Introduction to the Liturgical Year or Liturgical Calendar
Yes, it’s true; we all live our daily lives according to a calendar of public holidays, school holidays, birthdays and anniversaries and other events of significance to us. We plan our annual calendars to find time for ourselves, our families and others and for our goals. The focus of this calendar is largely on us.
In contrast, the church plans its liturgical life according to what is called the Liturgical Year or Liturgical Calendar. The focus of the Liturgical Year is the life of Christ and of the saints. As such, the Liturgical Year does not begin on the first of January but on the first Sunday of Advent, a four-week period of waiting and preparing for the coming of Christ at Christmas. It ends not on the 31st of December but at the Feast of Christ the King on the following calendar year, a feast which emphasizes that Christ is the King of the Universe.
“Over the course of the year the Church celebrates the whole mystery of Christ, from the Incarnation to Pentecost Day and the days of waiting for the Advent of the Lord.” From the ‘Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the New General Roman Calendar, paragraph 17.
In this article, we cover the liturgical calendar adopted by the Western church which is different from the calendar used by the Eastern Catholic churches.
Why is the Liturgical Year Important to All Catholics?
Sacrosanctum Concilium or Constitution of Sacred Liturgy, a document from the Second Vatican Council explains in Chapter 5, paragraph 102, that within the course of the Liturgical Year, the Church “unfolds the whole mystery of Christ, from the incarnation and both until the Ascension, the day of Pentecost, and the expectation of blessed hope and of the coming of the Lord.” It continues to explain how the Liturgical Year helps the faithful, ‘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.”
During the course of an entire liturgical year, the mysteries of Christ – his nativity, life, passion, death, resurrection and ascension – are unfolded for us. The Lord attaches a special grace to each mystery and exposure to these mysteries heals and strengthens us. These mysteries are profound and are unfolded not just during the course of a liturgical year but over and over again with each year. As believers, we receive the merits and be filled with graces from God for our healing and sanctification. The liturgical year repeated year after year is intended to help us spiral up towards God in our holiness and our adherence to the teachings of our Lord.
Our Blessed Mother and the Saints in the Liturgical Calendar
The Liturgical Calendar incorporates feasts of our Blessed Mother and of the saints. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say about how our Blessed Mother is linked to the saving works of her son.
“In celebrating this annual cycle of the mysteries of Christ, Holy Church honours the Blessed Mary, Mother of God, with a special love. She is inseparably linked with the saving work of her Son. In her the Church admires and exalts the most excellent fruit of redemption and joyfully contemplates, as in a faultless image, that which she herself desires and hopes wholly to be.” (CCC 1172)
The CCC then explains how the saints are examples to draw the faithful to the Father, through Christ.
When the Church keeps the memorials of martyrs and other saints during the annual cycle, she proclaims the Paschal mystery in those “who have suffered and have been glorified with Christ. She proposes them to the faithful as examples who draw all men to the Father through Christ, and through their merits she begs for God’s favours.” (CCC 1173)
For these reasons, both our Blessed Mother and the Saints find their place in the Church’s Liturgical Year.
History of the Liturgical Calendar
In the early days of the Church, Christians met to break the bread and for other liturgical practices but as the church grew in number, it became necessary to organize and standardize worship for all Christians. Important feasts such as Easter Sunday and the feasts of martyrs and others were added over time and the calendar was adapted over the course of time to better serve the people. The Liturgical Calendar is not static but will continue to be adapted and developed over time.
The Liturgical Seasons
The modern Liturgical Calendar is organized around different liturgical seasons. As mentioned earlier, it begins on the 1st Sunday of Advent and ends at the Feast of Christ the King of the following year. The latter feast was instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925 in response to growing secularism and emphasizes the kingship of Christ over everything.
The sequence of seasons in the calendar is as follows:
• Ordinary Time
• Ordinary Time
Graphic from Wikicommons
Advent – Preparing for the Jesus’ Birth
Each liturgical year begins on the 1st Sunday of Advent. Advent starts 4 Sundays before the Nativity of the Lord on Dec 25. Historically, it began as 40 days of fasting (Still followed in the Ambrosian Liturgy and the Eastern Church) but was later shortened in the West to five Sundays. Pope Gregory VII fixed Advent as four Sundays before Dec 25 sometime in the 11th Century. The four weeks recalls the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert.
The word ‘Advent’ comes from the Latin, Adventus which means ‘coming’ or ‘approach’ or ‘arrival.’ Jesus comes to set us free from the slavery of sin. During Advent we prepare for the Nativity of the Lord (his first coming) and to anticipate his second coming at the end of time and we prepare ourselves so that he can come into our hearts in the present. We are called over and over to conversion, to re-orientate our hearts, minds and souls to the Lord. The readings of Advent warn us about judgement and calls us to repent. It reminds us to be watchful and alert and to prepare as we do not know when Christ will come again. We are called to decide to turn towards God again.
