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The Oases of Lent: Celebrations of St. Patrick, St. Joseph, Annunciation and Family Days

By Jennifer Gregory Miller (bio - articles - email) | Mar 17, 2017

We are now in the beginning of three feasts of March (almost always in Lent) that are not part of the Lenten Season. Two are included in the Sanctoral (saint) Calendar, and only one is integral to the Temporal Calendar (following the life of Christ). These are stand-alone feasts that provide a little refreshment and celebration in Lent: March 17—St. Patrick, March 19—St. Joseph, and March 25—the Annunciation.

Since my birthday is March 16, I am always keenly aware of these feasts; they have become my favorite days of the Liturgical Year. Some years I have postponed celebration on my actual birthday to move to a Sunday or one of these feast days, or continue the birthday celebrations on these feast days. And of course, going out to celebrate on March 16 we always found a little bit of St. Patrick celebrations alongside the birthday candles.

For Catholics who follow the Liturgical Calendar closely, deciding how to celebrate these days in Lent can be as controversial as Sundays in Lent. Do we stick to the austerity of Lent and change the way a solemnity is celebrated? Do we forego family celebrations or special patronal feasts (like St. Patrick) because they fall into Lent? Or do we accept the spirit of the day? How does the Church celebrate these feasts?

March 17: St. Patrick

It seems everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. This day has become much more of a secular celebration in the United States. St. Patrick was probably joy-filled and not against drinking a wee drop now and again, but I’m not sure what he would think of the hilarity and sometimes abuses that goes on in his name. Maybe he would think it is all taking his name in vain. But how other people carouse doesn’t have to define how a Catholic celebrates St. Patrick’s Day.

In most dioceses of the United States, St. Patrick is celebrated as an Optional Memorial or commemoration, although it is a solemnity in Ireland and Australia and a feast in Wales, Scotland, and New Zealand. The Lenten liturgy takes precedence for any Memorial of a saint, making it an Optional Memorial or commemoration (General Norms for the Liturgical Year and Calendar, 14). The priest continues to wear violet or purple vestments and the Mass readings of the day are for Lent, unless St. Patrick is the patron of the local diocese, cathedral, parish, or religious community. (Note that green is never the vestment color for St. Patrick’s Day.) (General Norms on the Liturgical Year and Calendar, 52.)

St. Patrick is known as the “Apostle to Ireland”, converting the population to Catholicism in his 33 years of work there. He died around 461 A.D., and he has left a continuing legacy. Because the Irish have spread all over the world, they have brought a bit of their homeland and their patron saint to the places they have settled.

His feast day is always in Lent. Sometimes it gets “bumped” due to falling on a Sunday, and in the United States it is not transferred like a solemnity. His feast also sometimes falls on a Friday in Lent, like this year (2017). Some dioceses have given a dispensation for abstinence for meat on this day. Depending on the diocese, there are certain conditions to the dispensation. My diocese is the Diocese of Arlington, and the dispensation explains because Friday is a day of penance “[t]hose taking advantage of the dispensation, however, are exhorted to undertake a work of charity, an exercise of piety, or an act of comparable penance on some other occasion during the Second Week of Lent.

I have not really embraced full Irish celebrations, as I didn’t think I had much Irish blood, but recently my sisters have been researching our genealogy and we have much more Celtic blood (and specifically Irish) than we originally thought. This doesn’t mean I’m suddenly going to be shouting “Erin go Bragh!“ from the rooftops, but it does make me a little more empathetic to St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.

Will I follow the dispensation today? I’m not sure. Although I know so many people talk about corned beef, Shepherd’s pie, bangers and mash, Irish stew as indispensable Irish comfort foods, I have found there are many meatless dishes that are just as Irish and traditional. My old Irish cookbook had mostly fish recipes (not surprising, considering Ireland is a pretty big island). Soda bread and Irish coffee will satisfy my urges for Irish celebration foods.

March 19: St. Joseph

St. Joseph’s Day is a higher ranking Solemnity within the Liturgical Year; “Solemnities are counted as the principal days in the calendar, whose celebration begins with First Vespers (Evening Prayer I) on the preceding day“ (General Norms for the Liturgical Year and Calendar, 11). The Mass celebrated is similar to a Sunday. It includes the Gloria, three readings and the psalm, and the priest wears white vestments. In some parts of the world this is a holyday of obligation.

Following the Liturgical Calendar in Lent with the Sundays, saints’ days and solemnities can really help one understand the priorities of the Church’s Liturgy. Every time I get my new calendar for the upcoming year, I always check to see if St. Joseph and the Annunciation are transferred to other days. This year St. Joseph’s feast is transferred to Monday, March 20. The reason is simply stated: “[T]he Sundays of Advent, Lent and Easter have precedence over all Feasts of the Lord and over all Solemnities. In fact, Solemnities occurring on these Sundays are transferred to the following Monday unless they occur on Palm Sunday or on Sunday of the Lord’s Resurrection.” (General Norms for the Liturgical Year and Calendar, 5.)

Just as the Irish love St. Patrick, the Italians (and Sicilians) claim St. Joseph as their own, so there are many traditions attached to his feast. In particular, the Sicilian tradition of the St. Joseph Altar or St. Joseph Table has really spread in the United States.

Just as I recently found out I have the Irish heritage, I also discovered I have some Italian roots, so I can claim that heritage when I celebrate with Italian food on St. Joseph’s Day. But really, it doesn’t matter what my heritage, because as Florence Berger says,

Being American Catholics, we can choose the best of the cultures of all the nations of the world and make them ours in Christ. We can call the songs, the stories, the dances and the foods of all peoples our own because in our American heritage there is blood and bone and spirit of these different men and women. If America is a melting pot, it can also be a cooking pot from which we women can serve up a Christian culture (Cooking for Christ, NCRLC, 1949).

