it happen.

How do you make the liturgical year happen?  By choosing what to read when.

Think of the two hemispheres of the human brain:  Left lobe [logic, word]; Right lobe [symbol, poetry, feeling] 

Left Lobe:  [word / logical]  The bible reading.  The liturgical year is the way we read the Bible. Note: it is the readings that make the liturgical year.  Reading the account of the birth of Jesus makes the day Christmas. [This is a much better catechetical formulation than: We read the story of the birth of Jesus on Christmas.]  Know which readings are characteristic of which liturgical seasons.

Right lobe:  [symbol]  Color, light, vestment, decoration, ashes, palm, oil, water, etc.  The liturgical year is the way we read the Bible.  The symbols flow from the reading.

Note:  For most Catholics this work is done for them by the sacristan and the liturgical books.  How do you make the year "happen"?  For example, what do you do to make Lent really feel like, and accomplish the "deep meaning" of Lent?

Go to:  Top of This Page --- Liturgical Year Index --- Fr. Tom' Home Page

How We Read the Bible

How do we read a book? I think that the easiest way to describe to "ordinary people" the way the Bible is arranged in the liturgical year (and I like the definition: "the liturgical year is the way Catholics read the Bible") is to use the analogy of the way we read an ordinary book.

How do we read a book? Ordinarily we start at the beginning and read to the end. But if it is a frequently read and much loved book, sometimes we simply read our favorite passages depending on our need at the moment.  We can read the Bible in these same two ways. We can start at the beginning and go to the end -- this is how we read the books of the Bible during the time "throughout the year", the "per annum" time (sometimes translated in English [misleadingly], as "Ordinary Time").  Or we can select our favorite passages based on a theme. This is how we read the Bible during the seasonal times (lent/Easter, advent/Christmas).

The Liturgical Year has two "parts", depending on how the Scripture reading is selected.

1.  The time "Throughout the Year" (Per Annum) or "Non-Seasonal Time" -- frequently called "Ordinary Time" when the various books of the Bible are read beginning to end, (semi-)continuously (the 33 Sundays of each of the 3 cycles)

2.  "Seasonal Time", when various passages of the Bible are selected to be read depending on a predetermined "theme".  (Lent/Easter and Advent/Christmas)

The current legislation regarding the arrangement of seasonal and non-seasonal time in the the Roman Rite is contained in The Roman Calendar

The way the passages from the Bible are assigned to the different days is contained in The Roman Lectionary

The liturgical year (as found in The Roman Calendar) is "the way we read the Bible in Church" and The Roman Lectionary contains the schedule for which reading is read on which day.  The two books are obviously related.   In order to achieve the liturgical renewal mandated by the Second Vatican Council, The Roman Calendar had to be revised prior to The Roman Lectionary.

Note:  Ordinary Time

The common understanding of the word "ordinary" (as given in a dictionary) is:

1.  of no special quality or interest; commonplace; unexceptional
2.  plain or undistinguished
3.  somewhat inferior or below average; mediocre.

Question:  Do we really want to call the non-seasonal (Per Annum) parts of the Liturgical Year "ordinary", when the word means "of no interest", "inferior", "below average", "mediocre"?

Go to:  Top of This Page --- Liturgical Year Index --- Fr. Tom' Home Page

Three Lectionaries

When do we read the bible in the liturgy?  When do Catholics hear the Bible proclaimed liturgically?   The largest number hear the word on Sunday.  A smaller number hear the word on Sunday and on Weekdays.  An even smaller number, besides celebrating the Eucharist on Sundays and weekdays, also celebrate the Liturgy of the Hours. 

This gives rise to three cycles of readings -- each with semi-continuous times and theme times: 

1)  the Sunday cycle;
2)  the Weekday cycle;
3)  the Liturgy of the Hours cycle. 

The Sunday Cycle repeats every three years (based on the three synoptic Gospels); and other two cycles repeat every two years.

Go to:  Top of This Page --- Liturgical Year Index --- Fr. Tom' Home Page

Non-Seasonal Time

Non-Seasonal Time or Time Throughout the Year employs a semi-continuous reading of the Bible.  The readings are selected on principles intrinsic to the reading itself, rather than extrinsic to the reading.  For a table showing how the Scriptures are read "Throughout the Year" see Chapter y15 The Roman Calendar

Go to:  Top of This Page --- Liturgical Year Index --- Fr. Tom' Home Page

Seasonal Time

There are two Christian Seasons:  Easter and Christmas.

