ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
102. Holy Mother Church is conscious that she must celebrate the saving work of her divine Spouse by devoutly recalling it on certain days throughout the course of the year. Every week, on the day which she has called the Lord's day, she keeps the memory of the Lord's resurrection, which she also celebrates once in the year, together with His blessed passion, in the most solemn festival of Easter.
Within the cycle of a year, moreover, she unfolds the whole mystery of Christ, from the incarnation and birth until the ascension, the day of Pentecost, and the expectation of blessed hope and of the coming of the Lord.
Recalling thus the mysteries of redemption, the Church opens to the faithful the riches of her Lord's powers and merits, so that these are in some way made present for all time, and the faithful are enabled to lay hold upon them and become filled with saving grace.
When I drive through the country off the interstates, I pass a number of Protestant or nondenominational churches with the following Sunday’s biblical text reference and the sermon topic. The choice of text and sermon topic is a local one except in the mainstream Protestant Churches, such as the Lutheran Church, which observes a fixed calendar of seasons, readings, and feasts remarkably like the Roman Catholic Calendar. Early in the ministry I wondered what it would be like to essentially start from scratch every Sunday in terms of planning the worship agenda. But I quickly realized that Catholic tradition has long envisioned itself as a universal community, where all its members pray together at specific times [see last post below] and celebrate its greatest mysteries and beloved saints collectively.
Paragraph 102 speaks of an annual cycle which celebrates the “whole mystery of Christ.” In church shorthand we refer to this annual cycle as “the Church year” or the “Liturgical cycle.” The specifics of the cycle are determined by the Vatican and made available to local churches several years in advance, though there is little change from year to year. Local dioceses or national conferences of bishops are granted authority to make some changes—for example, there are a handful of dioceses in the U.S. which celebrate the Feast of the Ascension on Thursday of the sixth week of Easter, or 40 days after Easter according to the narratives of St. Luke. Most dioceses now observe the Ascension on the seventh Sunday of Easter, a change promoted over the past several decades possibly because of poor attendance at weekday feasts.
The Church calendar is not synonymous with the civil calendar; they begin about a month apart. The Liturgical Year begins late in November with the First Sunday of Advent, while the civil calendar begins in the Western world on January 1. The civil year dating is related very roughly to astronomy, with the shortest day of the year being December 20 or 21. The Christian cycle of feasts is far more complicated insofar as calculating a beginning and an end. Adolf Adam’s The Liturgical Year  provides a decent summary of how the Church came to develop a collective consciousness of a liturgical year with theological overtones.
I am doing a lot of injustice to the laborious thought that went into this process. Civilly, we live today under Julius Caesar’s calendar, though it is far from perfect and patch worked with correctives [e.g., leap year]. The idea of a calendar year with religious significance—a cycle of the saving incarnation, resurrection, and second coming of Christ—comes relatively late in history. Paragraph 102 (2) above embodies the modern appreciation of the “saving year,” that in the time of one revolution of the earth around the sun a believer would have experienced the full saving history of God’s plan.
When the Church came to solidify its annual cycle of feasts, it began, appropriately enough, with the observance of the two principle mysteries of the faith, the Incarnation and the Redemption, embodied in the liturgies of Christmas and Easter. To this day no one knows the exact date of Christmas. It can be determined that the City of Rome celebrated this feast in 336 A.D. from surviving documents. There are multiple theories as to why the feast is celebrated on December 25. The first is the existing Roman observance of a pagan feast devoted to the “Unconquered Sun-God” established by the Roman emperor Aurelian in 274 on the day of the winter solstice, December 25. [Aurelian, like all his countrymen, was at least four days off in his calculations of the true astronomical solstice.]
Christians at the time saw an opportunity to detract from the festivities of this “Sun-God” by creating a feast to honor the birth of the Christ, the light of the world, on the darkest day of the year, the winter solstice. [Just like their pagan counterparts, Christians also missed the solstice by four or five days.] A curious footnote: when the feast of Christmas was established on December 25, it usurped another feast on the same day, that of the virgin-martyr Anastasia. In the Roman missal prior to 1970, the dawn Christmas Mass included a memorial to Anastasia. The dating of Easter was somewhat more complicated. St. Paul’s writing [1 Corinthians 5: 7-8] speaks of the Resurrection as the new Passover, and the custom developed of celebrating Easter on Jewish Passover, using the Jewish formula of setting Passover as the first sabbath after the first full moon of spring, using the astronomical spring equinox as the starting point. The Christian Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. established this formula for the dating of Easter, by which the feast might fall between March 22 and April 25.
As the dates of Christmas [or the Epiphany in the Eastern Churches] and Easter became established as the two pillar feasts of the Church, it was possible to think in terms of the Church year as a unified drama of God’s work, from creation to redemption to glorious ending. There are parallels in the fashion that the Church celebrates Incarnation and Redemption. Both Christmas and Easter are preceded by seasonal periods of penance, Advent and Lent respectively, though the length and format of each season took centuries to evolve. Both feasts have a solid week or octave of solemnity and a broader season of celebration. Christmas Season extends from Vespers of December 24 through the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord [January 13] The Easter Season extends forty days till the Feast of the Ascension, and another ten through Pentecost Sunday. Prior to 1970, the Easter Season ended on Trinity Sunday, the week
If you add up the weeks of the Christmas and Easter Seasons, however, they total less than half of the liturgical year. This was true in both the calendar of the Council of Trent [1545-1563] and the Vatican II reformed calendar of Paul VI in 1970. The old calendar enumerated the post-Christmas Sundays as Sundays after the Epiphany, a period determined by how early Lent started. The old calendar enumerated the Sundays after the Easter Season as Sundays after Pentecost, of which there might be as many as 28. Green vestments symbolize these two “after” seasons.
For reasons not entirely clear, the editors of the 1970 or present-day calendar opted to eliminate the names “after Epiphany” or “after Pentecost” in favor of a straight numerical system. Thus, the Sundays of the Church year without an identifiable feast are numbered 1,2,3, etc. or “The Third Sunday in Ordinary Time,” for example. Admittedly, the identity of the Ordinary Time season is neither theologically nor poetically inspiring. “Ordinary Time” when translated from the Latin means “numbered time,” from the Latin ordo or number. And while pastors and catechists have gamely tried to pump some juice into this mundane “Ordinary Time” nomenclature, my own sense is that the older terminology might have served the Church better.
In this post we have sketched out the general idea of the liturgical calendar. My sense is that many Catholics are not aware of this calendar of salvation, even in parishes where liturgical wall and desk calendars are given away free. A good daily site to keep up on the feasts and the day’s Mass readings is the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ site with the daily info. One important area we have not covered are the “fixed feasts” such as the Immaculate Conception [December 8], Sts. Peter and Paul [June 29], St. Agnes [January 21], which outnumber the Sunday observances. The history and placement of these feasts, and our conscious observance of them can serve as a boost to observance and the inspiration of prayer. We will look at these feasts in the next post on this stream.