As far as celebrating, the rank of a solemnity and Sunday is of the highest rank, if St. Joseph’s Day falls on Friday in Lent, abstinence is not obligatory on this feast. From the Code of Canon Law:

Can. 1251 Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday.

There is no need to wait for official dispensation, as this is always the rule. There is no fasting or abstaining ever required on Sundays or solemnities.

March 25: Annunciation of the Lord

At the end of this “octave” is the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord. Just like St. Joseph’s Day, this feast could be transferred to another date. Because it falls so close to the end of Lent for some years, the feast day can be moved outside of Lent, depending if March 25 falls during Holy Week. If it does, then the feast is moved to the Monday of the Second Week of Easter, as Holy Week and Easter Week take precedence. This year the Annunciation stays put on the usual date.

And just like St. Joseph’s day, the Solemnity begins the evening before, the Mass includes white vestments, the Gloria, and 3 readings. The only exception solemnities in Lent have with others throughout the Liturgical Year is the Alleluia is not said or sung. And again, because this is a solemnity, no abstinence is ever required if it falls on a Friday.

“Lady Day” or LadyMass was one of the quarter days in Britain, falling near spring equinox. Although this is a religious feast day, it was the day to hire servants, begin a new school term and to pay the quarterly rent. There are less traditional celebration traditions, except for the Swedish tradition of waffles on Annunciation Day, called Vaffeldagen in Sweden..

This is the feast day that celebrates the Incarnation; it is the pivotal moment for our redemption. As Dr. Warren Carroll repeatedly taught, “Truth Exists; the incarnation happened.” We remember this moment every time we pray the Angelus. The Annunciation is a feast of our Lord in the Temporal calendar, marking nine months before Christmas, but it is also a special feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Family Celebrations

As I mentioned before, March 16 is my birthday, and it always falls in Lent and never in Holy Week. It has been our family’s policy to continue celebration (including cake) for Lenten birthdays. After all, a person doesn’t choose the day they are born. Sometimes we do move the celebration to the weekend, usually Sunday, but we don’t want to “punish” someone for having a birthday in Lent.

This year is a particularly special celebration since I turn 50. My family has put aside their personal penances to make sure I know I’m loved and celebrated. We usually prolong our honoring of birthdays for a “Birthday Eve” and “Birthday Octave.” This year March has become my “Birthday Month.” That is not to say it is constant partying, but just special ways to celebrate throughout the month.

Personal Penances and Celebrations in Lent

Lent begins the weekly First Communion meditations in the Level II CGS atrium. This past Wednesday I was talking about the True Vine and Branches and sin. In our discussions, several of these 6 and 7 year olds said that eating sweets in Lent was a sin.

I explained why we do personal penances in Lent and how breaking these resolutions is not a sin.* It can only become a sin if this has been something their parents decided, and the children decide to eat the treat anyway. That would be the sin of disobedience.

That little exchange made me realize there is much misunderstanding regarding Lenten disciplines. We are encouraged by Christ to take up fasting, prayer and almsgiving for Lent to imitate Him. There is the inevitable discussion of “what to give up for Lent” but there seems to be a lack of what do these Lenten penances mean and what are our obligations.

To state as simply as possible, Lent is a time to prepare our hearts for the gift of the Paschal Feast of Easter. During Lent particularly we are trying to imitate Jesus, to love Him as much as He loves us. He sacrificed His life for us, so the bar is rather high for us to imitate. So often we don’t return that love, but put other loves in front: love of our bodies, ego, money, material items, etc.

Choosing penances and mortifications for Lent is a way to purify our love and intentions for Christ. The Church requires us to fast and abstain on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and abstain on all other Fridays in Lent. That is the minimal penitential requirement for Lent. All other penances are personal choices.

If I choose a resolution to give up chocolate for Lent and have a piece, I have put my self-love first before my love of Christ, but I have not committed a serious sin.

When the question of whether or not to keep giving up chocolate on Sundays in Lent or solemnities or special feasts or family days is not about breaking rules or committing a serious sin. A personal penance is a personal choice, but it is also personal in the way it can be about interaction with other people who are close to you. It’s not just about the person choosing the penance, but also the people around him/her. In our home, we want our family to enjoy the riches of the Liturgical Year. We want them to see the contrast of high feast days and the austerity of Lent. Celebrations have the liturgical aspect (we try to attend Mass on these days), but food and family togetherness are also components of celebration. On days like St. Patrick, St. Joseph, and the Annunciation, we are putting aside our personal penances regarding food and celebrating together.

Furthermore, the family aspect of celebrating extends to the non-liturgical days, like birthdays. We are thanking God for the gift of life for our family members and friends. We are celebrating this person in our lives. Our personal penance shouldn’t interfere and make this other person feel uncomfortable in the celebration.

These special feasts and birthdays that fall in Lent are not to ignore. They provide a little break from the austerity of Lent. We get a glimpse of the glory of the redemption and the enjoyment of the Communion of Saints. Our family embraces these days.

Happy feast days of St. Patrick, St. Joseph and the Annunciation!

*Technically, sin is defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as:

1849 Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as “an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law.” 121

And so any of these acts of self-love are sin. But in teaching children, I am saying that these are not serious sins that are required to confess; rather. these are ways we are putting love of ourselves first before loving God.

For Further Reading, See My Previous Posts:

Jennifer Gregory Miller is an experienced homemaker, home schooler, and authority on living the liturgical year. She is the primary developer of CatholicCulture.org's liturgical year section. See full bio.

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