Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

The Theology of the Liturgical Year

by Rev. John H. Miller, C.S.C., S.T.D.


Fr. John Miller discusses the Christian meaning of time and how the liturgical year presents a mental review of the mysteries of Christ. He says, "By thus meditating on the Church's teaching contained in her Liturgical Year we are guaranteed of orthodoxy and purity of devotion, of proportion, harmony and homogeneity, in that we learn the whole Christ and do not isolate any part of Him that might satisfy our purely subjective fancy."

Larger Work

The Ecclesiastical Review

Publisher & Date

The Catholic University of America, April 1958

Since the coming of Christ, time has a Christian meaning. It is not simply the measure of prius et posterius, nor even less the tick tock of the clock. As the inch on the ruler does not exhaust the mysteries of space, so the minute cannot disclose the full significance of time. Time is indeed measured, yet it transcends count. Time is colored by the way you look at it. For one it will mean the daily routine of punching the clock, for another the clatter of dishes, for the young the endless drudgery of pushing off for school so early in the morning, and for the teacher the never diminishing stacks of class-work to correct. But for all its humdrum monotony it has its special religious meaning: one for the ancient pagan, one for the modern pagan, still another for the thinking Christian.

Time is forever changing and yet remains the same. Minute succeeds minute, and hour follows upon hour. Yet they all go to make up regularly recurring periods of days, weeks, months and years. And life, too, the progress of which is thus counted out, is really the same. It is the same rise and fall of the sun, the same awakening and falling asleep–together with the work and repose that accompany both. There is the same death and rebirth of nature's vegetative life. And so, though minutes fly quickly by, they simply count out the coming and going of the identical natural phenomena.

We mechanical moderns tend to lose sight of the sameness in time for all our preoccupation with clock-watching and minute-counting. We are inclined to look upon time as an unending straight line which one day will break off abruptly. The ancients lived closer to nature, stood within its cycle of waning and reviving life. Because of this they looked upon the year as a circle. Hence the expression: anni circulum, the circle of the year. For them time was a circular movement which returned upon its own beginnings and within which all the marvelous feats of nature were constantly being worked anew.

Both conceptions can have a fatalistic ring, however: man might possibly be going nowhere. Man could either be living a totally disconnected life, or be going around in circles. Time, in reality, is quite different: it has purpose, it is headed somewhere, albeit in circular fashion. Man living in time has an end, a supernatural end, which crowns and rewards his earthly life. For this reason, it would he better to conceive of time as a spiral movement–circular but going always higher until it brings man to God.


It is with Christ, of course, that the ancient circular concept of time becomes definitively a spiral one, for He stands at the end of man's past and effectively joins to it the hope of a glorious future. As a man born outside of time, He lived in time, worked in time, died in time, in order to bring man from time to eternity. "Jesus Christ, yesterday, today, and the same forever.1 Like an ever constant present, Christ gradually reshapes man in the course of his cyclic natural life from what he was to what his Designer wants him to be.

Thus has Christ sanctified time, making it a symbol or sacramental of spiritual regeneration, growth and maturity.2 Using the natural rhythm of the "circle of the year," Christianity, urged on by the magnum mysterium of redemption, has constructed a system of feasts and seasons to insert that mystery into man's life. And man, in turn, is thus gradually caught up into the current of Christ's life and bit by bit transfigured into His likeness. Come once into time, Christ is continued in time, uses time, gives time a power of sanctification that makes man live for himself the great wonders of redemption wrought by Christ so long ago.

What is true of time is also true of the spiritual life of man. It is always changing and yet remains the same. It is the same life of Christ that finds myriad concretizations as different men absorb and apply it to themselves according to their dispositions which change from day to day. And the Liturgical Year takes this into account as it changes, during the course of the natural seasons, the aspect under which it presents the mystery of Christ to men. This is important, for in the spiritual life there are no plateaus: man must either advance or retreat; he cannot remain static. And the annually recurring mysteries of Christ's life force him to take another step, make him change pace, give him reason to try harder to climb the spiral of a supernaturalized time that leads him to likeness to Christ.

Even though all days are holy since the coming of Christ, there are, nevertheless, certain days which are pre-eminently holy, special days which heighten man's attention to Christ and the spiritual life and thus keep him free of that killer of true devotion, routine. That such holy days are a real need in the spiritual life is well attested to by the universal practice of all religions, both natural and revealed. This all pertains to the time-rhythm of human life. Man cannot live in a rut; neither can he always live on the top of quickened emotion. He has tips and downs in his personal dispositions. This is his human condition, and the Liturgical Year, with its changing seasons and more outstanding solemnities, is especially well suited to it.


