The Liturgical Year


Today, Sunday November 28, is the first Sunday of the season of Advent and the first day of a new liturgical year, year A in the three-year lectionary cycle.
The liturgical year as we know it is the result of a long process of development. In the earliest days of Christianity there was no such thing as a church calendar. There was a weekly cycle based on the community’s practice of assembling for the Eucharist on every Lord’s Day, Sunday. But just as all cultures shape a yearly cycle of anniversaries and commemorations to solidify their identity and purpose, the followers of Christ gradually developed an annual cycle of feasts and seasons.
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 2004, 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)
Just as we mark our lives by anniversaries, the Church celebrates the mysteries of Christ’s life in a recurrent pattern. 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, however, “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.
Through repeated celebrations, the liturgical year keeps the mystery of faith alive. As our Christian lives progress day by day, the Church’s feasts sustain our journey as a pilgrim people. We are constantly nourished by the story of Jesus and guided by the saints, our ancestors in the faith, living witness of God’s unchanging love
Celebrating the liturgical year is more than a present reality however. The liturgy always looks to the future, to that heavenly liturgy in which we share even now. The cycle of feasts and seasons doesn’t take us round and round in one spot year after year but is always moving us forward, or upward in an ascending spiral, as we journey towards the end of time.
So liturgical time involves the past, the present and the future. During the course of the year we bring to mind past events and people to keep the mystery of faith alive today and we look forward to Christ’s return in glory at the end of time.

Elizabeth Harrington