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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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”

When will I feel like I’ve arrived?

When will I feel like I’ve arrived?

The other day, I was filling my glass with water and perusing the pictures and cards decorating the refrigerator.  A picture of a young couple with a smiling baby captured my attention.  I found myself wanting to be them and thinking how lucky they were.  They were married, had a baby, and lived in a warm climate.

“When will I feel like I’ve arrived?”  I found myself wondering.  And that question struck me.  Most of us spend much of our lives waiting for the next phase, one that we idealize as better than our current state.  Perhaps this couple is hardly sleeping and they are looking forward to the days when they can.  Or maybe they are longing for another child.  So I asked myself, “At what point will I have all I want?”

Will it be when I am married?  Or when I have my first child?  Or when I have a big family?  Or when they start to grow up and we can go do things together?  Or when they are all moved out and have families of their own?  When will I be in the place that I want to be?  What do I consider the end goal? Continue reading “When will I feel like I’ve arrived?”

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”

I Know What Not To Pray For

I Know What Not To Pray For

“Alright, Lord, how do You want me to pray for this?”

Finally, finally, something was making its way through my dense head.  I had tried my own methods when I felt like the Lord was taking too long.  Yet each time I found that my ways didn’t work.

So You have a different plan, Lord?  Would you like to let me in on it?

Apparently, He does not.  In the midst of waiting, though, I would like to be praying for something.  I want to plead with the Lord to work in some way.  However, I do not know what He wants or how I should pray for it.

I simply know what I cannot pray for.  Many times I’ve prayed for the Lord to cut something out of my heart: a person, a habit, a feeling, an emotion, a thought, etc.  I want Him to take a Divine Scalpel and cut out the portion that doesn’t fit or that I don’t want.   Continue reading “I Know What Not To Pray For”

Paper Jams and Patience

Paper Jams and Patience

It was definitely a first world problem.  Still at school when I wanted to be at home, I was printing off tests for the following day.  The lovely printer (that a couple years ago I found incredible because it could print double-sided, staple, and three-hole punch documents) was now testing my patience.

The printer would spit out a few copies, stop, and then flash a message saying that it had a paper jam.  I opened the main compartment, pulled out three pieces of paper in various stages of the printing process, and forcefully closed the panel.  Then I opened a lower paper tray and pulled out another piece of crumpled paper.  The printer resumed its job.

For a couple copies at least.  Then the process repeated itself.  I was tired and wanted to be at home, not fixing paper jam after paper jam on a printer.  Generally, I consider myself to be a fairly patient person.  But this was testing my resolve.  I needed just a few more copies before the job was completed, and I didn’t want to spend my time throwing away crumpled pieces of paper.

So, Lord, what can you be teaching me in this?

Sadly, I must assure you that this is not my go-to question.  I’m not walking around, constantly seeing the Lord’s hand in everything.  But every now and then, the Lord will remind me that He is present and will shine through in the midst of some mundane activity.  Like changing a light bulb or fixing a paper jam. Continue reading “Paper Jams and Patience”

Hope’s New Life

Hope’s New Life

There is that lovely feeling rising up in my heart.  It is refreshing and enlivening.

What is it?

Hope.

The promise of something new.  The promise of change.  The desire for tomorrow to surpass what was done today.

Yet how quick I am to fade from hope back to disillusionment or despair.  The feelings I have that encourage change and a new direction are simply feelings: temporal, passing, ephemeral.  I made a list of dreams I want to have fulfilled in 2016 and get excited, yet within a couple days I’m ready to settle.

What I need instead is the virtue of hope, something that actually lasts.

