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Catholic Activity: The Liturgical Year



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Here are ways to cultivate an active awareness of the liturgical year and how best to celebrate the various feasts and seasons.


Everyone is liturgical. You don't believe it? Then look up the definition of liturgy in the dictionary. After some revelations about liturgy and the Christian Church, there comes a definition that calls liturgy a rite or body of rites for public worship. As Americans, we certainly spend plenty of time publicly worshipping at one shrine or another. Some of it is good, some of it is confused, and some of it is silly.

For instance, it is good to conduct traditional patriotic rites on national holidays, recalling the birthdays of great presidents, celebrating our independence, honoring the memory of our war dead. On Lincoln's Birthday, statesmen read the Gettysburg Address, Republicans hold Lincoln Day dinners, and children in school cut out pictures of log cabins. On Washington's Birthday, ceremonies are held at Mount Vernon, school children cut out hatchets, and mothers bake cherry pies. On the Fourth of July in New England everyone used to eat salmon and new peas. Now on Fourth of July everywhere, people shoot off firecrackers (where they are legal), eat hot dogs, and drink beer at picnics. Memorial Day we visit cemeteries; Labor Day we have parades; Armistice Day we have two minutes of silence and lay a wreath on the Unknown Soldier's tomb. Thanksgiving Day we remember our forefathers (or the forefathers of some of us), give thanks for our blessings, and eat turkey and cranberry sauce.

There are the popular confusions of religious feasts. There is Christmas in terms of shopping, Santa Claus, trees, and presents. There is Easter in terms of new hats, bunnies, Easter eggs, and candy. Halloween there is trick-or-treat, and New Year's Eve is the time for too much drinking.

In the lowest bracket are the commercial rites in the name of the gods of industry. Queens are thick as flies all over the country, with coronations and attendants and balls and free samples to the people: cotton queens, orange queens, tobacco queens, popcorn queens, kiddie queens, snow queens, freckle queens, beauty queens. In the name of patriotism, or a confused form of Christianity, or out-and-out materialism, we celebrate public rites with gusto all through the year.

The liturgy of the Church has one thing in common with all this: it is year-round. It has a thousand points of difference. The biggest difference of all between celebrating for the sake of celebration and celebrating in the name of Christ is the difference between mere commemorative rites and the rites of Divine life. They celebrate the now of Christ's life as He lives in His Church today. They are the public worship of Christ, the Head of the Mystical Body, together with His members, addressing God the Father in praise, in expiation, in thanksgiving.

Here are ways to cultivate an active awareness of the liturgical year and how best to celebrate the various feasts and seasons.

Living the Liturgical Year

Living the liturgy gives a Christian his focus. Because it is life in terms of grace, the end of each year should find him a little more holy. He lives with Christ in the Church militant, celebrating the same mysteries with the Church triumphant. The liturgy is a bridge between earth and Heaven. Holy Mother Church is very wise. She knows us better than we know ourselves. For this reason she designs her year with unerring instinct. She begins rather than ends with Advent and Christmas, for life makes no sense except in the view of eternity — and the key to eternity for us is the Redemption. Advent is a four-week condensation of the four thousand years mankind waited for the Redemption. It is our time to reflect on the meaning of Christ's coming, to long for it, to purify ourselves so that we will be ready. It is a penitential season with penance done with joy.

The lighting of the Advent wreath, the family praying together nightly in its presence, the weekly ritual of candle-lighting to remind us of His coming (He Who is the Light of the World), these rites are sermons in themselves. Since on Christmas He will be a birthday Child, He must have birthday presents; and the family chooses mortifications to make beautiful gifts for Him.

The Feast of St. Nicholas is December 6, the time for learning about Santa Claus. No rival to Christ, this saint, but one of the elect waiting in Heaven as we do on earth for the glory of His birthday to break over the world. Fun with St. Nicholas, stockings filled with cookies for children who are good, is a reminder of the reason we give and receive gifts. He gave out of his love for Christ and His little ones, out of gratitude to God Who gave Christ to him.

The Feast of St. Lucy on December 13 is the day for a feast of lights, for thinking of the Child Who is Light, for planting the Christmas wheat. Sprouted, soft green by Christmas, it reminds us of our daily bread, the bread of life on our altars, the end of the story that has its beginning at Christmas. All through the weeks of Advent the harvest of mortifications increases, counted with little beans in tiny boxes, or with straws in an empty crèche. The children watch self-denial fill the gift box, make a soft bed in the crèche; every day passed means one day closer to His birthday.

Christmas Day the Beloved is here, tiny, helpless, newborn. The crèche is His throne and we are like shepherds, invited to adore. Gifts are given and received because we are the pampered children of God to whom He gives the gift of His Infant Son. Following Christmas come the days when we greet and honor witnesses to His glory: St. Stephen, St. John the Evangelist, the Holy Innocents.