The Easter Season has three parts

1.  Lent (pre-baptismal retreat) THINK: BAPTISM
2.  The Paschal Triduum
3.  The Fifty Days. (7x7 =  a week of weeks). [There are no Sundays "after" Easter]. Acts / John

The Christmas Season has three parts

1.  Advent [Isaiah] JOYFUL EXPECTATION

Week 1 - Eschatology
Weeks 2/3 - John the Baptist
Week 4 - Mary and Joseph.

2.  Christmas
3.  The Feasts of the Christmas Season

Go to:  Top of This Page --- Liturgical Year Index --- Fr. Tom' Home Page

General Liturgical Principles

General Liturgical Principles for the reform of the calendar:

Review the importance of General Liturgical Principles with regard to obedience to liturgical law.  Msgr. Jounel told us in class that the following six general principles guided the coetus in the reform of the calendar. 

GP 1 Restore Sunday
GP 2 Christ over saints
GP 3 Seasons to original meaning
GP 4 Understandable to all the Faithful
GP 5 Subsidiarity: local celebrations to local churches
GP 6 Saints: truth in advertising

[To understand these 6 general principles guiding the reform it is necessary to know the state of the calendar in 1962]

GP 1 Restore Sunday   The Sunday cycle had become obscured by the number of feasts which were celebrated on Sundays.  At the turn of the century (1900) one scarcely ever saw "green Sundays."  Every Sunday was a Saints day.  (Perhaps this was caused by the fact that the Sunday office was very long.)    For Example:  October:  The Transfiguration, the Feast of the Holy Rosary, The Feast of Christ the King, etc.  Also, many "themes" and "causes" replaced the Sunday (e.g. Mission Sunday, Collection for Catholic University Sunday, Unity Sunday, Right to Life Sunday, etc.) This is the historical background for #106 of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy:

106. By a tradition handed down from the apostles which took its origin from the very day of Christ's resurrection, the Church celebrates the paschal mystery every eighth day; with good reason this, then, bears the name of the Lord's day or Sunday. For on this day Christ's faithful are bound to come together into one place so that; by hearing the word of God and taking part in the eucharist, they may call to mind the passion, the resurrection and the glorification of the Lord Jesus, and may thank God who "has begotten them again, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, unto a living hope" (1 Pet. 1:3). Hence the Lord's day is the original feast day, and it should be proposed to the piety of the faithful and taught to them so that it may become in fact a day of joy and of freedom from work. Other celebrations, unless they be truly of greatest importance, shall not have precedence over the Sunday which is the foundation and kernel of the whole liturgical year.

GP 2  Christ over Saints  The Feasts of the Lord are to take precedence over the feasts of the Saints.   This relates to the first principle above.  Also, some feasts of the Lord, in the course of time, had become feasts of the Blessed Mother.  (e.g. The Annunciation is the feast of the Lord's Conception.  The Feast of the Purification of Mary, February 2, is the Feast of the Presentation [of the Lord] in the Temple.)   A very common "opinion" of Catholics was:  "Catholics are not Christians because they do not believe in Christ and do not read the Bible."  The Liturgical Year and the Church Calendar of the years before the reform of the Second Vatican Council provided the basis for this accusation and (mis-)understanding. This is the historical background for #108 of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy:

108. The minds of the faithful must be directed primarily toward the feasts of the Lord whereby the mysteries of salvation are celebrated in the course of the year. Therefore, the proper of the time shall be given the preference which is its due over the feasts of the saints, so that the entire cycle of the mysteries of salvation may be suitably recalled.

GP 3 Seasons to original meaning   Restore the Liturgical Seasons to their traditional and historical meaning.   Lent had lost its baptismal character.   Advent had become a second lent, used the same liturgical color, and emphasized fasting and penance, etc.

GP 4 Understandable to all the Faithful The revision of "The Code of Rubrics of the Roman Breviary and Missal" of July 25, 1960 simplifies (Sic!!!) the classification of liturgical days as follows:

Sundays are of the first or second class (Article 1)
Ferial days are of the first, second, third, or fourth class (Article 22)
Vigils are of the first, second, or third class (Article 28)
Feasts are of the first, second, or third class (Article 36)
Octaves are of the first or second class (Article 65)
Commemorations are either privileged or ordinary.  (Article 107)

Many former ranks (e.g. doubles of the First Class, semi-doubles, etc) disappeared in this revision; however there remained 16 categories!  (See:  Richstatter, Liturgical Law Today, pp 50-51). 

