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Church Year

The Church Year: Unfolding the Mystery of Christ 

Linking the Lectionary and the Seasons of the Church Year 

One way the Church tells the story of God’s redemptive activity in the world is by its calendar. Within the cycle of a year, she unfolds the whole mystery of Christ. Recalling thus the mysteries of redemption, the Church opens to the faithful the riches of her Lord’s powers and mercies, so that they are in some way made present at all times, and the faithful are enabled to lay hold of them and become filled with saving grace. 

Over the centuries, certain festivals and the seasons surrounding them have been established. The events celebrated did not necessarily occur on these dates; rather the dates have evolved to shape the whole year into a pattern of recollection. These patterns of worship provide a yearly cycle through which we remember our story and deepen our understanding of its meaning for us. 

The lectionary is not a chronological approach to reading the Bible, nor is it a book-by-book approach. Each week the scripture readings are closely linked to the seasons of the Church’s life cycle, its liturgical calendar. In the first half of the Church year, we follow the major events of the life of Jesus, including his birth, death, resurrection and the birth of the Church, and in the second half we study Jesus’ actions and teachings. 

In addition, the lectionary provides an opportunity to remember great persons in Church history on saints’ days and to celebrate special events in the life of a parish, such as confirmation. Throughout the year, scriptures have been chosen for their appropriateness for the occasions on which they are read. 

The repetitive nature of the three-year lectionary cycle means that catechists need not feel compelled to present all there is to know about any given reading in a particular session. The growing child, the questioning adolescent and the maturing adult will each encounter these scriptures again and again at progressive stages of understanding. 

The Church year is anchored by two important segments. The first is Advent—Christmas—Epiphany and the second is Lent—Holy Week—Easter. Both segments describe a passage from dark to light. 

The Centrality of Easter 

The most ancient and always the central event of the liturgical year is Easter, the celebration of the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. The ancient celebrations, now being revived in many churches, consist of three days beginning with the remembrance of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, the celebrations of Good Friday and the Easter Vigil of Holy Saturday night and continuing until evening prayer on Easter Sunday. 

(The Easter date is influenced by the Jewish calendar, which is based on the lunar year. Passover begins on the 14th day of Nisan, the 7th month in the Jewish calendar, and Easter is usually on the first Sunday following the first day of Passover.) The rest of the year leads up to and extends from the celebration of the resurrection, which is also the model for our weekly worship. Every Sunday is a feast day, a “little Easter,” remembering the death and resurrection of Christ through the Eucharist. 

The Easter season extends for 50 days and includes the Feast of the Ascension (Jesus’ return to heaven) celebrated 40 days after Easter. It culminates with Pentecost Sunday (sometimes called the Church’s birthday), which celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ followers and the beginning of the mission of the Church. The time after Pentecost (Ordinary Time) is the longest season of the Church year, beginning in the spring and continuing until the First Sunday of Advent in late fall. It celebrates the activity of God’s Spirit in our lives and ministries. 

Christmas Surrounded by Advent and Epiphany 

The time of preparation for Christmas, called Advent (meaning ‘coming’), begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. The scripture readings focus on Israel’s preparation for the coming of the Messiah and, secondarily, on New Testament anticipation for the second coming of Christ. 

In the northern hemisphere, Advent begins during that dark period of the solar year in which the days grow shorter and the nights longer. Trees lose their leaves and the days grow colder. In the midst of this darkness the Church proclaims the approach of God’s kingdom: “The true light, which enlightens every one, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him” (John 1:9-10). Into this darkness the twenty-fifth of December comes as a celebration of the invincibility of the Light. 

During the last half of December, when the Roman pagans celebrated the feast of the Unconquered Sun, the Church now gathers to proclaim that the Son has indeed come into the world. As John writes in the gospel: “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:4-5). The Feast of Our Lord’s Nativity celebrates the mystery of God’s incarnation in human flesh. 

The fulfillment of God’s promise of light leads to the proclamation of this “good news.” So the celebration of Christmas is followed by the Feast of the Epiphany. Epiphany (meaning ‘to show forth’), celebrated on the 12th day after Christmas, commemorates the visit of the magi, wise ones who traveled from afar to worship the babe in Bethlehem and who represent all the nations of the world. Jesus is savior for all people. During this part of the Christmas season, we recall Jesus’ baptism and early ministry. The length of the season varies because it lasts until Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. 

In the season after Epiphany, we share the news that God’s love is for every person, for all of creation! Thus the thematic pattern of Advent-Christmas-Epiphany can be seen as darkness-light-manifestation or as promisefulfillment-proclamation. 

In all three years of the lectionary cycle, the gospel readings for the First Sunday after Epiphany recount Jesus’ baptism, when he is revealed as God’s Son. In other readings of the season, Jesus builds God’s kingdom community. He emphasizes discipleship and evangelization, teaching that his followers are salt of the earth and light to the world. 