Then comes New Year's. Now the Church reminds us to look back at the sins of the past, and forward with holy hope to the opportunities of the future, and calls us to the altar to pledge our good intentions at the Mass that celebrates His Circumcision, the day He received His beautiful name.

Epiphany . . . and the children are Magi, crowned and bearing their gifts. They journey to Bethlehem, meeting Herod and his Scribes on the way, taking counsel from the angel, going back by another route. Laughter in the hall while Herod grumbles. Then the scene is over and the family sits before the fire and eats Crown Cake in honor of Christ's manifestation to men.

February 2 is the Feast of the Purification [Editor's Note: This feast is now referred to as the Presentation of the Lord.], Candlemas, the day for the blessing of candles, for recalling Mary's obedience to the law, the ransoming of the Christ Child in the temple. Dinner this night is bright with candles; on the cake are two little doves. Afterwards the candles are carefully put away for sick calls, for baptismal rites, for use during family ceremonies and blessings.

Lent and Easter

Septuagesima Sunday [Editor's Note: With the reform of the liturgical calendar, the Sundays before Lent such as Quadregisima, Septuagesima have been removed. They are now part of the season of Ordinary Time. The alleluia is not removed until Lent.] reminds us with a shock that it is time for rejoicing to end. The Alleluia is gone from the Mass. Christ cries out in the Introit: "The groans of death surrounded me, the sorrows of hell encompassed me." So short a time has passed since we greeted Him in the manger, and already we are warned that we betray Him. How could this be when we loved Him so? Lent is three weeks away, and this time penance will be done in sorrow.

Ash Wednesday begins with a terrible blow to our pride: "Thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return." The Lesson of the Ash Wednesday Mass bids us to sanctify a fast, that all must observe the season. The young, the old, the bridegroom and the bride, even the babes at the breast — whether we are big or little, the spirit of Lent is for all because all are in need of Redemption. In the Gospel Christ tells us to fast and pray and to lay up our treasures in Heaven. "For where your treasure is, there is your heart also."

Once again the family bends to mortification. Purple beans count out each act of death to self, signs of the treasures stored in Heaven. Nightly we say the Stations of the Cross, and follow the mind of the Church with the reading of daily Epistles and Gospels. All over the house it is Lent. The Crucifix alone is on the mantel, purple shrouds are dyed and await Passion Sunday when they cover the statues and pictures. Even the baking speaks of the Cross, with symbols of the Passion cut in the piecrusts, with crosses of seeds marking the bread.

Laetare Sunday is a feast of joy, for the end, we know, will be a triumph. Rose color on the altar, rose vestments on the priest, flowers and feasting at home, and the following Sunday we plunge deep into meditation of His Passion. Now is the time for final perseverance. Unlike Advent, this penitential season takes us deeper and deeper into sorrow.

Palm Sunday, with the raising of Lazarus, He has proved that He is the Divine King. Greeting Him at Mass with hosannas and joy, we are puzzled: why this triumph, when we have forebodings of death? where is the Cross that was prophesied? The words are hardly spoken when betrayal comes. All through Holy Week the Gospel tells His suffering. We are there. We are to blame.

Holy Thursday is the Paschal Supper, a feast in honor of the Holy Eucharist. The story of Exodus is read at the table to explain the meaning of the Paschal Lamb. Before the end of the meal, we read the Gospel about the Last Supper; after that we wash the children's feet. Holy Thursday is all tenderness and love, with the Master acting as servant. "If I then being your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that as I have done to you, so you do also."

On Good Friday we try to be silent. There are no words of our own which make any sense. We betrayed Him. We abandoned Him. We lied and wept and ran away. And still He can love us this way.

Holy Saturday we wait. Running from morning till night, we wait. Mass in the morning [Editor's Note: In 1955, the Church restored the Easter vigil to Holy Saturday evening. There is no Mass in the morning or day of Holy Saturday.], home to set the Easter bread, sweep the hearth, lay the wood for the new fire. Eggs are decorated with the symbols of the Redemption, with the symbols of the children's patron saints. The Paschal candle is ready, studded with five tiny cloves like the nails of wax and incense which stud the candle in the church. The Easter water is ready, brought home from the new blessing at morning Mass. The purple beans are divided, and, after the children are in bed, wrapped with an Easter gift — symbol of the treasure stored in Heaven. But first, the story of Easter morning with Mary Magdalene weeping in the garden. And then we understand: He appeared to her first because she was the great sinner. We are with that Mary. We are other Marys. He comes to us as He did to her because He did it for sinners.

Since we live in a parish where there is no Easter vigil, we celebrate a vigil at home. Reading from the missal, we recall the blessing of Easter water. We bless the hearth and read the blessing of the fire. We read the blessing of the Paschal candle and light it from the new fire on the hearth. And we are silent for a while, and shiver at the thought of the morning.

