What Is the Liturgical Calendar?

The liturgical calendar is omnipresent in Catholic life. Many parish bulletins list the liturgical days of the week and corresponding Scripture readings. In December, tables in the narthex may be piled high with free calendars that identify the principal feasts of the Church year (along with civic holidays). And, of course, each holy day of obligation we are reminded that Catholic worship is not simply a matter of showing up on Sundays; there is a larger pattern of feasts and fasts of which Sunday worship is only part.

But to say that the liturgical calendar is omnipresent is not to say that we always notice it. We often look past objects, such as street lights or telephone poles, precisely because they are pervasive. It is easy to treat the liturgical calendar merely as part of Catholicism’s décor, the ornamental mantle clock with Roman numerals that looks nice but which no one really uses to tell time.

Many holy men and women through the ages, however, have set their internal clock to the liturgical calendar and have found their lives reshaped in the process — for the purpose of the liturgical calendar is to orient our days around the person of Jesus. This process begins with Sunday worship, which is the cornerstone of the whole liturgical calendar. We celebrate Mass each Sunday — rather than on the Jewish Saturday — in recognition that when Jesus resurrected on Easter Sunday He began the renewal of the whole world and the universe was fundamentally changed (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1193). As the liturgical poet John Keble, a great friend of Blessed John Henry Newman, exclaimed in his poem “Easter Day,” Easter sheds “light on all the year,” making Sundays “more glorious break, / An Easter Day in every week.” Sunday worship reveals to us the nature of the world in which we live.

But, while the Resurrection is the central Christian event, every moment of the life of Jesus is a revelation of the nature and character of God. For this reason, we need not merely Sunday worship but the entire Christian year. The Church year is structured around the life of Jesus. It pursues Him from the first signs of His coming in Advent to His birth at Christmas, to His trials in Lent and death on Good Friday, to the wonders of His Easter Resurrection and Ascension, and finally catches an apocalyptic vision of Him enthroned as King in glory. As the Catechism explains, “The Church, ‘in the course of the year … unfolds the whole mystery of Christ’” (No. 1194). The Church leaves nothing out and skips no days; she asks us to meditate on Jesus at all times and in all circumstances.

Typology

The Church’s desire to see Jesus in all things, and all things in light of Jesus, also influences the scriptural readings chosen for use throughout the liturgical year. Since Jesus is God’s ultimate self-revelation to humanity, the entire human attempt to know God — the complete story of religion and all of salvation history — also culminates in Him (see Catechism, No. 102). Inspired by this insight, the Apostolic Fathers in the early days of the Church developed the reading method known as typology (Catechism, No. 128).

Typology treats events and images recorded in the Old Testament (the type) as prefiguring the life of Christ and the Church (the antitype). The fullness of God’s revelation as expressed in Christ exposes patterns and symbols in His earlier dealings with humanity that we might otherwise miss. To give just two famous examples: Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, who nonetheless does not die, is a type of Christ’s divine sacrifice and resurrection; Noah’s ark, the vessel in which humanity is saved from physical destruction, is a type of the Church, the vessel in which humanity is saved from spiritual destruction.

Tips for Tuning in to the Christian Year
• Prepare for Mass each Sunday by taking a look at the readings ahead of time. Perhaps pray with them using lectio divina.

The Church assigns appropriate scriptural readings — generally an Old Testament passage, a responsorial psalm, a portion of an epistle and a Gospel story — for each day of the year. The Old Testament reading and the responsorial psalm are often chosen because of their typological relationship to the Gospel reading. While the basic pattern of our liturgical observances remains constant each year, our cycle of readings for these observances varies. We follow a two-year cycle for daily Mass and a three-year (A, B, C) cycle for Sundays, primarily so that we might encounter Scripture as fully as possible. The Church uses the liturgical calendar to teach us to see “Christ in all the Scriptures.”

Since I have already referenced it, the feast of Christ the King, the final Sunday of the liturgical year, may serve as a convenient example of this dynamic. The first reading for Christ the King in Year A is 2 Samuel 5:1-3; here the Israelites collectively accept David as their king. In the corresponding Gospel reading, Luke 23:35-43, the good thief on the cross accepts Jesus, the Son of David, as his king, and becomes in death the first person to pass into the heavenly kingdom. David’s divinely ordained but temporal kingship is a type of Christ’s permanent spiritual kingship.

The liturgical calendar’s frequent memorials of saints teach us another method of viewing all experience in light of Christ. The saints are a diverse bunch; they include men and women of nearly every race, region, occupation, economic status and psychological temperament. In the roster of the saints, we find a template of the many different ways in which salvation may be worked out, the varied human images that may comprise a reflection of the one Christ (see Catechism, No. 1173), the disparate forms His kingdom may take on earth.

Those saints with whom we most readily identify can be taken as patrons and encouragers in the life of faith; those with whom we find identification difficult challenge us to see God or the potential for His presence in those people whom we would too easily overlook or even disdain. By commemorating these saints in the liturgical calendar, the Church presents us with the entire picture of human sanctity and asks us to evaluate our life’s challenges and the people around us accordingly.

The liturgical calendar, then, possesses the potential to transform the way we see the world. If we were truly sensitive to its patterns, we would view our own lives, other people, the Bible, human history and the passage of time itself differently. And the decisions we would make while seeing the world in this very different light would change us into different people. As the Nobel Prize-winning poet T.S. Eliot observed in an unpublished lecture “The Bible as Scripture and Literature”: “The fall of these words [the liturgy and liturgical readings] upon the ear, as they follow their due and appointed order in the service and the cyclic recurrence of the services according to the seasons, enters into the whole rhythm of the Christian’s life with an unconscious compulsion.”

If we will allow it, the liturgical calendar will shape us at a level deeper and more fundamental than consciousness itself; we will find ourselves automatically applying Christ’s story to our own, and acting accordingly. The point is a classical Christian one, once more widely known. Keble puts it beautifully in another one of his poems: if we allow ourselves to be carried along with the liturgical calendar, “The sacred weeks, with unfelt pace” will bear “us on from grace to grace” (“Trinity Sunday”).

The Church understands human nature. Human beings naturally make sense of the world by telling themselves stories. We also structure the smaller stories of our personal lives in terms of the wider and more all-encompassing tales we know. By superimposing Scripture over the days of our lives, the liturgical calendar trains us to understand our experience in terms of Christ. We neglect this training to our own detriment. If we allow the liturgical calendar to fade into the background, lost as a mere ornament, we will still imagine our lives as a reflection of a larger story, but it will be a vastly impoverished story.

In her work “The Pantheon Papers,” the novelist and Christian humanist Dorothy Sayers vividly depicted this truth. Sayers constructed a satirical liturgical calendar for modern materialism. This new calendar exposes the secular values that too often structure our lives and our days. Here the season of Advent is replaced with the season of advertisement; Christmas is replaced with “the Birth of Science”; the feast of Easter with the feast of the Enlightenment; All Hallows with All Hollows.

In the absence of the liturgical calendar, we will structure our lives around whatever shouts at us most loudly and whatever is most materially tangible, and our lives will be corresponding hollowed. In the liturgical calendar the Church offers us an important tool for spiritual enrichment and renewal.

Chene Heady, Ph.D., is associate professor of English at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia, and author of “Numbering My Days: How the Liturgical Calendar Rearranged My Life” (Ignatius Press).