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To understand the liturgical year it is helpful to know a few simple facts: What is the liturgical year? How is it organized? But to really appreciate the meaning and purpose of the liturgical year requires an ongoing meditation on several “deep truths.”

The Liturgical Year: Simple Facts, Deep Truths
By: Fr. Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M.

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You can probably get to heaven without knowing all the ins and outs of the Church’s liturgical year! But Sunday Eucharist will be more meaningful and fruitful for you if you have some understanding of the purpose and structure of the liturgical year.

Sunday Mass is not something that we merely “watch” or “go to.” It is something that we do; we are active participants in the celebration. And as with anything that we do, the more that we understand what we are doing, the more meaningful and enjoyable the action becomes. In this Update, we’ll take a closer look.

 To understand the liturgical year, it is helpful to distinguish between simple statements of fact and statements that express a deep truth. “Ann is 45 years old” is a statement of fact; it is either true or false, and it is easy to verify. “Ann is destined for eternal life” is the statement of a deep truth; it is known only by faith and its meaning and implications are under-stood little by little, through years of prayer and reflection. With regard to Mass: “I celebrated Mass at 8:00 a.m.” is a simple fact, easily verifiable. “The Eucharist transforms me into Christ’s Body” is a deep truth, verifiable only by prayer and faith.

To understand the liturgical year it is helpful to know a few simple facts, for example: What is the liturgical year? How is it organized? But to really appreciate the meaning and purpose of the liturgical year requires an ongoing meditation on several “deep truths.”

The liturgical year is the arrangement of the Church’s celebrations of the various events in the life of Christ and the mysteries of our faith throughout the year. From the time of the Apostles, Christians have gathered together on the first day of the week, the day of the Resurrection, the Lord’s Day, to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. In the course of time, these weeks were organized into two “seasons”: Lent/ Easter and Advent/Christmas. Between the seasons of Lent/Easter and Advent/ Christmas we have two periods of non-seasonal time, “Ordinary Time,” so named for the Latin ordo, “the order of things.” This sequence of Sundays and seasons is punctuated by celebrations of various feasts of the Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints.
 In 1963, the bishops at the Second Vatican Council called for some revisions in this sequence of celebrations and stated the general principles that were to guide this work. The revision was accomplished in 1969 with the publication of the Calendarium Romanum (the Roman Calendar).

These are the basic facts about the liturgical year. But what do they mean?
The Deeper Meaning

The key to understanding the meaning of the liturgical year lies in the notion of “presence.” We believe that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist under the appearance of bread and wine. We believe Christ “is present in His word, since it is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church” (Constitution on the Liturgy, 7). And we believe that Christ is present in a special, mysterious way when we celebrate the liturgical year.

“Recalling the mysteries of redemption, the Church opens to the faithful the riches of the Lord’s powers and merits, so that these are in some way made present in every age in order that the faithful may lay hold on them and be filled with saving grace” (Constitution on the Liturgy, 102, emphasis added).

The liturgy is very different from, for example, going to see a movie about World War II. Through the sights and sounds of the film, we can picture real or imaginary events that took place at that time. But when we celebrate the mysteries of Christ during the course of the liturgical year, we do not merely recall past events. The liturgy enables us to pass from our  chronological time (past/present/future) and to enter into God’s “time of salvation” so that we, through grace and mystery, become present to the event.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms: “We must continue to accomplish in ourselves the stages of Jesus’ life and his mysteries....For it is the plan of the Son of God to make us and the whole Church partake in his mysteries” (#521, quoting St. John Eudes).

The Way Catholics Read Scripture

We come into contact with “the stages of Jesus’ life and his mysteries” through Word and Sacrament. When the bishops gathered for the Second Vatican Council (1962 to 1965) they knew that if they were going to “impart an ever increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 1) it would be “essential to promote [a] warm and living love for Scripture” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 24).

To this end they ordered that “[t]he treasures of the Bible are to be opened up more lavishly so that a richer share in God’s word may be provided for the faithful. In this way a more representative portion of holy Scripture will be read to the people in the course of a prescribed number of years” (Constitution on the Liturgy, 51). This statement formed the guiding principle for the reform of the liturgical year.

