Ever Ancient, Ever New: The Gift of the Liturgical Year

Ever Ancient, Ever New: The Gift of the Liturgical Year

On a plane ride a few weeks ago, I found myself seated next to the founder of a Protestant church. He laughed because he was sandwiched between two Catholics, a married man who had been in Catholic seminary for a little while on his right and me, a Catholic high school Theology teacher, on his left. The conversation was pleasant, but the pastor shared one thing that seemed rather significant to me. Although he founded and now pastors an extremely contemporary church, he said his personal prayer is quite liturgical. This point fascinated me because it spoke of the true desire for liturgy is woven into the fabric of our beings.

As humans, we are bound to worship, whether our focal point is God or something else varies for the individual.  Perhaps overly simplified, the liturgy is our communal worship, the traditional rites we follow to offer praise, thanksgiving, and supplication to God.  Of the various liturgies in the Catholic Church, the highest is the Eucharist, the Sacrament of sacraments.  Beyond the structure of this liturgy is the structure of the year.  Too often I take for granted the beautiful gift that is found in the yearly passing through the major points of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Several years ago, I heard it said that in the Church’s wisdom she developed the liturgical year to satisfy mankind’s love of change and stability.  Having never before thought of it like that, I experienced a new perspective of something that had always been present in my life.  In delving into the rich rhythm of the liturgical year, I have discovered that the feasting and fasting, as well as the ordinary and extraordinary times, provide a healthy balance in life.  Since humanity often tires of the same thing, the Church moves us through different seasons to celebrate and recall the different parts of the mystery of Christ.  Yet constant change is difficult and so the seasons are cyclical, each new year of grace seeking to lead us deeper into these same mysteries of Christ but in a fresh way.

While the Gregorian calendar tells us a month is left of this year, the liturgical calendar is reminding us that a new year is close at hand.  Personally, I like that the two calendars that govern my life are slightly off-center.  It reminds me that I am in the world but not of it.  As a follower of Christ, it calls me to acknowledge that His grace should cause me to see the year in a different way since my sight is imbued with an otherworldly perspective.

With the Church in the first days of a new year, let us consider the gift of the changing liturgical seasons.

Advent: Waiting for Christ’s Coming

The year starts off in joyful anticipation. Joining our hearts and minds with the Israelites, we wait for the coming of the Messiah. Yet knowing that Jesus has already come and ascended, we wait for His Second Coming at the end of time. This pregnant season of waiting calls to mind St. Paul’s words in Romans 8:22-25.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning with labor pains together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

We do not wait without a purpose. As parents of a newborn prepare for the child’s birth, so we make our hearts ready for Christ’s new birth into our hearts and our birth into eternal life. While Advent is culturally forgotten or seen merely as a time of wrapping presents and sending Christmas cards, it should cause us to remember that we need to make Him room, in our hearts and in our lives.

The best Advent I have ever had was the semester I took an Old Testament Scripture class in college. For months we made our way through salvation history, learning about the covenants that God repeatedly offered man and the ways humanity broke those covenants. We ended the semester with a unit on the prophets and, for the very first time, I encountered a taste of the longing that the Israelites must have experienced. Scripture passages that I had heard before were filled with a new life, a new pleading that God would send a Redeemer. While I knew the Savior had already come, I experienced the “wait” in a new way and thus experienced the joy of Christmas in a new way. Continue reading “Ever Ancient, Ever New: The Gift of the Liturgical Year”

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The Triduum

The Triduum is an experience for all of the senses.  While I’ve never been anything but Catholic, I cannot imagine another church matching the beauty of the Triduum and the way the liturgies invite us into the Pascal Mystery.

