As I begin writing this, I am sitting in a small coffee shop in Ardmore, OK watching the late January rain freeze on the power lines and waiting for the inevitable call from my boss to brave the elements in an attempt to restore electrical power to those who go without.
Seasons, it seems, are inevitable.
There is something innately rational about the cycle of seasons. There are seasons for sowing, and seasons for harvesting. Seasons for mourning and seasons for rejoicing. Seasons of strife and seasons of plenty.
If we want to capitalize on the seasons and avoid silly mistakes, we need a calendar. It is gravely disordered, in a way, to act out of season.
One does not simply wear swim trunks outside in the freezing rains of late January. No, I am much happier where I am, inside with my coffee.
It is in these cycles of seasons that we take the patterns of the world around us and order them to our own flourishing and that of the world around us.
The Church, in her fleshy, human members, is no exception to this rule. This is likely the basis of what we now understand as ‘Liturgical Seasons’.
Whether you take an elaborate approach to this ordering of the Christian year or a minimalist one, I have yet to meet a Christian who did not celebrate the joys of Christmas or offer a heartfelt, “He is risen!” at Easter, even if those are the only Holidays they keep on their liturgical calendar.
As Saint Pope John Paul II, himself paraphrasing Saint Augustine, once said:
We are an Easter People and Alleluia is our song!St. Pope John Paul II
But in truth, we must be more than “Easter People”.
We must be people of the entire Gospel, and until we can say that we are people of the Gospel, we cannot really understand what it means to be Easter People.
We must be Annunciation people, and we must be Visitation people, and the list goes on and on.
Above all else we must be Christmas, Crucifixion, Death, Resurrection, Pentecost, and Ascension people. Then, and only then can we really and truly be people of the Gospel.
Then, and only then, can we truly be Easter People.
This immediately presents several problems. How can we simultaneously be people of the Crucifixion and people of the Resurrection?
What does it look like to be people of the Child King under the star, and people of the Reigning King above the heavens themselves? How can we all at once be people of these moments and events which themselves were played out across time?
This is where the glory of seasons presents itself in the spiritual life. As we know from the chronological nature of Sacred Scripture, time is one of the many ways in which God condescends to speak to us in human ways so that we may intimately and innately grasp the graces He offers us.
But what is Condescension, isn’t that a bad thing?
Condescension in the Christian scholastic tradition is not God looking down on us, scrutinizing our smallness and scolding us, but rather God kneeling down as a parent to a child, to embrace him and lift him up in His arms. The summit of the condescension of God is found in the letter to the Philippians:
It is in this way that God reaches down into our humanness to unite Himself to us. We see this most intimately in the Incarnation firstly, but also the communication of Divine Revelation through human senses: oral tradition and written word.
We see this in the miracles of Christ who, rather than abolish humanity of its human hunger, chose to satiate it and fulfill all human hunger with eternal food.
God is outside of time, but He reveals Himself to us in time for our benefit and understanding. Liturgical Calendars are a way of living and reliving the temporal self-revelation of God to man in Divine Revelation.
It isn’t hard to see the benefit of having a Liturgical Calendar.
How can we fully rejoice in the Resurrection of Our Lord if we have not faced the mourning of the Crucifixion?
And how can we understand the solemn sacrifice of His death without the resurrection?
We cannot properly reflect on God dying for our sins without the resurrection, or as St. Paul said, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.”
We must enter into all of these moments in Sacred Scripture fully.
But, admittedly, it is hard to celebrate the birthday of God while also mourning His death. The solution of this paradox is never to choose one at the expense of the other. Rather, while pondering all these things in our heart as the Theotokos did, we live according to the seasons of scripture.
From this, Western Christianity developed a liturgical calendar written into the Gregorian calendar while the Eastern Lung of the Church found itself cemented in the Julian Calendar.
As a westerner myself, I do not feel qualified to comment on the Eastern tradition. Suffice to say that there are always more gems to find in the great devotional treasuries of the Church. If you are inclined toward Eastern Christianity, I highly encourage you to dive into the wealth of that great and noble Tradition.
Generally, the western tradition celebrates 5 main seasons.
In the older calendar, Septuagesima (also called Shrovetide) preceded Lent as the 6th season where now we celebrate part of Ordinary Time.
The Liturgical Calendar begins with Advent
Advent is the 4 week season leading up to Christmas. It is a time of preparation and of reflection; a solemn season where we remember the world, in solemn stillness, waiting for the birth of the King of all Kings.
We remember a sinful world locked in darkness, desperately awaiting the light of a single candle. And at the same time we prepare ourselves in the present, knowing that God desires to enter into our hearts at every moment.
We also prepare for the future.
Our King will come again in the second coming and, much like the world before the birth of Christ, we wait in solemn stillness for the promise of our God.
The Season of Christmas falls next in the Liturgical Calendar
The next season on our Liturgical Calendar is Christmas. This may come as a shock to those Christians whose tradition has combined Advent with Christmas, but Christmas time doesn’t start until Christmas Eve, and as the carol suggests, the party don’t stop for at least 12 more days – maybe even longer.
Make sure to bring this up as much as possible when all the Christmas decorations come down and the radio stops playing Christmas music before you can say “two turtledoves.”
Traditionally, the Christmas season lasts from Christmas Eve until the celebration of the Epiphany, or the feast of the three wise men, on January 6th.