“The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to the happiness which God has placed in the heart of every man; it takes up the hopes that inspires men’s activities and purifies them so as to order them to the Kingdom of heaven; it keeps man from discouragement; it sustains him during times of abandonment; it opens up his heart in expectation of eternal beatitude.  Buoyed up by hope, he is preserved from selfishness and led to the happiness that flows from charity.”    –Catechism of the Catholic Church 1818

A few months ago, I had this intense feeling of hope.  It didn’t make sense logically because what I hoped for was nowhere in sight, nor did it seem to be soon in coming.  The feeling was so strong, though, that I knew it was from the Lord.  Yet I also knew, from past experiences, that sometimes the Lord will provide an abundance of something for me because in the near future, there will be a seeming lack of that very thing.

When I started sidewalk counseling outside an abortion clinic in Pittsburgh, I was filled with overwhelming joy and peace after the first three times.  It was strange because I had prayed there for a couple years and never felt those emotions so intensely while there.  The Lord was giving me the reassurance I would need when those feelings subsided.  And they did: when the joy and peace were absent, I felt the closest I’ve ever been to depression.  I ached and felt hollow within.  If it wasn’t for those weeks of intense joy when logically I should have felt sorrow, I might have quit sidewalk counseling.  I didn’t because I knew the Lord had convinced me of my course of action through consolation.

So a few months ago, when I felt this overwhelming sense of hope (or, as I called it at the time, “joyful anticipation”), I was thankful for that gift from the Lord, yet also a little concerned for what might be ahead.  “Thanks, Jesus, for this wonderful joyful anticipation.  I love this feeling.  But…what is going to happen later?”  The hope lingered and I basked in it.  I told myself to remember this intensity of hope because it would pass, as all feelings do.

And they passed.

I found myself wishing I could quit life for a while and simply step out of the day-to-day grind.  I wanted the Lord to deliver His promise now, because I wanted it now, not later.  With the feeling of hope absent, the future no longer seemed quite as bright and cheery.  I was left wondering if I hadn’t made it all up.  Yet when I thought about what I had felt, I could still feel this deep certainty that it was true.  The thing hoped for is not yet a reality, but I know the Lord will remain true to His promises, even if I must wait.

True hope is not a feeling that comes and goes, depending on the day.  It is steadfast and enduring.  Hope persists when logic and appearances suggest that it is fruitless.  It is what the Israelites depended on as they waited for their long-desired Messiah.  It is hope that led the three wise men to journey miles in anticipation of a king preceded by a star.  As the early Christian martyrs were led to their deaths, it was hope that enabled them to look with love at the very ones who wielded the sword or the stone or the nail.

Hope isn’t a different perspective to have on life: hope is to have a new life.

“The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life.”   —Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI

2016 will not be the year that my life becomes perfect or where I will magically change into the person I always wanted to be.  But I do want this year to be one where I am honestly pursuing the best for myself and where the Lord’s will for my life is done more completely than ever before.  I want to read twenty-five books, learn about the constellations, travel to two new states, and many more things.

Primarily, though, my hopes rest in the Lord.  I want to venture into 2017 knowing the Lord in a far deeper way than I do right now.  I want to enter tomorrow with a deeper knowledge and love for Jesus.  I am not promised tomorrow.  All the things I long for and hope for in the future, may never be mine because I may not live to see that day.  But I am here now, and that is where the Lord desires to meet me.

“Although I have lived through much darkness, under harsh totalitarian regimes, I have seen enough evidence to be unshakably convinced that no difficulty, no fear is so great that it can completely suffocate the hope that springs eternal in the hearts of the young.  You are our hope, the young are our hope.  Do not let that hope die!  Stake your lives on it!”   –St. John Paul the Great, WYD Toronto 2002

This year I am embracing this hope that springs eternal in my young heart.  I am taking this hope and letting it lead me into change (though it be difficult) and into newness of life.  Hope, for the Christian, isn’t optional, it is operative.

I need hope.  Not passing feelings, but real, life-sustaining, time-enduring, source from which my actions flow hope.  Anything less is insufficient.

“My soul is waiting for the Lord, I count on his word.  My soul is longing for the Lord more than watchmen for daybreak.  Let the watchmen count on daybreak and Israel on the Lord.”  (Psalm 130)