What is the liturgical year?

Quite simply, the liturgical year is the celebration of a series of religious feasts and seasons.  In so doing, we make sacred the ordinary time of a twelve-month calendar.  Actually, we inherited this notion from our Jewish ancestors of the Old Testament.  In the Book of Leviticus, Chapter 23, we find the Jewish calendar which speaks of a week of seven days, with six for work and the seventh day, the Sabbath, for rest and for “sacred assembly.”  This Sabbath Day belongs to the Lord.  Leviticus then continues to speak of the dates of Passover, Yom Kippur, and other special feast days.

For Roman Catholics, we too have a liturgical calendar, which has evolved during the history of the Church.  The purpose of such a calendar was to trace the mystery of salvation and the course of salvation history.  Again, the idea is to sanctify time.  Pope Pius XII wrote, “By commemorating the mysteries of the Savior, the sacred liturgy strives to bring all believers to participate in them in such a way that the divine Head of the Mystical Body may live in each of His members with the fullness of His holiness” (Mediator Dei, #152).

We see the beginnings of the calendar in the early Church.  The Christians changed the Lord’s day to Sunday, in honor of the resurrection.  In Acts, we read, “On the first day of the week when we gathered for the breaking of the bread…” (20:7).  Fridays were designated as days of penance and sacrifice, in honor of our Lord’s sacrifice of Himself for our sins on Good Friday; to this day, Friday should be a day of penance when we abstain from meat or make some other sacrifice.  In the early Church, the Didache (AD 80) also marked Wednesdays as a day of penance and prayer, which is perhaps why many parishes still have novenas or Holy Hours on Wednesday evenings.  By the 10th century, especially in the western Church, our Blessed Mother was honored on Saturdays.

Over the centuries, the Church has punctuated the course of the year with feast days or holy days.  In the midst of our normal routine, these days help focus our attention on Christ and the mystery of salvation.  Several feast days are dedicated to our Blessed Mother, the exemplar of our faith, who participated intimately in the mystery of salvation, such as the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God (January 1), the Annunciation (March 25), the Visitation (May 31), the Assumption (August 15), the Nativity of Mary (September 8), the Presentation of Mary (September 22) and the Immaculate Conception (December 8).

Many feast days commemorate the saints who glorified Christ in their lives on earth and now share His glory in the Kingdom of Heaven.  Their feast days usually correspond to the date of death, the birth of the saint into eternal life.  Many of the dates were established over time and sometimes varied according to locale.  However, in 1568, Pope Pius V promulgated the universal calendar setting the feast days and their dates which would be celebrated throughout the whole Church.  To date, various Popes have increased or decreased the number of feast days of saints honored by the whole church.  The purpose is clear:  “For the feasts of the saints proclaim the wonderful works of Christ in His servants and offer to the faithful fitting examples for their imitation” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #111).

Finally, the calendar follows a series of seasons:  The calendar begins with Advent, which focuses on the preparation for the birth of the Messiah.  Christmas Season then follows, beginning with the birth of the our Lord, celebrates the Epiphany, and concludes with the Baptism of the Lord.  The Feast of Baptism of the Lord also commences the season of Ordinary Time, which traces the public ministry of Jesus.  Lent interrupts Ordinary Time, and lasts for 40 days (not including Sundays) and prepares us for Easter.  Easter Season begins with the Easter Vigil Mass, is followed by the 40 days leading to the Ascension and then concludes 10 days later with Pentecost.  After Pentecost, Ordinary time resumes and concludes with the Solemnity of Christ the King, the last Sunday of the liturgical year.