“A whirlwind season in our lives” are the words writer, wife, mother, and blogger Lisa Kirk used to describe December 2017.
Living far from relatives, she and her husband decided to celebrate Christmas as a nuclear family early that year before heading out of town to spend the holiday with siblings, parents, and grandparents.
“The only weekend day that worked out was December 9,” Kirk says. “We bought and decorated our tree, decked the halls in our house, and gave gifts to each other and our baby son only a few days into December.”
This sweet experience of an at-home Christmas ended up being the first of four Christmas mornings that the Kirk family observed by December 25 that year.
“We were so grateful to celebrate with everyone and had a lot of fun,” Kirk says, “but as we drove home to North Carolina, my husband and I realized we shared a nagging feeling that we had completely skipped Advent.”
The Kirks are certainly not alone in having felt this sensation. They can count themselves among the myriad faithful Catholics who reach the nativity of the Lord—one of the most holy and highly anticipated solemnities within our tradition—stuffed, exhausted, and dissatisfied with an awareness that something was missing in the past month.
The reality is that Advent—a quiet season that honors expectation, waiting, and hope—is all too easily overshadowed or completely lost to an extended celebration of Christmas joy. The unease that those of us who have “skipped Advent” face likely stems from the fact that we need time to consider the experiences of expectation, waiting, and hope just as much as we need time to dwell in the excitement and exuberance of Christmas. To be human is to face a gamut of emotions, and we long for time to reflect on all facets of our human experience: the joy and the sorrow, the fruition and the waiting, the peace and the longing, the wonder and the disappointment.
This is the beauty of the liturgical year.
One observance at a time, the calendar of the Catholic Church sets both a rhythm and a foundation for the life of the faithful. Yet it does more than connect us with our cultural and religious inheritance. As its seasons, solemnities, and feast days walk us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—punctuated by the stories of saints for whom following Jesus was the backbone of their lives—the liturgical calendar also walks us through the full range of human emotions and experiences. Advent addresses hope and waiting, while Lent asks us to reflect on repentance and forgiveness. Epiphany calls us to live more hospitably, while the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows reminds the faithful that none of us are immune to suffering. St. Catherine of Siena’s feast day inspires us to courageously use our voices. A day honoring Our Lady of Guadalupe and St. Juan Diego invites us to embrace the virtue of humility.
As it calls us to examine our emotions and experiences as well as to reflect on our reactions to them, the liturgical year acts as a curriculum for dealing with what life hands us and as a manual for fully functioning and thriving as human beings.
At the cusp of a new liturgical year, we would all do well to embrace the life curriculum of our church’s calendar. What does each season, solemnity, or feast day have to teach us? What messages do their themes convey? How are we doing with putting the lessons of each day and each season into action? To start, consider the following eight seasons, solemnities, and feast days.
The season of Advent marks the commencement of a new liturgical year, with the first day of the church’s calendar taking place on the first of the four Sundays of Advent. The season is short—28 days at most—but deep, a time to prepare our hearts and homes for the coming of Christ at Christmas and an invitation to slow down and look inward.
As we wait for the birth of Jesus, Advent invites reflection on the incarnation. What does it mean that God came into this world as a human? John Kyler, the liturgy and music editor at Liturgical Press, says, “The season of Advent reminds us that the kingdom of God is both here [now] and not yet [realized]. Even when the world seems to be full of darkness and despair, Advent helps us remember that God’s creative powers continue today, even amid the difficult realities of our time.”
Practice and reflect
- Let the emphasis of this season be on preparation, not celebration. Bake but then store treats in the freezer until December 25; hang the lights but keep them dimmed until after Christmas Eve’s midnight Mass. As you do so, consider your tolerance for waiting. Are you comfortable delaying gratification? How do you respond to the discomfort?
- Prepare your heart as well as your home. Marie Henderson, a cradle Catholic who grew up living liturgically and continued to incorporate the church’s calendar into her family life as an adult, recalls a childhood memory of filling an empty manger one piece of straw at a time in moments when she or one of her siblings did a good deed throughout Advent. As they practiced kindness, generosity, thoughtfulness, and peace within their family, they made their home—and a little bed—ready for Jesus.
The feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe
The feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe is one of 16 days in the universal liturgical year devoted to Mary, the mother of Jesus. This particular feast day is often celebrated in tandem with the feast of St. Juan Diego, a day honoring an Aztec peasant who lived during the Spanish conquest of Mexico. The story tells us that Juan Diego walked miles each day to attend Mass. During one of these walks, he encountered a woman who revealed herself as Mary and asked him to visit the bishop to request the building of a new chapel. A humble and unassuming man, Juan Diego initially resisted approaching a man he thought was sure to ignore him and sought to disentangle himself from Mary’s request through avoidance. Mary persisted and eventually provided him with a sign to convince the bishop: a cloak full of roses and imprinted with the image of Mary.