The (current) 1969 Roman Calendar ranks the days:  Solemnity, Feast, Memorial (universal and optional) 

GP 5 Subsidiarity: local celebrations to local churches    Principle of Subsidiarity.  At the time of the Second Vatican Council, the Church was becoming aware of its world-wide character and began to see that not everything had to be (or should be) the same everywhere.  The principles of inculturation, local adaptation, and subsidiarity are introduced [for the first time] into the liturgical books.  See, for example, Chapter y54 Calendar for the USA or Chapter y55 Calendar for the Order of Friars Minor

GP 6 Saints: truth in advertising   Historical truth in Christian Hagiographies.   Our contemporary culture is more "literal" and "historical" than past ages and certain stories that were "pious" and "edifying" then can be seen as "silly" today and distract rather then edify.  [My parents named me "Thomas Raymond" at my baptism.  In the hagiographical reading in the Second Nocturne at Matins on St. Raymond's feast day we read that even from his infancy St. Raymond exhibited signs of sainthood; for example, he would refuse his mother's breast on the fast days during Lent.]   With regard to the revision of the Liturgy of the Hours, Sacrosanctum Concilium stated:  "The accounts of martyrdom or the lives of the saints are to accord with the facts of history."  (SC 92c)

Go to:  Top of This Page --- Liturgical Year Index --- Fr. Tom' Home Page

Classification

Current classification of Liturgical Days:

1.  Solemnities

2.  Feasts

3.  Memorials.  Memorials can be of two types:  Universal (obligatory) or Local (optional).

For a list of solemnities, feasts, and memorials see Chapter y15 The Roman Calendar

Go to:  Top of This Page --- Liturgical Year Index --- Fr. Tom' Home Page

Typical Course Outline

1.  Time    Bible, Anamnesis, Paschal Mystery, General Principles, etc.

2.  Sunday   Day of Resurrection,  Gathering, Eucharist, etc.

3.  Easter  Lent, Holy Week, Triduum, Easter, The Fifty Days, Pentecost

4.  Christmas  Advent, Christmas, Christmas Season, Epiphany

5.  Feasts    Feasts and Solemnities of Our Lord, Mary, Saints, Ember Days, Rogation Days, etc.

Go to:  Top of This Page --- Liturgical Year Index --- Fr. Tom' Home Page

Vatican II -- Constitution on the Liturgy
Chapter V.  The Liturgical Year

 

102. Holy Mother Church is conscious that she must celebrate the saving work of her divine Spouse by devoutly recalling it on certain days throughout the course of the year. Every week, on the day which she has called the Lord's day, she keeps the memory of the Lord's resurrection, which she also celebrates once in the year, together with His blessed passion, in the most solemn festival of Easter.

Within the cycle of a year, moreover, she unfolds the whole mystery of Christ, from the incarnation and birth until the ascension, the day of Pentecost, and the expectation of blessed hope and of the coming of the Lord.

Recalling thus the mysteries of redemption, the Church opens to the faithful the riches of her Lord's powers and merits, so that these are in some way made present for all time, and the faithful are enabled to lay hold upon them and become filled with saving grace.

Commentary:  The classic shape of liturgical law has two parts: a discursive section and a dispositive sectionDISCURSIVE LAW: The discourse, the context, in which the dispositive law is given. DISPOSITIVE LAW: The "therefore" that follows upon the discourse or discursive law.   Articles 102 to 105 are the "discourse",  the theory and background for what follows in the "dispositive" (the things we are going to "posit" and "put in place") section of the law  (Articles 106-111).

Commentary:  This is a general description of the Church Year.  Notice the primacy given to Sunday and the emphasis on the resurrection.  The Resurrection is one of the "deep truths" which is unfolded by the liturgical celebration of the liturgical year. 

Commentary:   The notion of "presence" (anamnesis) is introduced in the very first paragraph, indicating the importance of this concept to the liturgical celebrations.  This was a very "new" theological concept at the time.  The concept was developed by Fr. Odo Casel O.S.B. (1886-1948) a monk of Maria Laach.  His key text: The Mystery of Christian Worship.  My doctor father and mentor Pierre-Marie Gy, O.P. said that Odo Casel was perhaps the major thinker behind the sacramental theology of the 20th century.

