The Importance of the Liturgical Calendar

In this modern age, we maintain constant levels of activity and production by smoothing out or eliminating the effect of seasons. In doing this, we create various disturbances in our bodies and minds and souls — but we assume our unnatural manipulation of our schedules and life-styles to be natural just because it’s what we’re born into. As a consequence, those who have natural rhythms to their energy and alertness levels will think there is something wrong with them when they feel lethargic and a little depressed during winter. In most cases, the lower energy and alertness levels are part of our natural rhythms. Our ancestors, from whom we receive our traits and tendencies, had shorter workdays in winter and spent much time in low-key activities, such as repairing tools or clothing, and also resting or telling tales or teaching and playing with children. Farmers who follow traditional ways, such as the farmer-poet Wendell Berry will follow this sort of a schedule, lessening their physical activities in winter, perhaps to pick up a pen to write poetry or a Bible to refresh their soul.

The liturgical calendar is not something imposed upon us. Our modern schedules are imposed on us because we’ve built societies and economies which require constant high levels of activity or else they will collapse. We have not the option of satisfying our needs and some additional desires and then settling into a period of leisure, which would include not only rest but also important activities requiring lower energy or energy of a different sort — catching up on all those good books we’ve been meaning to read or making music with the children or making wooden toys for the grandchildren. Maybe even praying or reading the Bible.

The liturgical calendar of Sacramental Christianity moves along with the natural rhythms of life, as did the calendars of ancient peoples, Hebraic and pagan, and also the calendars of modern Jews.

The calendar begins with Advent, early winter in the northern hemisphere where the Christian Church first grew. The days are short and still have not reached their shortest length. Our ancestors would have been retreating from their active outdoor lives though they would have been chopping firewood and caring for animals and maybe doing routine maintenance work on houses and barns and tools and shops. Advent is intended to be a time when we contemplate our situation and remember why it is that we need a Savior. We should live a mildly repentant life, not so extreme as Lent, and we should wait for our Savior. We certainly shouldn’t take it as a period of hectic shopping nor as a period of excessive eating or drinking.

The Savior is born and we move against the cycles of nature, rejoicing and giving praise to the Lord in human flesh, near the time when the days are shortest, when the sun might be threatening to leave us. We begin our celebration on the night that God and man united in the baby Jesus, conceived of the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary. We share joy and wonder and perhaps even some fear along with Mary and Joseph. No one knows when Jesus was born but the Church in early centuries chose to celebrate this birth near the winter solstice, near the time when pagans gathered to feast and worship the gods who might bring back the Sun who seemed to be disappearing. This is good and not a matter of criticism. Unlike those who see nature as an enemy to be conquered and enslaved to serve human desires, Sacramental Christians know that God Himself is present in nature — a choice He freely made in becoming our Creator. We rejoice and feast and celebrate for ten days and then return to the rhythms natural to human nature. Yes, we celebrate in parallel to the pagans for they were right to plead with the great powers to save them by preventing the Sun from dying. We plead with God to save us from our own deaths.

We move through ordinary time for a month or slightly more and then, anticipating the time that life returns to nature and eternal life is offered to men, we acknowledge that ashes we are and to ashes we will return. We enter the desert with the Lord for 40 days, fasting and praying and giving alms. Unlike the Lord, our journey is eased by those oases, Sundays, which we enter to joyfully praise God, Father and Son and Holy Spirit.

We end the journey to enter Jerusalem spreading palms and cloaks before the hooves of the Lord’s humble donkey. We’re in the Holy City of David, but all is not well. Jesus Christ will gather His Apostles together to humbly wash their feet and then to give them the gift of the Eucharist in the way He celebrated the Passover feast with them. They don’t understand but the Lord Himself will soon enough be the Paschal lamb, He who is offered up for the redemption of the world. Nor do they understand that they had just been ordained as the first priests of a Church not yet founded. Jesus leads the Apostles out to the Garden of Gethsemane and begins to pray so hard that His blood oozes out His pores. Meanwhile, the Apostles have already betrayed their Lord and have already cast dishonor upon their priesthood. Filled with wine and food, they have fallen asleep.

Judas Iscariot enters the Garden with a company of soldiers sent by the High Priest. Identifying the Lamb with a kiss, Judas turns His Master over to those soldiers and Jesus begins His ordeal. At this point, most Christian traditions watch Jesus from a distance, partly to acknowledge our cowardice and confusion and partly out of respect for the Lord and also for human nature. Our modern obsession with the details of the sufferings of our Lord is one with our perverse taste in entertainment. We’re but one step away from funeral orations that give gory details of Grandma’s death agonies. I’ll say no more here as Jesus is dying in the sight of His mother, some other women loyal to Him, and the Beloved Disciple.