While it is all very good and important to insist on the "naturalness" of the Liturgical Year, it is no less necessary to bring out its other-worldly character, its supernaturalness. Christianity is not just another form of religious naturalism. It rests on the solid conviction that man, left to himself, can in no way "spiral" himself out of his human "fix." Oh yes, lie might contrive to lift society, reform the mores of his people, invent all sorts of nice little gadgets that make for "a happy hunting ground." But our poor man will be deceived if he thinks his great empire is not doomed to be purely human–and mortal. He has neither a higher objective nor the power to achieve it. Both must come from God. Christianity is a supernatural religion based on a supernatural event : man transfigured and redeemed. Though the Church has conscientiously endeavored to adopt the seasons of the natural year as well as the solemn occasions of civil society, she has done this, not because these institutions were of themselves sacred, but in order to make them sacred and thus the more easily to sanctify man who uses them. Every feast of the Church is a commemoration of a supernatural event that happened among men to transform men into God. It is the work of redemption that the Church brings to man and inserts into the orbit of time which man uses and in which he lives.

And yet today we often get the impression that this or that feast is celebrated purely in honor of this or that saint. This simply is riot true. Regardless of the immediate title of a feast, it is always celebrated as leading to or flowing from the central mystery of our religion, Christ's act of redemption! "Among all the feasts held sacred by Christian devotion," St. Leo tells us, "none is more excellent than the paschal feast. All other solemnities of God's Church find their dignity consecrated in it."3 Easter was in fact the first and only feast for about a century. Only later were other feasts introduced, but all of them as a preparation for or a prolongation of this central feast. Each Sunday is a weekly reverberation throughout the year of the great Sunday. Christmas and its cycle–introduced in the middle of the fourth century–is a prelude to the work of redemption, while the feasts of the martyrs and many of the other saints are examples of the grace of the resurrection already become operative.4

But what kind of a commemoration of the work of redemption takes place in the liturgical feast? Is it merely a cold and lifeless mental review of the mysteries of Christ, as some would have it? Or is the very reality of the Christ-mystery made present in some way? Pius XII rather emphatically rejects the first view: "The liturgical year, devotedly fostered and accompanied by the Church, 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."5 And before him, Dom Odo Casel insisted that it was not sufficient to look upon the liturgical year as a pious contemplation of the details of Christ's earthly life–a non-baptized person could do that.6 In our celebration of the Liturgical Year we are not simply pious antiquarians interested in studying about the historical Jesus. Christ is not only a fact to be known; He is also the "way and the life."7 In the Liturgy, Christ represents and renews His life precisely as a way of salvation,8 the realization of the mystical and ontological union of us with Himself which is the end and essence of the Christian life.9

We, of course, do not deny that fundamental to the Liturgical Year is a mental review of the various mysteries of Christ. If, as St. Augustine says, "the perfection of religion is to imitate whom we adore,"10 it is important that the Liturgy teach us about Christ. From knowledge flows love, and love, in turn, prompts imitation. This is the whole meaning of the Foremass, the Service of the Word; it teaches us about Christ, His life, His work, with the obvious intent of feeding our minds with strong spiritual food for meditation and contemplation, of "giving us examples of virtue to imitate, of pointing out treasures of sanctity for us to make our own, since it is fitting that the mind believe what the lips sing, and that what the mind believes should be practiced in public and private life."11This mental review or memorial is basic to Christianity. We can never emphasize enough the fact that Christianity has sprung from an historical event, that it was from the injection of "divine blood," so to speak, into man that a new priestly people have arisen. We are children of the Second Adam, and like all good children we like to know about our father, so that we may be like him. If the ability to become sons of God depends on this supernatural event, the intensity of our conscious living as sons of God will depend on how well we co-operate with the picture God presents us of Himself. Here, then, in the didactic part of the Mass we are presented with story of salvation and the virtues of the Savior. This evokes a response: the willingness to accept the salvation shown through a willingness to he like the Savior, the Image of man saved.

But the power of the liturgical commemoration is not exhausted by our mental agility in assimilating Christian doctrine or in mulling over salvific events of the past. The power behind the Liturgical Year is rather "Christ Himself who is ever living in His Church. Here He continues that journey of immense mercy which He lovingly began in His mortal life, going about doing good, with the design of bringing men (1) to know His mysteries and (2) in a way to live by them."12 This twofold design of Christ in working through the Liturgical Year for men's salvation is actually brought about through some sort of a presence of His mysteries in the liturgical commemoration. And the Pope speaks -+of their being present in two ways: first, as shining examples of Christian perfection; secondly, "as sources of divine grace, due to the merits and prayers of Christ; they still influence us because each mystery brings its own special grace for our salvation."13 Now we are in Christianity proper; we are in a sacramental system which not only shows Christ to us, but actually effects His likeness within us! Not only is the higher objective placed before man; he is given the power to attain it! But we are not yet speaking of the sacraments properly so-called. No. The Holy Father continues: "Our holy Mother the Church, while proposing for our contemplation -the mysteries of our Redeemer, asks in her prayers for those gifts which would give her children the greatest possible share in the spirit of these mysteries through the merits of Christ."14 The part of the sacramental system of which we are speaking now is the sacramental prayer of the Church. It is sacramental because it is said through the power of priesthood. It is Christ, therefore, who is praying, albeit using the Church, i.e., His members, as His instrument.15 And Christ's prayer is always acceptable to the Father, always pleasing, always heard. The consequence? The effect of the sacramental prayer of the Church is infallible, in the sense that it always makes present and available for us the grace of the mystery commemorated. It is there for us to take or leave!