103. In celebrating this annual cycle of Christ's mysteries, holy Church honors with especial love the Blessed Mary, Mother of God, who is joined by an inseparable bond to the saving work of her Son. In her the Church holds up and admires the most excellent fruit of the redemption, and joyfully contemplates, as in a faultless image, that which she herself desires and hopes wholly to be. 

Commentary:  The Council reaffirms the role of Mary in Catholic life.  And in addition to the role Mary plays in relation to Christ -- "Christo-typological Mariology"  -- the Council introduces a "new" aspect of devotion, Mary as the first of the disciples, the model of the Church, a "Ecclesiological-typological Mariology."  This will be developed further in The Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium  (Chapter VIII:  The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, in the Mystery of Christ and the Church)ref="http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19641121_lumen-gentium_en.html" 104. The Church has also included in the annual cycle days devoted to the memory of the martyrs and the other saints. Raised up to perfection by the manifold grace of God, and already in possession of eternal salvation, they sing God's perfect praise in heaven and offer prayers for us. By celebrating the passage of these saints from earth to heaven the Church proclaims the paschal mystery achieved in the saints who have suffered and been glorified with Christ; she proposes them to the faithful as examples drawing all to the Father through Christ, and through their merits she pleads for God's favors.

T Richstatter Commentary:  Note that the first emphasis is on what God has done through the saints.   

105. Finally, in the various seasons of the year and according to her traditional discipline, the Church completes the formation of the faithful by means of pious practices for soul and body, by instruction, prayer, and works of penance and of mercy.

T Richstatter Commentary:  Note:  As the work of revision advances, the seasons take on more importance and are seen in relation to article 102.  In the experience of the Bishops in 1962, the seasons did not have the liturgical importance they have today.

Accordingly the sacred Council has seen fit to decree as follows.

T Richstatter Commentary:  The classic shape of liturgical law has two parts: a discursive section and a dispositive sectionDISCURSIVE LAW: The discourse, the context, in which the dispositive law is given. DISPOSITIVE LAW: The "therefore" that follows upon the discourse or discursive law.   Articles 102 to 105 above are the "discourse" the theory and background for what follows in the "dispositive" (the things we are going to "posit" and "put in place") section of the law  (106-111). 106. By a tradition> handed down from the apostles which took its origin from the very day of Christ's resurrection, the Church celebrates the paschal mystery every eighth day; with good reason this, then, bears the name of the Lord's day or Sunday. For on this day Christ's faithful are bound to come together into one place so that; by hearing the word of God and taking part in the eucharist, they may call to mind the passion, the resurrection and the glorification of the Lord Jesus, and may thank God who "has begotten them again, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, unto a living hope" (1 Pet. 1:3). Hence the Lord's day is the original feast day, and it should be proposed to the piety of the faithful and taught to them so that it may become in fact a day of joy and of freedom from work. Other celebrations, unless they be truly of greatest importance, shall not have precedence over the Sunday which is the foundation and kernel of the whole liturgical year.

T Richstatter Commentary:  This is the official statement of Jounel's principles # 1 &2 for the revision of the Calendar -- the primacy of Sunday.  Note the following emphasis:  1) coming together, assembly; 2) Resurrection; 3) Baptism. 

107. The liturgical year is to be revised so that the traditional customs and discipline of the sacred seasons shall be preserved or restored to suit the conditions of modern times; their specific character is to be retained, so that they duly nourish the piety of the faithful who celebrate the mysteries of Christian redemption, and above all the paschal mystery. If certain adaptations are considered necessary on account of local conditions, they are to be made in accordance with the provisions of Art. 39 and 40.

T Richstatter Commentary:  This is the official statement of Jounel's principle # 3 for the revision of the Calendar -- the restoration of the seasons.  It also introduces the principles of subsidiarity and inculturation. 

108. The minds of the faithful must be directed primarily toward the feasts of the Lord whereby the mysteries of salvation are celebrated in the course of the year. Therefore, the proper of the time shall be given the preference which is its due over the feasts of the saints, so that the entire cycle of the mysteries of salvation may be suitably recalled.

