The Ancient Heritage of the Liturgical Year of Grace

The Ancient Heritage of the Liturgical Year of Grace

  • Today in Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton
  • Second Sunday of Advent
  • 8 December 2019

The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary is the Patronal Feast of the United States of America, and as such is commemorated as a Holy Day of Obligation. Since this important feast of the Blessed Mother falls on the Second Sunday of Advent, the observance, but not the obligation, is transferred to Monday. This is a function of a hierarchy of seasons and feasts that the Church has observed from the first generation of Christianity. As we begin a new liturgical year during this Advent Season, it is a propitious moment to review some of the practices that have developed in our understanding of the sacred character of time in the history of our salvation.


In the words of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgyof the Second Vatican Council, “The Lord’s Day is the foundation and nucleus of the whole liturgical year.” It was on the first day of the week, according to the Jewish calendar, that our Lord rose from the dead and it was no doubt for this reason that his followers met every eighth day for common, and almost certainly Eucharistic worship. In the Jewish understanding of the week, the first day commemorated creation and this idea was taken over by Gentile Christians. The Emperor Constantine made the Christian day of worship a civil day of rest in 321 and referred to it as dies solis(Sunday). From the ninth century certain saints’ days were allowed to take precedence over the Sunday in the Western Church. The East has maintained the privileged position of Sunday more consistently, where only a few feasts and those connected with the mysteries of Christ are celebrated on a Sunday. Pope Pius X inaugurated revisions of the Liturgical Calendar to reflect a similar emphasis in the West.


The twentieth century saw various attempts to reform the Calendar, but it was the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgythat decreed that the proper of time must be given the preference which is its due over the feasts of the saints so that the entire cycle of the mysteries of salvation may be suitably recalled (nn. 102-11). Sunday therefore takes precedence over all but a very few solemnities and has absolute precedence over every kind of feast in Advent, Lent and Eastertide. Advent is an entirely Western institution, which owes its origins to Gallican (Gaul) and also Roman traditions. A three-week period of preparation for Epiphany is referenced in Gaul in the fourth century. By the fifth and sixth century the period was lengthened to forty days and calculated back from Christmas. It was Gregory the Great who fixed its length at four weeks before Christmas, but as late as the twelfth century it was regarded as a festal season in which white vestments were worn and the Gloria in Excelsissung. It was only as the theme of the Second Coming came to dominate the season that it approximated more and more to Lent. The Orthodox Church has a fast in preparation for Christmas beginning on November 15.


Both Christmas and Epiphany are partly an attempt to counter pagan festivities connected with the winter solstice. This was reckoned in the West to be on December 25, and in the East on January 6. Christmas and Epiphany became widely celebrated only in the fourth century and their popularity undoubtedly owes much to the contemporary Christological controversies and the need to combat Arianism. Epiphany is almost certainly the older of the two festivals and was probably from its origin a celebration both of Christ’s nativity and the events connected with it, and of his baptism and the first miracle at Cana. Christmas originated in the West probably at Rome itself, where Epiphany does not seem to have been celebrated before the early fifth century. The originally unitive festival has become divided in different ways in the East and West: Christmas is the feast of the nativity in both, to which the East adds a commemoration of the adoration of the Magi; Epiphany is a celebration of the Lord’s baptism in the East and of the visit of the Magi in the West.


The development of the Liturgical Calendar can highlight some of the characteristics of Christian worship through the contingencies of time. It also reveals the richness of our heritage in holding fast to the Kerygma that is the heart of the gospel message. The “secularization” of our own time is no less or more of a challenge than was experienced by those who have preceded us in the faith. The Liturgical Year is one of the means by which we make disciples of all nations. We are grateful to God for having been entrusted with this mighty task to bring the peace of Christ into the world.



Sources and references:

Peter G. Cobb, History of the Christian Year; The Study of LiturgyJones, Wainwright, Yarnold; Oxford University Press, 1978.