Restoring Sacred Time – How the Liturgical Year deepens Catholic faith
Oct 15, 2002

Restoring Sacred Time – How the Liturgical Year deepens Catholic faith

In his book, Ceremonies of the Liturgical Year According to the Modern Roman Rite (Ignatius Press, 254 pp, $17.95), Bishop Peter Elliott presents a “manual for clergy and all involved in liturgical ministries” as a guide to the most important moments of the Church year from its beginning at Advent, through Christmas, Holy Week, and Corpus Christi to the solemnity of Christ the King. It is intended as a companion to his earlier book, Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite, and is in accord with the regulations in the new Roman Missal (2000).

In his Introduction, Monsignor Elliott discusses the significance of the Liturgical Year as an “instrument for catechesis and evangelization” and the importance of Sacred time. This introduction is published here with the permission of Ignatius Press. — Editor

Christians understand time in a different way from other people because of the Liturgical Year. We are drawn into a cycle that can become such a part of our lives that it determines how we understand the structure of each passing year.

In the mind of the Christian, each passing year takes shape, not so much around the cycle of natural seasons, the financial or sporting year or academic semesters, but around the feasts, fasts and seasons of the Catholic Church. Without thinking much about it, from early childhood, we gradually learn to see time itself, past, present and future, in a new way.

All of the great moments of the Liturgical Year look back to the salvific events of Jesus Christ, the Lord of History. Those events are made present here and now as offers of grace, yet they bear strong presentments of eternity.

Based on a common human consciousness of past, present and future, awareness of sacred time surely marks one of the profound differences between a Christian and a secularized person today. Before reflecting on the past, present and future dimensions of the Liturgical Year, it is important to understand the challenge we face in a secularized society.

Re-sacralizing Time
Sacred time is an instrument for catechesis and evangelization. The missionary monks who evangelized Northern Europe knew that well when they transformed and adapted the existing pagan time cycles. They noted how the natural season of Spring coincided with the Christian season of catechesis and penance leading to Easter, with the result that it became known among Anglo-Saxon people simply as “Lenthen”, “Spring”. This is the source of our English word “Lent”, rather than the expression “Forty Days” (Quadragesima) that is still used around the Mediterranean. Lent is a spiritual Springtime of growth and new life. Another example was the way the date of Christ’s birth apparently replaced the pagan celebration of the Winter solstice, December 25th. Time itself was “baptized” as new peoples entered the Church.

We face a rather different challenge in the Third Christian Millennium. We need to re-sacralize time in a secularized society that has abandoned our way of looking at the passing year. This surely challenges us to make the most of the powerful cycle of Christian feasts, fasts and seasons in the life of diocese, parish or religious community, above all in the reverent celebration of the customary rites and ceremonies of the Roman Rite that mark out sacred times. These ceremonies are described in detail in this book in order to make them better proclaim the saving mysteries of the Incarnation and Redemption to Christ’s faithful. The more noble, evocative and vivid is the ceremonial of our seasonal liturgies, the more they draw people into the mystery of Christ. Holy Week is the supreme example.

There are other practical ways of achieving this end, such as announcing the feasts and seasons well in advance, planning and preparing the ceremonies well, bringing the meaning of a day or season into preaching, catechesis and public prayer. As part of this work of resacralizing time, the visual signs and symbols of the seasons should be exploited more than ever. Yet one still enters churches where the environment for the liturgy remains neutral for the whole year. There are no visible indications of where God’s Pilgrim People are at this point in their journey through the Year of Grace. Look around the church. The bare altar suggests that this might be Good Friday, while a mountain of flowers, left over from a wedding, tells us that it could just as well be Easter Day. Even the celebration of the Liturgy only faintly reflects the day or season, perhaps in the color of vestments, and the result is monotony. There is no place for monotony in the rich texture of Christian life and worship.

We are carried forward and freed from the monotony of the mundane through the mystery and splendor of Catholic worship. The secular year may be rather monotonous. Any variety it may have is derived from a few civil or national holidays or commercialized versions of religious celebrations, such a Christmas, or frankly commercial ventures such as Mother’s Day. But the Christian year has its own inner vitality. It does not need to be propped up by civil celebrations. Where these are customarily observed with Christian rites, they cannot be allowed to intrude into the order of the liturgy of the Church, otherwise we can lose sight of the priority of sacred time.

