The National Catholic Review
James Martin, SJ
Lent? Wasn’t it just Christmas? Catholics can be forgiven for sometimes scratching their heads over the liturgical calendar. While the liturgical year is designed to help Christians follow the life, death and resurrection of Jesus by meditating on the sequence of Gospel readings, sometimes it seems as if we are speeding up, slowing down and skipping some rather important parts. This year’s Christmas season, for example, ended on Monday, Jan. 8, with the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. In the weeks before, the church tracked the majestic progress of the coming of the Messiah, as told through the readings of the days of Advent, which was in turn followed by the birth of Jesus on Christmas and the visit of the wise men on the feast of the Epiphany, observed this year on Jan. 7. Jesus is baptized on the next liturgical day, which makes narrative sense.

Then, on the next day, this year’s Gospel, Mark, has this suddenly grown-up Jesus in Galilee preaching the good news. Over the next week, he gets down to work: calling the first apostles by the Sea of Galilee on Monday, then healing a man in the temple at Capernaum on Tuesday, Simon’s mother-in-law on Wednesday, a leper on Thursday and a paralytic before a great crowd on Friday. It is a thrilling set of readings, astonishing in its ability to convey the joy that the Messiah brought to his people.

And even though the Sunday and weekday readings aren’t always perfectly in synch, weekday Massgoers might have been startled to find Jesus going from childhood to adulthood overnight.

Admittedly, there’s almost nothing in the Gospels about the young adulthood of Jesus. (Luke says only that Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.) All the same, it would be pleasant to have a few weeks to ponder what it was like for Jesus to be raised under the tutelage of his parents, work in the carpentry shop at Nazareth with Joseph, and grow close to friends and neighbors, all the while contributing to the common good of his town. But what is known as the hidden life, the time between ages 12 and 30, does not have a starring role in the liturgical year because of the paucity of material in the Gospels.

The church’s calendar, as revised by the Second Vatican Council, is a model of thoughtful organization and careful planning. During ordinary time the Gospel readings follow Jesus through his ministry of preaching and healing, giving us a chance to immerse ourselves in his daily life. But the fact that Easter is tied to the coming of spring tends to confuse things. (It is celebrated on the Sunday following the full moon after the vernal equinox.) I’ve often wondered what it would be like if the readings were arranged so that they’re more in line with the Gospel, instead of the moon. But since I am not pope, nor the prefect of any congregation (and am unlikely to be either in the future), that won’t be happening soon.

This isn’t the only time the liturgical calendar might bemuse anyone who relies on a modern calendar. Take the Easter triduum. In some parishes you can go from your Good Friday services, say around 3 in the afternoon, to the Easter Vigil service the very next evening at 8. Nothing wrong with that per se, except when you hear mention of Jesus being in the tomb for three days.

You might be forgiven for thinking: three days? Wait a minute. Wasn’t Good Friday just yesterday? Years ago I mentioned this to a liturgical scholar, who provided a useful explanation: It’s three days, of course: Friday, Saturday and Sunday. When I gently suggested that the time between the recitation of the Passion and the Easter Vigil’s Exsultet was little more than 24 hours, he said, That’s the way the ancient Hebrews counted their days. Which is fine if you’re an ancient Hebrew, but slightly odder for anyone who follows the newfangled Gregorian calendar.

But these are minuscule cavils. For me, the liturgical year is one of the joys of our faith. It is also something that may be easier to appreciate if you attend Mass on weekdaysa relatively recent experience for me. The first time I had ever been to a weekday Mass was as a Jesuit novice. Before then, I couldn’t imagine who would go to such a thing: What did one do at a daily Mass anyway? I wondered whether there was music, whether people took Communion, and whether there was even a homily. When I mentioned this to my spiritual director in the novitiate, he laughed and said, Are you sure you’re Catholic?

The liturgical calendar may seem slightly confusing, and it may skip some wonderful stories, but it is still a wonderful way to enter into the life of Christ, something I hope you’re able to experience during Lent.

And, by the way, an early Ash Wednesday reminds you not simply to get your spiritual house in order but something else: It’s finally time to take down those Christmas lights.

James Martin, S.J., is an associate editor of America.

Comments

Jeannette Bell | 2/15/2007 - 9:51pm
What a delightful article. Now I know that I am not the only person who is perplexed by some of the celebrations of the liturgy of the Catholic Church.

Thank you , Father Martin.

Fr. Larry N. Lorenzoni, S.D.B. | 2/13/2007 - 1:19pm
ASH WEDNESDAY-- WHEN IN MILAN...

James Martin's happy reminder "to take down those Christmas lights before Ash Wednesday" this year (OF MANY THINGS, Feb. 19), reminded me of a curious Lenten experience some ten years ago, when I landed in Milan on Ash Wednesday for a meeting with Professor Enrico Manfrini, the pope's own sculptor for thirty years, whose bronzes do much to enhance the beauty of St. Mary's Cathedral here in San Francisco. He had offered to design the commemorative medal for our 1997 USA Salesian Centennial. After spending a full day in his Milan studio at Villa Clerici, the great artist invited me to join him for supper at home. A superb cook, he surprised me with a luscious fillet mignon that Ash Wednesday evening. I had quietly decided to feign forgetfulness and not embarrass my gracious host, when he gently answered what he must have felt was my unspoken question: "In Milan, Father Larry, we follow the Ambrosian Rite. Our Lent begins next Monday, five days after yours, and it lasts forty continuous days, including Sundays, like Jesus in the desert who fasted forty days and forty nights without skipping Sundays. You begin yours five days earlier, making up for the four Sundays of Lent and Palm Sunday." So, in Milan, ten years ago, I resigned myself to observe Ash Wednesday in the Ambrosian Rite, and the rest of Lent in the Latin Rite.

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