Several plans for this reform were submitted to accomplish this goal. The one that was accepted and implemented proposed that we read each of the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) during the course of a three-year cycle.

The sequence of readings for the various feasts and celebrations of the liturgical year is contained in the Lectionary (the name of the book is taken from the Latin word for “a reading,” lectio).

Our current Lectionary answered the call of the Second Vatican Council to open the treasures of the Bible to the faithful. The Lectionary contains 14% of the Old Testament and 71% of the New Testament (85% of the Bible); whereas, at the time of the Council, the Missal (the book of readings for Mass) contained only 1% of the Old Testament and 17% of the New Testament (18% of the Bible).

 Now, there are various ways to read a book. Usually we start at the beginning and read to the end. But there are some books—especially treasured, well-loved books—that we return to and select a familiar passage that is especially appropriate for us at that particular time.

During the course of the Church year, we read the Bible in each of these two ways. Selecting particular passages of the Bible based on a theme or idea is the way we read the Scriptures during the liturgical seasons of Lent/Easter and Advent/ Christmas.

During the non-seasonal time, ordinary time, we read the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke from beginning to end in a semi-continuous fashion.
(The Gospel according to John is featured especially during the seasonal times).

During the non-seasonal times, in addition to the semi-continuous reading of the Gospel, we also read selections from the other books of the New Testament in a semi-continuous fashion: For example, during Year A (the year of Matthew) we read from I Corinthians (the first 7 weeks), Romans (the next 16 Sundays), Philippians (4 Sundays) and I Thessalonians (5 Sundays).

During ordinary time there is no thematic connection between the Gospel and the other New Testament reading; they are two independent sequences of texts. When the passages of Scripture were being selected, it was thought that to have a third, independent cycle of readings from the Old Testament on Sundays would be too many “themes” and consequently, passages from the Old Testament that relate to the Gospel of the day were selected for each Sunday.

At Mass, the first reading from Scripture is followed by a selection from the Book of Psalms. Priests and members of religious communities and others who pray the Liturgy of the Hours (a set of daily prayers based on the liturgical year) are familiar with the Psalms; the selection of psalms that we now pray at the Eucharist in response to the first reading makes the riches of the Book of Psalms, “God’s song book,” available to all Christians.

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Sunday Is Key

Each of the four Gospels mentions explicitly that the Resurrection took place on the first day of  the week, the day we call Sunday. That is why Christians from the earliest times have “gathered,” “come together,” “assembled”—these are the verbs used in the Bible—to celebrate the Resurrection.

For the Christian, “Jesus rose from the dead” is more than a simple statement of fact; it expresses a “deep truth.” The Resurrection is more than a historical event. It “remains at the very heart of
the mystery of faith as something that transcends and surpasses history” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #647).

As with all “deep truths,” the meaning of the Resurrection is revealed to us little by little, through continual prayer and reflection. When we look around us and see all of the evil in the world—war, hunger, discrimination, poverty—it can seem that the world and all that is in it are destined for death. In the midst of so much “bad news” it is sometimes difficult to keep alive our belief in the good news of the gospel.

We need the help and support of other Resurrection believers to sustain our faith and to trust that we are destined for life—eternal life—communion in the Trinitarian Love that is God’s very Self! That is why we gather each Sunday. We support one another at that Thanksgiving Meal, the ­pledge and foretaste
of our resurrection.
Baptism: Lent and Easter

In addition to gathering on the first day of the week, the early Church also celebrated the actual day of (or the closest Sunday to) the Lord’s Resurrection—which has become our annual celebration of Easter. This day is so festive that we cannot complete our celebration in 24 hours. It takes a week— indeed, a “week of weeks”— 7 x 7 days—the 50 days of Easter, culminating on Pentecost. During these 50 days of Easter we read from the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel according to John.

We enter into Easter by our Baptism. “I have been baptized” is a statement of fact, a simple truth. But to say: “In baptism I died with Christ and now share in his risen life” is a deep truth. The meaning of “resurrection” is central to understanding the meaning—the deep truth—of our Baptism. That is why
Easter is the ideal time to celebrate Baptism.

In the fourth and fifth centuries the Church developed a system of rites to accompany the faith journey of those elected to be baptized at Easter. Today these rites have been revived in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). The final 40 days of this journey to Baptism became the season of Lent.