T Richstatter Commentary:  The Sunday cycle had become obscured by the number of feasts which were celebrated on Sundays.  At the turn of the century (1900) one scarcely ever saw "green Sundays."  Every Sunday was a Saints day.  Also, during the seasons of Lent and Advent the celebrations of the saints often replaced the seasonal liturgy. 

109. The season of Lent has a twofold character: primarily by recalling or preparing for baptism and by penance, it disposes the faithful, who more diligently hear the word of God and devote themselves to prayer, to celebrate the paschal mystery. This twofold character is to be brought into greater prominence both in the liturgy and by liturgical catechesis. Hence:

T Richstatter Commentary:  The baptismal features of Lent were an innovation in 1963.  The RCIA will not appear until 1974 but this prepares the way for the baptismal focus of the Easter Vigil and lent as "our 40 day retreat before baptism." 

a) More use is to be made of the baptismal features proper to the Lenten liturgy; some of them, which used to flourish in bygone days, are to be restored as may seem good.

T Richstatter Commentary:  For example, the Catechumenate, the scrutinies and exorcisms; presentations etc. 

b) The same is to apply to the penitential elements. As regards instruction it is important to impress on the minds of the faithful not only a social consequences of sin but also that essence of the virtue of penance which leads to the detestation of sin as an offence against God; the role of the Church in penitential practices is not to be passed over, and the people must be exhorted to pray for sinners. 

110. During Lent penance should not be only internal and individual, but also external and social. The practice of penance should be fostered in ways that are possible in our own times and in different regions, and according to the circumstances of the faithful; it should be encouraged by the authorities mentioned in Art. 22.

T Richstatter Commentary:  Note:   In a few (3) years (February 17, 1966) the entire penitential discipline of the Church would be revised by the Apostolic Constitution of Pope Paul VI, Poenitemini. 

Nevertheless, let the paschal fast be kept sacred. Let it be celebrated everywhere on Good Friday and, where possible, prolonged throughout Holy Saturday, so that the joys of the Sunday of the resurrection may be attained with uplifted and clear mind.

T Richstatter Commentary:  Even today, many Catholics do not think of the fast of Good Friday as a paschal fast to be kept through Holy Saturday and broken by the Eucharist of Easter; may Catholics think of penance in union with the sufferings of Jesus on the cross on Good Friday.  However, I hear of more and more individuals and communities keeping the "paschal fast".   --  It is interesting to note the "cultural" difficulties breaking the fast with the "Thanksgiving Dinner" at noon on Holy Saturday at which the family ate all the foods that were forbidden during lent.  When the vigil was celebrated on Saturday morning, lent ended after the vigil (as it does today).  However in 1949, Lent ended at noon on Saturday because the Vigil was at 6 or 7 AM. 

111. The saints have been traditionally honored in the Church and their authentic relics and images held in veneration. For the feasts of the saints proclaim the wonderful works of Christ in His servants, and display to the faithful fitting examples for their imitation.

Lest the feasts of the saints should take precedence over the feasts which commemorate the very mysteries of salvation, many of them should be left to be celebrated by a particular Church or nation or family of religious; only those should be extended to the universal Church which commemorate saints who are truly of universal importance.

T Richstatter Commentary:  Once again, #111 is the official  statement of Jounel's principles of "Christ over the Saints" and "subsidiarity."

Go to:  Top of This Page --- Liturgical Year Index --- Fr. Tom' Home Page

Catholic Update:  The Liturgical Year

The following article is copyrighted by Saint Anthony Messenger Press, Cincinnati OH, 2010.  It is printed here solely for the use of students in the Liturgical Year course.

The Liturgical Year: Simple Facts and Deep Truths

By Fr. Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M.

You can probably get to heaven without knowing all the ins and outs of the Church's liturgical year!  But Sunday Eucharist (and indeed all of the Church's official, liturgical prayers) will be more meaningful and fruitful for you if you have some understanding of the purpose and structure of the liturgical year. 

Sunday Mass is not something that we merely "watch" or "go to."  It is something that we do; we are active participants in the celebration. And as with anything that we do, the more that we understand what we are doing, the more meaningful (and enjoyable) the action becomes.

Simple Facts, Deep Truths

To understand the liturgical year, it is helpful to distinguish between simple statements of fact and statements that express a deep truth.  "Ann is 45 years old" is a statement of fact; it is either true or false, and it is easy to verify.  "Ann is destined for eternal life" is a statement of a deep truth; it is known only by faith and its meaning and implications are understood only little by little, through years of prayer and reflection.  With regard to Mass:  "I celebrated Mass at 8:00 AM" (a simple fact, easily verifiable).  "The Eucharist transforms me into Christ's Body" (a deep truth, verifiable only by prayer and faith).

