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”

Advent: What Lies Ahead

Advent: What Lies Ahead

In our culture’s mad rush to start the Christmas season, I am left feeling a bit Scrooge-like.  I like Advent.  The anticipation that gradually builds as candle after candle are lit on the Advent wreath adds to the beauty of Christmas when it finally arrives.  If we jump headlong into Christmas right after Thanksgiving, I believe we miss part of the joy of the season.  Waiting has a sweet longing to it and I want that sweetness for as long as I can have it.

As a child, I remember the eagerness as I would watch the presents beneath the tree grow as time passed.  My younger sister and I would check to find the ones with our names and then try to analyze what was inside.  It was tempting to tear the wrapping off, but we didn’t.  The soft, foldable presents were obviously clothes.  Yet the ones in boxes?  Those were unidentifiable.  We would give them a light shake and then simply wonder about what lay nestled inside for us to discover.  The waiting was half the fun.  Even if I wanted to figure out what the present was before Christmas (my competitive nature desired to win), I also wanted to be surprised.

I won’t argue that I’m extremely patient, however I appreciate waiting for something good.  When I get my mail, I am excited if I find a letter from a friend or a package that I ordered.  Yet I generally open the less fun things first, allowing the excitement and longing for the most desired thing to build.  After trick-or-treating at Halloween when I was a kid, I tried to eat my least favorite candies first, saving the best for last.  Even now, I often find myself saving a bite of the best part of the meal for the end, as if to end the meal on a good note.  Waiting doesn’t change the contents of the letter or the taste of the food, but it seems to add a bit of sweetness as I anticipate what is to come. Continue reading “Advent: What Lies Ahead”

Maranatha!

Maranatha!

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  (The Summer Day, Mary Oliver)

We are on the brink of something new and something old.  Hundreds of years have passed since the birth of Christ and yet we have never before been in this place, at this time, with these graces being offered.  What will we do with it all?

Never again will I be right where I am right now.  And part of me rejoices that this will not always be my lot because I eagerly look forward to the future.  I want my life to change and be different than it is now.  Yet in some future day, I may look back at right now and realize only then all that was good about this time.  I do not want it be that way–I want to, right now, recognize the blessings of this moment, subtle though they may seem to my slow heart.

How is Christ being born into my life this day?  How is He striving to shake up the world I’ve known for twenty-six years and say, “Behold, I am doing something new”?  The graces He offers me today are not the same graces offered yesterday or the day before.  They are always new.  Jesus doesn’t offer left-overs, but rather He offers what is most fitting for the moment.  He only ever offers the best to us.

In a special way, Christ is offering the gift of His birth this weekend.  I cannot go to Bethlehem and see Him be born, but I can experience His birth in my life.  Scripture is living and effective.  It is not a nice story from hundreds of years ago, but rather it is a living reality now.  How am I the innkeeper, refusing room to Jesus?  How am I a shepherd, kneeling before a king yet uncertain of what He is asking of me?  How am I St. Joseph, following the promptings of the Lord when He speaks to me?  How am I the wise man, leaving home in search of a king for my life?   Continue reading “Maranatha!”

Waiting: For Christmas and the End

Waiting: For Christmas and the End

“There is nothing restful about Advent yearning.”
(Come, Lord Jesus: Meditations on the Art of Waiting, Mother Mary Francis, P.C.C.)

Waiting.

I find myself waiting for a lot of things.  Waiting for packages to arrive in the mail, waiting for conversations to occur, waiting for the end of the semester, or just waiting for something new to happen.  Advent is filled to the brim with waiting.

We can often paint Advent as this oh-so-pleasant and peaceful time of waiting for Christmas.  And, in a way, it is.  It should be a time of peace and eager preparations.  However, ask any pregnant woman, engaged couple, or person awaiting medical tests and they will tell you that waiting can be a time of difficult longing.  There is a tension found in the waiting and, while not necessarily a bad thing, it isn’t always pleasant.   Continue reading “Waiting: For Christmas and the End”

Longing for Greatness

Longing for Greatness

I’ve always longed for greatness.  Not in the sense that everyone knows me or that I’m famous.  Rather, I have always desired a great mission or task in life.  I want to contribute something to the world and I want it to impact people.  This weekend I watched The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler and I was re-filled with the desire to pursue greatness.

