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The Liturgical year consists of a series of diversified feasts and seasons which allows the community to celebrate the Paschal Mystery (Christ's life death and resurrection and our participation in this mystery) in its diversity and in its fullness. Pope Pius XII made it clear that the liturgical year is neither a lifeless representation of past events, nor a record of a former age. Rather, Christ becomes present in the complexity of the celebration of the mystery of salvation throughout the entire liturgical year.
The smallest liturgical unit is the day, which is sanctified by the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours and Eucharist. The days are ordered into four degrees of festivity:
Some days are not marked by any degree of additional solemnity.
The Lord's Day
The first of all holy days is Sunday, the Lord's Day, the first day of the week, set apart for the celebration of the Paschal
Mystery. Easter Sunday, of course, is the first among all Sundays, the day after which all other Sundays are modeled.
The largest liturgical unit is the year. Each liturgical year begins with first Vespers for the first Sunday of Advent (four Sundays before Christmas) and ends at noon on the Saturday following Christ the King Sunday (toward the end of November). Although apparently linear or circular, the liturgical year is neither, rather, one ought to think of it as a spiral which winds the Body of Christ closer to the Creator, day by day, year by year.
The liturgical year consists of two parallel cycles:
The Temporal cycle, itself has two major seasons: the Paschal season and the Incarnation season.
The Paschal season is constructed around the Paschal Triduum.
The Incarnation Cycle celebrates the awesome reality of God becoming a human.
Despite this apparent segmentation, liturgical seasons, not unlike the seasons of the year, role into one another. One season prepares for the next, and the next, and the next; and all seasons are present to one another in one great, continuous celebration of the Mystery of Salvation which God began in Jesus Christ.
This of course does not mean that there are no obvious shifts between seasons. Clearly, there are differences in emphasis during the celebration of the Incarnation Cycle and the Paschal Cycle.
Thus, there is both continuity and discontinuity between the seasons, with a gradual and continued shifting of imagery, themes and
thought patterns. The image that comes to mind is that of an ongoing journey, a continuous procession: liturgy is processional,
our life is processional, the course of the world's existence is processional. Indeed, the liturgy, our life and the universe
process from one phase into the next, without much notice, it simply happens as a continuous flow of events from season to season, from birth to death, from creation to eschaton... until one day everything will find its fulfillment in God. Thus liturgical time
embraces and Christens secular time.
The Paschal Cycle - Christ Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
The Paschal Cycle, which lasts ninety days celebrates the core of the Christian Faith: the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and our incorporation into that mystery by the power of the Holy Spirit. We look at the whole of Christ's life of ministry unto death, his resurrection and sending of the Holy Spirit. The Paschal Triduum forms the center of the Paschal Cycle. This three day long celebration of the Christian Passover, commences after sunset on Holy Thursday and concludes on Easter Sunday.
The Paschal Triduum is preceded by a forty day period of preparation, running from Ash Wednesday to Holy
Thursday inclusive. The Paschal Triduum opens out onto the fifty days of joy, symbolic of the new age in
which we live, which conclude with Pentecost Sunday, the fiftieth day.
Lent - The Forty Days of Preparation
Lent, or a better term might be the forty days, is fundamentally a time of preparation. This time, during which the community moves toward Easter, is characterized by two major theological themes:
and three disciplines:
Catechumens are prepared for initiation and those who were alienated from the ecclesial community are prepared for their return through the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation and such processes as Catholics Coming Home.
Both aspects underline the communality of the Lenten journey as catechumens and penitents alike prepare for the Easter sacraments
within the bosom of the Christian community. This Christian community, which in its entirety moves toward the celebration of the
Paschal Mysteries, applies itself to the three great Christian disciplines of prayer, fasting and generosity toward God's people (almsgiving).
Holy Week / The Paschal Triduum
The word Triduum (pronounced “TRIH-doo-uhm”) comes from the Latin meaning “three days.” It refers to the three most sacred days in the church year. The Triduum begins with the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, reaches its high point at the Easter Vigil and concludes with evening prayer on Easter Sunday. The Church follows the traditional Jewish practice of counting days from sunset to sunset; thus,
Although we talk of three days, Triduum is best understood as one liturgy in three interlocking movements where we
It is also the time of welcoming new members into the church through baptism, confirmation and Eucharist. All are especially invited to come together as community to celebrate these sacred days.