Easter morning the children rush downstairs, light the Paschal candle, that symbol of Christ with us, and sing a great Alleluia. Off to Mass, bursting with joy like the newly baptized, and home to the Easter table. Eggs must be hunted, gifts must be unwrapped. This is the day the Lord has made!

"I arose and am still with Thee. Alleluia!"

All through the week it is Alleluia. With grace at meals, after prayers, in all our hearts. The story of Jonas is read. "I give you no sign but the sign of Jonas." The Paschal candle burns at family meals. The graces of the season are rich and beautiful, and food ad rest and play and joy are sweeter for six weeks of fasting.

Forty days fly by. The stories of His appearances are full of mystery and glory. Seeing bread at table recalls the supper at Emmaus. A family breakfast outdoors on a spring morning recalls the picnic He made on the beach. At Mass, the Elevation recalls Thomas doubting, then adoring: "My Lord and My God." Everything that grows, everything that becomes green is a witness to the triumph of the Resurrection.

Then, at last, the Ascension. Human nature, glorified, ascends into Heaven and we rejoice. But it is not hard to understand the Apostles and their sadness. "Men of Galilee, why do you stand . . .?" The Paschal candle is out. [Editor's Note: The Paschal or Easter candle now stays in the sanctuary until after Pentecost.] His visible presence is gone. And for nine days we pray to the Holy Spirit, begging that we may be worthy to take on the responsibilities that come with growing up.

Pentecost Sunday is our birthday. The birthday of the infant Church. And we, with Him, are the Church. No mere historical event, Pentecost, happening one day in time. God exists out of time. The Spirit descends even now. We are in Christ too. The graces that came to the Apostles come to us. Now we are ready to go forth and teach all nations. Love is with us always; we need never be afraid again.

Blessings And Sacramentals

Then the long summer, the feasts of the communion of saints. We share life with them in His Body. We are fledglings, learning to fly. They are like mother birds, coaxing, cajoling, promising their help. "I was once little like you. Don't be afraid. Lean on faith — and try." August . . . and with the Feast of the Assumption we have the blessing of herbs and flowers. All year long we have had blessings . . . The blessing of throats on St. Blaise's day. The blessing of the land and the sprouting seed on Rogation Days before the Ascension. Blessing before childbirth for expectant mothers. Blessing after childbirth for those who have brought forth new life. Blessing of cars and of houses. Blessing of typewriters. Blessing of foods at Easter, of Christmas trees at Christmas. Like radiances shining out from the sacraments, are these sacramentals and the blessings. We have learned to love the use of blessed candles. We have learned to love the use of Holy Water. We have learned to give the most beautiful blessing of all, the blessing of our own children.

Fall comes, and the earth grows brown and bare. Wise in her motherhood, the Church reminds us of death. The Vigil of All Saints is Halloween, and we celebrate it as a vigil, with a party that grows out of ancient Christian customs, with begging at the door and repaying soul cakes with prayers. The next day is the great day, the Feast of All Saints, with a procession to the dinner table in honor of our special saints, stories told of their triumphs, charades acted out, and, best of all, the Litany of the Saints that night. All through November we pray for the dead, the soon-to-be-saints we would hasten on to their glory. Not just one day, or one speech, or two minutes of silence, but thirty days of prayers and Masses and intentions as we go about our work. With this, the year comes to its end.

Liturgy and Holiness

The liturgical year is a cycle unfolding from life to death to glory. Observing it year after year, joining Christ with our love, our wills, our understanding, we live the union of Member to Body: no longer branches of the vine that are dead. We are living, bearing fruit — or at least aspiring to. How can one be any closer to Christ?

Perhaps it sounds easy, this living the liturgical year. Or perhaps it sounds impossible. It is neither. But it is slow. It will come to us and we will grow in it only as fast as the Spirit allows. It is not just a matter of pasting over our lives with liturgical stickers. Its outward forms — its Advent wreaths and creches and Christmas bread, its candles and blessings, its penitential purple and ashes and palms, its stories and customs and celebrations — are nothing if interiorly we are not on fire with its spirit. It is the reality of Christ's life, and it cannot be separated from the struggle to grow Christlike.

It is the same old struggle to love, be kind, grow in patience, work well and play well, to please God in everything we do. But it is supported now by the graces loosed every day by the prayer of the Church. That is the big difference. Living liturgically we are really united to Him, praying the prayer of His Church. Raising children liturgically we are using all the treasure at our command.

We asked the children, "How do you feel about being Catholics? "

They answered, "Oh, being Catholics is fun! You have feasts, and saints, and stories, and things to do — and when you go to Mass and Father holds up Our Lord, you say, 'I love You!'"

Activity Source: We and Our Children by Mary Reed Newland, Image Books, 1961