Movable Feasts

Many people might be surprised to discover that the solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord which is listed in the calendar for March 25 will be celebrated this year on Monday 8th April, exactly two weeks late! As Professor Julius Sumner Miller was once famous for asking, WHY IS IT SO??

The arrangement for celebrating the liturgical year is governed by the calendar: the General Calendar for use by the universal church, and particular calendars for regions or families of religious. While the dates of liturgical seasons are greatly influenced by the date of Easter and hence change year by year, the dates of the sanctoral cycle (celebrations of the saints) are fixed. The “Proper of Saints” as found in current liturgical books is not just a list of saints’ days; there are fixed celebrations of the Lord, of Mary, of the saints, of church dedication anniversaries and even of devotions or ideas. The variety which makes each year unique comes from the dynamic interplay between the fluctuating dates of the liturgical seasons and the fixed dates of saints’ celebrations and the fact that the former are generally given precedence over the later.

Within a family, the anniversary dates of its members are accorded varying degrees of importance. Birthdays of young children, for example, generally rank higher than those of parents and the wedding anniversary of a couple above that of their first date. As a families grow older, as children move away from the family and as new members are added, ritual customs and their levels of importance change.

Similarly, the church has a ranking system for its universal and local celebrations. The General Norms of the Liturgical Year and the Calendar ranks the sanctoral celebrations as “solemnities”, “feasts”, “ordinary memorials” and “optional memorials”. These various levels of saints’ days as well as celebrations belonging to the seasons (Triduum, Christmas, Lent etc) are listed according to their order of precedence in the Table of Liturgical Days. There is a fairly straightforward principle for deciding which takes precedence when two observances happen to fall on the same day: the one ranked higher is celebrated while the other is omitted that year.

For example, when the feast of Mary Mackillop on August 8 fell on a Sunday a couple of years back, the Mass of the saint was not celebrated because Sundays in Ordinary Time rank higher than a saint’s feast.

The one exception to this rule is that feasts ranked as solemnities which are “trumped” by a solemnity or season with higher precedence are not omitted for the year but are transferred to a nearby day. For example, the feast of St Patrick, a solemnity in the Australian calendar, was displaced this year by the fifth Sunday of Lent which fell on March 17. (Sundays in Lent are higher in the table of precedence than solemnities.) Hence the Mass of St Patrick was celebrated on the following day.

Because of its proximity to Holy Week, the Annunciation on March 25 is the most frequently transferred solemnity. This year it coincided with the Monday of Holy Week. The weekdays of Holy Week, the three days of the Easter Triduum and the octave of Easter (Easter Sunday to the Second Sunday of Easter) all rank more highly than a solemnity. So, the first “free” day when the Annunciation can be celebrated this year is Monday 8th April.

While it is helpful to know how the calendar works, priests, liturgy planners, sacristans, etc, don’t need to spend hours laboriously calculating what to celebrate when. The yearly Ordo, published by The Liturgical Commission, does it all for you!


Elizabeth Harrington