Calendars serve an important purpose in our lives. They help us to stay organized and give structure and discipline to our routines. They mark important events and celebrate major milestones in our lives and in the lives of our loved ones, such as birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays. Calendars also help us to mark the passage of time by connecting us with the past and preparing us for the future. The marking of time and seasons helps us to make sense of the world around us.
In a similar way, the liturgical calendar helps us to remember the life of Jesus in a meaningful way. Jesus entered our world in time and space, and the liturgical calendar of the Church is an attempt to express and participate in the fullness of Jesus’ experience on earth. The purpose of the Liturgical Year Calendar is not to mark the passage of time, but to celebrate and understand more fully the entire mystery of Jesus Christ, from his incarnation and birth until his ascension, the day of Pentecost, and the expectation of his return in glory. During the course of a year, the Paschal mystery—the Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus—is viewed from different angles, in different lights.
The importance of Sunday in the liturgical year is not to be underestimated. For Christians, Sunday is the source and summit of the week. It represents the day God rested after creation, the day Christ rose from the dead, the day of Pentecost, when the spirit created the church, and the symbol of the eighth day, which is the day of eternity when we will receive the gift of new life in heaven. Often called “the Lord’s Day,” Sunday is the day in which we worship and praise God in the Eucharistic celebration. Pope John Paul II, in his 1998 apostolic letter, speaks about the central importance of Sunday in the lives of Christians: “It is clear then why, even in our own difficult times, the identity of this day must be protected and above all must be lived in all its depth…The Lord’s Day has structured the history of the Church through two thousand years: How could we think that it will not continue to shape her future?” (Dies Domini, 30).
The Liturgical Year is marked by the special seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent, the Triduum (or Three Days), Easter, and Ordinary Time. The Liturgical Year begins on the first Sunday of Advent, which usually occurs around the beginning of December or the end of November, and ends on the feast of Christ the King. The Liturgical Year Calendar tells us what readings the Church has designated to be used for each day. It also names the special feasts and commemorations celebrated during each season and marks the dates of remembrance of the saints.
Seasons of the Church Calendar
The liturgical year begins with the First Sunday of Advent, which usually occurs around the beginning of December or the end of November. The season of Advent continues through the four Sundays of Advent and ends at Christmas Eve. Advent, therefore, is firstly a time to prepare for Christmas. It is a season of waiting and anticipation of the birth of Jesus. Through the readings and environment, feelings of joy and excitement are evoked. Even though Christ was actually born over 2000 years ago, during Advent we prepare our hearts to “receive” Jesus into the world each year as a light to the nations, at a time when the regular calendar is reaching its darkest period. Advent is also a time of looking forward to Christ’s Second Coming in the last days. It is a time of hope and eager expectation.
The Lectionary for Mass, which cycles through three liturgical years (A, B, and C), changes to a new year at Advent.
The third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday. It takes its name from that Sunday’s traditional reading from the Epistle to the Philippians (now read only in Year C) that begins with Gaudete in Domino semper (“Rejoice in the Lord always”).
The liturgical color for Advent is violet, a deep bluish red (often mistakenly called “purple”) symbolizing mourning and penance. On Gaudete Sunday, however, rose-colored vestments may be used for this joyful day. This also explains the one rose-colored candle among the other three violet candles of the Advent wreath.
On this celebration of the Incarnation, God enters the world to save us and bring us hope. The date on which the Church observes Christ’s birth is December 25. This date is mainly symbolic, falling five days (five being the number of the physical senses) after the winter solstice. Thus we celebrate the Word become flesh, coming to dwell among us as the light of the human race, just after the darkest point of the solar year. Christmas is a holy day second only to Easter in the Roman calendar.
The Octave of Christmas (octave means eight; hence the octave of Christmas lasts for eight days) begins with Christmas day and ends after the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God (January 1st). Then the liturgical calendar focuses on the next immediate Sunday, counting off days before and after it, called Epiphany. Epiphany commemorates the recognition of Jesus as the Son of God by the three Wise Men (and by extension, by all pagan nations). The season of Christmas ends on the Monday after the Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord, which signifies the purification of the world, through Christ himself.
By tradition, the movable feasts of the current liturgical year are announced to the people on Epiphany (Ceremonial of Bishops, 240).
The liturgical color of the season of Christmas is white, symbolizing purity and joy.
