Christmastide has been in full swing but ends soon. Ordinary Time will begin next week, running until Ash Wednesday, February 22, which takes us—via the Paschal Triduum—to Easter on April 9. The fifty days of Easter end with Pentecost on May 28. Ordinary Time returns May 30, and the liturgical year ends December 2. Advent 2022 was the longest possible Advent the season could be; Advent 2023 will be the shortest: 21 days.
There is a venerable tradition in the Church for the deacon to proclaim the dates of major feasts during the upcoming liturgical year after the Gospel on Epiphany (especially when it is observed on its traditional date, January 6). The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops provides a model here.
Why talk about this in a world where people have watches and iPhones and gift each other with calendars, appointment books, and ledgers? Isn’t it just a vestige of a bygone era, when folks needed to hear this (especially the date of Easter) because they had no other source of information?
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Our liturgical and civil years do not coincide. The liturgical year begins on the First Sunday of Advent. The civil new year starts on January 1 (although, in the past, it did begin on March 25—the Solemnity of the Annunciation—when the Incarnation really occurred with Jesus’ conception).
Because of that divergence, the liturgical year often gets the short end of the stick, even among Catholics. Let’s use the Announcement of Easter and the Moveable Feasts that used to be part of the Epiphany celebration to recover the liturgical year.
Vatican II wanted Catholic spirituality to be thoroughly infused by the liturgy—that is, by the Mass, the sacraments, and the Liturgy of the Hours. Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, was the first document the Second Vatican Council approved. It makes clear that
…the liturgy, “through which the work of our redemption is accomplished,” most of all in the divine sacrifice of the Eucharist, is the outstanding means whereby the faithful may express in their lives, and manifest to others, the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church. (#2)
If that’s the case, we want to make the liturgical year a deeper part of our lives. The liturgical year leads us annually through the major points of the Life, Death, Resurrection, and teaching of Jesus Christ. Its rhythm takes us through what is important to our salvation.
The heart of the liturgical year is Easter: everything turns around the Paschal axis, just as our whole salvation turns around Jesus’ Resurrection (see 1 Corinthians 15). One reason key feasts were announced on the Epiphany was because Easter is the moveable feast of the Church year, around which everything else revolves.
The Church wants us to celebrate the liturgical year because participating in it makes us relive the key points of Our Lord’s life, who came “for us and for our salvation.” But there are also other reasons we should try to pay more attention to the liturgical year.
Hélène Bricout, a professor of liturgy in France, reminds us that the liturgical year “introduces a porosity between the present life and eternal life, and teaches the baptized to live” in the light of that reality.
That’s important, especially for people in the West, when their civil calendar is increasingly empty, if not actually purged, of religion. Consider Easter: although it’s central to the Christian year and life, Americans can pass it by (in contrast to Christmas) with nary a notice.
States that once treated Good Friday as a holiday don’t anymore. Kids get “spring break,” which may or may not coincide with Easter. And Easter is always a Sunday, so it can be bracketed out of most people’s social lives. Easter today has no legal and very little cultural impact on American life.
St. John Paul II spoke of culture as a “way of life,” in which if faith is not incorporated it means it’s not fully accepted. People talk about how “Catholic” Poland is (and how “non-Catholic” Ireland is becoming). One reason is the presence or absence of the majority’s religion in their general, everyday life.
Day-to-day life often has two effects on us: it tends to catch us up in the temporal, the here-and-now; and, with its relentless focus on the present, it tends to “flatten” time. We dismiss the past as irrelevant and we kick the can of the future down the road, especially as regards important, existential questions that don’t admit of immediate answers, like: “Why am I here in this world?” and “What is the meaning of my life?” Rarely does time ever “feel” different.
Living wholly in the civil, present, temporal world tends to blur if not sometimes eliminate our attention to the “bigger picture.” Trying to live according to the rhythms of the liturgical year gives us perspective: everything is not about the right now and the demands of the moment. We are given this life for purposes bigger than paying bills, keeping up on social media, and doing our job or chores. God put us here for a bigger purpose. The liturgical year reminds us of that, each and every day.
That means consciously weaving sacred time—the liturgical year and Sunday—into your normal time. Make Sunday important. Carve out time for Mass as a family. Mass is not just another “duty” to check off on Sundays.
Think about what we are celebrating, where it came from, and how it all “fits” together. Read the readings ahead of time. (Sunday and daily readings are here). See how it fits into the “big” picture of the liturgical year and of your life. Take account of the Church year, and try to make observances of its rhythms and popular devotions a part of your life and home. Reconceive your time, and make it a “new” year.