Catholic Culture Podcasts
Catholic Culture Podcasts

The Liturgical Year: a Celebration of Christ

by Charles E. Miller, C.M.


An excellent discussion of the way in which the Church's Liturgical Year is a mysterious celebration of Christ.

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The Priest



Publisher & Date

Our Sunday Visitor, Publishing, December 1999

“These are the festivals of the Lord, my feast days, which you shall celebrate with a sacred assembly.” Leviticus 2

Time is an elusive reality. We all experience it, but we fail to comprehend its full significance. A year, which is one way in which we measure time, is 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 46 seconds. Having looked that up, I do not feel that I am any closer to understanding time.

Aristotle said that time is the "measure of motion or change according to before and after." If that means something, I suppose you could apply his definition to a lot of reality, including a life span, but I find Aristotle's notion not very helpful. Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity leaves me baffled, especially the principle that "space and time are interdependent and form a four-dimensional continuum." What was that again?

I am confident both philosophically and theologically that God is beyond time, that God transcends time, that God is eternal. With God, all is present, nothing is past, nothing is future. Of course, I comprehend the eternity of God even less than I do the general theory of relativity, but we will see later that the eternity of God does have an important bearing on the topic of this article.

Turning to something simpler, I recognize that the idea most contemporary people, especially historians, have of time is that it is a series of unrepeatable events, one following upon another. Time is like a straight line, with a beginning, a middle and an end. Some historians do not like to hear us say that history repeats itself, since in their view it cannot do so, at least not in a literal sense. Historical events are confined to the past and cannot be duplicated. There is no way to clone time.

The ancients had a different understanding of time. They lived close to the land and were dependent upon their observations of nature for their livelihood. They saw time as a cycle, as a series of events that regularly repeat themselves.

Spring is a period of beginning, a bright fresh season of hope and promise, the moment of planting. Summer is for the growth and maturation of crops under the warm, nourishing rays of the sun, upon which the ancients depended as upon a god. Fall means the harvest, the opportunity to reap the fruits of labor. Fall, however, turns into winter, with its cold, dark, seemingly endless nights and altogether brief days as the light fades and the sun appears almost to die. But there is no reason to lose hope since, inevitably, winter turns into spring and the cycle is repeated. 1

The liturgy rather favors the idea of the ancients since the liturgy itself is ancient. In fact, we all recognize that we celebrate the same events in a yearly cycle. Vatican II's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy states that very fact for us: "Within the cycle of the year, the Church unfolds the whole mystery of Christ, not only from His incarnation and birth until His ascension, but also as reflected in the day of Pentecost and the expectation of a blessed, hope-for return of the Lord" (no. 102).

This teaching follows upon that of Pope Pius XII, who was a little more complete in his encyclical Mediator Dei in 1947:

In the sacred liturgy, the whole Christ is proposed to us in all the circumstances of His life, as the Word of the Eternal Father, as born of the Virgin mother of God, as He who teaches us truth, heals the sick, consoles the afflicted, who endures suffering and who dies; finally, as He who rose triumphantly from the dead and who, reigning in the glory of heaven, sends us the Holy Spirit who abides in His Church forever [no. 163].

The liturgy constitution goes on to insist that "Recalling 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 at all times and the faithful are enabled to lay hold of them and become filled with saving grace" (no. 102). And this teaching of the council flows from that of Pope Pius XII in Mediator Dei:

The liturgical year is not a cold and lifeless representation of the events of the past, or a simple and bare record of a former age. It is rather Christ himself who is ever living in His Church. . . . These mysteries are ever present and active among us [no. 165].

Extraordinary Liturgical Doctrine

There is no magic about the liturgical year, only a profound mystery that is reflected in the truth that the Church embraces an extraordinary doctrine about the liturgical year. We do not merely observe anniversaries of past events, as we do Washington's Birthday or the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Washington is dead and buried; so is that historical event of his birth into this world. The signing of the Declaration of Independence was a crucial moment in the life of our country, but it is consigned to the past and cannot be repeated. It is history.

Not so the life of Jesus Christ. Jesus is not dead. He is alive and active in the sacred liturgy and brings with Him all the events of His wonderful life. Remember, Pius XII declared that Christ is ever living in His Church and that His mysteries are ever present and active among us.

Pope Leo the Great, who was pope from 440 to 461 said in a Christmas homily:

Although the state of infancy, which the Son of God did not disdain to assume, developed with the passage of time into the maturity of manhood, and although after the triumph of the Passion and the Resurrection all His lowly acts undertaken on our behalf belong to the past, nevertheless today's feast of Christmas renews for us the sacred beginning of Jesus' life, His birth from the Virgin Mary.2

St. Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first Christmas crib. He told his friend John da Vellita, "I would make a memorial of that Christ who was born in Bethlehem and in some sort behold with bodily eyes the hardships of His infant state, lying on hay in a manger with the ox and the ass standing by." In 1223, he set up a crib at his hermitage in Grecchio, Italy, and from that day the practice has spread throughout the whole world.3 The crib is now an important liturgical symbol.