The genius of the Liturgical Year is the way it reminds us that time was transformed when the Divine Word became flesh. In that mystery of the Incarnation we may perceive that, in a sense, the Word became time. To put it another way, in Christ time takes on a sacramental dimension. The Liturgical Year bears this sacramental quality of memorial, actuation and prophecy. Time becomes a re-enactment of Christ’s saving events, His being born in our flesh, His dying and rising for us in that human flesh. Time thus becomes a pressing sign of salvation, the “day of the Lord”, His ever present “hour of salvation”, the kairos. Time on earth then becomes our pilgrimage through and beyond death toward the future Kingdom. The Liturgical Year is best understood both in its origins and current form in the way we experience time: in the light of the past, present and future.

Remembering the Past
To recall the past and remember is a universal human experience. We naturally celebrate past events in our own lives, beginning with birthdays. In Christian families, we recall anniversaries of marriage, ordination, religious profession and death, and in some cultures the name days of children or adults. In the life of a city, nation or race great events are remembered and celebrated. This natural human focus on a “great event” was the cause and beginning of the development of the Liturgical Year. Just as the Passover in Egypt was the key to the Jewish calendar, so the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, at the time of Passover probably in the Year 29 AD, was the cause and beginning of Christianity, Christians and the Church.

The Christian calendar found its origins in Israel and the Jewish seven day week. The “seventh day”, the Sabbath, sanctified the whole Jewish week, with Monday and Thursday as two associated days of fasting among devout Jews at the time of Christ. So the Pharisee could say, “I fast twice on the Sabbath” (Luke 18:12).

In apostolic times, Christians replaced the Sabbath with Sunday, the first day of the week, when Jesus Christ rose from the dead (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:2; Acts 20: 7; and “the day of the Lord” in Revelation 1:10), although some Christians still retained an observance of the Sabbath alongside Sunday. The early Christians also retained two days of fasting, Wednesday and Friday (cf. The Didache, 8). Later, in the West, Saturday became a fast day. The Christian celebration of the Eucharist on Sunday was often preceded by vigils, in the night or at daybreak, a form of worship partly influenced by Jewish domestic or synagogue prayer. Here we find the roots of the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours.

However, the weekly Sunday remembrance of the saving event of Easter was soon accompanied by a more solemn annual recalling of the Resurrection. This was the new Passover of the new Israel, Easter Sunday. In preparation for Easter, the days of Holy Week recalled the events of Christ’s Passion through prayer and preaching. By the Fourth Century, a variety of ceremonies and customs had developed to celebrate Holy Week. Through the recollections of the pilgrim lady Egeria we are able to see how the “great week” was observed in Jerusalem at the end of the Fourth Century.

Easter is the “mother of all the Christian feasts”, not only because it is the supreme celebration of the Lord but because it is regarded as the “great Sunday”, the original Christian holy day. Calculated in different ways so as to coincide with the Jewish Passover, the date of Easter became the subject of a fierce and divisive debate among Christians. The first round was fought between Asian Christians and the other churches in the Second and Third Centuries. Later, when Roman and Celtic Christians came together, they faced the same differences and the debate was taken up again.

We find it difficult to understand the rancor and intensity of these early Christian arguments about sacred time. Saint Paul had already rejected a scrupulous preoccupation with the subtleties of the Jewish religious calendar (cf. Galatians 4: 10, 11; Colossians 2: 16), but this was something quite different.

For our forebears in the faith, it was very important to get the memories right. This was part of a conserving mentality that sought to hand on and keep the apostolic tradition in its pristine purity. This applied whether Christians wanted to retain continuity with some elements in the Jewish Calendar, such as the Passover and Pentecost, or whether they sought to distance themselves from Judaism, as in Syria. The Second Century debates over the correct date of Easter reflect some of that tension, but more importantly they bear witness to the innate conservatism of early Christians.

The majority practice was to celebrate Easter on the Sunday following the first full moon of springtime. But this collided with a minority tradition in Asia Minor, allegedly derived from Saint John. Here Easter was celebrated on the fourteenth day of the first full moon of springtime, the fourteenth of Nisan. Putting aside the rights and wrongs of the issue, that the issue was taken so seriously tells us much of the mind of Christians in the imperial Roman age. Choosing the “right” times to celebrate or fast were important to our forebears in the Faith. They regarded the calendar itself as a way of holding onto and passing on the apostolic tradition. Sacred time offered them a kind of “orthopraxis” that sustained their orthodoxy.