To understand the Liturgical year it is helpful to know a few simple facts, for example:  What is the Liturgical year?  How is it organized?  But to really appreciation the meaning and purpose of the liturgical year requires an ongoing meditation on several "deep truths."

The "Facts"

The liturgical year is the arrangement of the Church's celebrations of the various events in the life of Christ and the mysteries of our faith throughout the course of a year.   From the time of the apostles Christians have gathered together on the first day of the week, the day of the Resurrection, the Lord's Day, to celebrate the Lord's Supper.  In the course of time, these weeks were organized into two "seasons" Lent/Easter and Advent/Christmas.  Between the seasons of Lent/Easter and Advent/Christmas we have two period of non-seasonal time, "Ordinary Time."  This sequence of Sundays and seasons is punctuated by celebration of various feasts of the Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the saints.  In 1963, the bishops at the Second Vatican Council called for some revisions in this sequence of celebrations and stated the general principles that were to guide this work.  The revision was accomplished in 1969 with the publication of the Calendarium Romanum (The Roman Calendar).

These are the basic facts about the liturgical year.  But what do they mean?

The Deeper Meaning

The key to understanding the meaning of the liturgical year lies in the notion of "presence." We believe that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist under the appearance of bread and wine.  We believe Christ "is present in His word, since it is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church." (Constitution on the Liturgy, 7)  And we believe that Christ is present in a special, mysterious way when we celebrate the liturgical year. 

"Recalling the mysteries of redemption, the Church opens to the faithful the riches of the Lord's powers and merits, so that these are in some way made present in every age in order that the faithful may lay hold on them and be filled with saving grace." (Constitution on the Liturgy, 102, emphasis added)

The liturgy is very different from, for example, going to see a movie about WWII.  Through the sights and sounds of the film, we can picture real or imaginary events that took place at that time.  But when we celebrate the mysteries of Christ during the course of the liturgical year we do not merely recall past events.  The liturgy enables us to pass from our "past-present-future" chronological time and to enter into God's "time of salvation" (kairos) so that we, through grace and mystery, become present to the event. 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms: "We must continue to accomplish in ourselves the stages of Jesus' life and his mysteries ... For it is the plan of the Son of God to make us and the whole Church partake in his mysteries." (#521, quoting St. John Eudes)

The Way Catholics Read Scripture

We come into contact with "the stages of Jesus' life and his mysteries" through word and sacrament.  When the bishops gathered for the Second Vatican Council (1962 to 1965) they knew that if they were going to "impart an ever increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful" (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 1) it would be "essential to promote [a] warm and living love for scripture".  (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,  24).

To this end they ordered that "[t]he treasures of the Bible are to be opened up more lavishly so that a richer share in God's word may be provided for the faithful.  In this way a more representative portion of holy Scripture will be read to the people in the course of a prescribed number of years."  (Constitution on the Liturgy, 51)  This statement formed the guiding principle for the reform of the liturgical year. 

Several plans for the reform of the liturgical year were submitted to accomplish this goal.  The one that was accepted and implemented was based on the fact that there are three synoptic Gospels -- Matthew, Mark, and Luke -- and proposed that we read each of them during the course of a three-year cycle. 

Ordinary Time and Liturgical Seasons

There are various ways to read a book. Usually we start at the beginning and read to the end. But there are some books -- especially treasured, well-loved books -- that we return to and select a familiar passage which is especially appropriate for us at that particular time.

During the course of the Church Year, we read the Bible in each of these two ways.  Selecting particular passages of the Bible based on a theme or idea is the way we read the Scripture during the liturgical seasons of Lent/Easter and Advent/Christmas.  During the non-seasonal time, ordinary time, we read the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke from beginning to end in a semi-continuous fashion. (The Gospel according to John is featured especially during the seasonal time). 

During the non-seasonal times, in addition to the semi-continuous reading of the Gospel, we also read selections from the other books of the New Testament in a semi-continuous fashion:  for example during cycle A (the year of Matthew) we read from I Corinthians (the first 7 weeks), Romans (the next 16 Sundays), Philippians (4 Sundays) and I Thessalonians (5 Sundays).  

