The Liturgical Year Explained
by Virginia G. Manzo, MD
Liturgy is defined as a rite or set of rites used for public worship. The Catholic liturgy consists of prayer texts and scriptural readings (Old and New Testaments) accompanied by tangible signs prescribed for the different church rites. Examples of these rites are the Holy Mass, the Sacraments and Liturgy of the Hours. It is the Holy Mass, however, that avails of different prayer texts and scriptural readings depending on what cycle a particular liturgical year falls.
Before we go into detail regarding the liturgical year, it would be helpful and informative to know more about church liturgy. Liturgy comes from the Greek word which means “work”. Church liturgy is indeed concerted “work” performed in unison by the church and the faithful. Liturgy is not only the laws governing valid and lawful celebration that are observed but also the fruitful participation of the faithful in full and active awareness. When the people cease to have an understanding part of the liturgy, their spiritual life becomes less Christ-centered and more self-centered.
The Church makes extensive use of the Bible in liturgy. Many parts of the Mass, much of the Liturgy of the Hours and a good part of other official rites are drawn from the Bible. Liturgical prayer is always a group prayer, even when only one person seems to be involved (e.g. the priest reciting the Liturgy of the Hours), because in liturgical prayer, it is the whole Church which prays. It is Christ in his Mystical Body who prays, even though he may be praying through a single designated individual.
While we spend our lives in the midst of the world, our participation in the mission of Christ would quickly run dry if we do not return again and again to sacred liturgy, the fount and summit of Christian life. For here we bring the labor and love, sacrifice and suffering of daily life so that we can be transformed by the mystery of Christ. We come to be fed at the table of God’s Word and the table of the Eucharist (Daily Roman Missal).
The Scriptures and prayers of the liturgy give shape to our spiritual lives. It is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #14).
Since the performance of the liturgical Church rites proceeds by means of tangible signs that foster, strengthen and give expression to the faith, the utmost care must be taken to choose and to arrange those forms and elements provided by the Church which in the given circumstances of the persons and places will best foster active and full participation and best meet the spiritual needs of the faithful.
Under the Ministry of Liturgical Affairs, the Church, following certain formularies, takes care of arranging the proper Mass liturgy for each day of every year. One liturgical year is divided into the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent and Holy Week, and Easter. Outside these seasons are the Ordinary Times.
Sundays and Solemnities have three readings: the First Reading is from the Old Testament, the Second is from the New Testament (Epistles, Acts of the Apostles and Book of Apocalypse or Revelation); the third is from the Gospels. These readings are arranged in a three-year cycle, A, B, and C. Cycle A is called the Year of Matthew because it makes use of his gospels. Cycle B is the Year of Mark and Cycle C the Year of Luke. Therefore the same texts are read only every fourth year. John’s gospels are used for readings during the Lenten and Easter seasons and his letters on Revelation (Apocalypse) in those concerning the eschatological mystery.
For weekdays, each Mass has two readings; the first is from the Old Testament or from an apostle, and during the Easter season, from Acts; the second from the Gospels. The yearly cycle for Lent has its own arrangement with baptismal and penitential themes. The cycle for weekdays of Advent, Christmas and Easter seasons follows an annual cycle and thus the readings remain the same every year.
For weekdays during the 34 weeks of Ordinary Time, the First Reading follows a biannual cycle called Year I and Year II, for the odd and even years respectively. For example, this year 2008, the cycle of Sundays and Solemnities is Cycle A and the weekday prayer texts and readings is Year II. For example, for the liturgical year 2008, we follow Cycle A Year II. Next year will be B I, after that C II, then A I and so forth.
Every liturgical year, the Seasons of Advent, Lent and Easter are movable while the Christmas season starts permanently at the evening prayer I of Christmas. Each liturgical year starts with Advent which begins on the Sunday closest to November 30 and ends before the evening prayer I of Christmas. The liturgical calendar, therefore, does not coincide with the civil calendar.
It is interesting to note the different colors used in Church liturgy. The color of the vestments may vary from one day to the other. White is the symbol of purity and holiness and expressive of joy. White is used on feasts of our Lord, of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of saints who were not martyrs, and during the Easter Season. Red is symbolic of fire and blood and expressive of the burning fire of love. Red is used on the feast of the Holy Spirit who descended upon the apostles on Pentecost in the form of tongues of fire. Red is also assigned to the feast of martyrs whose love for Christ was proven in the shedding of their blood. Green is the color of the season of spring which clothes the earth as it arises from the death of winter and so it is the color of hope. Green is expressive of the hope of eternal life and used on the Sundays and weekdays of Ordinary Time when the Mass is not that of a saint or another feast. The somber shade of violet has become associated with penance and is used during the season of Advent and Lent. Violet is also used in the Masses for the dead. Black, of course, is the symbol of mourning and may also be used during masses for the departed.
We are grateful to Popes Pius XI and Pius XII who labored so devoutly to restore the liturgy to its rightful place as the center of Christian life and worship. The 20th century will probably be known as the age of liturgical revival. Pope Pius XII laid the groundwork for those encyclical letters on the Mystical Body and the liturgy. Popes John XXIII and Paul VI carried forward much farther the work of liturgical reform.
Vatican II reshaped the liturgy so that the Mass once again exerts the fullness of its focal point of Christian piety and Christian order. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy states that “both texts and rites should be drawn up so that they express more clearly the holy things they signify… and devout, active participation by the faithful more easily achieved.”
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