Holy Thursday - Mass of the Lord's Supper - Wash Each Other's Feet
The legacy of this splendid night is Jesus' living will handed over to us in the breaking of the bread and the washing of the feet. Tonight we are reminded that we are to bend over the feet of our brothers and sisters and to pour out our love in extravagant service. Is this not how we are to be the body broken like bread and the blood poured out like wine?
We observe the liturgy of this holy night with the most splendid of our resources. We adore and embrace the sacrament of the Lord's Body and Blood. We carry his life-giving sacrament in procession, exultantly, and enshrine it for worship. However, if we are really to recognize the Lord's Body for what it is, head and members, we are called to keep the command of the washing of the feet.
As we bend down to wash one another's feet we are reminded of this very important question which should haunt us, especially these days: Why is it that Christian assemblies can celebrate the Eucharist day in and day out, year after year, without any apparent change in personal or social relationships? Is it because they have never discovered the way in which to keep the commandment about the washing of the feet?
Good Friday - Bear One Another's Cross
The cross is first of all the instrument of our redemption. Secondly and paradoxically, the cross is the royal throne where God's glory is revealed. Finally, the cross is the sign of the Lord's eschatological presence and the promise of his return.
The public veneration of the cross on Good Friday signals the dawning of the day of the Lord. We behold the instrument of our Salvation; reach for it; carry it on our shoulders; reverently kneel before it and finally touch our lips to this mysterious sign which reveals, yet, conceals the awaited Lord. Then, we commune sacramentally with him who once hung upon the cross, yet, who now reigns in glory and will one day come again to fulfill the promise.
To celebrate the cross on Good Friday is to embrace the gift of creation now made whole by the sacrifice of him whose body was raised on the cross. Remember, this veneration of the cross and our communion with its victim is not a free act, without any consequence. By doing so, we commit ourselves to become that what we eat and endure that what we kiss. Bear one another's cross!
Holy Saturday - Easter Vigil - Welcome One Another into the Body of Christ
On this most holy night we enter into the unfathomable mystery of life conquering death. The crucified and risen Christ is brought out of the remoteness of history and heavenly glory and placed as a living and redeeming reality in the midst of our suffering world. Because of this, our own pain and indeed the pain of the entire world, our inner conflicts and ultimately our death are restored to life.
This is the mysterious image into which Christian communities are created and recreated by the power of the Holy Spirit. Each of us has been molded into the image of Christ through the sacrament of Baptism. Tonight we are reassured that those who have died with him in baptism will also be one with him in heaven.
The Fifty Days of Celebration
The General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar notes that "the fifty days from Easter Sunday to Pentecost are celebrated in joyful exaltation as one feast day, or better as one great Sunday". This, however, poses a number of challenges.
First, even well-informed Catholics tend to view Easter, Ascension and Pentecost as three separate and independent feast days, each with its own, largely independent theme. Our liturgical history greatly contributed to such perception, e.g. their was a fast before Pentecost, an Octave of Pentecost, the custom of extinguishing the Easter candle on Ascension... It will prove to be quite the task to abandon such separatist perceptions and to recover the unified view of a fifty-day long celebration.
Second: we have difficulties celebrating: we love to prepare for a feast (look at Christmas), but we really don't know how to celebrate, let alone for 50 long days. That's why Lent is such a great success, and Easter at a great loss.
Ascension and Pentecost, which in translation means fiftieth day, are primarily to be understood as part of the great fifty days
of Easter, only secondarily do they celebrate their own particular aspect of the Easter Mystery: the ascension of Christ into
Heaven and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit or the birth of the Church.
The Incarnation Cycle - Christ Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
The great liturgist Pius Parsch suggests that the autumn of the church year, which ends with the Solemnity of Christ the King is particularly suited to remember the end of time and the Second Coming of Christ. Advent - Christmas - Epiphany, continue this theme of preparation, both for our Savior's return and for our share in the fulfillment of the Promise.
The Liturgical Cycle of Advent - Christmas - Epiphany thus celebrates both the Mystery of the Incarnation and intently anticipates the Eschaton, the Fulfillment of the Promise, the Second Coming, the Heavenly Jerusalem. Too often, all the energy is focused on the birth of the divine baby. The cross on which this same Jesus died is often overlooked, and the Second Coming of Christ remains unmentioned.
Society emphasizes the warmth and good feelings which surround the birth of a baby, and rightfully so. However, there is more to
this event. This baby is the Son of God. This baby has come into the world to save humankind. This baby has come into the world to bear the cross. This baby shows the way to eternal salvation.