The Liturgical Year

New Year’s Day is an astronomical event. Earth, which we human beings inhabit (we were given no other choice), revolves about the Sun, one of the bejillions of stars populating the cosmos. This is the saeculum, the world tossed out there. Our planet has been making this orbit around its Sun for longer than we can count, billions of years. The Sun is still burning. We are mighty pleased that it does. At the Winter Solstice, I always wonder if Earth will begin to tip back so that the days will become longer. Sure enough, it does. I am annually pleased.

The Church counts years in a different way, though recent calendar “reforms” put too much sidereal time in. “Ordinary weeks” of the year were once better called weeks after Pentecost or, in the Anglican Calendar, after Trinity.

We Catholics live a double life. We live the secular calendar. That calendar is influenced by emperors, popes, and legislators, with their daylight “saving” time. Our months are numbered or named after pagan gods, like Mars or Janus. December means the tenth month. In ancient times, the calculations were out of whack. They added two months, July and August, after Roman Emperors, to make the year better correspond with what was happening in the cosmos.

We Catholics live, as it were, in a double time zone. We live in cosmic time. The ages of the universe, Sun, and planet are behind us but still go on. We also live in creation-redemption time. The Liturgical Year keeps our attention on this second time, the time that really counts. For those who live only in cosmic time, their lives mean relatively little or nothing. Even if they suspect that their lives have some purpose, they have little light on what it might be. They are but one of the hundreds of billions of our kind who have gone before. Is that it?

The Liturgical Year is divided into two great events, the birth and resurrection of Christ. The Liturgical Year begins with Advent, the Old Testament preparation for Christ’s coming. It proceeds to the Christmas event, the reality of which the secular world chooses not to be reminded. But Christmas did have to do with Augustus Caesar. The Christmas cycle ends with the Baptism of the Lord, on the Octave of the Epiphany, the feast that points the “good news” of what happened to the whole world.

The Lenten cycle is a six-week preparation for the yearly reminder of the death and resurrection of Christ, the Man-God, the central event of this time in which we now live. We pass through Christ’s suffering, death, and Resurrection, through the Ascension and Pentecost, the sending the Holy Spirit.

The remainder of the year, some thirty-four weeks, is the yearly going through the three-year public life of Christ, His deeds and words. He chooses the apostles. He organizes them to carry His work on, the Church. The Acts of the Apostles and the works of Paul tell us again each year how this was accomplished. Thus, each “day” in the Church is a “feast” to celebrate an aspect of Christ’s life or those who witnessed to Him over the ages: saints, martyrs, and confessors.

In this inner world of every day Church life, the world is created by the Triune God. He intends for each of us to exist, when we exist. He created us free and intelligent. We can in fact mess things up. Christ comes into the world to set us back on the path for which we were created. We each strive to reach eternal life, the inner life of God. That is what is really going on in the universe. The rest is context.

God, I am sure, can be said to enjoy His creation. This creation itself is not intended just to sit there forever. Something goes on there that transcends this saeculum. The Liturgical Year regularly alerts us. The “time” in which we live is the time it takes for us to decide our relation to God. We show this relation in how we live, love, how we understand. We do it in this world, in the lives we are given.

The world is created for man that he might achieve the end that God invited him to achieve. This time passes. We are already in the “end time.” No new revelation is to come to us. We have been told what we need to know. The drama of our existence takes place in this cosmos. We await the “time” in which we will finally and fully exist. The Liturgical Year is our awareness of the real time of our lives, that time of choice that leads to the eternal “now” of the Trinity.

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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