In the Beatitudes and in other passages, he teaches a revolutionary attitude of love toward our enemies. He preaches repentance, God’s forgiveness and a new order— freedom from all that blinds and enslaves us. We hear the 

Ten Commandments and learn that Jesus has come to fulfill the purpose of the law. 

Lent, Holy Week, Easter 

The Christian calendar found its first inspiration in the rites of initiation. It’s greatest feast and most important rites were celebrated on Easter. Easter was the time of baptism, when new members of the Church would take the plunge into the waters of baptism and emerge into a new life of fellowship, their way lit by baptismal candles and their journey nourished by the meal of bread and wine. 

Lent, the period of preparation for Easter, begins 40 days (excluding Sundays) before Easter. Recalling Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness prior to his public ministry, we quietly renew our baptismal life, in preparation for the great Feast of Easter. Lent is a time of inwardness, spiritual discipline and growth for Christians. During Lent we seek out the shadows in our souls, inviting Christ’s light to illumine them. 

In Lent the Old Testament readings remember God’s covenants. God pledges, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33). The Old Testament readings call us to our true vocation: How shall we be God’s people? What is our response to God’s promises? The New Testament readings often use images of being born, bearing fruit, dying and coming to new life. These readings invite us to look to the “new thing” that God is accomplishing through Jesus. 

Lent concludes with Holy Week when, like the early Christians, we prepare for Easter by an intense recollection of the events of Jesus’ passion, beginning with his messianic entrance into Jerusalem (Passion or Palm Sunday). The culmination of Holy Week is the Sacred Three Days (Latin: Triduum) of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ in which we celebrate Jesus’ Last Supper (Holy Thursday), his crucifixion and death (Good Friday) and his resurrection to new life (the Great Vigil of Easter on Holy Saturday and on Easter Sunday). 

Holy Week is perhaps the darkest part of the Church’s night. We know that God’s promises are true, yet the events of this week speak of the awesome struggle of good over evil, life over death, that we may reclaim the original blessing of creation. In this murky darkness, a fire is kindled, a candle is lit and a voice proclaims, “The Light of Christ!” The darkness is vanquished; the light of the resurrection fills the world. It is Easter and we celebrate the world made new in Christ and in the newly baptized. 

During the season of Easter, in place of the Old Testament readings, passages from Acts portray the emerging Church and its mission. Gospel readings recount Jesus’ discourse to his disciples at the Last Supper and tell of his post-resurrection appearances. 

Pentecost and Beyond 

Just as the world did not recognize the light of the incarnation, so it is blind to the light of the resurrection. Witnesses to the resurrection are needed to guide others to the Source of resurrection power. At Pentecost, these witnesses are empowered to spread the good news to the ends of the earth. The Holy Spirit descends on them, giving them new tongues to proclaim the good news of God in Jesus Christ. 

On Pentecost, the Church celebrates God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to God’s holy people. Luke, writing in the Acts of the Apostles, describes the descent of the Holy Spirit as fiery tongues resting on the assembled disciples. It is important to notice that the disciples were gathered together when the Holy Spirit came upon them. From the beginning, the experience of the Holy Spirit comes as a corporate experience. Individual members participate as part of the whole Body of Christ. 

Promise and power are two key words referring to the coming of the Holy Spirit. The promise is fulfilled and the power bestowed in the event in the upper room at Pentecost. The power immediately becomes clear as the apostles proclaim Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected. That their message is understood by all of the listeners without translation is a sign that God’s word is no longer limited to one people or one place, one language or one race, but is now available to all people everywhere. 

The preaching of Peter at Pentecost concludes with a response to his hearers’ question: “What should we do?” The apostle replies, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). This is still the Christian message and the Christian task! 

In the season after Pentecost the prophets of the Old Testament remind us of God’s commandments, calling us to “steadfast love and...knowledge of God” (Hosea 6:6). In both the Old and New Testaments, there are strong themes of justice and reconciliation. The prophets beckon us: “do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor” (Deuteronomy 15:7). Jesus’ teachings in the gospel readings compel us to change our lives, reach out to others and be his kingdom community now. 

Colors of the Church Year 

The colors of vestments and altar hangings symbolize the moods of the various seasons and principal feast days of the Church. These colors enrich the worship setting and focus and prepare the worshippers for the celebration. 

During Advent, which has penitential overtones, the color is traditionally violet or purple. For Christmas, white or gold emphasizes the joyous news of birth and incarnation. Epiphany is celebrated with white for the feast day and green for the rest of the season. 

Ash Wednesday marks a change of mood to one of solemn preparation for Easter. Purple or violet are the penitential colors for Lent, but change for the dramatic events of Holy Week. Palm Sunday is celebrated with red; Holy Thursday with white; and Good Friday with red. 

White or gold highlights the Easter and Ascension celebrations. Red reminds us of the tongues of fire reported on the first Pentecost, and green is the color for the long season of Christian growth following Pentecost.