By Ed de Vera
Church calendar is liturgically structured on a thematic arrangement of the life of Christ commemorated in Eucharistic celebration in an order of liturgical seasons: Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, and Ordinary Time. Three rotating sequential annual cycles known as Years A, B, and C distinguished by Sunday Gospel for Ordinary Time follow one another: Matthew for A; Mark and a little of John, B; and Luke C, each with alternating Years I and II for weekday readings.
During the time of Jesus and the Apostles, the Jews had a three year cycle for Sabbath readings in the synagogues. In the infancy years of the Church the first Christians being Jews, faithfully attended Sabbath service where they sang the Psalms, listened to two readings—from the Torah and the Prophets—and heard a rabbi’s homily. Then they met at a designated meeting place for breaking of bread, the Eucharistic fellowship where an Apostle or bishop successor proclaimed the Good News before consecrating the offerings of bread and wine.
After the early Christians were banned from synagogues, they incorporated the pattern in the Eucharistic fellowship. This prelude eventually came to be known as Liturgy of the Word. Over the years as the liturgy developed however, the three-year cycle gradually disappeared.
Prior to the liturgical reforms the Tridentine Liturgy of the Roman Church had one set of fixed readings, year in and year out from select Gospel passages and Epistles with hardly any at all from the Old Testament: there comprised 130 readings from the New Testament and merely three from the Old. Vatican II restored the pattern of the Early Church practice of three year cycles. Today’s liturgical readings in sum cover practically the entire Sacred Scriptures, focused mostly on all key events of Salvation History. All four Gospels are comprehensively read; the New Testament readings have been trebled and 129 Old Testament readings included.
Advent starts the Liturgical Year. Within the four-week season are: Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and “Aguinaldo Masses”—predawn Misas de Aguinaldo or anticipated Simbang Gabi. It is a period of penitential expectation directed to the mystery of Christ becoming man and watchfulness for His unexpected sudden return. Violet-coloured liturgical garb connote penance, save for pink of Gaudete Sunday that signifies joy over the nearness of Redemption.
Christmas Season begins at sunset of December 24, with Vigil Mass: the Gospel read is from Matthew; at Midnight Mass (Misa de Gallo) that follows the birth narrative is from Luke. The proclamation for early morning Mass of Christmas Day continues Luke’s Gospel narrative, and all Masses of the day from the Prologue of John.
Important liturgical dates of the season are Martyrdom of St. Stephen, Feast of the Holy Innocents (Niños Inocentes), Solemnities of the Holy Family, Mother of God (January 1) and Epiphany. Christmas ends, Sunday after Epiphany, with the Solemnity of the Baptism of our Lord and Ordinary Time commences and runs for 5 to 9 weeks until interrupted by Lent.
In the old Philippine Church calendar, Epiphany was observed on January 6—the twelfth day of Christmas ended the season. Once the Second Christmas popularly called “Three Kings” when children received treats symbolising the Magi’s gifts, the local Church moved Epiphany to Sunday after January 1 whereas other countries retained the traditional date; Eastern Churches observe Christmas, Epiphany, and Baptism of the Lord, concurrently on January 6th.
Ash Wednesday ushers in Quadragesima (Cuaresma)—the Lenten penitential forty-day period marked by fasting, abstinence and intensive prayers. In its early observance Lent was from Maundy Thursday to Easter Vigil. The Church extended this from three days to six weeks (plus four days from Wednesday to make forty) with Sundays excluded in the count since it celebrates the Resurrection. Thus, it is liturgically more apt to say “Sundays in Lent” rather than “Sundays of Lent.”
This duration of mortification relates to biblical periods of forty in redemptive situations of Salvation History with Noah, Moses, Elijah, Jonah, Christ’s seclusion of days in prayer and fasting. Fasting for days intensified the mortification. Christians were encouraged to give food they deprived themselves of in penitential observance to feeding the poor. The ritual of tracing a Cross with ashes is Biblically rooted. Use of ashes for penitence was an ancient Hebraic custom: ashes were sprinkled on penitents’ heads. The itchy discomfort reminded of the uneasiness of living in sin.
Vatican II made fasting and abstinence compulsory for Ash Wednesday and Good Friday only; optional for other Fridays though other forms of sacrifice are advocated. Almsgiving, corporal works of charity, self-denial, abstinences other than food or drink are encouraged for Lent and all Fridays throughout the year.
Palm Sunday introduces Holy Week, which highlights religious observances from festive blessing of palms and hallelujahs to being progressively penitential in liturgy and processions. Come Maundy Thursday the bishop officiates Chrism Mass at his cathedral and leads his priests in a renewal of commitment to priestly service. He blesses anointing and chrism oils in this sole daytime liturgy.
The evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper starts the Paschal Triduum. Here the presider re-enacts Christ’s washing of the Apostles’ feet to signify that priesthood means servanthood. There is no final blessing, the liturgy is left open-ended (till Easter Vigil Mass) and concludes with the Blessed Sacrament being transferred to the Monumento (Altar of Reposition).
About this time people come for Visitas Iglesias originally a Good Friday prelude to Santo Entierro procession but observed nowadays on Holy Thursday. Present-day significance is more in connection with Eucharistic adoration to meaningfully represent being with Christ at Gethsemane. In lieu of Visitas some parishioners opt for a Holy Hour in their church.
Good Friday Liturgy has three parts: Siete Palabras, Veneration of the Cross and Communion service, followed by the devotional Via Crucis and Santo Entierro procession—a dramatisation of the interment of Christ in a penitential barefoot procession with participants accompanying the Mater Dolorosa. Later in the night is the Soledad where a diva or cantor serenades the Sorrowing Mother to comfort her grief.
Salvation History dramatised in the Triduum is the high point of the Liturgical Calendar. After Holy Thursday and Good Friday liturgies is the quiet interregnum of Black Saturday, a day for meditating on Christ’s descent into the netherworld to release suffering souls and reflecting on the Sorrowful Mother keeping the demoralised disciples together; a theme to ponder for Catechumens scheduled for Baptism in the Vigil Mass.
Easter Vigil Mass begins at the churchyard with blessing of the fire followed by a solemn processional with the Paschal Candle into a hushed darkened church. Altar candles and the congregation’s are lit at the Gloria from the Paschal Candle symbolising Christ lighting up the world. Readings from Genesis, Exodus, Prophets and Romans 6:3-11 precede proclamation of the Resurrection from the synoptic Gospel of the cycle; John’s is read in the Mass for the day.
There are fifty days of Easter Season. Within the period is Solemnity of the Ascension observed in the Philippine Church Sunday after the fortieth day—Ascension Thursday in the old liturgical calendar. The Sunday following marks the birthday of the Church: Pentecost. The Jewish Pentecost—the Shavuot observed seven weeks after Passover, commemorated the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai. Jews had converged in Jerusalem for this feast when God’s Love, His Spirit was given to the Church (Acts 2:5-13).
Ordinary Time resumes where it paused at interlude of Lent and advances to concluding the Liturgical Year on the 34th with Solemnity of Christ the King that celebrates His dominion over creation. Advent comes and the next Cycle reels off. “In the course of the year, holy mother Church unfolds the mystery of Christ from the Incarnation and Nativity to the Ascension, to Pentecost and the expectation of the blessed hope of the coming of the Lord”— Sacrosanctum Concilium.
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