“What’s this list at the front with all the lines in red?” wondered one of my students, her gloved hands hovering over the text. We were on a class trip to Bryn Mawr College’s rare book collection, to see some of the 14th century Books of Hours it houses. These books held collections of prayers, psalms and scriptures — and lists of Church feasts, highlighted in red or blue or gold according to their importance.
My well-worn breviary was out on the table, too, with the modern General Roman Calendar in the front, a tattered violet ribbon still marking the prayers and readings for the feast celebrated earlier that week, for the apostles Simon and Jude. No gold anymore for the solemnest of feasts, but red print still calls out the intricate details of the Church’s liturgical calendar.
The broad strokes of the Church year are hard to miss. Lent’s unrelenting violet, the white of Eastertide that leads to the steady stretch of Ordinary Time green that shepherds us from summer’s warmth and autumn, are on display every Sunday and on the occasional holy day of obligation. But there is a hidden calendar woven through the major seasons, minor feasts of saints and blesseds unconnected to the seasons, and solemnities, which unlike All Saints or the Assumption, we are not obliged to celebrate with attendance at Mass.
I have to admit I treasure the quiet small feasts tucked into the calendar. I look forward each year to St. Mary Magdalene feast on July 22, the antiphons for the psalms and canticles reminding me of the poignant scene in the garden on Easter morning: “My heart burns within me; I long to see my Lord.” Each feast and memorial reminds me of the myriad of ways in which this longing for God has been expressed over the millennia in the lives of ordinary people.
In Advent we might watch not only for Christ’s coming to us at his birth and in his return at the end of time, but also for his presence to us in the lives of the saints. Already we have celebrated the feast of St. Ambrose — dear to me for his connection to St. Augustine, whom he baptized at the Easter Vigil in 387. Fourth century martyr St. Lucy’s feast of light brightens Friday the 13th this year.
Jesuit priest St. Peter Cansius, whose feast on the 21st lies in the shadow of Christmas, had a profound mystical experience when he was blessed by the Pope Paul III, seeing Christ clothing him with peace, love and perseverance and sending him to preach the Gospel, a call we have heard echoed again and again this Advent by Pope Francis.
I listen to the call of St. John of the Cross — whose feast is Dec. 14 — not just in Advent, but year round, to “dig deeply in Christ. He is like a rich mine with many pockets containing treasures: however deep we dig we will never find their end or limit.” As we begin the new liturgical year, we might resolve to dig more deeply into the richness of the Church’s calendar and to explore the many pockets of grace that the saints hold open for us.
The modern equivalent of books of hours often come as a subscription, for example Magnificat or Give Us This Day, published by the Abbey of St. John in Collegeville, Minn.
The official calendar of the Church can be found on the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website. Like the calendars in the medieval books of hours, the days are colored violet, green, white and red (for feast of martyrs).
You can explore Bryn Mawr College’s collection of Books of Hours and read more about the Church calendars here at
Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish, Bryn Mawr.
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