During ordinary time there is no thematic connection between the Gospel and the other New Testament reading; they are two, independent sequences of texts.  When the passages of Scripture were being selected, it was thought that to have a third, independent cycle of readings from the Old Testament on Sundays would be too many "themes" and consequently, passages from the Old Testament that relate to the Gospel of the day were selected for each Sunday.

At Mass, the first reading from scripture is followed by a selection from the Book of Psalms.  Priests and members of religious communities and others who pray the Liturgy of the Hours are familiar with the Psalms; the selection of psalms which we now pray at the Eucharist in response to the first reading makes the riches of the Book of Psalms, "God's song book," available to all Christians.

The Lectionary

The sequence of readings for the various feasts and celebrations of the liturgical year is contained in The Lectionary (the name of the book is taken from the Latin word for "a reading," lectio).  

Our current Lectionary answered the call of the Second Vatican Council to open the treasures of the Bible to the faithful.  Our current Lectionary contains 14% of the Old Testament and 71% of the New Testament (85% of the Bible); whereas, at the time of the Council, the Missal contained only 1% of the Old Testament and 17% of the New Testament (18% of the Bible).  (Newsletter, Committee on Divine Worship, USCCB).

Sunday: The Foundation of the Church Year

Each of the four Gospels mentions explicitly that the Resurrection took place on the first day of the week, the day we call Sunday. That is why Christians from the earliest times have "gathered" "come together", "assembled" -- these are the verbs used in the Bible -- to celebrate the Resurrection.

For the Christian, "Jesus rose from the dead" is more than a simple statement of fact; it expresses a "deep truth." The Resurrection is more than a historical event.  It "remains at the very heart of the mystery of faith as something that transcends and surpasses history." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 647)

As with all "deep truths" the meaning of the Resurrection is revealed to us little by little, through continual prayer and reflection.  When we look around us and see all of the evil in the world -- war, hunger, discrimination, poverty -- it can seem that the world and all that is in it is destined for death.  In the midst of so much "bad news" it is sometimes difficult to keep alive our belief in the Good News of the gospel.  We need the help and support of other Resurrection-believers to sustain our faith and trust that we are destined for life -- eternal life -- communion in the Trinitarian Love that is God's very Self!   That is why we gather each Sunday and support one another at that Thanksgiving Meal which is the pledge and foretaste of our resurrection.

Baptism:  Lent and Easter

In addition to gathering on the first day of the week, the early Church also celebrated the actual day of (or the closest Sunday to) the Lord's Resurrection -- which has become our annual celebration of Easter.  This day is so festive that we cannot complete our celebration in 24 hours -- it takes a week -- indeed, a "week of weeks" -- 7 x 7 days -- the 50 days of Easter, culminating on Pentecost. During these 50 days of Easter we read from the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel according to John.

We enter into Easter by our baptism.  "I have been baptized" is a statement of fact, a simple truth.  But to say: "In baptism I died with Christ and now share in his risen life" is a deep truth.  The meaning of "resurrection" is central to understanding the meaning -- the deep truth -- of our Baptism.  That is why Easter is the ideal time to celebrate Baptism. 

In the fourth and fifth centuries the Church developed a system of rites to accompany the faith journey of those elected to be baptized at Easter.  Today these rites have been revived in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA).  The final 40 days of this journey to baptism became what we now know as the season of Lent.

Baptism is the key to understanding Lenten Scripture selections.  For example, the Gospel for the first Sunday of Lent is the story of Jesus' temptation in the desert. Lent is a retreat before baptism.  In the Gospel Jesus retreats into the desert to pray. A principal symbol of Baptism is water; the desert causes us to yearn for water.  In all four Gospels the temptation stories follow immediately upon the account of Jesus' baptism.

God's Plan Revealed: Advent/Christmas

"Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son..."  (Hebrews 1:1-2 NRSV)  God's wonderful plan for creation is revealed in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  Christmas is both the beginning and the end of the Church year. We recall Christ's birth in human form at Bethlehem and we turn our attention to the coming of Christ in glory as the fulfillment of the Divine Plan.  During Advent, the four weeks of joyful and spiritual expectation preceding Christmas, the readings from the Bible are selected in the light of this two-fold theme.

