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The Liturgical Year

In our American Culture, Christmas is the holiday that receives the most attention.  Without a doubt, Christmas is important.  It is the Incarnation, the birth, of Jesus Christ, when he humbled himself to become man.  Without the Incarnation we celebrate at Christmas, the Crucifixion and Resurrection would not have been possible.  Christmas is important.  It is the second most important day in the Church year.

So what day is the most important?

Easter!  Easter is the Resurrection when Jesus triumphs over death.  (For a more extensive reflection on the significance of Easter click here.)  The date of Easter is determined as the first Sunday following the first full moon following the vernal equinox.  The vernal equinox is the first day of spring which is always around March 20-22.  So, Easter will never be before March 20th and would not be more than one month after March 22nd.  From Easter, we set the date of Ash Wednesday, the Season of Lent, Passion (Palm) Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Ascension Thursday, Pentecost.  And in the United States, the Solemnities of the Holy Trinity and the Body and

Once the date of Easter is determined, the other dates fall readily into place. Of course, the simplest are Holy Thursday and Good Friday which are always the Thursday and Friday before Easter.  Prior to Easter there are forty days of preparation, not including Sundays.  So, we count back forty days, omitting Sundays to determine Ash Wednesday.  Lent then runs from Ash Wednesday to the beginning of the Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday. (Video - "Lenten Customs")

Lent is a penitential time, calling us to reflect upon our readiness for the coming of Christ.  As a symbol of penance, the liturgical color for Lent is violet as seen in the vestments worn by priests and deacons.  During Lent we are called to abstain from meat on Fridays (and Ash Wednesday) and to either give up something up or do something extra as a sacrifice to help us focus on preparing ourselves for the Second Coming of Christ.  Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent is the only Sunday in Lent where the priest and deacon may not wear violet vestments.  Laetare Sunday is a pause in Lent to reflect upon the ultimate victory Jesus has won over death and sin for us.  Thus, the color rose may be worn as a symbol of joy.

While the forty days of preparation for Easter include Good Friday and Holy Saturday, Lent itself ends with the beginning of the Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday.  The liturgical color for Holy Thursday is white as Christ institutes the Mass, the Eucharist, and the Priesthood.  Turning to Good Friday, we celebrate the Passion (Crucifixion) of Jesus.  It is the day he shed his blood upon the cross for us so red, the color of blood, is the liturgical color of the day.

Counting forward from Easter, the Easter Season goes from the Easter Vigil to Pentecost Sunday.  The word Pentecost is derived from the Greek meaning 50th day.  In the Old Testament, Pentecost was celebrated seven weeks after Passover.  Seven weeks of seven days is 49 and the next day is fifty - Pentecost.  In the New Testament, Pentecost is the Descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles (Rev. Jovian P. Long, OFM. Dictionary of the Liturgy.  Catholic Book Publishing.  New York. 1989, page 503)  Acts 2:1-4 tells the story of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles. Acts 2:1 tells us that, as the disciples were gathered, it was the time for Pentecost (in the Old Testament sense) and since we know that Jesus was crucified at the time of the Passover, the passage in Acts sets the Descent of the Holy Spirit as fifty days after Easter.  The color associated with the Holy Spirit is red symbolizing the fire that burns within us so the liturgical color for Pentecost is red.  Ascension Thursday is celebrated forty days after Easter.  Forty is a common biblical number as the Israelites spent forty years in the desert during the Exodus and Jesus spent forty days in the desert before his temptation (Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-15, Luke 4:1-13).  Acts 1:3 tells us that Jesus spent forty days with his disciples before his ascension.  The Ascension celebrates the completion of the Risen Jesus' mission on Earth.  At the Ascension (Acts 1:1-11) the Risen Jesus leaves the disciples, ascending to heaven and takes his rightful place in heaven at the right hand of the father.  White continues as the color for Ascension Thursday.

Ordinary Time resumes after Pentecost.  However, in the United States, the first two Sundays after Pentecost are Solemnities.  A solemnity is a highest order of the feast days of the Catholic Church.  Christmas and Easter are the most well-known solemnities.  There are a total of fourteen solemnities.  The two following Pentecost are Trinity Sunday, and the Body and Blood of Christ.  The other ten are Mary, Mother of God (Jan. 1st), Epiphany, St. Joseph (March 19th), Annunciation (March 25th), Sacred Heart, St. John the Baptist (June 24th), St. Peter and Paul, Assumption (August 15th), All Saints (November 1st), Christ the King, and the Immaculate Conception of Mary (December 8th). (Rev. Jovian P. Long, OFM. Dictionary of the Liturgy.  Catholic Book Publishing.  New York. 1989, page 249).  Of these, six are selected as Holy Days of Obligation.  All the faithful should attend Mass on these days.  In the United States the six are Jan 1st - Mary, Mother of God, Easter, Ascension Thursday, Aug 15th - Assumption, Dec 8th - Immaculate Conception, and December 25th - Christmas.

We celebrate Trinity Sunday the first Sunday after Pentecost as a time to meditate on the mystery of the Trinity and to think how we seek to have the unity of the Trinity.  The second Sunday after Pentecost is the Body and Blood of Christ where we commemorate the Eucharist Jesus gives us at the Lord's Supper.  The color both of these solemnities is white.

Christmas

The date of Christmas is fixed as December 25th.  It is the Incarnation and birth of our Savior Jesus Christ.  Advent, which literally meaning "coming" is a penitential time, like Lent, as a time to reflect on the first coming of Christ and our own readiness for the second coming of Christ.  As a penitential time like Lent, the liturgical color for Advent is violent (occasionally you may see blue).  While the exact length of Advent varies there are always four Sundays in Advent.  So the beginning of Advent is determined by counting backwards from Christmas four Sundays.  Then the Sunday previous to the First Sunday of Advent is the Solemnity of Christ the King.

The first Sunday after Christmas, except when the Sunday is January 1st, is the Feast of the Holy Family.  The Twelfth Day of Christmas, January 6th, is the Feast of Epiphany where we celebrate the visitation of the Magi to Jesus (Matthew 2:1-23).  In the United States the Feast of the Epiphany is moved to the nearest Sunday.  The liturgical color for Epiphany is white as Christ is the pure light to the world.

Generally speaking, the Sunday after Epiphany is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord (Matthew 3:1-17, Mark 1:1-11,Luke 3:22-23).  On this date we are called to reflect on how, in our own baptism, we are called to share in Christ's mission as priest, prophet, and king.  At baptism we are clothed in white as a symbol of being made pure in the sight of the Lord.  Thus, white is the liturgical color for this feast.

The rest of the year outside the seasons of Lent, Easter, Advent, and Christmas is called Ordinary Time, the liturgical color is green.  It is not ordinary in a ho-hum sense.  Rather, it is ordinary only in the sense that is not another special season of the year.

Lastly, throughout the year we celebrate the feasts and memorials of those who have been declared saints or blessed.  These feasts are set by the secular calendar.  Generally, the date is date of death for the saint or another significant date in their life. 

"A clean heart create for him, God; renew in me a steadfast spirit." Psalm 51:12



"He is not here, for he has been raised just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay."

Matthew 28:6