Kyler, who named this feast as one of his favorites, says that “St. Juan Diego’s prophetic witness reminds us of the importance of proclaiming the will of God even when it might be difficult.”
Practice and reflect
- Ask yourself: Where do you resist speaking because, perhaps like St. Juan Diego, you fear no one will believe you or listen to you? Next time you feel the stirring of your conscience telling you to speak up, take a leap and approach your city council, diocese, or public school system despite your fear. Remember to do so, like St. Juan Diego, with a spirit of humility.
The solemnity of the Epiphany
The Epiphany recalls the arrival of the magi to the place where Jesus was born. We know little about the visitors other than what a few verses in the Gospel of Matthew tell us: They came from the east; followed the star over Bethlehem; were overjoyed to find Jesus and his mother; offered gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh; and bowed down to worship the tiny baby.
On the Epiphany, we remember both the graciousness of the magi and the hospitality with which they were received by the holy family. For this reason, many Catholics associate the Epiphany with the concepts of hospitality, welcoming the stranger, and house blessings.
Practice and reflect
- Some parishes distribute pieces of chalk on the Epiphany, suggesting that individuals mark their home’s entrance with the initials of the magi and bless it with these words from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling place among us. It is Christ who enlightens our hearts and homes with his love. May all who enter this home find Christ’s light and love.” Partake in this practice and reflect on the ways you share Christ’s light and love with the people who enter your home.
- Consider who the “strangers” are in your life—maybe a new family at church, a neighbor with whom you’ve never spoken, or an elderly acquaintance who tends to keep to herself—and extend a gracious spirit to them, perhaps through an invitation to a shared meal, a phone call, or a plate of cookies left on their doorstep. Let the Epiphany set a tone for your year and spiritually prepare you to share the fullness of Christ’s love to all people you encounter.
An often overlooked liturgical season, Ordinary Time consists of two parts: the weeks between the Epiphany and the commencement of Lent on Ash Wednesday as well as the weeks between Pentecost and the first Sunday of Advent. Whereas Advent and Lent center on the two poles of Jesus’ life—his birth and his death—Ordinary Time focuses on everything in between. The gospel readings throughout this season walk us through the life of Christ, inviting immersion into his teachings, parables, way of being with humans, and way of being with God. As Ordinary Time reveals Jesus to us, it calls us to adopt the ways of Jesus for ourselves and to let his life become our own.
Practice and reflect
- Read the gospels. After hearing the readings at Mass week in and week out for year upon year, many of us take for granted that we know the life and stories of Jesus. But like all great wisdom, the good news as told by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John has new things to teach us every day. What speaks to us most loudly will shift alongside our current circumstances, emotional states, and phase of life. Return to the gospel—choose one or work your way through all four—with a keen eye this coming Ordinary Time. Read slowly and ask yourself what Jesus is saying to you at that moment.
- Pray a “living lectio”: Inspired by the prayerful practice of lectio divina, which involves choosing a single word or short phrase from a reading with which to pray, ponder, and allow to interact with your memories, ideas, and concerns, practice a variation of lectio divina this Ordinary Time. Choose one aspect of Jesus’ life or teaching—say, the Beatitudes or the corporal works of mercy as described in Matthew 25—to embrace fully for the season. Read your chosen passage each morning and take concrete steps to live the way of Jesus in your day-to-day life.
The feast of Our Lady of Sorrows
I’ve worked at a parish called Our Lady of Sorrows for the past five years. When I tell friends, family members, and new acquaintances my church’s name, the most common response I receive is a look of puzzlement and displeasure. Our Lady of Sorrows? The seemingly glum tribute is off-putting for many.
But sorrow is as guaranteed in life as the rising and setting of the sun. The feast of Our Lady of Sorrows invites us to reflect on the seven sorrows of Mary noted in scripture. It provides perspective on this unavoidable aspect of our human experience. It reminds us that we are not alone when we sorrow and that, like Mary, we can endure and overcome tremendous grief and hardship.
Practice and reflect
- Look back on your past sorrows. So often we see grief, frustration, and despair as experiences just to get through, but these aspects of life generally have something to teach us. Recall with gratitude the people who supported you during your time of trouble. Reach out to them with a note of thanks. Consider how the shape of your sorrow has changed through the years and reflect on what the experiences have taught you.
- Ask yourself who in your life is sorrowing right now. Determine how you can be there for and with them and act accordingly.
All Saints’ Day
On All Saints’ Day we remember all saints, including those who have been officially recognized for their sanctity and canonized by the Catholic Church and those of whom most of the world has no knowledge but who have shown us the light of Christ in one way or another. As we celebrate the vibrant, diverse, and glorious community of which we are a part—one with borders that stretch beyond time and location—we remember that we do not journey alone on our walk through life. We have a host of heroes to turn to for guidance, strength, and inspiration.