This one is easier to explain since we have retained it pretty well. It is the celebration of Christ’s birth. We reflect on the humility of God coming as a child in a manger, the hope and consolation of a God who brings grace and light into a broken world, and the thanksgiving and joy for a God who desires to enter into our very humanity.
We rediscover how we ought to glorify, rejoice, and present ourselves to Our Lord from the shepherds, magi, and angels. And, as in all seasons of rejoicing, we remember how to regard our fellow man, how to invite the stranger into our joy and out of the cold.
The Season of Lent
Lent is the 6 week period on the Liturgical Calendar leading up to Easter. It is a time of penance. We reflect on Christ’s sacrifice: His persecution, trial, abuse, torture, and ultimately his death on the cross. We reflect on our own sinfulness, not to neglect the redemptive work of Christ, but to truly understand why we so desperately need it.
Like Advent, we remember exactly how much we need God in our brokenness. We practice denying ourselves and picking up our crosses as we contemplate how Christ bore our sins on His cross. This is why we fast, abstain from meat, and do penance.
A common devotion in this time is the Stations of the Cross, a reflection on Christ’s journey from Pilate to the tomb.
This period builds up to the three day Triduum season, but before we talk about that lets talk about…
Septuagesima (<1962 Calendar)
No one wakes up and one day decides to run a marathon. No one decides to be an actor and finds themselves on Broadway the next day. Anything worth doing is worth preparing for when possible.
This was the governing principle of what was once called Shrovetide or Septuagesima. Septuagesima is a period of time beginning approximately 70 days before Easter.
The idea was that Lent, while itself a preparation for Easter, needed preparation.
Lent can be a spiritual marathon. It is hard to give things up and even harder to give things up for God and handle the absence with virtue instead of resentment.
If we want to do penance well, then by all means we must practice and prepare. This is why Shrovetide exists. During this period before Lent, we start to remind ourselves of the journey we are about to embark on.
We decide on what we are to do, and we ease into the solemnity of the penitential season. If you have ever woken up on Ash Wednesday (or later if you are like me) and are still unsure what you are going to give up for Lent, then perhaps Septuagesima is for you.
The Holy Triduum is when Lent reaches terminal velocity. This three day season is the culmination of the season before it. Consisting of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, this short season is the most action packed three days in the Liturgical Calendar.
We begin on Maundy Thursday, the feast of the Last Supper. We reflect on Christ’s institution of the Eucharist, on His humility with which He washes the feet of His friends, and on His betrayal by Judas.
It is a somber time where we reflect on Our Lord’s agony in the garden as He gives His fiat to the will of His Father.
Then we proceed into Good Friday. This day alone deserves an entire book. The gravity of the day would drive anyone to despair were it not for the relief to come.
And it should – how can anyone describe in a paragraph what it means to reflect of the death of God?
You must forgive me, dear reader, for my failings in this category.
This spirit of reflection continues into Holy Saturday. Christ did not rise until the third day and likewise we wait until the third day to Celebrate his Resurrection.
We reflect on the fear and sorrow of the disciples of Christ. We process our mourning at the death of our Christ.
While largely antagonistic to the Christian faith, there is a quote from Nietzsche that I would like to leave you with that I believe captures the spirit of Good Friday and Holy Saturday, and indeed it would remain true if this were the end of the story.
God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?-Friedrich Nietzsche
We are eternally blessed that it is, in fact, not the end of the story. For at dusk, Easter Vigil begins.
The Season of Easter
Beginning on Saturday night and continuing for 50 days we celebrate the victory of Christ over death in the Resurrection.
This is the feast of victory for our God. Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!
Worthy is Christ, the Lamb who was slain, whose blood set us free to be people of God.
Power, riches and wisdom and strength, and honor and blessing and glory are his.
Sing with all the people of God and join in the hymn of all creation.
Blessing and honor and glory and might be to God and the Lamb forever. Amen.
For the Lamb who was slain has begun his reign. Alleluia.
The Light of the World, just when the world was darkest, blazes forth once again in radiant brilliance. There is no hyperbole, dear readers, when I say “What a time to be alive!”
This season of Easter covers the time that we celebrate Christ’s action on earth after His Resurrection, through His Ascension, and until the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
There is about as much point pitting Christmas against Easter as there would be pitting Christ against Christ, but in truth, what is the “most wonderful time of the year?”
Ordinary Time in the Liturgical Calendar (>1962)
Ordinary Time is split into two separate parts on the Liturgical Calendar. The first part fills the space left by Septuagesima. The second separates the end of Easter from the beginning of Advent. This season is dedicated to the ministry of Christ.
As the Gospel shows us, a lot happened during the ministry of Jesus beyond what we have just discussed. Christ lived among His people before entering into His Passion.
This season is to help Christians remember the acts and public lessons of Jesus. We reflect on how he served others and how he loved them not only in dramatic ways but in the small, daily matters of love that we all have opportunities to implement in our own lives.
God, in His mercy and wisdom, has deigned to reveal Himself to us tenderly, from Genesis to Revelation. It is from this foundation of God’s condescension that the Church is built.
Humans live seasonally, and cycles of time have been intuitive tools for mankind to make sense of his surroundings from crops, to storms, and even the rearing of progeny.
Liturgical Calendars arose as an early tool to re-examine and rediscover this progression of God’s self revelation to mankind. We see this principle continue to present itself in the spiritual and devotional architecture of the Church in her practices throughout the ages.
So, with all that said…. what day is it?