The liturgical year, with its seasons and rhythms, gives shape and meaning to the year: feast days to celebrate, days of reflection,days of hope; days for penance, for mourning, for thanksgiving, for rejoicing.
I love Advent, and its weeks of preparation. I love the readings and liturgies the Church sets for this time as well as the special traditions that have developed over 2000 years of Christian adaptation and invention. I love the small things my parish chooses to select and repeat year after year. I love the traditions our family has chosen to make our own.
I keep Christmas going for as long as I can – Christmastide ended traditionally at the 40 day feast of Candlemas, and my nativity scene stays up until then.
Through a stretch of ordinary time, punctuated with the feast days of saints who, for one reason or another, speak to my heart, to Ash Wednesday. Elizabeth Scalia calls it tribal – smeared with the ashes of grief and repentance, we approach God saying ‘I am yours; and I am a sinner’. Good enough. We are a tribal species, and the ritual speaks to our hearts.
It’s a fast day, too – and hunger is another good reminder that there is some serious spiritual work to be done in the weeks ahead.
As a reminder of that work to be done, and as training of the will, heart, and mind, I keep Lent as a time of abstinence, giving up harmless things in full consciousness that there are other more deeply buried habits and practices that should have been surrendered long ago. Perhaps, or so I hope, the discipline of going without coffee will help me to overcome the temptation to distraction and the other faults I struggle with.
But I am the winner, in any case, since the harmless things I let go for Lent return to me enhanced by the time without them.
We take time in Lent to meet together and meditate on the readings set down for this time of year. Step by step, they take us closer and closer to Holy Week, which is the pivot and central locus of the year. Passion Sunday, the Chrism Mass, Holy Thursday, the Sacred Triduum. The Easter Vigil service is another that speaks deeply to the tribal me. There we gather in the dark. The church is dark. We wait outside the church in darkness. You can’t see all the congregation, but you can hear them breaking the reverent silence: someone there shifting a little from one foot to another, someone on the other side shushing a child who is stretching to see what Father is doing there in the dark. Then light: a new fire. From that fire, a candle is lit, and then another, and another, till the light, which is a metaphor for the light of the world, has been handed from person to person through the whole congregation. There’s lots more. It’s a powerful and deeply moving service.
Eastertide continues through to the Feast of Pentecost, the Church’s birthday, followed by ordinary time – once again punctuated by feasts, including All Saints – and then, as the year turns, Advent again.
I love the liturgical year.