Practice and reflect
- Honor your personal communion of saints. We all need role models and wisdom figures—people whose example and teaching encourage us to become the best versions of ourselves. Remembering the people who have served such roles and telling their stories after they’re gone can fill us with gratitude, joy, and inspiration. One way to do this is to display their photos throughout the month of November. Clear a dresser top, window ledge, or shelf and fill it with pictures of saints—those canonized by the church and those canonized in your heart—whose memory uplifts you. When you pass it, pause, pray, and reflect. What does your communion of saints continue to teach you? Let the voices of generations past move you to action and contemplation.
For many, the mention of Lent conjures up images of Fish Fridays and abstinence from treats. Yet even though the pillars of the 40 days preceding Holy Week and Easter are all actions—fasting, almsgiving, and praying—the season is one that is defined as much by interior movement as by the practices in which we partake. Benedictine sister Joan Chittister writes in The Liturgical Year (Thomas Nelson): “Lent is not a ritual. It is time given to think seriously about who Jesus is for us, to renew our faith from the inside out.” The season asks us to examine who we are and where we are going as we consider who Jesus is and whether our lives are growing in accordance with his. As we take a good, honest look at ourselves, we seek forgiveness for our failings, repent and recommit to right action, and strive to let go of attachments to the things of this world.
Practice and reflect
- Examine your conscience. In addition to reminding us that Lent is a particularly appropriate time for penitential practice, the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells the faithful that the sacrament of reconciliation ought to be prepared for by an examination of conscience made in light of the word of God. An established discipline of measuring our thoughts, words, and actions against a yardstick such as the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, or the corporal and spiritual works of mercy helps us assess our areas of needed growth and ensures that our lives do not become marked more by routine than by reflection. Examination enables us to grow wiser and better, not just older, with each passing year.
- Consider your perspective on suffering. Few people relish the experience of suffering, but Lent offers us the opportunity to see our emotional, physical, and mental pain as more than just trials to get through. For instance, Kirk describes how she and her husband lost their second baby to miscarriage the day after Ash Wednesday and that experiencing such a painful grief during Lent “illuminated the suffering of Christ in his passion” and “made the joy of Easter and the promise of heaven so much sweeter.” In other words, Lent reminds us that we are not alone in our suffering, that suffering is an inherent aspect of human- hood, and that suffering isn’t the end of the story. These are lessons worth carrying forth into all seasons.
The feast of St. Catherine of Siena
In The Liturgical Year, Chittister writes, “The liturgical year is about more than liturgical seasons, feast day cycles, theological solemnities, or a record of enduring devotions. It is also about the cloud of witnesses who have lived the life before us. By their very lives—in every era and every age—they prove to us that it is possible to be other than those around us who live to exploit life here rather than to grow in the light of the hereafter.” This cloud of witnesses provides a host of role models for a life well lived, with each of the saints honored throughout the sanctoral cycle teaching a different lesson and offering a unique example of the good life.
Take St. Catherine of Siena, for instance. A Dominican tertiary, mystic, and one of the 36 doctors of the church, St. Catherine is known for her role as an adviser to religious leaders, emperors, and kings throughout Europe. She was persuasive and courageous, unafraid of speaking truth to power, and effective in both her communication and community organizing. Her laundry list of accomplishments includes that she convinced Italian authorities to oust the antipope Clement VII, persuaded Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome after hiding, and helped Pope Urban VI reorganize the church. With tenacity and grit, she used her talents to positively impact her church and country.
Practice and reflect
- Assess your talents and consider how they can be used to positively effect change on a local or global level. St. Catherine demonstrates the power of an individual and reminds us that when we are dissatisfied with the current order of operations, we have no excuse to sit back and resign ourselves to the status quo. We are called to be a part of the solution by using our God-given gifts.
- Raise your voice. Whether by attending a school board meeting, getting involved with your parish council, making a phone call to a church or governmental leader, or writing a letter to the editor of your town’s newspaper, your voice and presence can contribute to the common good.
With a history that stretches across millennia, our faith is a repository of wisdom on what it means to live: To walk this Earth is to wait and prepare, to embrace humility, to welcome the stranger, to mess up and try again, to suffer, to speak our truth, to sorrow, and to be in community. As the liturgical year systematically invites us to reflect on how we are doing as humans—Are we practicing courage? Living with openness to the spirit? Extending mercy and forgiveness?—it ensures that we aren’t just stumbling from one phase of human development to the next. The liturgical year, if embraced as a life curriculum, helps us to actually develop, living not just any life but a good life.