This distant debate reminds us that we may fail to appreciate the power and precision of memory in the ancient world. This failure is only too evident in those scriptural critics who are skeptical about the historical roots of our faith, above all the historicity of events recorded in the Gospels. But ours is a historical religion and the historical basis of Christianity is reflected in the minds behind the early developments of the sacred calendar that became our Liturgical Year. They knew what some of us tend to forget, that Christianity stands or falls on the reality of specific events that occurred in the First Century. Close to those events, influenced by disciples of the first witnesses, they passed on those unique revelatory moments within the community of the Church, not only in Scripture and Tradition, in doctrines and sacraments but in the way they celebrated times and seasons. Through the temporal cycle they relived and proclaimed the saving events of the Lord.

Anamnesis, memorial, is the Jewish principle behind this Christian celebration of time, derived as it is in part from the calendar of Israel. Memorial has been developed well in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1362-1372), that is, in terms of the “great memorial” of the Holy Eucharist. What is remembered is not merely celebrated, but re-lived or made present again, re-presented or re-played. This is a key to Catholic teaching on how the Eucharistic Sacrifice is the re-presentation of the Paschal Mystery, the Cross and Resurrection. But it also shows us how our Liturgical Year is much more than a series of anniversaries.

Through anamnesis, the passing days and months become the Year of Grace. Events that happened in time are now extended in Sacrifice and Sacrament throughout one recurring year of our time. The prescribed ceremonies for Holy Week and the Easter Triduum, especially the Easter Vigil, are the clearest examples of anamnesis focused around the solemn rites of Christian Initiation and the Eucharist. The timing and process of preparing people for sacramental incorporation into the Church was determined in part by the celebration of Easter, regarded as the right moment to incorporate converts into the saving grace of the risen Christ. But the catechumenate also partly influenced the development in the calendar of a Lenten fast for all believers, as well as the catechumenal Advent that emerged in Gaul. The catechumens were brought into the memory of the Church through observing the sacred times of the community of faith. Conversion meant entering a new structure of time.

By the late Fourth Century, the basic shape of our Liturgical Year was well established. The birth of Christ was celebrated on December 25 in the West and January 6 in the East, although the precise origins of these dates remain a matter for academic speculation. A Lenten fast was observed, varying in length and intensity from place to place. Holy Week or the Great Week of Easter was a time of prayer and fasting leading to the supreme celebration, Easter Day, which was extended into the fifty days of Easter culminating with the feast of Pentecost, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Within a relatively short time the season of Advent was added to this basic calendar in Rome. Days of fasting, such as the Ember Days, days associated with papal Mass celebrated at specific stational churches, vigils, and octaves gradually entered the Roman calendar as ways the faithful prepared for or extended the celebration of great feasts. But the whole annual cycle encapsulated salvation history. Through festival and fast, believers could relive and enter the events of the Savior, celebrated and made present in the liturgy and sacraments.

The cycle of saints days represents a second level of this form of anamnesis. It would be wrong to imagine that saints days were later medieval additions to a primitive Easter-centered Liturgical Year. Keeping careful record of the days when martyrs died and celebrating these anniversaries goes back to the Second Century. Well before the imperial persecutions ceased, in East and West there were lists of the anniversaries of the martyrs, the basic martyrologies. This early development also set up the distinction that continues to our times, between universal or regional calendars and local calendars. The memory of the Universal Church includes the memories of particular churches gathered in one communion. The calendars embrace all the saints, heroes and heroines of the Church who now share in the eternal Easter that we can enter through anamnesis.

The Present offer of Grace
The “Year of Grace” reflects the kairos of the Lord, His “chosen time”. The kairos is God’s ever-present offer of grace to us in chosen moments of time, above all in the sacraments. Jesus Christ, “the same, yesterday, today or tomorrow” is God’s “now”.

The Liturgical Year thus suggests the sovereignty of the grace of Christ. We say that we “follow” or “observe” the Liturgical Year, but this Year of Grace also carries us along. Once we enter it faithfully we must allow it to determine the shape of our daily lives. It sets up a series of “appointments” with the Lord. We know there are set days, moments, occasions when He expects us. Within this framework of obligation, duty and covenant, we are part of something greater than ourselves. We can detect a sense of being sustained or borne forward by the power and pace of a sacred cycle that is beyond our control. It will run its course whether we like it or not. This should give us an awareness of the divine dimension of the Liturgical Year as an expression the power and authority of Jesus who is the Lord of History. As the blessing of the Paschal Candle recalls: “all time belongs to Him and all the ages”. The sacred cycle thus becomes a sacrament of God’s time. Salvation history is among us here and now. This time is His offer of grace.