But the season of Advent/Christmas is not simply the birthday celebration of baby Jesus.  We celebrate Christ's birth in us.  We celebrate our baptism.  We celebrate our discipleship and the reality of our vocation to bring Christ to birth in our time, place and culture.  This is the "deep meaning" of the season.

Mary and the Saints: Our Mystery

"In celebrating this annual cycle of Christ's mysteries, the Church honors with special love Mary, the Mother of God ...  In her the Church holds up and admires the most excellent effect of the redemption and joyfully contemplates, as in a flawless image, that which the Church itself desires and hopes wholly to be."  (Constitution on the Liturgy, 103)   When we celebrate the feasts of the Blessed Virgin in the current Roman Calendar, we are not only celebrating her life, we are celebrating "that which the Church hopes to be."

Mary bore Jesus in her womb and gave him birth. Today, we, the Church, bear Christ in our bodies by Baptism and Eucharist and we bring forth Christ in our world by word and example. Mary's virginity is the type of our single minded devotion to Christ. Mary's sinlessness is a model for the Church, the spotless bride of Christ. Mary's assumption is our destiny as disciples.

In addition to the life of Mary, the liturgical year celebrates the lives of the holy men and women from every continent and every century.  "For the feasts of the saints proclaim the wonderful works of Christ in His servants, and display to the faithful fitting examples for their imitation. (Constitution on the Liturgy, 111)   When we recall the memory of the saints, the focus is on what God has accomplished in them and we are led to contemplate what God wants to accomplish in us.  The day on which we celebrate their memorial is not their (earthly) birthday but the day of their birth into eternal communion with God -- the fulfillment of their baptism -- the day of their (earthly) death.  They offer us encouragement; their victory is our victory. 

Our Life Project

A more complete description of the liturgical year can be found in the "Introduction" printed at the beginning of The Roman Calendar and The Roman Lectionary.   Both of these documents can be found online or purchased from the Publications Office of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.  In a few hours you can learn all the facts you would ever need or want to know about the liturgical year.  But to answer the "deep questions" posed by the liturgical year -- What does it mean to believe in the Resurrection?  What are the implications of Baptism?  How does one live so as to be absorbed into Eternal Love? -- to answer these questions is the Christian's life project.

Go to:  Top of This Page --- Liturgical Year Index --- Fr. Tom' Home Page

To Think About

1.  In the diagram which speaks of the dynamics of change, we see that the easiest and quickest thing to change or to learn is a new fact.  It takes more effort and more time to change attitudes.  It is harder yet and takes longer to change behavior.  And to change group behavior takes even more time and more effort.   

Where along this continuum do you think most of the faithful are with regard to the Liturgical Year?  Do they know the "facts"?  Have the facts changed their behavior?  For example is Sunday a day of "assembly" or a day of "hearing Mass"?  Is the Triduum the principal "I have to be there" days? 

2.  Is baptism the primary motive for my decisions and actions?  For example, why do you want to be a priest?  I would hope that the answer to that question is primarily:  Baptism.  "Priesthood (and/or religious life) is the way that I discern that God is calling me to live out the commitment of my baptism."  This is a better answer than "As a priest I won't have to worry when the economy is bad; I'll still get paid!"   

3. If the key to understanding the Liturgical Year is the probing of certain "deep truths", which are these "deep truths"?  We have spoken of "Resurrection" and "Baptism".  Can you think of others? 

4. The probing of "deep truths" often takes place principally in the subconscious.  To use the metaphor of the iceberg, the "facts" can be grasped in our consciousness, but our "life project" involves the deeper parts of our person. 

5.  The opposite of a statement of fact is a falsehood.  The opposite of a deep truth is often another deep truth. For example: The Eucharist is the sacrament of real presence.  The Eucharist is the sacrament of absence. If you interpret the statement as a "fact" rather than a "deep truth" one of the sentences has to be false. 

Go to:  Top of This Page --- Liturgical Year Index --- Fr. Tom' Home Page

Copyright: Tom Richstatter, Franciscan Province of St. John the Baptist, Cincinnati Ohio, Order of Friars Minor. All Rights Reserved.  This page was created by Fr. Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M.  Every effort has been, and is being made, to acknowledge sources when the ideas are not my own.  Any failure to comply with the United States Copyright Act (Title 17, United States Code) will be corrected immediately should I become aware of it.  This site was updated on 03/05/14 .  Your comments on this site are welcome at trichstatter@franciscan.org