The Church's Year
The Seasons of the Church's Year
The Church’s liturgical year is divided up into times and seasons and each has a particular focus. These different times celebrate different aspects of the life of Christ and our salvation.
The Season of Advent
The Church’s year begins during the month of November with the Season of Advent. This is a time of preparation for the celebration of the Lord’s birth at Christmas. It covers the four Sundays before Christmas Day and all the weekdays between the first Sunday of Advent and Christmas Day, therefore it can vary in length from year to year. In the Church, the priest wears purple vestments which signify that we are preparing for a great event.
The Christmas Season
The First Mass of Christmas marks the end of Advent and beginning of the joyous Christmas Season when we celebrate the Mystery of the Incarnation, the moment when God took human flesh and was born of the Virgin Mary. The first Sunday after Christmas Day is set aside for the celebration of the Holy Family. January 6 is the Solemnity of the Epiphany when our Saviour was made known to the world at the visit of the three wise men. The Sunday after the Epiphany celebrates the Baptism of the Lord and also marks the close of the Christmas Season. This time of particular celebration, therefore, goes into the month of January and can, again, vary in length. In the Church, the priest wears white vestments which signify rejoicing and resurrection.
The Season of Lent
The Season of Lent is one of intense preparation for the death and Resurrection of our Lord. It is a time of conversion from sin to the values of the Gospel. The season a period of forty days (not including Sundays) which begins with Ash Wednesday, so called because on this day ashes are blessed and distributed to the faithful. This custom goes back to Old Testament times when the people would lay aside their expensive garments and instead put on sackcloth and ashes to symbolise their atonement for sin or in times of great intercession before God. From Ash Wednesday, the Season of Lent covers the next six Sundays - the last being Passion Sunday (Palm Sunday) which marks the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem - and the first three days of Holy Week. The season is forty days because Christ himself spent forty days in the wilderness fasting and praying, and the Jewish spent forty years wandering in the desert when the fled from Egypt. The theme of this season is one of reconciliation with God, of turning away from sin and being faithful to the Gospel. The faithful are asked to do something in particular during this season to help make them more aware of the great gift that Christ gave us by dying for our sins. They may decide to give up something for Lent - some luxury they enjoy such as sweets, etc. - or they may decide to take up something such as visiting the Church every day or donating time or money to a charity, etc. Ash Wednesday is also a day of fast (eating less than usual to remind us of the poor and those who go without food) and abstinence (meat is not consumed on this day). In the Church, the priest wears purple vestments to signify repentance.
The Easter Triduum
This very short time begins immediately after Lent ends on the Wednesday of Holy Week. The first day is Holy Thursday which commemorates the Last Supper. This commemoration takes place in the evening so as to coincide as closely as possible with the time when Christ celebrated the Passover Feast with his disciples in the upper room. This is also the night when the Eucharist was Instituted by our Lord - during this Passover Feast he took bread and wine and gave it to his disciples as his body and blood with the instruction that we should do this again in his memory. After the Passover Feast, Christ went to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray and it was here that he was arrested. This is symbolised in the Church by the emptying of the tabernacles and stripping the altars bare, and they shall remain in this way until the Resurrection on Holy Saturday night. On Holy Thursday night the priest wears white vestments.
The second day is Good Friday and is a particularly sombre day and one of great meditation and prayer because it is the day on which Christ was crucified for us. The priest wears red vestments symbolising the blood that was shed for us. During the afternoon there is a celebration of the Lord’s Passion which recounts his trial and death. During the service a cross is carried in procession and then venerated by the faithful as it symbolises our instrument of death and also the instrument of our salvation. The Eucharist is not celebrated today though Holy Communion is given to the faithful.
The third day is Holy Saturday during which there are no celebrations of the Eucharist and Holy Communion is not given in Church. It is as day of reflection and prayer. In the evening time and preferably closer to midnight, the Easter Vigil is celebrated. This triumphant ceremony celebrates the fact that Christ has risen from the death and has destroyed the power of sin and death. The priest wears white or gold vestments to signify this. The ceremony begins with the lighting of the Easter Fire and the procession with candles carried by the faithful. The readings trace the history of the people of Israel from creation, through Exodus, and up to the time of Christ. As the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt with the Passover lamb, so we are freed from slavery to sin with the Paschal Lamb – Jesus Christ. During the celebration, the baptised renew their baptismal promises.
The Easter Season
The Easter Season commences with the celebration of the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night and continues until the Solemnity of Pentecost which is fifty days later. It is a time of particular joy and celebration in the Church and throughout the season the priest wears white vestments. On the Solemnity of Pentecost however, he wears red vestments which also signify the Holy Spirit, which was given to the disciples on that day.
The remaining thirty-four weeks of the year are called “Ordinary Time” and throughout this time the Church celebrates the life of Christ and the salvation he won for us. The season is not celebrated in the same way as the other seasons though that does not mean it is any less important than the other seasons. Ordinary time begins the day after the Baptism of the Lord and continues until Ash Wednesday. It then resumes the day after Pentecost and continues until the day before the First Sunday of Advent. The final Sunday of Ordinary time is of particular solemnity because it celebrates Jesus Christ as universal King.
Throughout the year there are also other celebrations which take place. These celebrate the lives of the saints which are set before the faithful as examples of Christian living. Some of the saints, such as the apostles, are celebrated throughout the Church, while others are only celebrated locally. There are also other solemnities of our Lord and of the Blessed Virgin.