The church year has as its base five liturgical seasons that recall the great events of Christ's life. Proceeding in historical order, Advent, the first liturgical season, prepares Roman Catholics for the celebration of the Incarnation, God becoming human, celebrated on Christmas Day. The Christmas season recalls Jesus' birth and the significant events of his early life, culminating in his baptism. After a brief period of Ordinary (ordinal) Time, a second great period of preparation, Lent, grooms the faithful for the celebration of the paschal mystery, the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. The Easter season that follows recalls the resurrection of Jesus and his post-resurrection appearances leading eventually to his ascension to heaven and the celebration of Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit. Lastly, Ordinary (ordinal) Time rounds out the liturgical year concluding with the celebration of the Feast of Christ the King.
Advent, a four-week season of preparation, actually challenges Catholics to prepare for two great events. During the first week of Advent, Scripture readings used in the celebration of Mass concentrate on the coming of Christ at the end of time, that is, the parousia or Second Coming. Christians in general spend little time thinking about the return of Christ, but the New Testament presents many stories, some told by Jesus himself, that tell us of this great event. Thus, the church in its wisdom prompts its members to consider their readiness for this great event. Jesus puts it this way: “You must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (Luke 12:40)
The central and most popular theme of Advent is preparation for the Incarnation. Scripture readings recall the prophecy from Isaiah that speaks of a Messiah who will come to the people of Israel. We are also told the important story of John the Baptist and his ministry as the one sent by God to prepare the people for Christ. On the fourth Sunday of Advent the story of the Annunciation is read, when Mary was invited to be the mother of God and the Lord came to Joseph, informing him to receive his betrothed into his home.
Beginning with Christmas Day and concluding with the baptism of the Lord, the Christmas season recalls all of the great events of Jesus' birth and childhood until the onset of his public ministry. This liturgical season celebrates and commemorates several important events. The Sunday after Christmas is celebrated as the Feast of the Holy Family, recalling the joys and at times sorrows that were the life of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. On December 28, the church recalls the sacrifice of those children, called the “Holy Innocents,” who died at the order of King Herod, who sought to destroy Jesus (Matthew 2:16–18). On January 1, the Feast of Mary, the Mother of God, one of the four Marian dogmas, is celebrated. The great feasts of the Epiphany (Matthew 2:1–12), when the three Magi from the East arrived in Bethlehem to worship Jesus, and the baptism of the Lord (Matthew 3:13–17; Mark 1:9–11; Luke 3:21–22) at the hand of John the Baptist, conclude the Christmas season.
The gifts presented by the Magi recognize three important aspects of his life. Gold represents recognition that Jesus is a king. Frankincense symbolizes that Jesus is God as well. Myrrh, an ointment used in burials, says that Jesus, Lord and King, will one day die for his people. Thus, Matthew's story demonstrates that Jesus, from the outset, was recognized for who he was and what he would accomplish.
Like Advent, Lent is a season of preparation that recalls Jesus' forty days and nights of fasting in the desert where he readied himself for his public ministry. All three Synoptic evangelists (Matthew 4:1–11, Mark 1:12–13, Luke 4:1–13) report that after Jesus' baptism in the Jordan River, he was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. Matthew and Luke, using the “Q source,”(Matthew and Luke have several common parts; Biblical scholars conclude this common ground can be explained by one common source, referred to as the “Q,” from the German word quelle, meaning source) report that after Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights, he was tempted by Satan. Repudiating Satan's entreaties to turn stones into bread (power), to possess the kingdoms of the world (wealth), and to be saved from harm by his angels (prestige), Jesus was ready to begin his public ministry.
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and continues for six weeks until the beginning of the Easter Triduum on Holy Thursday evening with the celebration of the Mass of the Last Supper. As proclaimed strongly in the Scripture readings used on Ash Wednesday, the three traditional disciplines upon which the church asks the faithful to focus during Lent are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Catholics traditionally make an extra effort to pray more; some attend daily Mass as a form of Lenten discipline. Fasting is sought in canonical and voluntary ways. For Catholics between the ages of eighteen and fifty-nine (save those with medical or special needs), Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of fast and abstinence; all Fridays during Lent the faithful are asked to abstain from meat.
Modern rules for fasting and abstinence, promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1966, have been adopted by the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops. Fasting requires that Catholics eat only one full meal a day; the other two meals should not equal one full meal. Abstinence is the discipline of refraining from consuming meat.