Just before the death of our Lord, we wonder at one of His most important acts, one ignored by many who claim He didn’t found His Church.

When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. [John 19:26-27]

The priests have a Church to serve but it’s the Virgin Mary who’s the first Christian, both mother and older sister to the Apostles first and then to all who accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Even as Jesus dies, we’re left in the disturbing position of having much to rejoice over.

Church or no Church, Holy Friday is another sorrowful day. We fast to greater standards, as we did on Ash Wednesday. No Mass is celebrated, no Eucharistic Rite, for the Lord Himself seems to be gone. Yet, we attend the Supper of the Lord’s Passion and receive Holy Communion. Hoping. Waiting.

And Holy Saturday comes. We’re still hoping and still waiting. So far as we know, the Lord Jesus Christ lies in His tomb. It’s all over. All the promises of His mission, all the messianic dreams, seem lost. Yet, we hope. We wait.

The day ends. Darkness comes upon us and surely this is the end. We know that God has abandoned us… But no, we’re gathered with all the others who fasted and prayed and gave alms, all the others who were too weak in faith to remain with the Lord as He prayed to the Father, too concerned about satisfying the spirit of our age to even stand at the foot of His cross. We’re gathered for the Easter Vigil Mass and suddenly a fire is lit near the back of the church and a voice begins to speak:

Dear friends in Christ,
on this most holy night,
when our Lord Jesus Christ passed from death to life,
the Church invites her children throughout the world
to come together in vigil and prayer.

Can it be true that Jesus has risen from the grave? Is our hope fulfilled? How can that be? Didn’t we see as much suffering on the news reports as we saw during the darkest days of Lent? Don’t we still feel weak and disordered, longing to be true friends and children of God and yet not really wanting that until we’ve tasted more sinful pleasures? Secretly we pray with the ever insightful St. Augustine: Lord, let me be continent, but not just yet.

But maybe the risen Christ is at work in us?

Maybe. We can only hope.

And we can peer between the bodies of our fellow-worshipers to see a priest from the line of Melchizedek, a man who received his holy orders down through the ages from the Apostles themselves, and he’s blessing a large candle which he then lights. Soon, a deacon and alter servers are helping the priest to spread the light through the church, lighting the candle of one weak and frail man who then lights the candle of the neighboring weak and frail woman. A voice rings out singing the Exultet.

Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing, choirs of angels!
Exult, all creation around God’s throne!
Jesus Christ, our King is risen!
Sound the trumpet of salvation!

We’re proclaiming joy for the Lord has risen from His grave. Death has been conquered and we can share in the victory so easily. All we have to do is to turn to the Lord, pay attention to Jesus Christ and listen to His word, receive His Body and His Blood in Holy Communion. He’ll do the rest. He’ll supply the strength and the faith which is beyond our capacity.

We go to our rest that night, joyful for all that God has given us and we wake up to Easter Sunday. We enter the Easter Octave, celebrating the Resurrection of the Lord in a more intense way through the Second Sunday in Easter. Those of us who pray the Liturgy of the Hours will use the Easter Sunday prayers through that Second Sunday. Yet, Easter goes on past the Octave for five more Sundays and all the weekdays in between. Near the end of that period, we’ll watch in wonder as the Lord Jesus Christ ascends to His Father. How sad we mortals are to lose Him and yet we’re reminded that the Lord will send us an Advocate, a divine Helper. On sixth Sunday of Easter, we’ll hear that promise in the reading from the Gospel of St. John [John 14:23-29]:

Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my word; yet the word you hear is not mine but that of the Father who sent me.

I have told you this while I am with you. The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you…

On the Eighth Sunday of Easter, Pentecost Sunday, we stand with the Apostles and many other disciples. Along with them, we receive the Holy Spirit.

We now enter an extended period of ordinary time punctuated by a few major Solemnities. Is it coincidence that this extended period of ordinary time occurs during the long growing season in the northern hemisphere where Christianity first took hold? Of course not. God demands a share of our time and our wealth but He wishes us to be able to make a living and to take care of our day-to-day responsibilities. After all, we’ve got to grow grain and grapes that we might have some for offering up in sacrifice in the Eucharistic Rite.

The world belongs to God and the rhythms of the world are ones He established for us and for the other creatures. We violate those rhythms, those patterns of the seasons, at great risk to our minds and souls and moral natures. We have our role to play in our own salvation and that role is one in a world where God’s grace doesn’t destroy nature and its rhythms but rather perfects it.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Catholic Church, Christian spirituality, Christianity, Peace of Christ, Religion

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