We have surrounded birthdays with customs such as a cake with candles and the singing of "Happy Birthday to You," but we have no custom of including a painting or picture or any depiction of the day of birth. The reason is that we are celebrating the anniversary of one's birth. The crib reminds us that we are not celebrating the anniversary of the Jesus' birth but the very birth itself. In the liturgy, by the almighty power of God, Christmas is the actualization of the birth of Jesus for us.

Our doctrine of the liturgical year is actually a continuation of the Old Testament understanding of liturgical celebrations. This understanding is particularly exemplified in the deuteronomic literature within which salvific events of the past are told as if they were occurring to the people of the present – because they were. The Book of Deuteronomy consists mainly of sermons on the Book of Exodus that were composed centuries after the events that it relates.

The preacher speaks in the person of Moses. His purpose is to proclaim again the ancient tradition in a time of great crisis for Israel. His message is not "Thus said the Lord God" in the past tense, but "Thus says the Lord God" in the present tense.

Consider the great profession of faith in Deuteronomy 26:5 - 6 , which was proclaimed within a liturgical celebration. Note the subtle change from the third person to the first:

"A wandering Aramean was my father who went down to Egypt with a small household and lived there as an alien. But there he became a nation great, strong and numerous. When the Egyptians maltreated and oppressed us [this is the sudden change to the first person, to the people living long after the event], imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the lord, the God of our fathers, and he heard our cry and saw our affliction, our toil and our oppression. He brought us out of Egypt with his strong hand and outstretched arm, with terrifying power, with signs and wonders; and bringing us into this country, he gave us this land flowing with milk and honey."

Psalm 126 is another example. It is the song of the exiles who returned from the Babylonian captivity: "When the Lord delivered Zion from bondage, it seemed like a dream." Those who prayed this psalm generations after the event included themselves: "Then our mouth filled with laughter, on our lips there were songs." They thought back to the reaction of pagan neighbors upon the return of the exiles: "The heathen themselves said: What marvels the Lord worked for them," but those praying the psalm insisted, "What marvels the Lord worked for us!" Our theology of the liturgical year follows the Old Testament theology of liturgy.

I am always amazed when I realize that many people satisfy themselves with merely reading the Bible when through the liturgy of the Church they could actually enter into the events of the Bible.

To understand the reality of the liturgical year, it is helpful to refer to our theology of transubstantiation. In the Eucharist, the substance of bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of the Lord, while the accidents are not affected. In the liturgical year, the substance of the mysteries of Christ becomes present without the accidents.

This means, for example, that the grace-filled moment of the birth of Jesus is with us at Christmas but not the cold of Bethlehem, and that His preaching reaches our ears but without our seeing the terrain upon which He stood, and that we are confirmed in faith by means of the Transfiguration without seeing the splendor of His countenance as did Peter, James and John.

The liturgical year is real, not imaginary, and yet it is a mystery. A "Rahnerism" helps us: "A mystery is not a truth about which we can know nothing. It is a truth about which we cannot know everything." We cannot comprehend the mystery of the liturgical year, but what we do understand about it leads us to full, active participation in liturgical celebrations.

The Liturgical "Now"

Have we neglected the Church's beautiful doctrine of the liturgical year? Let's think about it further. Some liturgical scholars refer to it as the liturgical "now." There is a "here and now" about liturgical celebrations because of "anamnesis," which is liturgical memorial. This is where the eternity of God finds application. God the Father holds all the events of the life of His Son in His eternal memory, where all events are neither past nor future but only present. Through the power of the liturgy, God the Father lifts us up into His eternal memory. There we not only remember but also actually enter into the events of the life of God's beloved Son.

All liturgical celebrations are anamnesis, but in particular there is a sacrament of anamnesis for the Paschal Mystery, the death and resurrection of Jesus, and that is the holy Eucharist. The holy Eucharist is the living memorial of His death and resurrection. Our celebration of the Eucharist fulfills Jesus' commandment: "Do this in memory of me."

Jesus has given a sacrament that is the anamnesis of the Paschal Mystery, His death and resurrection, because all the events of His life that we celebrate in the liturgy are fulfilled, caught up, gathered together in His death and resurrection.

From the moment that Jesus was conceived in Mary's womb, He was destined to follow and complete the Father's plan according to which He would destroy death by dying and restore life by rising. When He was born into our world, He was already pointed toward Jerusalem where He would fulfill the Paschal Mystery. A mere 40 days after His birth, He was offered to God in the Temple in anticipation of His offering of himself on the cross. At 12, He was found (where else?) in His Father's house, the Temple of Jerusalem, which He would replace with His own body.

In His public ministry, He was on a relentless journey up to the holy city where He would accomplish the purpose of His birth, so that by His cross and resurrection He would set us free. His Paschal Mystery is His declaration of our independence from sin and death, and our birth as the Church, the People of God.