For most of Advent, the liturgical color is Violet, a color which signifies penance, sacrifice and preparation. However, on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, it becomes the color rose, to signal the coming joy of Christmas. The church understands that it not easy to perform penance for a long period of time and pauses on the 3rd Sunday to anticipate the joy of Christmas to come.
Violet, the Liturgical Color of Advent for Weeks 1, 2 and 4
Rose, the Liturgical Color the 3rd Sunday of Advent or Gaudete Sunday
At Christmas, we recall and celebrate the Nativity of our Lord, Jesus Christ and his manifestation to the peoples of the World. Christ takes on human nature at his incarnation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains why the Word (Jesus) became flesh in Article 3.
1. Jesus took on human nature to save us by reconciling us with God.
The Word became flesh for us in order to save us by reconciling us with God, who “loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins”: “the Father has sent his Son as the Saviour of the world”, and “he was revealed to take away sins” CCC 457
2. Jesus became man so that we might know God’s love for us.
The Word became flesh so that thus we might know God’s love: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” CCC 458
3. He came to be our model of holiness.
The Word became flesh to be our model of holiness: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.” “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” On the mountain of the Transfiguration, the Father commands: “Listen to him!” Jesus is the model for the Beatitudes and the norm of the new law: “Love one another as I have loved you.” This love implies an effective offering of oneself, after his example. CCC 459
4. He came to make us sharers of God’s divine life.
The Word became flesh to make us “partakers of the divine nature”: “For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of Man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God.” “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.” “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.” CCC 460
The liturgical color for Christmas is white or gold, colors that represent rejoicing and purity of soul and is a color used for the feasts of the Lord.
Gold (or White), the Liturgical Color of Christmas
Like Easter, the sacredness and joy of Christmas is celebrated with an Octave; an eight-day period of celebration. This includes the day of the feast which in this case is Christmas, followed by 6 days of ‘days within the octave,’ and ending with the 8th day which is also called the Octave Day, which is kept with greater solemnity than the ‘days within the octave.’ For the Archdiocese of Singapore, the feast and solemnities during the octave are:
Day 1, Dec 25 – Christmas, Feast of the Nativity of the Lord
Day 2, Dec 26 – Feast of St Stephen, the first martyr
Day 3, Dec 27 – Feast of St John the Apostle, Evangelist
Day 4, Dec 28 – Holy Innocents, Martyrs
Day 5, Dec 29 – 5th Day within the Octave
Day 6, Dec 30 – 6th Day within the Octave
Day 7, Dec 31 – Feast of the Holy Family
Day 8, Jan 1 – Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God
The Christmas season gives way to first section of Ordinary Time on the Monday or Tuesday (if the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord is celebrated on that Monday) after Jan 6 and continues right up to Ash Wednesday.
Ordinary time is divided into two sections:
1. After Christmas, from the Monday or Tuesday after Jan 6) until the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday
2. After Pentecost, from the Monday after Pentecost until the Saturday before the 1st Sunday of Advent
The word ‘ordinary’ here does not mean mundane but it comes from the Latin ordo or “order” in English; referring to the ordinal numbers such as 1st Sunday, 2nd Sunday and so on. Ordinary Time is in fact a time for growth of our spiritual life. It is a time that takes the faithful through the life of Jesus and to consider the fullness of his teachings and his works during his ministry. Ordinary Time is a time when Catholics are encouraged to grow and mature in faith, to grow in holiness outside the great seasons of celebration of Christmas and Easter and penitential periods of Advent and Lent. The Liturgical Color is Green (the color of Spring and Summer) since green is the color of growth.
Green, the Liturgical Colour of Ordinary Time
The season of Lent is a 6-week period of preparation for the liturgical celebration of the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and lasts until the evening of Holy Thursday. If Sundays are excluded, the Lenten season consists of 40-days which calls to mind the 40-days of Jesus’ time of trial in the desert. In the Bible, the number 40 is indicative of a time of testing, trial, penance, purification and renewal.
At the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday, ash is imposed on the foreheads of the faithful with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” or “Repent and believe in the Gospel. This tradition comes from the Old Testament e.g., Esther 4:1, Job 42:6, Daniel 9:3 and Jonah 3:5-6 and is a sign of repentance and humility before the Lord and reminds us of our mortality.
