“For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that he may grant you in accord with the riches of his glory to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inner self, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” —Ephesians 3:14-19
The Catholic Church is on the cusp of a new liturgical year, with the First Sunday of Advent coming on December 1. The end of one year and beginning of another calls to mind a line from the blessing of the Paschal Candle during the Easter Vigil. On the front of the candle, the priest cuts a cross along with the Greek letters Alpha and Omega, a reference to Revelation 1:8 and 22:13, as he says:
Christ yesterday and today
the Beginning and the End
and the Omega
All time belongs to him
and all the ages
To him be glory and power
through every age and for ever. Amen.
In Romans 13:11-14, St. Paul reflects on the spiritual vigilance required by the end-times in a passage that begins with the line, “You know the time.” Christians must possess a sensitivity to time: the time of their lives, the historical time through which their lives pass, and God’s time, kairos, the moment of God’s presence and action in the world, even as the faithful eagerly await Christ’s coming in glory.
In the film Gone With the Wind, a sundial is shown on which is inscribed, “Do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of.” Each liturgical year is a symphony of kairos and chronos, of God’s time and chronological time, neither of which ought to be squandered. The saving mysteries of Jesus Christ are celebrated according to the days and seasons of the natural world. The supernatural and the natural are joined in a harmonious union. And each year offers a privileged opportunity for the faithful to draw close to Christ, to become more like him, and to prepare for the day on which he will come again.
As John 21:25 makes clear, there is no exhaustive treatment of the mysteries of Christ’s life. John writes that Christ did so many things during his earthly life that “if these were to be described individually, I do not think the whole world would contain the books that would be written.” Neither can a liturgical year contain all of the mysteries of the Incarnate Son of God.
Each liturgical year does, however, give us a true picture of Christ. And to celebrate any of the mysteries of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is to encounter Christ himself. On Good Friday, many Christians sing the spiritual, “Were You There.” The question posed by the song’s title seems rhetorical, and the obvious answer is “no.” But in the Sacred Liturgy, Christ’s death and resurrection, and the whole of his earthly life, is made mystically present once again. The faithful are “there” for these saving events, not historically, but nevertheless truly.
The liturgy is the “source and summit of the Christian life,” to use the words of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, because it makes present the mysteries of Christ’s life and enables our participation in those mysteries, as well as our participation in the worship Christ offers his Father right now in heaven. This is the only truly redemptive worship, and Christ’s faithful are privileged to share in it.
The seasons and feasts of the Church’s liturgical year easily seem stale to those who approach them only superficially. Advent, Christmas, Ordinary Time, Lent, Easter, and then the great marathon of Ordinary Time that begins around early-June and ends in the late autumn—these seasons unfold with such regularity that the faithful, and even priests, can become spiritually drowsy as the Church marches through them yet again.
Yet these seasons and the feasts that populate them provide the structure and rhythm of the heart of the Church’s life, sacred worship.
Each of these mysteries is, objectively speaking, filled with grace. But the appropriation of these graces and their ability to bear good fruit in the lives of the faithful depends also upon the subjective dispositions the faithful bring to their celebration. The greater the faith, hope, and love with which God’s people celebrate the liturgical mysteries of Christ, the more abundant will be their fruit.
In the Catechism of Christian Doctrine (1913), Pope St. Pius X writes of the devotion of the faithful as they celebrate the Church’s rites and about the increase in devotion effected by their faithful celebration:
The Feasts of the Church have been instituted so as to render God, in common in the holy temples, the supreme worship of adoration, praise, thanksgiving and reparation. In them everything has been so well disposed and adapted to the circumstances–the ceremonies, the words, the singing, the outward ordering in all its details–that they can make the mysteries, truths or acts which we celebrate penetrate deeply into the mind and bring us to corresponding feelings and actions. If the faithful were well instructed in this matter and celebrated the feasts in the spirit desired by the Church when she instituted them, a renewal and a notable increase of faith, of piety, of religious instruction would be obtained, and, in consequence, the interior life of Christians would be found to be reanimated and improved.
To employ the words of St. Paul in his Letter to the Ephesians (3:16-19), the celebration of the mysteries of Christ throughout the liturgical year allow the faithful “to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inner self…that Christ may dwell in (their) hearts through faith; that (they), rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that (they) may be filled with all the fullness of God.” These words beautifully express the growth in holiness envisioned by Pope St. Pius X that will result from faithful participation in the sacred rites of the Church’s liturgical year.
Each of the mysteries of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, as well as the feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints, contain the saving power of God for those who believe and adore. And the liturgical year also provides a most potent antidote to the poisonous tendency of the modern world to undermine man’s worship of God.
In his 1963 book For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy, Fr. Alexander Schmemann argues that the core of secularism
is above all a negation of worship. I stress:—not of God’s existence, not of some kind of transcendence and therefore of some kind of religion. If secularism in theological terms is a heresy, it is primarily a heresy about man. It is the negation of man as a worshipping being, as homo adorans: the one for whom worship is the essential act which both ‘posits’ his humanity and fulfills it. (emphasis in original).
The New Evangelization depends heavily upon the vitality of the Church’s liturgical life, on the priests and people of God exercising well the privilege and duty of sacred worship. The Eucharist, as the Second Vatican Council and post-conciliar Magisterium teaches, is the “source and summit of evangelization.” The Sacrifice of the Mass and the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist are unique in their power and importance, but the sacred liturgy nourishes and fulfills the mission of evangelization in a variety of ways.
One of those ways is found in the structure and rhythm of the Church’s liturgical year. The liturgical year provides a context and an instrument through which the worshipping faithful enter into the very life of Christ, grow in their knowledge and love of him, and become equipped to give witness to his saving love in a world that very often rejects God all together. Careful and devout attention to the seasons and feasts of the new year to come is an important point of access to “the riches of (God’s) glory.” By means of those riches, in turn, the faithful are “filled with all the fullness of God.”
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