Baptism is the key to understanding Lenten Scripture selections. For example, the Gospel for the First Sunday of Lent is the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert. Lent is a retreat before Baptism. In the Gospel, Jesus retreats into the desert to pray. A principal symbol of Baptism is water; the desert causes us to yearn for water. In all four Gospels the temptation stories follow immediately upon the account of Jesus’ baptism.
God’s Plan Revealed: Advent/Christmas

“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son...” (Hebrews 1:1-2, NRSV). God’s wonderful plan for creation is revealed in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Christmas, then, is both the beginning and the end of the Church year. We recall Christ’s birth in human form at Bethlehem and we turn our attention to the coming of Christ in glory as the fulfillment of the Divine Plan. During Advent, the four weeks of joyful and spiritual expectation preceding Christmas, the readings from the Bible are selected in the light of this two-
fold theme.

But the season of Advent/Christmas is not simply the birthday celebration of baby Jesus. We celebrate Christ’s birth in us. We celebrate our Baptism. We celebrate our discipleship and the reality of our vocation to bring Christ to birth in our time, place and culture. This is the “deep meaning” of the season.

Mary and the Saints: Our Mystery

“In celebrating this annual cycle of Christ’s mysteries, the Church honors with special love Mary, the Mother of God....In her the Church holds up and admires the most excellent effect of the redemption and joyfully contemplates, as in a flawless image, that which the Church itself desires and hopes wholly to be” (Constitution on the Liturgy, 103). When we celebrate the feasts of the Blessed Virgin in the current Roman Calendar, we are not only celebrating her life, we are celebrating “that which the Church hopes to be.”

Mary bore Jesus in her womb and gave him birth. Today, we, the Church, bear Christ in our bodies by Baptism and Eucharist and we bring forth Christ in our world by word and example. Mary’s virginity is the type of our single-minded devotion to Christ. Mary’s sinlessness is a model for the Church, the spotless bride of Christ. Mary’s Assumption is our destiny as disciples.

In addition to the life of Mary, the liturgical year celebrates the lives of the holy men and women from every continent and every century. “For the feasts of the saints proclaim the wonderful works of Christ in His servants, and display to the faithful fitting examples for their imitation” (Constitution on
the Liturgy
, 111).

When we recall the memory of the saints, the focus is on what God has accomplished in them, and we are led to contemplate what God wants to accomplish in us. The day on which we celebrate their memorial is not their (earthly) birthday, but the day of their birth into eternal communion with God—the fulfillment of their Baptism—the day of their (earthly) death. They offer us encouragement; their victory is our victory.
Our Life Project

A more complete description of the liturgical year can be found in the Introduction printed at the beginning of the Roman Calendar and the Roman Lectionary. Both of these documents can be found on multiple websites or purchased at In a few hours you can learn all the facts you would ever need or want to know about the liturgical year.

But to answer the “deep questions” posed by the liturgical year! What does it mean to believe in the Resurrection? What are the implications of Baptism? How does one live so as to be absorbed into Eternal Love? To answer these questions is the Christian’s life project.

Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M., has a doctorate in sacramental theology from Institut Catholique of Paris and serves on the faculty of St. Meinrad School of Theology. He is a popular writer and lecturer whose latest book is The Mass: A Guided Tour (St. Anthony Messenger Press).

NEXT: Matthew’s Gospel and the Christian Community (by John R. Barker, O.F.M.)

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Ignatius of Loyola: The founder of the Jesuits was on his way to military fame and fortune when a cannon ball shattered his leg. Because there were no books of romance on hand during his convalescence, Ignatius whiled away the time reading a life of Christ and lives of the saints. His conscience was deeply touched, and a long, painful turning to Christ began. Having seen the Mother of God in a vision, he made a pilgrimage to her shrine at Montserrat (near Barcelona). He remained for almost a year at nearby Manresa, sometimes with the Dominicans, sometimes in a pauper’s hospice, often in a cave in the hills praying. After a period of great peace of mind, he went through a harrowing trial of scruples. There was no comfort in anything—prayer, fasting, sacraments, penance. At length, his peace of mind returned. 
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