For Christians, the celebration of the mystery of Christ is, on the one hand, formative and, on the other, an opportunity to offer praise and thanksgiving. This is especially true for Catholics because the events of our salvation in Christ are recalled daily, weekly, seasonally, and annually. The awareness of the liturgical cycle may not be immediately evident to the average churchgoer. Even the topic of the “liturgical year” may well evoke a range of responses. Some will shrug shoulders in indifference; others will give a blank stare of confusion; still others may light up with enthusiasm. For catechists and religious educators, the organization of the Church’s liturgical seasons offers a fruitful way of contemplating the mysteries of our salvation and a powerful means of forming Christians in the fundamental values of our faith.
An Initial Principle and the Liturgical Calendar
A few principal ideas can help bring into focus what might otherwise seem a daunting task. The first is this: If you want to know what the Church believes, pay attention to what she says when she prays. In other words, the Church herself provides the key that allows access to the meaning of the liturgical year. This occurs concretely in a liturgical ritual celebrated on the Feast of the Epiphany. Sometimes called the Epiphany Proclamation, it is known officially as “The Announcement of Easter and the Moveable Feasts.” The texts and music for it can be found in Appendix I of the Roman Missal. Without reproducing the entire text here, a summary will suffice.
On the day of Epiphany, during which Christians celebrate the manifestation of Christ to the nations as the world’s redeemer (the liturgical context is significant), the liturgy makes an explicit link between Christmas and Easter: “As we have rejoiced at the Nativity of the Lord, so we also announce the joy of the Resurrection.” These are the two pivotal events of the liturgical year. The Announcement goes on to note the most significant celebrations, the dates of which change from year to year: Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season, the date of Easter, the Ascension, Pentecost, Corpus Christi, and the First Sunday of Advent. A previous edition of the Missal provides additional commentary:
Through the rhythms of times and seasons let us celebrate the mysteries of salvation. Let us recall the year’s culmination, the Easter Triduum of the Lord: his last supper, his crucifixion, his burial and his rising.... Each Easter, as on each Sunday, the Holy Church makes present the great and saving deed by which Christ has forever conquered sin and death.... Likewise, the pilgrim Church proclaims the Passover of Christ in the feasts of the holy Mother of God, in the feasts of the Apostles and Saints, and in the commemoration of the faithful departed. To Jesus Christ, who was, who is, and who is to come, Lord of time and history, be endless praise, for ever and ever.
The Church celebrates in time the great mysteries of human redemption. Careful attention to the rhythms of the liturgical calendar can help us to honor the sacrality of time and notice how God works our salvation through the different seasons.
A first point that emerges from this liturgical proclamation can be seen in the structure of the calendar. The Paschal Mystery (Easter) is central to everything Christians do, central to the way we live. That conviction is made visible, sensible, in the unfolding of the liturgical year with each season’s emphasis on one aspect or other of the mystery of salvation. A second, no less important, point is that every Sunday is a remembrance of the Lord’s Day, the Resurrection. The richness of Sunday is beautifully developed by Pope St. John Paul II’s 1998 Apostolic Letter Dies Domini (On Keeping the Lord’s Day Holy), in which he reflects on five aspects of the first day of the week. A familiarity with these can be a tremendous source for an educator’s reflection on the liturgy.