What is the Difference Between the Liturgical Seasons?
Happy New Years! You may think that I’m about a month early, but for Catholics, the new liturgical year begins with the First Sunday of Advent, which in 2018 falls on December 2. So, I repeat myself- Happy New Years!
Entering into the liturgical year is important to our faith lives but in order to do so, we need to know the various seasons and some of the symbolism of those seasons. By looking over the various seasons and their associated colors and symbols we can begin to allow the season to focus our prayer lives and to help us as we listen to the scriptures being proclaimed at Mass. Because the readings are chosen to draw us into the proper liturgical season by knowing the meaning of the season we are given a lens through which to hear the proclaimed scriptures in order to allow the fullness of who Jesus Christ is to begin to penetrate our heart and our lives. So, let’s take a look at the seasons and what the meaning behind some of the colors and symbols that we will see during those seasons.
The first season is Advent. Advent is NOT Christmas, despite seeing Christmas things all over the stores. Advent is a season of preparation for Christmas. The word ‘Advent’ itself means ‘Coming’. Christmas is coming, prepare yourself! That is the meaning of this season. How do we prepare ourselves? The colors of advent point us in the right direction. Purple with a hint of rose. The advent wreath is three purple candles and one rose candle. The color purple also should dominate the church, we’ll see the priest wear purple vestments and various other purple decorations. This is because purple is the color of fasting and penance. This is how we should prepare. Many people only associate Lent with fasting, but Advent is a time for fasting as well. There is also the symbol of the candles and the light. We recognize that Christ is the light shining forth in the darkness and as we get closer to the birth of Christ we see more and more light from the candles. The readings for this season lead us through the story of the people of Israel and the various prophecies of the coming Christ. They prepare us for the birth of the One who fulfills these prophecies, Jesus Christ.
Next, we have the Christmas season! Christmas begins, not ends on December 25 and lasts through Epiphany on January 6. This season is a joyful season, a season of celebration and thus we take down the purple decorations and vestments and the priest wears white, the color of celebration. The readings, especially the Gospels, point us directly to the story of Christ’s birth, the moment waited for by Israel for centuries and a moment so important that our timeline is divided by it.
After Epiphany, we enter into Ordinary Time. Many people see this time as kind of a default time, a time when nothing else is going on. But this is not the meaning of ordinary time. Ordinary in the title of the season means that the season is ordered, divided into weeks, not that it is simply ordinary. This ordered nature of the season allows us to progress along with the life and teaching of Christ as the Gospels generally tell the story of Jesus’ ministry. The color associated with this is green, which is the color of life (think green trees vs. brown trees) and just like a tree we should be slowing taking in the nutrition offered us through this season and growing during this time.
Next, we come to Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. Just like Advent, Lent is a season of preparation for a great celebration. This is a preparation for Easter and the season lasts 40 days. The color is purple and again, just like Advent, the color represents the way we prepare- through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. The readings tend to lead us through the prophecies of the cross. Namely, that the Christ will have to suffer and die for sins. This helps prepare us for the briefest of all seasons…
Lasting from Holy Thursday evening until Easter Sunday morning, this season of three days focuses completely on the self-offering of Jesus Christ on the cross and his being laid in the tomb. The readings are the story of Jesus’ last supper, betrayal, crucifixion, and being laid in the tomb. The Church is stripped bare during this season and there should not be much of any decorations. The Church should feel empty and barren because our God has died and laid to rest.
But that is not the end of the story, as Pope St. John Paul II once proclaimed, “We are an Easter people and Hallelujah is our song!” Christ may have been laid in the tomb but the tomb and death could not hold Him. He has conquered death once and for all and so we cry out Hallelujah and celebrate His resurrection from the dead that frees us from sin. The color is white, or even gold, for the entire 50 days of this celebration. Easter as a season is even longer than Lent. It is a season of celebration and of feasting. At the end of this season, we celebrate Pentecost when we are given the Holy Spirit as God fulfills his promise to be with us until the end of time.
After this joyous Easter season, we move into the longest season, the second part of Ordinary Time. Lasting from early summer through fall until Advent this season is simply a continuation of the previous Ordinary Time. Once again the color is green and we hear about Jesus’ life and ministry until the final Sunday of the liturgical year, The Solemnity of Christ the King when we end the year by acknowledging that Jesus Christ is our Sovereign King. Once we have done this it is time to turn the calendar once more to the next year.
But if we look at the seasons of the liturgical year not simply as marking the time but as invitations to enter into the seasons and grow in our relationship with Christ and his Church the seasons become vital to our lives as individuals and as members of a parish. The seasons hold so much treasure for us to plump that we can never reach the bottom of the graces available from accepting the invitation to dive headlong into the liturgical year.