Understanding the sacraments: The liturgical year

Introducing the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and the mystery of Christ unfolding

In this column I have been looking at the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, which laid the foundation for the reform of the liturgy. So far we have looked at the principles that guided the liturgical reform, the chapter on the Eucharist and the chapter on Sacred Art and Sacred Furnishings. This month I would like to survey the chapter on the liturgical year.

This chapter begins by presenting the theology of the liturgical year. The liturgical year is the unfolding of “the whole mystery of Christ, from the incarnation and birth until the ascension, the day of Pentecost, and the expectation of blessed hope and of the coming of the Lord” (102).

In recalling the mystery of Christ, the mysteries of our redemption, “the Church opens to the faithful the riches of her Lord’s powers and merits, so that these are in some way made present for all time” (102). Liturgical remembrance makes present the mysteries of our redemption, so that Christ is once again in our midst, healing, forgiving, inviting, transforming. Through this liturgical remembering, “the faithful are enabled to lay hold upon them and become filled with saving grace” (102).

The Church has a responsibility to present to the faithful and the world the mysteries of our redemption: “she must celebrate the saving work of her divine Spouse by devoutly recalling it on certain days throughout the course of the year” (102). The Constitution then enumerates what these “certain days” are, beginning with Sunday. “Every week, on the day which she has called the Lord’s day, she keeps the memory of the Lord’s resurrection, which she also celebrates once in the year, together with His blessed passion, in the most solemn festival of Easter” (102).

These “certain days” next include those of the Blessed Virgin Mary, whom “holy Church honors with especial love, Mother of God, who is joined by an inseparable bond to the saving work of her Son” (103). In the liturgical celebrations honoring the Blessed Virgin, “the Church holds up and admires the most excellent fruit of the redemption, and joyfully contemplates, as in a faultless image, that which she herself desires and hopes wholly to be” (103).

Next in importance are those “days devoted to the memory of the martyrs and the other saints” (104). The saints are resplendent examples of “the manifold grace of God…they sing God’s perfect praise in heaven and offer prayers for us” (104). In these celebrations the Church “proclaims the paschal mystery achieved in them,” “proposes them to the faithful as examples,” “and through their merits she pleads for God’s favors” (104).

The final component are “the various seasons of the year” by which “the Church completes the formation of the faithful by means of pious practices for soul and body, by instruction, prayer, and works of penance and of mercy” (105).

After discussing these essential elements of the liturgical year, the Constitution proposed principals for its reform. It began by affirming the importance of the Sunday Eucharist. “The Lord’s day is the original feast day, and it should be proposed to the piety of the faithful and taught to them so that it may become in fact a day of joy and of freedom from work. Other celebrations, unless they be truly of greatest importance, shall not have precedence over the Sunday, which is the foundation and kernel of the whole liturgical year” (106).

For this reason “the minds of the faithful must be directed primarily toward the feasts of the Lord whereby the mysteries of salvation are celebrated in the course of the year” (108). As a result, the proper time takes precedence over the feasts of the saints, “so that the entire cycle of the mysteries of salvation may be suitably recalled” (108).

To preserve the proper order between the feasts of the Lord and the feasts of the saints, the Constitution authorized a reform of the feasts of the saints lest they “should take precedence over the feasts which commemorate the very mysteries of salvation” (111). The feasts of many of the saints “should be left to be celebrated by a particular Church or nation or family of religious.” Only those saints “who are truly of universal importance” should be “extended to the universal Church” (111).

The liturgical year unfolds the various aspects of the one paschal mystery of Christ—his passion, death, resurrection and ascension. “Beginning with the Easter Triduum as its source of light, the new age of the Resurrection fills the whole liturgical year with its brilliance” (Catechism, 1168). In this way, “the kingdom of God enters our time” (Catechism, 1168). The liturgical year truly is “a year of favor from the Lord” (Isaiah 61:2).

Father Stice directs the diocesan Office of Worship and Liturgy. He can be reached at frrandy@dioknox.org.