The season of Easter begins at the Easter Vigil. But before that, the week previous to Easter is called Holy Week; it begins with Passion Sunday (Palm Sunday). On Passion Sunday the Church celebrates Christ’s riding into Jerusalem on a road strewn with cloaks and leafy branches (Mark 11:8; cf. Matthew 21:8, Luke 19:36, John 12:13), as he set about to accomplish his Paschal mystery. The week culminates with the Triduum (a Latin word for a three-day period) that includes Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter itself.
The Triduum begins with the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday. The next day, Good Friday, called “good” because on that day humanity was redeemed from its slavery to the powers of sin and death, is the most somber day of the liturgical year, for it commemorates Christ buried in his tomb. The tabernacle is empty, the altar is bare, statues of saints are removed from the church (or veiled), and the holy water fonts are dry-and no Mass is celebrated. The Good Friday liturgy begins with the proclamation of the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to John, continues with the veneration of the Cross and concludes with a simple Communion service with the Eucharist reserved from Holy Thursday’s liturgy.
The Triduum culminates with the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday, a liturgy that begins in total darkness until the Gloria returns with bells and Alleluias. Christ is risen!
The Easter season is considered such a special time that instead of continuing just for the eight days of the octave of Easter (all celebrated as solemnities of the Lord), it extends for 50 days (including Sundays and counting Easter Sunday itself). On Sundays during the Easter season, the assembly gathered for worship renews their baptismal promises and are sprinkled with holy water blessed at the Easter Vigil. These 50 days are to be seen as a single celebration of the central aspect of our lives as Christians that is the resurrection of the Lord. The season of Easter comes to a close, and Ordinary Time returns, on the Monday after Pentecost Sunday (from the Greek pentekoste, fiftieth day) on which we celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-13).
The liturgical color of the season of Easter is white, symbolizing purity and joy. Red, the color of passion, is used on Passion (Palm) Sunday and Good Friday. Red, symbolizing fire, is also used on Pentecost Sunday.
The liturgical season of Lent lasts for 40 weekdays in remembrance of the 40 days and nights that Christ spent fasting in the desert, tempted by Satan. The beginning of Lent, Ash Wednesday, is therefore dependent on the date of Easter.
Lent is a time of penance and preparation, so that the faithful may share in the joys of Easter Sunday with purity of heart. The three traditional forms of penance which are fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, “express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1434). For those adults preparing for Baptism at the Easter Vigil, Lent focuses on inner and outer scrutiny. For the baptized, Lent calls us to contemplate the redemption wrought for our sake by Christ’s passion; and it admonishes us to contemplate the effort we put into accepting that redemption. In our Baptism, this redemption was planted in us when we promised to renounce sin and Satan and to live a chaste, holy life in devout service to Christ. Our salvation depends on our fulfilling those promises.
Because of the austerity of Lent, Alleluia is not said in prayer or sung in liturgy. The Gloria is not sung at Mass during Lent except for a few possible feasts and solemnities. During Lent, “the altar is not to be decorated with flowers, and the use of musical instruments is allowed only to support the singing” (Ceremonial of Bishops, 252).
The liturgical color of Lent is violet, just as for Advent. Rose-colored vestments, however, may be used on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, called Laetare Sunday from the first words of that day’s Introit at Mass, Laetare Jerusalem (“Rejoice, O Jerusalem”).
Two periods in the liturgical calendar are called Ordinary Time. The first period begins on the Monday after the Baptism of the Lord and continues until the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday (approximately 7 weeks). The second period begins on Monday after Pentecost and ends directly before the First Sunday of Advent, a lengthy period of about 30 weeks. Ordinary time is the longest season of the liturgical year.
This time is called “ordinary” because it is, simply, ordinary; that is, not part of any special liturgical season. However, the season of Ordinary Time has an important role to play in the liturgical calendar in that it connects the special seasons of the year and in our lives as Christians, as it reminds us that we are loved by God in the ordinary, daily moments of our lives. It is important to note that many feast days and solemnities occur in Ordinary Time: the Most Holy Trinity, the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist, the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, Saints Peter and Paul, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, All Saints, and All Souls, for example.
The weekdays during Ordinary Time on which no solemnities, feasts, or memorials of saints fall are called ferial days. The liturgical color of Ordinary Time is green, symbolizing life and hope. The readings during this time do not have a specific theme or focus, as they do during the other seasons of the year. Emphasis and focus is placed on the lives of the saints and their model of holiness for us. The saints were indeed ordinary men and women who through grace became extraordinary witnesses of God’s presence.
Holy Days of Obligation
Holy days are important feast days in the life of the Catholic community on which, in addition to Sundays, Catholics (who are above the age of reason and who are not sick) are obligated to participate in Mass according to the precepts of the Church. They celebrate an important mystery of the Catholic faith. The number of these holy days can vary from country to country. In the United States, there are six holy days of obligation.
