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The Liturgical Year


Under the Old Law, God's people observed annual ceremonies commemorating important events in salvation history and prefiguring the coming sacrifice of the Redeemer. Similarly, the Church commemorates important mysteries, events, and persons of the revealed religion fulfilled in Christ, using an annual cycle of prayers, scriptures, hymns, and spiritual disciplines.

Each rite (Roman, Maronite, Chaldean, etc.) has its own calendar; and some have multiple uses or forms (e.g. within the Roman rite are the traditional Roman Calendar, the modern Roman Calendar, and the Anglican Use Calendar). Even within the same use or form, there are variations according to local custom, patron saints, etc. Finally, there are "votive Masses" at which which are celebrated most any liturgical subject on a day not already occupied by a subject. The most important feasts, however, are observed on the same dates throughout the universal Church.

Feasts are placed on the Gregorian Calendar used by the greater part of the Western world, with two unique elements: its start date and its lunar element. Whereas civil calendars start on 1 January, Church calendars begin four Sundays before Christmas (not counting Christmas itself), so that the date of the Church's "new year" varies from late November to early December. The lunar element is in the method of calculating the date of Easter: it is the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after March 21. This date affects other feasts whose dates are calculated by the number of days from Easter.


Holy Days and Feasts

Although the terms "holy day" and "feast" are sometimes used interchangeably, they have distinct meanings:

  • A holy day, holyday, or holiday, in the general sense, is any day the Church has set apart for a regularly recurring public ceremonial observance. It finds expression primarily in the Mass and Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours), which have special prayers, and sometimes special ceremonies (such the distribution of candles) or disciplines (such as fasting), for each holy day.
    • Sunday is the primary holy day; its weekly ceremonial observance replaces that of the Jewish Sabbath (CCC 2175).
    • Every feast day is a holy day.
    • Sometimes "holy day" is short for "holy day of obligation," as in the expression "Sundays and holy days."
  • A feast, in the general sense, is a holy day or set of holy days commemorating a particular person, event, or mystery of the Catholic Religion.
    • A feast may fall on a Sunday, either regularly (e.g. Easter Sunday) or coincidentally (in which case either the Sunday or the feast takes precedence depending on their liturgical ranks).
    • On the modern (1970) calendar, a "feast" in a narrower sense is a holy day of lesser rank than a "solemnity" and greater than a "memorial."


Temporal and Sanctoral Cycles

Feasts are listed in liturgical books according to two different, concurrent annual cycles:

  • The Proper of Seasons, or Temporal Cycle traces the earthly life of Our Lord Jesus Christ. It consists mainly of Sundays related to the various liturgical seasons (Christmastide, Eastertide, etc.).

  • The Proper of Saints, or Sanctoral Cycle, is an annual cycle of feasts not necessarily connected with the seasons. We commemorate and ask the intercession of those holy men and women who set a marvelous example of following Christ and becoming like him, usually on the day of their birth or death. We also commemorate various events and mysteries of the faith.


Fixed and Moveable Feasts

Besides Sundays, holy days are generally associated with a liturgical calendar in one of two ways:

  • Fixed Feasts generally fall on the same date each year, per calendar--e.g. Christmas on 25 Dec. (In some cases a fixed feast, in spite of its name, can be moved if it coincides with a moveable feast of greater rank.)

  • Moveable Feasts may shift a few days forward or backward from year to year, mainly depending on the date of Easter for that year, or on some other fixed date from which the feast is offset a certain number of days. (Pentecost, for example, is 49 days after Easter.)

    • Easter Sunday (Pascha) is "moveable" only insofar as its date varies somewhat depending on the lunar cycle; otherwise it cannot be moved, as it is the highest feast and the basis for many others.


Vigils and Anticipated Sundays

A feast day generally runs from evening to evening. Christmas Day, for example, is 25 Dec., but liturgically it begins with the Midnight Mass the evening of 24 Dec. and ends with Second Vespers the evening of 25 Dec.

The term "vigil" is used in a number of ways. It may refer to an entire day before a major feast day (e.g. the Vigil of Christmas is all day 24 Dec.). This kind of vigil is a feast day in itself. Confusingly, the term "vigil" is also sometimes applied to an evening Mass at the liturgical beginning of a feast day (e.g. Christmas Midnight Mass). Finally, a Sunday Mass anticipated on a Saturday evening is sometimes, incorrectly, called a vigil.


Ferias

A weekday with no feast associated with it is called a feria or ferial day (from the Latin feria, "free day"). On such a day, in the traditional rite, the priest generally offers the Mass of the previous Sunday (without it being a holy day of obligation), or a Votive Mass of his choice.

At one time "feria" had the opposite meaning, i.e. a feast day, because one was released from work and therefore free to worship. In Spanish and French today it denotes a fair or festival, usually a bullfight, but in a religious context the local celebration of a patron saint.


Calendar for the Current Year

To figure out the year's calendar of holy days and ferias, or to determine what feast (if any) falls on a given day, one may:

  • Consult a calendar or an "ordo" (more detailed) that someone has put together for that year. These are for sale in printed form, e.g. <at the FSSP Bookstore>, and often free online, e.g. <at the FSSP seminary>), but make sure you get the right calendar for the Mass you are attending (e.g. if it is a Traditional Mass, you don't want a modern calendar);

  • Use a computer program that calculates it (such as the one at divinumofficium.com); again, there may be local variations;

  • Do the work yourself. See the <Figure out This Year's Calendar> page.


Related Pages

 Liturgical Seasons | Proper of Seasons | Proper of Saints

Holy Days of Obligation | Ranking of Liturgical Days | Figure Out Calendar

Rules of Fasting & Abstinence for the U.S.A. (external link)


 


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Todd Aylard