Why are there no feast days about the Old Testament?
by Msgr. Stuart Swetland
Q Dear Father: I have a question about the saints. The Church’s liturgical calendar is understandably full of feasts days for Jesus, Mary, and numerous saints. Why are there no feast days for Old Testament figures and events?
The short answer is that there are numerous celebrations of Old Testament patriarchs, matriarchs, and prophets in the liturgical calendar of the various rites of the Church and the Roman Martyrology. For example, I recently attended an ordination to the diaconate and priesthood where we invoke the patriarchs and prophets in the litany of saints. (“All holy patriarchs and prophets, pray for us.”)
The Roman Martyrology and Byzantine Menaion rite recognize among others the following feasts, memorials, and commemorations: Jeremiah, Prophet (May 1); St. Job, Venerable (May 6); Holy, Glorious Prophet Elijah (July 20); Samuel, Prophet (Aug. 20); Hosea, Prophet (Oct. 17); Joel, Prophet (Oct. 19); St. Obadiah, Prophet (Nov. 19); Nahum, Prophet (Dec. 1); Zephaniah, Prophet (Dec. 2); St. Daniel, Hananiah, Azariah, Mishael (Dec. 17); King David (Dec. 29).
Others in the Martyrology include Habakkuk (Jan. 15), Isaiah (July 9), the Maccabean martyrs (the mother and her seven sons on Aug. 17), and Abraham (Oct. 9). In German traditions, Christmas Eve (Dec. 24) is the feast day of Adam and Eve.
Of course, your question is more focused on the current Latin rite that does not include these celebrations. We do, of course, “commemorate” these holy figures by the proclamation of their stories and writing in the Old Testament through much of our liturgical year. However, they do not appear now in the general calendar in the Latin rite. In the liturgical reforms of the last century, the calendar was simplified to reflect better the liturgical seasons, and many memorial days were removed.
However, these holy men and women are part of the Solemnity of All Saints celebrated each Nov. 1. They are part of that great “cloud of witnesses” that the letter to the Hebrews says surround and intercede for us (Hebrews 12:1, see also Revelation 5:8).
In fact, Hebrews 11 speaks of numerous holy ones who won approval because of their faith even before the coming of the promised Messiah. These included Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Esau, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, and numerous unnamed other faithful men and women of the covenant God made with Israel.
Thus, the holy men and women of the Old Testament serve the same role as the canonized saints of the New Testament. They are models of faith and holiness. They intercede for us in heaven and we have communion with them as members of the mystical body of Christ (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church 954-962). In this way we can broadly speak of them as “saints.”
Of course, Jesus himself spoke with and of these holy ones during his early ministry. For example, he mentions the “bosom of Abraham” (see Luke 16:19-31) and the “wisdom of Solomon” (Matthew 12:42). Most beautifully we see him conversing with Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration in preparation for his upcoming passion (see Matthew 17:1-8). This passage shows how Our Lord himself sought communion with and the intercession of the saints of old.
Although there were feasts and memorials for these figures in the universal calendar and some rites still celebrate them, you are correct to point out that they are not part of the “universal calendar” of the Latin rite. Individual communities and celebrants can commemorate their days as allowed in liturgical law, but these celebrations are not now universally required.
This should not lessen either our esteem for or our sense of communion with this great cloud of witnesses. Their holy lives still offer us great lessons in faith, hope, and self-offering: “The world was not worthy of them” (Hebrews 11:38).
Yet greater still, they should inspire us to heights of holiness because, unlike them, we have received the promise of Jesus Christ (see Hebrews 11:39). What they longed for, we have. What they dreamed of and foresaw in shadows and mystical images, we have concretely received and experienced, especially in our sacramental encounters with the living Lord.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. (Hebrews 12:1-2a)
The saints of both the Old and New Testaments, the martyrs of the early Church and of today, every saint in every land and every time, celebrate with us the living and loving presence of God. They point us toward Jesus and to the cross of salvation. Their communion with us is a communion in the blood of the Lamb. All holy men and women, pray for us (see Hebrews 9:14; 10:19; John 1:7; Revelation 1:5, 7:14, 12:11).