Next Sunday’s liturgy of Christ the King (Nov. 24) concludes the church’s 2019 liturgical year. The following Sunday (Dec. 1), the first of Advent, begins its new liturgical year of 2020.
An understanding of the church’s liturgical year can enhance our experience of the Mass, stir self-investing in our spiritual growth, motivate our performing works of mercy both corporal and spiritual, and inspire us to engage in social justice issues.
Conversely, absent at least an elementary grasp of the church’s liturgical year thwarts our experience of the Mass, stunts our spiritual growth, jades both our desire to perform works of mercy and to engage in social justice issues.
The church’s year is often presented visually in a circular, multi-colored calendar with artistic images, with the naming of the liturgical seasons and a numbering of most Sundays. Many parishioners are familiar with this wheel-like calendar and the bird’s eye view of the liturgical year it affords. This calendar is posted around many churches. Over the next few weeks all do well to pause and view it with a studied eye for it’s the proverbial visual worth a thousand words.
Pope Francis reminds us that the array of liturgies throughout the year are designed for our ongoing conversion to Jesus’ “way of thinking and behaving.” But before describing the church’s liturgical calendar it helps first to be aware of several other calendars which compete with it for the shaping of our minds, hearts, spirits even bodies throughout the year.
The most familiar is nature’s 12-month calendar based on the four seasons of autumn, winter, spring and summer. How does Nature’s Calendar, so to speak, shape us? It does so in that we all change physically as we annually cycle through it. Over its 52 weeks we age, some of us imperceptivity, some of us conspicuously. Some younger parishioners are seen to grow taller; some elders grow shorter; some put on weight, others lose weight. By year’s end there are some, like middle and high schoolers, who have shot up like celery stalks, while others have morphed into pear shapes. Nature’s calendar affects us physically one way or the other.
Another calendar that can have a formative impact on its participants is the Sport Calendar, or better put, multiple Sport Calendars. For example, football season begins in mid-August and extends through January with its bowl championships, both for college athletes and professional athletes. Further, even before the football season ends, the Sport Calendars for basketball, soccer, hockey, lacrosse, etc., encroach upon our lives. After these comes the baseball calendar which extends from April through October.
The Sport Calendars collectively generate magnetic fields of emotion which draw in their fans. As a result, parishioner-fans often let these calendars usurp their religious priorities.
The point is that Sport Calendars, including school sports calendars with their many events for football, basketball, soccer, etc., can interfere with the weekend spiritual formation of parishioners.
With these calendars as a backdrop, and there are others that could be listed, let’s bring to center stage the church’s liturgical calendar. How many seasons does it have? What are the components of these seasons? How does the church expect the moods, rhythms, readings, prayers and rituals during the liturgical year to convert us to Jesus’ “way of thinking and behaving?”
To begin, the Church’s Calendar is comprised of seven liturgical seasons: Advent, Christmas, Ordinary Time (events in Christ’s life before Easter), Lent, the Triduum, Easter, and Ordinary Time (events in Christ’s life after Easter).
As for its components, each of the church’s seven seasons contains its unique package of formative elements. For instance, the hymns we sing; the Scriptures we hear from the New Testament and Old Testament; the “Proper” prayers the priest prays from the sacramentary (the book the server often holds); the homilies; the Prefaces and Eucharistic Prayers.
Our attentive and active participation at the weekly Eucharist makes us more aware of variation across the liturgical seasons. For instance, in our singing of hymns with different words and melodies; our listening to varied themes in the Scriptural texts; our hearing of distinct messages in homilies; the priest’s praying of “Propers” having sundry motifs.
Moreover, liturgical seasons have distinctive rituals. For example, the lighting of four candles on the Advent wreath; sprinkling of the people with holy water after their renewal of baptismal promises at the end of the Christmas Season; receiving the smudge of ashes on foreheads on Ash Wednesday and the ritual of the Stations of the Cross in Lent; the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday and the procession to venerate the cross on Good Friday; the Easter Vigil with its baptisms.
Interspersed in the liturgical calendar are other rituals such as children’s first confessions and their first Communions; confirmations; communal penance services, and the like.
Additionally, the liturgical ecology of a church varies by season as it undergoes changes of colors — greens, purples, pinks, whites, gold, reds, violets as seen in the priests’ vestments, cloths for altar, ambo, and tabernacle, and in some churches, the hanging of colored banners around the church.
All these components of the seasonal liturgical package are designed to configure us more and more to “Jesus’ way of thinking and behaving.” And they do this by nudging us to worship God both as individuals and as the assembled people of God.
Over the course of years of attending the eucharistic liturgies, the formative effects of the liturgical packages on us are unseen yet they are as indelible as rings on a cross section of a felled tree.
Just as one can infer from the width between such arboreal rings, that the tree experienced growth spurts, decline or stagnation due to nature’s annual packets of sun, rain, fertile soil and healthy roots, so too, from the Holy Spirit’s viewpoint, our individual spiritual growth is apparent.
The point is that over time, depending on the level of our attentive and active participation, the components of the seasonal liturgical packages work their cumulative effects on us, whether it be for our spiritual growth, our decline, or for our stagnation. Hence, we do well to ask ourselves, how am I allowing the sacramental sap of Christ Jesus in the liturgies to permeate me from root to branch, from bud to fruit?
Finally, the church’s liturgical year, notwithstanding its depiction in the two-dimensional circular calendar seen around our churches, does not function like a gigantic Ferris wheel. We are not to view it as our stepping into it in Advent and cycling through it as passive spectators for an extended orbit before stepping out of it in the same spot we entered on Christ the King Sunday.
The liturgical calendar is no such stationary, circular entity; rather it is dynamic and better imagined as a helix, a spiral staircase if you will. Parishioners step onto the spiral staircase of the church’s liturgical year at Advent at a certain level, then by their attentive and active participation in the dynamics of the seasonal liturgical packages, ascend the “helix of holiness” so to speak.
Or sadly, without effort on their part over the liturgical cycle, they remain at entry level, or worse, descend to a metaphorical floor below the entry step of the spiral staircase.
May a better understanding of the church’s liturgical year engage us in a fuller participation in the 2020 liturgical year such that, by this time next year, we will have conformed more to Jesus’ “way of thinking and behaving.”
Father Fran Gillespie, S.J., is parochial vicar at Old St. Joseph Parish in Philadelphia. Previously he pastored parishes for over two decades in the Carolinas and Georgia. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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