When is New Year’s Day? Everybody assumes it is Jan.1, but for centuries Catholics observed March 25 as the start of the new year. March 25 is around the beginning of spring, but in the Church’s calendar it is the Solemnity of the Annunciation. This date was kept as New Year’s Day because Mary’s “yes” to God marked the beginning of mankind’s redemption. The incarnation of God’s Son was a new spring — a fresh start for humanity.
For Catholics there is more to New Year’s Day than simply marking the beginning of a new calendar. Whether we celebrate on Jan. 1 or March 25, the significance of New Year’s Day is recognizing that the times and seasons have meaning and purpose. God — who is outside time — sent his Son into this realm of time to redeem the time.
The idea of sacred time begins with the Jews. Most ancient civilizations marked the seasons of planting and harvest and honored the nature gods who they believed controlled the times and seasons. The Hebrews, however, marked the seasons with their religious observances and thus gave them deeper significance. So, for example, Passover was not only the celebration of spring, but it also commemorated the deliverance of the Jewish people from death and slavery into freedom.
The early Christians were Jews, so it was natural that their understanding of times and seasons was brought into the nascent Christian religion. In the middle of December, Hanukkah was celebrated to mark the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem, but it is also a festival of light when the eight candles of the menorah are lit. The Nativity of the Lord, celebrated at the same time, echoed the Jewish feast. Jesus, the Son of God incarnate, was God’s true temple on earth, and he himself is the Light of the World.
In the spring, Passover was celebrated with the sacrifice of the Passover lamb, which was called “the lamb of God.” The early Christians remembered that John the Baptist called Jesus “the Lamb of God.” When Jesus died and rose again, they saw a fulfillment of the Jewish Passover, and Passover was superseded by the paschal feast we call Holy Week and Easter.
Like two hinges, it is on these two great feasts that the whole calendar of the Church year opens. The annual cycle of redemption begins on the first Sunday of Advent, providing four weeks of preparation before the Nativity of the Lord. The second Sunday after Christmas formally marks the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of Ordinary Time.
Then a few weeks later, Ash Wednesday starts the penitential season of Lent, which leads to Holy Week and Easter. Ascension follows 40 days after Easter, and Ordinary Time resumes the day after Pentecost. Pentecost was the Jewish commemoration of God giving the Ten Commandments to Moses. Fulfilling this, at Pentecost, Catholics celebrate God giving the Holy Spirit for the foundation of the Church.
A Sunday Obligation
Many Catholics feel guilty if they miss Mass. They’ve been taught that Sunday Mass is an obligation and to miss Mass is a mortal sin. However, we should make the distinction between missing Mass and skipping Mass. If we miss Mass for an unavoidable reason, such as sickness or unexpected travel delays, it is not a sin. However, if we just want to sleep in, can’t be bothered to go to Mass, or put sports or shopping ahead of God, then skipping Mass is a sin. It’s a sin because we’ve chosen another good other than God on the one day God has commanded us to give him prime time.
The obligation to worship God on Sunday was established at the very beginning in the story of creation. Six days God created the earth, and then on the Sabbath day God rested. This cycle was given to humanity so we might order the time and set our priorities. We are to work for six days and on one day take time not only for rest and relaxation, but also to direct our hearts and minds to God in worship.
The Sunday obligation for Catholics is therefore not simply a duty to attend Mass once a week. It is a summons to enter more fully into the observation of sacred time. Sunday becomes a fixed point around which the rest of the week turns. It becomes an oasis of worship, rest, and prayer. By putting God first on the first day of the week, we start the new week with the right priorities.
Solemnities, feasts, and memorials
The Church calendar is an intricate and fascinating part of Catholic tradition. The importance of the celebrations is determined by three different categories. The most important celebrations are called solemnities. Feasts are second in importance, with memorials least important.
A priest friend of mine likes to conclude his Masses on Easter by saying, “Remember, folks, we celebrate Easter here every Sunday.” What he means is that every Sunday is a “little Easter.” From the earliest times Sunday was called “the Lord’s Day” because it was on the first day of the week that the Lord rose again.
Therefore, every Sunday is of the most importance. Sunday is a solemnity. In addition to Christmas, Easter, and Sundays, the other solemnities mark the full range of the mystery of the incarnation of God’s Son. Mary, the Mother of God, on Jan. 1 is followed by Epiphany, St. Joseph on March 19, and the Annunciation.
After Easter the Church observes the solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord, Pentecost, the Most Holy Trinity, and the Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi). Through the summer we thank God for the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the birth of St. John the Baptist, the Apostles Peter and Paul, and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The calendar year concludes with All Saints’ Day, the Solemnity of Christ the King, and the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin.
These solemnities are balanced by feasts and memorials. Feasts are obligatory, which means they must be celebrated on that day with Mass. Feasts are of lesser importance than a solemnity and commemorate the lives and witnesses of the most venerable and best loved saints.
Memorials are feast days on which we remember the lives and witnesses of other saints. Memorials can be obligatory or optional. There are so many saints that it is impossible for every priest to commemorate all of them. Therefore, a memorial is obligatory if the saint is important to the whole Church or important for a particular national church. For example, the memorial of the English martyrs is optional in the United States but obligatory in England, while the memorial for St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, who is an American saint, is obligatory in the United States but not in England.
Keeping the calendar
Observing the calendar of the Church with conscious care is important for several reasons.
Firstly, when we live the cycle of mankind’s redemption beginning in Advent and working our way through Lent, Easter, and Ordinary Time, we join the rhythm of our lives with the pattern of God’s work in the world. Winter, spring, summer, and fall are not accidents. They echo the light and dark, times of warmth and life punctuated with times of cold and dark. This is also the rhythm of the spiritual life. Living the Church year allows us to enter more deeply into the natural rhythms of time that God has created.
Secondly, as we keep the memorials and feasts of the year, we learn more about the saints. Pope Benedict XVI said, “The saints are lived theology.” In other words, in them the theory becomes real. The cycle of feasts and memorials helps us to love the saints as we pray with them on their feast days.
Thirdly, as we repeat this cycle year by year, we identify more closely with the work of Jesus Christ in the world. If we pay attention to the rhythm of redemption each year, we become more aware of Jesus’ presence in our lives. He is not simply with us at Mass or in our times of prayer. He is also present in the very rhythms of passing time.
Finally, we come to realize that all time is his time. History is “His story.” As we consciously live the times and seasons of the Church, we come to understand that Jesus Christ is the Lord of Time. As the Book of Revelation says, he is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end (see Revelation 21:6).
As the priest blesses the paschal candle at the Easter Vigil, he sums up these beautiful and profound truths when he says:
Christ yesterday and today
the Beginning and the End
and the Omega
All time belongs to him
and all the ages
To him be glory and power
through every age and for ever.