Irena Sendler was a young Polish woman who lived during the time of World War II.  She was a social worker, but her work went far beyond her simple job title.  During the time that the Jewish people were being relocated to the ghettos and then to “work camps,” Irena worked tirelessly to smuggle children to safety.  Risking her life, she worked with a courageous group to secretly save children by tucking them into tool boxes, packing them into boxes, or hiding them in vehicles.  Later caught, she endured torture and was nearly killed, all the while never giving up any secrets.

In total, it is said that Irena Sendler and companions helped to save 2,500 Jewish children in Poland.  The children were placed with convents or families throughout Poland.  She kept meticulous records of who their parents were and where they were placed in the hopes that families would be reunited after the war.  This young woman quietly changed the world and, initially, received little recognition for it.  She was awarded Righteous Among the Nations in 1965 and later named an honorary citizen of Israel in 1991.  In 2007, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.  However, for most of her life she lived with little acclaim or notoriety for her heroic actions and sacrifices.

While I do not hope for concentration camps or totalitarian regimes, this is the greatness for which I long.  I look at her life and I see a greatness that goes beyond one person.  Yet the greatness that I see and anyone can see who looks at her life was not recognized by Irena herself.  She did not see herself as a hero or seem pleased with her accomplishments.  Instead, she said that she could have done more to save more children. Continue reading “Longing for Greatness”

The Wal-Mart Heart Change

I could feel it increasing in my heart.  My fingers tapped on the shopping cart as the impatience within escalated.

Standing in the speedy checkout line at Wal-Mart, I was feeling pressed for time.  I hadn’t wanted to stop at Wal-Mart, but I needed glitter.  Never in my life have I purchased glitter, so it took a bit of meandering before I found what I needed.  A few other items found their way into my hands and then I was at the checkout.  Waiting.

The sense of urgency was palpable in Wal-Mart.  I could feel it because I had places to be, things to do, and the rush of shoppers waiting at the checkout lines declared that they had similar situations.  The clerk tending the cash register was taking care of one customer and it seemed to take a while.  His credit card wasn’t accepted and he was on the phone.

Minutes passed.  I kept eyeing other lines, watching them line up and pass through while I waited.  Finally, the woman ahead of me moved forward in line.  Change needed to be dispensed into the tray and we watched her unroll two packs of quarters.  Then the cashier counted the gifts bags.

1…2…3…4…5…6…7…8…9…10

10 gifts bags.  Then she swiped one.  And repeated the act seven more times.  She stopped and began to count the number of bags on the screen.  But she must have lost track of which line she was on so she took a piece of paper, holding it up to guide herself line by line.  The customer told her that she had only scanned eight but there were ten.  The cashier finished counting, swiped another, and then keyed in another.

I’m feeling impatient, inwardly reminding myself that it is Advent, the season of waiting.  But for some reason, my time feels more important.  Perhaps it is part of the human condition.  We are quick to hurry others, almost insulted that they should waste our precious time.

I will my heart to stop pounding with impatience.  Almost like hushing a baby, I remind my heart that there is enough time for what is necessary.  Slow down, slow down.  Do what you tell your students to do: practice patience, seek holiness in the simple, ordinary things in life.  Be faithful in small matters.

And my heart slows.  When I approach the cashier, I am greeting her as though I never waited.  I am striving to not make myself the most important person in the situation.  The anxious tapping of impatience is brushed away for a moment, and I try to hang onto this as I navigate the parking lot and the line of cars waiting to exit.

Later, I will lose this patience and peace.  I will rush about, attempting to do in a couple hours what should have been done in days.  And I will miss the joy of the present moment and seek to tend to things rather than to people.  But for all the missteps that will later follow, I am reminded of that moment in the checkout line.  That moment when my agitated heart encountered the peace that it was always meant to have.

Say to the fainthearted, “Take courage and fear not. Behold, our God will come and will save us.” -Isaiah 35:4

There He is: saving me from myself in the Wal-Mart checkout line.