Imposition of Ashes
During the period of Lent, Catholics engage prayer, fasting and almsgiving to deepen our connection with God, the become aware of Christ’s sacrificial love expressed in his life, death and resurrection. With proper preparation, we have the possibility of experiencing new life at Easter, a positive step in our relationship with God.
The Sundays during Lent are the First, Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Sundays of Lent with the Sixth Sunday being Palm Sunday. The last week of Lent is Holy Week which begins with Palm Sunday which commemorates the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. The readings of Palm Sunday begin with the people welcoming Jesus but all this changes by the Gospel when the words speak about betrayal, false trial, suffering and torture and death for our Lord.
Palm Sunday Procession
Like Advent, the liturgical color for Lent is violet which represents penance, sacrifice and preparation but like Advent, the color becomes rose mid-way through the season on the 4th Sunday of Lent as we rejoice in anticipation of the joy of Easter. The 4th Sunday of Lent is known as Laetare Sunday; Laetare being a Latin word for ‘rejoice.’
The Triduum form the 3 holiest days of the Liturgical Calendar – Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil. These 3 days celebrate the Paschal Mystery – the passion, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. We remember what the Lord has done for us so that we may encounter once again the saving graces from these events.
The ‘Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the New General Roman Calendar’ (clause 18) expresses the importance of the Triduum beautifully.
Since Christ accomplished his work of human redemption and of the perfect glorification of God principally through his Paschal Mystery, in which by dying he has destroyed our death, and by rising restored our life, the sacred Paschal Triduum of the Passion and Resurrection of the Lord shines forth as the high point of the entire liturgical year. Therefore, the preeminence that Sunday has in the week, the Solemnity of Easter has in the liturgical year.
The Paschal Triduum is a single liturgical celebration of the Paschal Mystery even though it spans 3 days. The first day starts from the evening of Holy Thursday and ends on the evening of Good Friday. The second day starts from the evening of Good Friday to the evening of Holy Saturday and the final and third day is from the evening of Holy Saturday till the evening of Easter Sunday.
Holy Thursday, Mass of the Lord’s Supper
The Ceremonial of Bishops (no 297) describes the evening mass of the Lord’s Supper as follows explaining the significance of this mass.
With this Mass, celebrated in the evening of the Thursday in Holy Week, the Church begins the sacred Easter Triduum and devotes herself to the remembrance of the Last Supper. At the supper on the night he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus, loving those who were his own in the world even to the end, offered his Body and Blood to the Father under the appearance of bread and wine, gave them to the apostles to eat and drink, then enjoined the apostles and their successors in the priesthood to offer them in turn. This Mass is, first of all, the memorial of the institution of the Eucharist, that is, of the Memorial of the Lord’s Passover, by which under sacramental signs he perpetuated among us the sacrifice of the New Law. The Mass of the Lord’s Supper is also the memorial of the institution of the priesthood, by which Christ’s mission and sacrifice are perpetuated in the world. In addition, this Mass is the memorial of that love by which the Lord loved us even to death.
At the beginning of the mass, there is the ritual of the Presentation of Oils where the sacred oils consecrated at the Chrism Mass earlier in the day are brought in and installed at the Ambry.
Presentation of Oils, Mass of the Lord’s Supper
After the homily, the priest re-enacts Christ washing of his disciples feet as a symbol of them belonging to him and to call them to humble service.
The Washing of Feet Ritual after the Homily at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper
After the Concluding Rites at the end of the Mass, the Blessed Sacrament is transferred to the Altar of Repose. The faithful are given the opportunity to spend time with the Lord in adoration until midnight.
Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament at the Altar of Repose
After the mass, the altar is stripped of all sacramentals and altar linens which can be seen as symbolic of the humiliation of Christ in the hands of the Roman soldiers or of his redemptive suffering and death or of the emptiness of the world without Christ. The liturgical color for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper is white or gold, colors used for celebrations of the Lord (except on Good Friday.)
For Catholics, the cross is not a sign of defeat or hopelessness but a sign of triumph over sin and death and a sign of hope. On Good Friday, we commemorate the death of Christ on the cross to save us from our sins.
The Good Friday liturgy consists of 3 parts – the Liturgy of the Word, the Adoration of the Holy Cross and Holy Communion. During the Liturgy of the Word, the 1st Reading is from Isaiah 52 about the suffering servant. We proclaim the Lord’s passion from the Gospel of John. We recall what the Lord endured on the way to the cross where he gave himself willingly and in sacrificial love for our sake. After a brief homily, there are the Solemn Intercessions when we pray for the Pope, the Church, for all orders and degrees of the faithful, for the catechumens, for the unity of Christians and so on and with each intercession, we kneel for silent prayer.
