Treasures of the Liturgy: The Liturgical Year

From Liturgical Catechism by Rev. M. S. Canon McMahon (1930)

What is the liturgical year?

The liturgical year is the annual celebration of the mysteries of man’s salvation and of the memory of the saints.

Is the annual celebration of these mysteries of Our Lord to be regarded as merely a pious commemoration of them?

The annual celebration of the mysteries of Christ is not a mere memorial of the past. The mystery that is being celebrated is a fact having the character of an event which is actually taking place, and in which the Church really participates. Christ lives in the Church forever, and as Head of the Church possesses the power of renewing, continuing and extending His mysteries throughout the universality of His Mystical Body. Every truth of Christ, every miracle, every event of His life that is celebrated in the liturgy is a manifestation of the Living Christ. The Church lives over again the mysteries of Christ in the course of the liturgical year, and we as members of the Church communicate in these mysteries. What happened once is ever recurrent ; the past becomes the immediate present. The Divine Infant is as near to us in the Holy Mass of Christmas as He was to the shepherds who, at the bidding of the Angels, went to adore Him. Our adoration is but a prolongation of theirs, and the special graces vouchsafed to them at the manger of Bethlehem are stored up for our souls in the Christmas Mass. Christ was born in the souls of the shepherds the first Christmas. As truly is He born in our souls every successive Christmas Day. In the measure of the grace vouchsafed us we experience in our souls that condition of filial dependence on God the Father, that feeling of confidence in Him, that disposition of docility towards Him which characterised Christ when He was born into the world.

Has each mystery that is celebrated its special grace?

In each stage and in each mystery of His life Christ acquired for us special graces—distinct graces acquired in His Infancy, in His hidden life, in His public life, in His sufferings and His death, in His Resurrection and His glorious Ascension, and in His sending of the Holy Ghost.

What is regarded as the special qualities of these distinct graces?

Christmas brings with it the spirit of childlike love and gladness. Epiphany awakens in us the spirit of reverent homage to our King and the spirit of zeal for the spread of His kingdom. The spirit of steadfast courage in our struggle against Satan is awakened in the first weeks of Lent and the spirit of patience and of suffering and the horror of sin come to us in Passiontide. At Easter, the joy of victory over the enemies of our salvation floods the soul, while on the Feast of the Ascension we lift up our thoughts to heavenly things to be, by faith, like Christ, in the bosom of the Father. The Descent of the Holy Ghost endues us with power from on high and gives the spirit of fortitude which enables us to await with eager gladness the second coming of Our Lord in judgment.

In this succession of joy and sorrow of soul, of gladness and of triumph we live again, we experience within ourselves, in the course of the liturgical year, the mysteries of our salvation, and become, as the years roll on, more and more closely assimilated to our Divine Model, Jesus Christ.

What great truth then will, above all, spur us on to direct our devotion after the plan of the liturgical year and so enter into the mind of the Church?

The deep-seated conviction that Christ’s mysteries are ours, that the interior life of the Christian is a reproduction of the life of Jesus.

In what sense are Christ’s mysteries ours?

We all sinned in Adam, the head of the human race. We all died to sin with Christ, Who is the Head of the Mystical Body of which we are the members :

We are buried together with Him. (Rom 6:4)

If we be dead with Christ we believe that we shall live also with Christ. (Rom 6:8)

The Eternal Father sees us, likewise, in all the other mysteries of Christ. God “hath raised up together and hath made us sit together in the heavenly places, through Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:6), for “where the Head is seated, the body is also seated along with the Head” (St. John Chrysostom)—some members in realisation, others in hope (we ascend with Christ). Christ’s Death is our death (to sin), Christ’s Resurrection is our resurrection (to newness of life). Christ’s glorious Ascension is our glorification (hereafter) (cf. Marmion).

The satisfaction offered by Christ, the merits won by Him, the glory achieved by Him in His mysteries are ours, to each according to the measure of the giving of Christ (Eph 4:7) and according to the dispositions and degree of co-operation (Council of Trent—Sess. 6, Cap. 7).

What is the all-important element in each liturgical celebration?

Mass is the pith and marrow of each recurring festival. It is from the altar that the mystery is read to us. "In each mystery Our Holy Mother the Church shows us the fruit to be gathered from it—a virtue to be acquired, a grace to be sought, a sacrifice to be made which must be united to the one great sacrifice of the Altar.” It is in the Mass that we appropriate the mystery to ourselves, that we communicate in it, that we live it over again.

Apart from the Mass how else may we celebrate the Church’s year in the spirit of the Church?

