SANCTIFYING THE YEAR


Mother Church sanctifies the year by her liturgical cycle.  Year after year she recalls the earthly life of her Divine Spouse, Jesus Christ. Each Mass both recalls and makes present in our midst a teaching or action of our Savior in the Gospel, to prepare us for Jesus' Real Presence in the Eucharistic Sacrifice.

Advent

The liturgical year begins in the Western Church on the first Sunday of Advent in late November.  As the days get shorter Catholics prepare for the coming of Christ, counting the passage of the four weeks on candles of violet and rose.

This Advent wait encompasses past, present and future.  We recall the centuries during which the Chosen People waited for the promised Messiah, we prepare to receive the Christ Child into our own hearts in the present, and we await with hope His glorious Second Coming at the end of time.

Christmas

Soon after the Winter Solstice, as the days grow longer, Christians celebrate the arrival of the Dayspring from on high (Luke 1:78), Christ the Sun of Righteousness (Mal 4:2).  Western Christians commemorate His holy Nativity on December 25, a mere four days after solstice, while their Eastern brothers and sisters wait until January 6.  We read with joy the Gospel accounts of His birth, infancy, boyhood and family life which lead up to his public ministry.

Lent

Just before the arrival of Spring comes the forty days of Lent, commemorating Jesus' fast in the wilderness after His baptism.  This is also a time of repentance in preparation for the sorrowful mysteries of His death.  Catholics traditionally give something up for Lent, in imitation of Christ's fast and in repentance for our sins for which He lovingly chose to suffer.

Easter/Pascha

Then, with the coming of Spring, the "rebirth" of nature from the "death" of winter, we rejoice in the Resurrection of Our Lord from the dead.  The forty days of Lent give way into the fifty days of the Paschal Season, when we celebrate the life of the Risen Jesus in our souls, the seed of our own glorification and deification on the last day.

Pentecost

As the summer sun swells the fruit of the trees and the grain of the fields, we celebrate the birth of Holy Mother Church in the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.  At Christmas we celebrate Jesus' birth in a physical body; on Holy Thursday during Lent we recall His gift of his Eucharistic Body; on Pentecost we rejoice in the birth of His Mystical Body.

Ordinary Time

"Ordinary Time" carries us through the rest of Summer and Autumn until the return of Advent.  During these many weeks we read of Jesus' miracles and teachings, and allow the Spirit to bring to fruition in our hearts the Kingdom of God.  It is most fitting, therefore, that the Last Sunday of the liturgical year be dedicated to Christ the King.

QUARTER DAYS AND THE CHANGE OF SEASONS

Notice how many of the feasts of the Western Church coincide with the seasonal cycles of nature.  As we saw above, Christmas falls close to the Winter Solstice; nine months earlier we celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25, also called Lady Day) near the Spring Equinox (March 21).  The birth of Saint John the Baptizer, the Forerunner of the Messiah, falls on June 24, a mere three days after the Summer Solstice.  In some parts of the world this is a major feast, alternately called the "Midsummer Festival", "Summer Christmas", or "St. John's day"!  (The night before is celebrated as St. John's Eve, or bonfire night.)

Though no major Catholic feast falls that close to the Autumn Equinox (21 September), this is the implied time of the Baptizer's conception, for it falls nine months before the feast of his birth.  This also happens to be the approximate time of the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) in the Jewish Calendar.  The implication here is that Zachariah, John the Baptizer's father, was serving in the Temple on Yom Kippur when Holy Gabriel the Archangel appeared to announce the Forerunner's birth (Luke 1:5-23)1.

In medieval times, Michaelmas (29 September), the feast of Holy Michael the Archangel, took the place of an Autumn Equinox Festival (though it falls more than a week later).  These four holy days - Christmas, Lady Day, St. John's Day and Michaelmas - were called the "quarter days", and were celebrated with great joy and feasting.  Today, Christmas is the only quarter day which retains its status as a major Christian feast.

The quarter days may be further evidence of the fact that, by His Incarnation, Death and Resurrection, Christ has redeemed and will ultimately glorify the entire cosmos.  As we discussed in the article Ecclesia, the Cosmic Mother, the material world is mysteriously associated with Christ by virtue of the Incarnation.  Thus it is also associated with the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ.  God has made the whole world for Mother Church and with her in mind.  It seems fitting, therefore, that the seasonal cycle once associated with "mother nature" should correspond to the liturgical cycle of Holy Mother Church.

The quarter days celebrate the four most important figures in Christianity.  Christmas, the first quarter day of the Church's liturgical year, honors Jesus Christ, the God-Man, the most important of the four by far.  Lady Day commemorates His all-holy Mother, Mary, the highest mere creature2; St. John's day honors Christ's Precursor, the greatest of prophets, and Michaelmas honors the Prince of the angelic hosts.  Is it a mere coincidence that each of these important figures has a festival near the beginning of each season?

NOTES

  1. Greg Dues, Catholic Customs and Traditions: A Popular Guide,  (Mystic, CN: Twenty Third, 1989)  62-63.
  2. Though the Annunciation is technically a festival of Christ, it has a strong Marian emphasis.

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