The second part of the liturgy is the Adoration of the Cross to remind us of the price of our redemption by the Lord. As the priest uncovers the cross, he chants “Behold the Wood of the Cross,” to which the assembly responds, “Come let us adore.” We venerate the cross in reverence, faith and gratefulness.
During the third part, the people receive communion with hosts consecrated during the Mass of the Lord’s supper. There is no consecration of the Body and Blood of Christ during Good Friday services. The Good Friday liturgy ends with the priest reciting the Prayer over the People. We are invited to spend the rest of the day in prayer and reflection.
Veneration of the Cross
By tradition, the Church does not celebrate the Sacraments on Good Friday except the Sacraments of Penance or the Anointing of the Sick. The liturgical color for Good Friday is red which represents the shedding of blood or the burning fire of God’s love.
The Easter Vigil focuses on Christ being our light and recounts all of salvation history starting from creation and ending with the resurrection. It is at the Easter Vigil when the Church calls the Elect and the candidates to the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist. The first part of the liturgy is conducted in the dark in contrast to the Paschal Candle that represents Christ. It symbolically moves from darkness to light.
The Preparation, Blessing and Lighting of the Paschal Candle
Baptismal Liturgy during Easter Vigil
The Vigil begins outside the church with the blessing of the fire and the preparation of the Paschal Candle. This part of the liturgy reminds us that Christ is the Light of the World. With a stylus, the priest traces a cross on the candle, the Greek letters Α and Ω above and below the cross and the four numerals of the current year. He then inserts five grains of incense into the candle in the shape of the cross representing the five wounds of Christ. He then lights the Paschal Candle from the fire and the procession forms and moves back to the church, stopping 3 times to raise up the candle and sing, “The Light of Christ,” to which the people reply, “Thanks be to God.”
Procession to the Church
At the first stop at the door to the church, the candles carried by the people are lit from the Paschal Candle. On reaching the altar, the Paschal Candle is placed next the ambo and the Easter Proclamation or Exsultet is sung. The name ‘Exsultet’ comes from the first word in the Latin version of the proclamation. This poetic hymn of praise to thank God for his saving activity throughout the history of mankind, and ending with Christ’s defeat of death by his resurrection.
The second part of the liturgy is the Liturgy of the Word for which nine readings – seven from the Old Testament (from Genesis, Exodus, Isaiah, Baruch and Ezekiel) and 2 from the New Testament (Romans and the Gospel) are read each followed by a Responsorial Psalm and a prayer. After the Old Testament readings, the altar candles are lit for the first time and the Gloria is sung and bells rung to glorify God. The Collect is then prayed before the readings from the Epistles and Gospel (chosen according to the Liturgical Cycle).
The third part of the liturgy is the Baptismal Liturgy. During this part of the Liturgy, the baptismal water is blessed. The catechumens renounce their sins and profess their faith and are then baptized. A white baptismal garment is given to each neophyte (the newly baptized); a symbol of purity. Candles of the neophytes are then lit again from the Paschal Candle followed by the Sacrament of Confirmation when the neophytes are anointed with Chrism.
Anointing with Sacred Chrism
Following confirmation, the neophytes light the candles of the people and the renewal of baptismal vows follows. The priest goes around the church to sprinkle holy water on the people gathered after which the Prayer of the Faithful takes place.
The fourth part of the liturgy is the Liturgy of the Eucharist which proceeds as for any Sunday mass. The neophytes receive communion for the very first time, completing all 3 sacraments of initiation. The mass ends with the Concluding Rites.
Easter is period of 50 days of joyful celebration of the Lord’s resurrection and like Christmas this celebration includes an Octave with Easter Sunday as the first day of the Octave. The Sundays during the 50 days are called the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh Sunday of Easter with Easter Sunday counted as the first Sunday. The Feast of the Ascension of the Lord is celebrated forty days after Easter Sunday followed by Pentecost Sunday on the 50th day.
After Pentecost, the Liturgical Year moves into the second section of Ordinary Time (see above) which ends before the 1st Sunday in Advent towards the end of the calendar year.
The Liturgical Year or Liturgical Calendar helps us to be in touch with the saving works of God and constantly reminds us how much we are loved. We are invited by the various seasons and feasts to focus on what the Lord and done and is doing for us and to respond by making it a priority for us to journey with the calendar so that with each passing year, we grow closer to God and fulfill our universal vocation to be holy.
1. Catechism of the Catholic Church
2. Sacrosanctum Concilium or Constitution of Sacred Liturgy, Vatican II
3. The Church’s Year – Unfolding the Mysteries of Christ by David W. Fagerberg, CTS
4. Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the New General Roman Calendar, Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Feb 1969
5. Why Lent is forty days? USCCB, 2018 and numerous articles by Catholic Churches and websites