In our visits to the Blessed Sacrament it would be advisable to adore Jesus in that stage of His life or in that particular mystery the current liturgical season presents to us. At Christmas, for instance, it would be the spirit of the Church to adore Jesus as the Divine Infant; in Lent, as suffering and dying on the Cross; at Easter, as risen gloriously from the dead.

Does the Church emphasise specially the fruit to be derived from the observation of the current festival of the ecclesiastical year?

The interesting Collect of Wednesday of Easter week states for us the mind of the Church:

O God, Who dost gladden us with the yearly celebration of Our Lord’s Resurrection, mercifully grant that by those festivals which we keep in life we may become worthy to attain to eternal joys hereafter.

Compare the Collect of the following Saturday:

Grant that we who have celebrated the Easter festival may deserve by it to arrive at eternal joys.

How did Pope Pius X of saintly memory regard the observance of the liturgical feasts ?

He states that the liturgical feasts were introduced that all might render to God the supreme worship of adoration in common. In these feasts all is so arranged and every single circumstance so adapted as to make the mysteries, the truths or the deeds which are celebrated penetrate deeply into the soul and move the soul to corresponding acts of virtue. The faithful, if well instructed, and if minded to celebrate the feasts in the spirit of the Church, would obtain a renewal and a notable increase of faith, of devotion and of religious knowledge, and in consequence the whole life of Christians would be reinvigorated and transformed.

When does the liturgical year begin?

The liturgical year begins with the First Sunday of Advent, the Sunday that falls nearer to the Feast of St. Andrew (30 November).

Did this rule always hold?

No; the present practice dates only from the sixteenth century. For several centuries the beginning of the year varied. For a long time it coincided with the beginning of the civil year. In the fifth century, it began with the Feast of Easter. Later it dated from some other great feast, e.g. the Feast of the Annunciation (25 March), the Feast of the Nativity (25 December). Up to 1908, the Apostolic chancery began the year officially with the Feast of the Nativity.

How did the liturgical year as such develop in the worship of the Church ?

The name “liturgical year” is of comparatively recent date, but the thing itself developed gradually from the fourth century with the multiplication of the Feasts of Our Lord, while the basis on which it rests is of Apostolic origin.

Trace in broad outline the gradual development of the liturgical year.

The liturgical year began in Apostolic times with the establishment of the Sunday as the Christian day of prayer and of rest, and with the annual celebration of the Pasch or Easter festival of which the Sunday was in part a weekly celebration. Easter is the first Christian feast in order of time and of importance, the “solemnity of solemnities”, the sun of the liturgical cycle. The Feast of Pentecost, which was inherited like Easter, from the Jewish ritual and to which, as to Easter, a full and perfect Christian signification was given, was well established by the third century, while mention of the Feast of the Ascension is first found in the fourth century. The whole fifty days from Easter to Pentecost are a prolongation of the Paschal joys.

What are the further stages of this development?

The establishment of the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord in the fourth century, the adoption of the Feast of the Epiphany from the Eastern Church in the fourth century, the institution of a prolonged term of preparation for both the Easter and the Christmas festivals in the course of the fifth and sixth centuries—Easter and Christmas serving as the poles of the liturgical year.

In modern times, a third cycle, that of Pentecost, has been formed, but it is not based upon historical grounds. The Sundays after Pentecost do not centre round any mystery of Our Lord that would give them common characteristics.

What of the development of the feasts of the saints ?

The celebration of feasts of the martyrs followed quickly upon the cessation of the persecutions and the feasts of confessors were added after a century or so. Feasts in honour of Our Blessed Lady formed a regular feature of the liturgy in the sixth and seventh centuries. In course of time feasts of angels and saints were multiplied and the list of the saints is extended by successive canonisations.

What is the purpose of celebrating throughout the liturgical year Feasts of Our Lady, of the Angels and of the Saints?

To help us to realise the doctrine of the communion of saints, to secure for us the aid of powerful intercessors in heaven, to inspire us to follow the example of those to whom Jesus was in very deed the way, the truth and the life—“grant that by his help and his example we may so fight on earth as to become worthy to be crowned with him in heaven" (Collect of the Mass of St. Ignatius, 31 July). Through them we learn to know Jesus, Who was their model. “Grant, O Lord, that in the spirit of Paul the Apostle we may learn the knowledge of Jesus, which surpasseth all understanding” (Collect of the Feast of St. Anthony Maria Zaccaria, 5 July). Whether we celebrate mysteries or saints in the liturgy it is the thought of Jesus that is the central thought of all.

What great ideal then does devotion to the liturgical year most directly aim at?

To make us "feel with the Church," to think as the Church thinks, to act as the Church would have us act. To make us all one with Christ, so that there may be in us "this mind . . . which was also in Christ Jesus" (Ph 2:5).

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