And yet more! This liturgical commemoration is not only a sacramental, it is also a sacrament. During the consecration of the Mass the act of redemption–Christ's sacrifice and the new life He gained for us through it–is made really present. Thus Pius XII: "This mystery is the very center of divine worship since the Mass represents and renews it every day."16 He continues: "The august sacrifice of the altar is no mere empty commemoration of the passion and death of Jesus Christ, but a true and proper act of sacrifice wherein, by means of an unbloody immolation, the High Priest does again what He already did on the Cross, offering Himself a most acceptable victim to the Eternal Father."17 As we read in the Secret for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, which the Pope quotes, "as often as this commemorative sacrifice is offered, there is wrought the work of our redemption."18

During the course of the Liturgical Year all the mysteries of Christ's life are individually celebrated. The reason for this is to give the frail human mind an opportunity of taking in the whole mystery of redemption according to its various aspects. Each feast permits us to contemplate more minutely the mystery of salvation and to drink more deeply of the current of grace and life flowing from our Head. After all, the Christian mystery is much too vast, infinite in fact, for the human mind to grasp all at once, just as grace itself cannot be adequately assimilated in its proper infinite mode by a human soul with strictly finite faculties of intellect and will. A human being needs to break down the one whole mystery of redemption into a pattern of cycles and feasts which allow him to be introduced slowly and gradually into the details of the mystery revealed and effected in Christ, and only thus to be transfigured into the likeness of Christ.19

Does this mean that the individual mysteries of Christ's life are made truly present as separate entities during the Liturgical Year? Though this opinion has been imputed to Dom Odo Casel, he emphatically states the contrary. The only historical salvific event of Christ's life which breaks the bonds of time and is made present under our ritual symbols is the central act of redemption.20 By the central act of redemption Casel means Christ's sacrifice and its acceptance on the part of the Father as demonstrated in the resurrection. Not that the historical circumstances of Christ's being put to death and actually dying are mane present; these took place only once in history. It is what was clothed in these historical circumstances that is important: the New Passover, the transition from earthly life to a glorified state.21This obviously implies the resurrection as the terminus of this salvific act, in the same sense that St. Thomas Aquinas sees the resurrection as a necessary part of the central act of redemption.22 According to him, the death of Christ properly speaking is the efficient cause of the removal of the obstacle to our justification, namely, sin; the resurrection is the efficient cause of justification itself, namely, the life of grace.

What then of the other mysteries of Christ's life? Casel answers that the mystery of redemption is one whole unbroken unity. The other mysteries of our Lord's life are never present separately, for the different phases of our Lord's redemptive work cannot in actuality he separated from the whole mystery which is Christ the Risen Lord.23 They are present from the viewpoint of Christ's central salvific act, therefore, only as presupposed (the Incarnation) or as resulting therefrom (the Ascension)–not in their individual reality.24 If the Church has appropriated the different elements and phases of this Mystery25 to the various festivals and seasons of the Liturgical Year, it was only because, as we have said, that this Mystery includes a very involved process (Christ's own early life as well as the preparation of Israel for His coming), and it can only be brought to man by way of a concrete, factual reproduction of the major events that go to make up the work of redemption. It is the same problem of bringing the eternal decrees and plans of God into the realm of time which is a successive thing. Man is so bound up with the limitations of time, that he simply cannot be taken up into the divine, transformed into the likeness of Christ, unless the time which is so connatural to him is also in some way taken up and, so to speak, eternalized. And this surely means all the natural rhythm of time: days, seasons and years through which time flows and man lives.

Here, then, in the Liturgical Year we witness a wedding of time and eternity. Man the finite and time-bound stands face to face to the divine, eternal mysterium tremendum of salvation as it is offered to him in a concretized, itemized form by means of a mental review of the deeds of redemption and through a sharing of their specific graces with the help of the Church's sacramental prayer, and finally in the whole unbroken form of the central salvific act as found in the Eucharist. Thus he is led bit by bit up the spiral that flowers into the glory of definitive and final configuration to the Eternal Logos, the Image of the Father!