The expression is always to go "up" to Jerusalem, regardless of the direction from which one comes, since the city is on a mountain. When people set out to climb a mountain, they have to make many preparations. They need proper equipment, supplies, a map of the face of the mountain and a plan. The climb is tortuous, as they sometimes slip and skin knees and elbows, or become entangled in shrubs, and in a moment of alarm come close to falling to the rocks beneath them.

Often when asked why they go to all the trouble of scaling a mountain, the climbers reply, "Because it is there." More than that, however, they feel a deep sense of accomplishment when they reach the top. The moment of victory makes it all worthwhile. In a sense, all the efforts to get to the top are present with them when they reach the summit.

All of this is said in reference to Jesus. Everything about Him found its purpose on the mountain on which Jerusalem was located. All the preparations during the period of the Old Testament, including God's covenant, the teachings of the prophets and the destiny of the people led to His coming into our world. That was the Father's plan. He gave His Son a map to follow, but the way for Him was tortuous, with many twists and turns because of the resistance of some people, the plotting of the leaders against Him and the lack of fidelity by most of His followers.

When Jesus was lifted up on the cross, all of those realities were lifted up with Him. He was at the summit, and all the efforts to get there were with Him at that moment. That is the meaning of saying that all the events of the life of Jesus are fulfilled, caught up, gathered together in His death and resurrection. Everything He had to endure was worthwhile, not only for Him but also especially for us.

And so, no matter what the event in the life of Jesus may be that we are celebrating, we do so within the Mass. All is contained in the Eucharist since all is contained in Christ's Paschal Mystery.

The Spiral

The liturgical year is a cycle, a circle of events that are repeated annually. A problem with this truth is that if you go around in circles, you do not get anywhere. The ninth beatitude, they say, is, "Blessed are they who go around in circles, for they shall be called big wheels." That sounds pretty negative. But the truth is that by celebrating the liturgical year, we are getting somewhere; we are making progress.

Each liturgical year builds on the previous one to form a spiral that is ever ascending toward heaven. With each year, we progress closer to that moment when Jesus will come again in glory. Every liturgical celebration adds meaning to our prayer: "Protect us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ."

But where do we begin our annual counting of time? January is completely arbitrary, and the names of the last four months of the year let us know that at one time we began the year in March, the month in which the first day of spring always occurs.4 Spring is a time of awakening and seems to be the time to begin the secular year – and some even think we should begin the liturgical year with Lent, when we prepare to celebrate our great spring festival of Easter.

The conciliar commission that was charged with arranging the Sacramentary and the Lectionary debated the issue. The outcome – perhaps I should say compromise – was to settle on the First Sunday of Advent as the inauguration of the liturgical year.

Whenever we begin the year, there is a tension between a thematic arrangement of feasts and a chronological one. This is what I mean. We celebrate the birth of Jesus on Dec. 25. We celebrate His conception nine months previously on March 25, which always occurs during Lent. The result is that we turn our thoughts to the conception of Jesus by a chronological reckoning when we are preparing to celebrate His Paschal Mystery according to our thematic arrangement.

Equally, we conclude the Christmas season with the Baptism of the Lord as an adult two Sundays after Christmas, but 40 days after Christmas we celebrate His presentation as an infant in the Temple.

If this tension is an obstacle, it is not an insurmountable one. We must recognize that the liturgical year is not a dramatic re-enactment of the life of Jesus. It is a mystical entering into the events of our salvation.

Mary And The Saints

The liturgical year is a celebration of Christ – that is, of Jesus who has been exalted through His death and resurrection as Lord and Christ, as the Head of His Body, the Church, from which He cannot be separated. To celebrate Christ is to celebrate both Head and members. The liturgical year, therefore, includes Mary and the other saints.

The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy is simple and clear:

In celebrating the annual cycle of Christ's mysteries, the Church honors with special love the Blessed Mary, Mother of God, who is joined by an inseparable bond to the saving work of her son. . . . The Church has also included in the annual cycle days devoted to the memory of the martyrs and the other saints. By celebrating the passage of these saints from earth to heaven, the Church proclaims the Paschal Mystery as achieved in the saints who have suffered and been glorified with Christ [nos. 103 and 104].

And yet the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy admonishes us that "the minds of the faithful must be directed primarily toward the feasts of the Lord in which the mysteries of salvation are celebrated in the course of the year" (no. 108).


1 Of course, matters are just the opposite in the Southern Hemisphere from what they are in the Northern, which makes something of a problem for a universal Church when it comes to the liturgical symbolism of time.

2 See the Office of Readings for Dec. 31 .

3 See Butler's Lives of the Saints, Concise Edition, ed. Michael Walsh (New York: Harper & Row, 1985 ), p. 319 .

4 The names September, October, November and December are derived from Latin and indicate the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth months.

FATHER MILLER holds the Von Der Ahe Chair of Homiletics and Liturgy at St. John's Seminary in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

© The Priest, Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, In 46750.

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