January 1 – Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
This feast, closely connected to the feast of Christmas and celebrated on the octave of Christmas, is the most important and oldest of the major feasts of Mary. Mary’s Divine Maternity became a universal feast in 1931. Liturgical reform initiated by Vatican II placed it on January 1 in 1969. Prior to this, the feast celebrated on January 1 was the circumcision of Jesus. Mary is indeed the mother of God and our mother is well. As we begin a new year, it is fitting that we honor and venerate Mary as an essential part of the Catholic Church and of our own lives.
The Ascension of Our Lord – Observed on the seventh Sunday of Easter or on the Thursday after the sixth Sunday of Easter
This feast is celebrated on the fortieth day after Easter Sunday and commemorates the elevation of Jesus into heaven by his own power in the presence of his disciples. It is narrated in Mark 16:19, Luke 24:51, and in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles.
In March 2000, the Catholic bishops of the Wisconsin province transferred the Feast of the Ascension to the seventh Sunday of Easter, one week before Pentecost Sunday. The Vatican, at the request of the bishops of the United States, granted permission for the date change, giving ecclesiastical provinces in the United States the authority to make the transfer. Observing the Ascension on the seventh Sunday of Easter allows for heightened celebration and an increased opportunity to educate people about the meaning of the feast. Some dioceses, including the Archdiocese of Boston, continue to celebrate this feast day on the original Thursday.
August 15 – The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
This is the principal feast of Mary. It has a double purpose: first, the happy departure of Mary from this life and second, the assumption of her body into heaven. Departure from this world and entrance into the next is the same movement in two different expressions. Little is known for certain about the day, year and manner of Mary’s death. The dates assigned for it vary between three and fifteen years after Jesus’ Ascension. Since Mary was preserved free from all stain of original sin, she was spared bodily decay and was taken up body and soul into heaven once her earthly life was over. Thus the Lord has exalted her as Queen over all things.
Mary’s Assumption takes nothing away from Christ. On the contrary, it demonstrates the power of his Resurrection. Since Mary was the mother of Christ and the first to believe in him, she was raised by Him to the glorified life of heaven. It is, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “a singular participation in her Son’s Resurrection” (no. 966).
Mary is not only the first disciple and mother of Jesus; she is also a symbol of the Church and a model for all Christians. By reflecting on the graces God gave the Blessed Virgin, we understand more about his gifts to us. The Assumption of Mary is the realization of the hope that all believers share. Her acceptance into the glory of Heaven is a sign of the promise made by Jesus to all Christians that one day they too will be received into paradise.
November 1 – All Saints’ Day
This feast honors all the saints, known and unknown. This feast was first celebrated on May 13, 610, when Pope Boniface IV proclaimed the day Feast of All Holy Martyrs in Rome. The intent was to honor all martyrs who were not included in local records. In 835, Pope Gregory IV changed the date and name to November 1 and Feast of All Saints. There are many saints who are not popularly known or who are not celebrated during the course of the liturgical year. This feast day provides an opportunity to remember and celebrate their lives.
December 8 – The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary
The Immaculate Conception of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, is the belief that God preserved Mary from any inclination to sin, the inheritance of original sin passed on to all humankind from Adam and Eve. Even though Mary was conceived in the normal way by her parents, she was preserved from original sin and redeemed by God’s grace from the moment of her conception. Mary is indeed “full of grace.” The official teaching of the Church says: “The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all original sin.” What Christ does for everyone who calls upon his name and is baptized (Acts 2:38; 4:12; Romans 10:13) he did for his mother when she was conceived. “By the grace of God Mary remained free of every personal sin her whole life long.” [Catechism of the Catholic Church no. 493]
The feast of the Conception of Mary appeared in the Roman calendar in 1476. After the dogmatic definition by Pope Pius IX in 1854, it became the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
December 25 – Christmas, the Nativity of Our Lord
This feast, one of the two major feasts of the liturgical year, celebrates the birth of Jesus. We celebrate the Incarnation, when God became flesh and entered the world. We have a God who loves us and saves us!
When the following holy days fall on a Saturday or Monday, there is no obligation to attend Mass:
Although the obligation to attend Mass when these three holy days fall on a Saturday or Monday is abolished, parishes are to continue to observe these holy days by scheduling one or more Masses at a convenient time so that people who wish to participate are able to do so. This was decided at the November 1991 meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. The action was confirmed by the Congregation for Bishops on July 4, 1992.