The Liturgical Calendar


Today, Sunday November 27th, is both the first day of Advent and the beginning of a new year in the church calendar. On this day we move into Year B of the three-year Sunday cycle of readings and cycle 2 for weekdays.
In some respects the church’s way of keeping time conflicts with the secular calendar. The new liturgical year is beginning just as many other things are coming to an end – students doing exams as the academic year finishes, many industries preparing for the Christmas/New Year shutdown, arts organisations holding final performances for 2005 etc. So what is this sometimes counter-cultural ‘liturgical year’ all about? The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy puts it this way:
Within the cycle of a year the Church unfolds the whole mystery of Christ, from his incarnation and birth until his ascension, the day of Pentecost, and the expectation of blessed hope and of the Lord’s return. (CSL 102)
However, the liturgical year is never simply a biography of Jesus of Nazareth or a celebration of past events in the story of the church. The events themselves are unrepeatable. By recalling and celebrating them:
The Church opens to the faithful the riches of the Lord’s powers and merits, so that these are in some way made present in every age in order that the faithful may lay hold on them and be filled with saving grace.’ (CSL 102)
The text of the Exulted illustrates this sense of ‘now-ness’: ‘This is the night when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death and rose triumphant from the grave.’ Even now we experience salvation in and through the risen Christ.
As well as recalling past events of our salvation history and celebrating them in the present, the liturgical year also looks ahead to that heavenly liturgy which even now waits for us beyond death. So liturgical time involves the past, the present and the future.
The liturgical calendar is made up of this cycle of seasons plus saints’ days celebrated throughout the year. The tradition of devotion to saints began with honouring martyrs, those Christians who imitated Jesus’ own paschal mystery through their suffering and death for the faith. Friends and believers would gather at the burial places of martyrs on the anniversary of their death, read accounts of their life and celebrate the Eucharist.
Those persecuted Christians who publicly testified to the faith and were subsequently tortured and imprisoned but not put to death were called confessors. After their death, they received the same honour as martyrs. From the late 4th century, a third category of saint began to be honoured – virgins and ascetics.
Over time so many saints’ days were added to the calendar that the yearly pattern of the liturgical seasons was overshadowed. The Second Vatican Council called for a reform of this calendar ‘lest the feast of saints should take precedence over the feasts which commemorate the very mysteries of salvation’. (SC # 111)
‘Through the yearly cycle, the Church unfolds the entire mystery of Christ and keeps the anniversaries of the saints.’ (General Norms of the Liturgical Year and the Calendar # 1)

Elizabeth Harrington