The Church insists on the value of daily mental prayer, and rightly so, for man must reflect on the truths possessed by faith if he is to build up convictions strong enough to attach him irrevocably to a love, imitation and service of the Christ known through faith. Regardless of what method a person may use, mental prayer needs to feed on the wholesome objective truth of revelation as proposed and interpreted by the divine authority of the Church. Otherwise, instead of bringing man out of himself and leading him to the supernatural goal of likeness to Christ, it will only tend to falsify religion with emotionalism and sentimentality, it will only shape Christ to our way of thinking. It will naturalize Christ, instead of supernaturalizing us.

Every day the Church holds out to us her objective teaching about Christ. She intends very specifically to instruct us during the Foremass and effectively brings us the grace of each mystery she thus explains. She is very clearly, then, offering us matter to absorb and apply to our own lives as well as the grace to do so. But how can we expect to receive this grace in all its fullness and make an intelligent application of her teaching to ourselves and our condition, unless we open our hearts to that grace by reflection, meditation, by attempting to understand what she is saying, unless, as Pius XII says, we "put our lips to the fountain, imbibe and absorb for ourselves the life-giving water"?26 The work of redemption is taught to us and made present for us throughout the Liturgical Year, hut for it to have its full effect, we must put forth that serious interior, mental and voluntary effort and experience the Christ-mystery in our souls.

By thus meditating on the Church's teaching contained in her Liturgical Year we are guaranteed of orthodoxy and purity of devotion, of proportion, harmony and homogeneity, in that we learn the whole Christ and do not isolate any part of Him that might satisfy our purely subjective fancy. We also become more conscious of the fact that we are members of His Mystical Body and live its life, and the danger is thereby lessened of divorcing ourselves from the body without which we cannot live. It is also an effective antidote against routine and formalism, for the Fore-mass comes to life for us in proportion as the mysteries of the Liturgical Year become more vital and real to us. We no longer simply go through so many epistles and Gospels, feasts and seasons automatically as through so many formalities, but we begin really to experience them, relive them. And thus the Liturgy becomes what it should be: the primary source of the true Christian spirit. It truly forms us to the image and likeness of the God-Man, and we accept all the formative influence it wishes to exert on us. It becomes a vivifying immersion in the Mystery of Christ, a sharing in the eternal life of God, a veritable transfiguration through grace to glory!


1 Hebr. 13:8.

2 See the beautiful article of Odo Casel, "Le sens chretien du temps," La Vie Spirituelle, 76 ( January, 1947), pp. 18-26.

3 Sermo 48. MPL, 54: 298.

4 For the theological arguments and patristic and liturgical evidence in support of these ideas see my paper, "The Easter Vigil: Climax of the Week and the Year," published in The Proceedings of the North American Liturgical Week of 1956: People's Participation and Holy Week (Elsberry, Mo., 1957), pp. 133-137, 139-141.

5 Mediator Dei (America Press Edition), par. 165.

6 Le Mystere du culte dans le christianisme (Paris, 1946), p. 134.

7 John 14: 6.

8 Casel, op. cit., 135.

9 Ibid., 132.

10 De civitate Dei, VIII, 17. :UPI., 41: 249.

11 Mediator Dei, 153.

12 Ibid., 165. Italics mine.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15 Cf. my article, "The Nature and Definition of the Liturgy," Theological Studies, 18 (September, 1957), pp. 337-338.

16 Mediator Dei, 164.

17 Ibid. (A. Bugnini, Documenta Pontificia ad Instaurationem Liturgicam Spectantia, Rome, 1953), par. 67. Italics mine: id agit, quod iam in Cruce fecit.

18 Ibid. (America Press edition), 79.

19 Cf. L. Bouyer, Liturgical Piety (Notre Dame, Indiana, 1955), 192-198.

20 "Glaube, Gnosis, and Mysterium," Jahrbuch fur Liturgiewissenschaft, 15 (1941), 266.

21 "Art und Sinn der altesten christlichen Osterfeier," JLW, 14 (1938), 19-20; V. Warnach, "Zur Problem der Mystcricngegenwart," Liturgisches Leben, 5 (1938), 37.

22 Sumnta Theologica, III, 53, 1, corp.; III, 56, 2, ad 4; Comm. in Epist. ad Rom. IV, 25.

23 "Art und Sinn der altesten christlichen Osterfeier," JLW, 14 (1938), 52; "Mysteriengegenwart," JLW, 8 (1928), 204, 207.

24 "Das Mysteriengedachtnis der Messliturgie im Lichte der Tradition," JLW, 6 (1926), 204.

25 It must be borne in mind that nowhere does Casel speak of a Lehrgeheimnis, the Mystery as a truth or doctrine. He insists over and over again that the Mystery of Christ, both in its historical phase as well as in its liturgical continuation, is an action effecting salvation.

26 Mediator Dei, 31.

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