Considered from one aspect this awareness of time can be intimidating. But it should be interpreted in the perspective of a spirituality of divine Providence. Awareness that “my time” rests in God’s hands is a call to trust, to faith, to letting go of self. The Jesuit director Jean-Pierre De Caussade proposed this as a “self abandonment to divine providence”. Once time is recognized as salvation history, once each passing day or week is seen as sacred time, it is easier for us to review our relationship with the Lord of time and let time pass into his hands.

Sacred time also gives us a strong sense of being members of the Church. I have already observed how our sense of time is reshaped by the subtle catechesis of each Liturgical Year. We become conscious of this especially when we are called to teach the faith to children and young people. Any perusal of catechetical texts shows the pedagogical value of liturgical time. The same catechetical opportunities are available to the clergy in preaching and teaching during the liturgy, above all in drawing out the meaning of the major rites and ceremonies described in this book.

The Liturgical Year is a means of evangelization. Stories of conversion often include references to Christian feast days that were key moments in the process. A critical event may have been an invitation to enter a totally unfamiliar experience. Someone is taken to Christmas Midnight Mass in a Catholic church, and that experience ultimately leads to Catholic faith. But returning to the faith is also made easier through sacred time. Even the most casual members of the Church recall their Catholic identity when the time comes around each year for the observance of Christmas and Easter. On those days, many fallen-away Catholics know that the Lord awaits them, and where He waits, even if they do not feel inclined to respond to this invitation. But the Liturgical Year and its vivid rites gently open other doors for them to return to the life of grace. Anyone can accept the blessed ashes on Ash Wednesday. The greatest sinner can come forward to venerate the cross on Good Friday. These simple acts of penance pave the way to a good confession, that is, the recovery of the grace of baptism that leads to the altar of the Eucharist.

The evangelical dimension of the Year of Grace is one rationale behind the two major seasons of preparation and conversion, Advent and Lent. As already noted, Advent originated in Gaul in the Third Century where it was an alternative time for preparing catechumens for baptism, given on January 6, the Epiphany. In Rome this form of Advent became a season of preparation for the feasts of Christmas and the Epiphany. Today we maintain the emphasis of the Roman tradition, but the anticipation of the Incarnation calls for interior preparation and conversion.
Testimony to the penitential observance of Lent is found in Saint Athanasius and other Fathers and the forty days was well established by the Fourth Century, although Sundays were counted as part of this cycle. Ash Wednesday and the three days that follow it were added later so that the forty days could be weekdays because Sunday is never a day for fasting. The seasons of penance and preparation remind us that God’s past events are present in our events, refashioning our lives in the continuous process of conversion to Christ.

The Divine Future
The future orientation of the liturgical year is best appreciated in the light of pastoral opportunities. The attentive celebrant of the liturgy and sacraments assists the faithful to celebrate Christian time by remembering past events that embody a saving offer of grace here and now.

But the future offers another possibility for his pastoral use of time. He should encourage his people to look forward, through and beyond the transitory moments of this life, to the telos, to the finality and purpose of it all. As a pastor, he is leading his people toward the eschaton, to the goal and beatific fulfillment of our journey through time to eternity. That is the eschatological meaning of the annual cycles of Christian seasons and celebrations. It is also the reason Christians have traditionally turned to pray toward the East, where the dawn of Christ lights this world in anticipation of His eternal Day.

Like liturgical orientation, the Church Year points beyond itself. It is never an end in itself. It constantly speaks of eternity. Each year recapitulates the Christian’s journey towards heaven. Each year is another dawn containing the eternal Day.

The Liturgical Year is eschatological in a basic sense because it reveals how reality moves forward in a specific way. The history of the universe is not merely a series of great cycles, of going back to the beginning and starting all over again. Indeed a relentless understanding of time as repetitive cycles is pagan rather than Christian. Our Judo-Christian understanding of time is teleological, that is, of progressing toward a goal, an end, to God.