Holy Thursday begins with joy and beckoning us to the table of Our Lord’s Last Supper.  I can imagine Christ bending low to wash my feet as the priest in persona Christi stoops to wash the feet of the young men called forward.  After the Eucharistic prayer, I approach the priest to receive from him my Lord, the Word made flesh and remaining in the appearance of bread and wine.  Tonight, I am an apostle from another century, experiencing the Last Supper and encountering Christ in a tangible way.  My senses are alive as the Eucharistic procession weaves its way around the church.  An incense thurible fills my nose with the sweet, rich odor I link only to the Eucharist.  The priest is embracing Jesus as we sing Pange Lingua Gloriosi.  Our Lord is carried to an altar and the faithful are invited to come and wait with Him.

I fulfill my role of a disciple well.  In the intimately dim chapel, I wait with Jesus and I drift off to sleep at times.  Can I not wait one hour?  Apparently not.  It is beautiful to see the others in adoration, praying with Jesus before He is hidden from us, when the stark reality of the Pascal Mystery will become more obvious.  Then the time of waiting in the Garden is over and we depart in silence.  Talking seems inappropriate.  Nearly anything seems inappropriate on such an evening.

Good Friday is spent anticipating and remembering the Passion of Jesus.  The simplicity of the Good Friday service is unnerving and striking.  I can always feel an ache in my heart.  The tabernacle is left open and I am continually reminded that He is gone.  Approaching the cross so as to venerate it, I am questioning where to kiss Jesus.  My stomach feels the hunger of fasting and I kiss the crucifix with the kiss of Judas, with the kiss of John the beloved.  Good Friday fills me with a longing and with a sorrow.  The rest of the world seems to be continuing at its typical pace but I cannot carry on as normal.

The waiting of Holy Saturday is difficult.  Christ has been crucified and laid in the tomb.  He has yet to rise, though.  Fasting is not obligatory yet the feasting of Easter is still premature.  We wait.  Waiting is perhaps the focal point of Holy Saturday and it makes it all the more difficult.

Yet the Easter Vigil will arrive with its dark and quiet entrance.  A fire lit and from it, a flame passed to light all the candles in the darkened church.  There is a stillness of expectation.  We know the story, we know Christ will rise, and yet we are waiting for it to be lived out, to be fulfilled in this sacrifice.  Darkness turns into light.  As a church we are led through salvation history, to hear how God remains ever-faithful and is responding to the longings and yearnings of His people in an unforeseen way.  We are reminded that we are a part of something far larger than ourselves or our parish.  We are united to a Church that is truly universal and timeless.  Joy mounts in my soul as we continue through the Mass. As the beautiful music announces a living reality in my life: Christ has risen.  He rose 2,000 years ago and He rises today in my heart.  The highest feast of the Church is celebrated with all the pomp owed to a King who mounts a cross as a throne and gives Himself as the food for the wedding banquet.

Easter Sunday is bright and joyful, a renewal of the joy felt the night before.  While Easter Vigil tends to hold a heavy joy for me, Easter Sunday is a light, uplifting joy.  The sun must shine on such a day and if it does not, the joy of the feast becomes a light of its own right.  The lilies decorate the Church and we sing words that we have refrained from saying for weeks.  It adds a depth to the joy that would not be found if one simply arrived at Easter without the Lent.  The Easter Sunday celebration continues for the Easter Octave, each day the Church repeating the joy of the resurrection.  Liturgically, we celebrate the Easter Mass repeatedly.  We cannot move on, we must make it known that this is the highest of all celebrations.

The Triduum and Easter season are for all of the senses.  Breathing in the incense from the Eucharistic procession, waiting with Jesus in the Garden, saying the words of the angry crowd as Jesus is condemned to death, kissing the cross of Our Lord, waiting as Jesus is held in the tomb, lighting our candle from the Easter candle representing the light of Christ Himself, and singing with exultation the joy central to the Catholic faith: we worship a God made man who rose from the dead.  The Triduum calls us to live out the final days of Christ and to enter into the mystery by which we are saved.  In a beautiful combination of music, art, sights, and sounds, the Church transports us to the time of Jesus Christ.  Or, perhaps, she causes us to acknowledge that the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus are truly timeless events that we experience now through the beauty of the Body of Christ, the Church in her tri-fold magnificence.