Holy Week and the Easter Triduum
Holy Week recalls the climax of Jesus' salvific life and death as reported by the Gospel evangelists. They narrate the events of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his eventual crucifixion five days later. On Palm Sunday, the church recalls when Jesus was welcomed into Jerusalem and hailed as a hero and champion. The apex of the Roman Catholic liturgical year is the celebration of the Easter Triduum, which commemorates the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
The triduum begins with the celebration of the Mass of the Last Supper on Holy Thursday evening. Commemorating two important events, the institution of the Eucharist and the priesthood, the Mass recalls Jesus' final meal with his apostles, commonly called the Last Supper. Again, the Synoptic evangelists all report that after the Passover meal was completed, Jesus offered bread and wine to his apostles. Roman Catholics believe that Jesus' words, called the institution narrative, transformed these simple elements into the real presence of Christ. The Mass of the Last Supper also recalls Jesus' humble act of service when he washed his disciples' feet (John 13:1–20).
The Mass of the Last Supper concludes with a procession of the Eucharist to the altar of repose. This recalls that after the meal with his apostles, Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane, with Peter, John, and James, and prayed to his Father. He asked if possible that he be spared the cup of suffering he would soon endure, yet he was ready to embrace the will of the Father (Matthew 26:39). Those who attend the Mass are encouraged to pray at the altar of repose, being in solidarity with Jesus in his prayer.
In order to emphasize the virtue of service, St. John's version of the Last Supper is proclaimed as the Gospel for Holy Thursday. The institution of the Eucharist is recalled during this Mass through the proclamation of the first chronological account of the event, given by St. Paul in I Corinthians 11:23–26. This was written approximately fifteen years before the work of St. Mark, the first gospel evangelist.
Good Friday, the most solemn day of the liturgical year, commemorates the painful and ignominious death of Jesus Christ by crucifixion. Although this is the only day of the church year when the celebration of Mass is not allowed, the faithful, nevertheless, gather to celebrate the passion and death of Jesus through a service of Scripture readings, prayers, and reception of the Eucharist that has been kept on reserve from the previous night's celebration. It is also very traditional for Roman Catholics to celebrate the Stations of the Cross on this day.
The Easter Season
The Easter season, comprising fifty days until the celebration of Pentecost, the arrival of the promised Holy Spirit into the world, begins with the Easter vigil, marking the apex of the Roman Catholic liturgical year. The vigil, beginning with the service of light, representative of the return of Christ, the light of the world, recalls through its readings and celebration the story of salvation history. Readings from the Hebrew Bible include the story of creation, the call of the patriarch Abraham, the escape of the Israelites across the Red Sea, and God's message of care as proclaimed by the prophets. The story of the resurrection, as written in the Synoptic Gospels, is also proclaimed. Since Vatican II and the restoration of the catechumenate, the vigil is also the celebration at which true catechumens, those who have not been baptized, receive the sacraments of initiation — baptism, Eucharist, and confirmation; converts to Catholicism are received into the church. The latter group also receives the Eucharist and is confirmed. Additionally, Roman Catholics who have not completed their sacraments of initiation and have journeyed with the catechumens during their period of preparation receive those sacraments necessary to be considered adults in the church.
Why is the passion narrative of St. John always proclaimed on Good Friday?
On Palm Sunday the Synoptic passion narratives are read, one each year, in a sequential and repetitive pattern. St. John's narrative is always used on Good Friday because, from this evangelist's perspective, Jesus' greatest triumph comes at the time of his crucifixion. For John, the cross becomes Jesus' throne as king.
The Easter season continues for a period of seven weeks. The initial eight days, known as the octave of Easter, are celebrated liturgically as Easter day. During this week Gospel readings recall the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, culminating on the ensuing Sunday with the story of Jesus' encounter with the apostle Thomas (John 20:19–29). Forty days after Easter, the church celebrates Jesus' Ascension to heaven (Luke 24:50–53; Acts 1:6–11). Ten days later the Festival of Pentecost (Acts 2:1–13) closes the Easter season.
Ordinary (Ordinal) Time
The longest “season” of the liturgical year, which extends for a few weeks between the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of Lent, and for a much longer period from the celebration of Pentecost to the onset of Advent, is known as Ordinary Time. The name is a bit misleading as there is nothing ordinary about the church year. The name was derived originally from ordinal, as the Sundays during this season are numbered. Since this period of the church year is not one of any special preparation, the name “Ordinary” has become the standard nomenclature. The Sunday celebrations, comprising a total of thirty-four weeks, actually commences after Pentecost with two special feasts, Trinity Sunday and the Feast of the Body and Blood of Jesus, traditionally known as Corpus Christi. Ordinary Time ends with the thirty-fourth Sunday, known as the Feast of Christ the King.
Roman Catholicism accepts the baptism rite of other churches, so long as one is baptized in the name of the Trinity — the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Such converts must merely profess their faith in Roman Catholicism. For those who have never been baptized or for those not baptized in the name of the Trinity, baptism at the vigil is celebrated.