In considering the teleological way we view the flow of time, we should read the “signs of the times” in the twenty-first century and sharpen our perception of the current erosion of faith and reason. As the era of old ideologies recedes, people in our complex societies are taking up a variety of contrasting world views. “Post-modern” forms of irrationalism are being challenged by a revived rationalist scientism, accompanied by an underlying secularist ideology of dogmatic individualism, which simply means gross selfishness. It is interesting to reflect how these world views all include a misunderstanding of the meaning and purpose of time.

It is obvious that post-modernism in its rationalist and secularist forms is nihilism. Nothing is valued. Nothing has inherent meaning. The human person has no value, no inherent dignity or rights. We are lost in an indifferent process of time where we do not matter. On the other hand, the irrational neo-paganism of the “new age” includes a revival of a cyclic understanding of reality, and that is another basic misunderstanding of reality. In a cyclic understanding of time and reality the error of reincarnation flourishes and with it the dignity, value and uniqueness of the human person is eroded. The rise of the “new age” phenomenon may not be merely a passing phase, as we may have imagined some years ago. It bears with it a fatalism and a determinism that undermines moral responsibility and creates indifference. The “new age” is as ethically bankrupt as secularist individualism. Its forms and disciplines are soft and permissive. It tolerates evil and can even conjure it up.

Christianity offers an alternative vision of the future in terms not only of a progress toward a goal but of a choice. There will be a point to resolve my past, a moment of judgment. This is brought to us in the apocalyptic quality of the Liturgical Year, which bears the message: “the Lord is coming again”. Faced with the prospect that “He will come again to judge the living and the dead”, we are reminded of a series of challenging truths revealed in Jesus Christ: we are responsible beings; our actions in time have eternal repercussions; each of us is taken seriously by a personal God who loves us; our life span and all time bears His purpose. Therefore we will be called to give an account of our temporal lives when we return to our Creator.

Eternal life thus raises the question of the end of our allotted time or the meaning of death. In this regard, November is an important month in the Liturgical Year, offering opportunities for catechesis and preaching. While All Souls Day is described as the “commemoration of all the faithful departed” it is not so much an occasion for looking back over the lives of dead people but rather a challenge to look forward to where they — and we — are going. Praying for the souls in purgatory brings with it a sense of the future, our future, even if this is only the passing thought, “But will someone remember me when I die and need prayers?” Purgatory also seems to be a kind of half-way house between this life and the next, that is, between time and eternity. Speculative theology raises the question of a kind of “time” in purgatory because it is a merciful process, or a progress into what C.S. Lewis called “deep heaven”. Purgatory is surely the most intensely teleological “moment” in the future that awaits us beyond the death we all must experience.

Prayer for the dead is a dimension of our faith in the Communion of Saints that we profess in the Apostles Creed. This Communion is an understanding of the Church that helps us look beyond time to another great truth we proclaim in the Nicene Creed, “the resurrection of the Body and life everlasting”. The Communion of Saints runs through the Liturgical Year in the “sanctoral cycle” of familiar solemnities, feasts, memorials and commemorations in honor of saints, above all in those associated with Our Blessed Lady, the Queen of Saints. There is a catechetical or homiletic value in marking these saints’ days and setting up their lives as good examples of virtue and cooperation with grace. But as we seek their intercession we also reinforce the sense of being surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses”. They point to the future as they encourage us on in our journey toward eternity. They remind us what that journey will entail in terms of participating in the renewal of the whole cosmos, the general resurrection of the dead and restoration of all things in Christ. The saints are already “there”, in eternity, welcoming us into the divine future.

As the Millennium celebrations unfolded and ushered in January 1, 2000 AD, a strange incident occurred in Australia. It was seen on television by millions all around the world, but it was not widely comprehended. The famous Sydney Harbor Bridge was being used as the framework for a spectacular display of fireworks. Suddenly, the colors faded and in blazing white letters the fireworks formed one word: Eternity.

Everyone in that city knew what it meant, not theologically of course, but at least as a fragment of their local history. Many years ago a somewhat eccentric man was converted to Christianity. He spent the rest of his life on a simple mission — scrawling that word “Eternity” on the walls of his city. He wanted to remind people, to make them face God’s present moment, to point them beyond time to the real future.

Ultimately that is what the Liturgical Year does. It transforms our time into a sacrament of eternity.

Bishop Peter J. Elliott