To answer these questions, a simple review of the church liturgical calendar is helpful. Even though the liturgical year follows the same course of seasons punctuated by various feast days, the faithful must not see this as repetitive but rather as an opportunity to live anew the saving mysteries. While we do celebrate historic dates, i.e., chronological events like the birth of Our Lord, we are mindful that in the sense of sacred time, we live those events now and participate in the living mystery of salvation.
The church year begins with the first Sunday in Advent (the Sunday that falls on or closest to Nov. 30), at which time the faithful prepare for the celebration of the birth of our Savior at Christmas. While remembering His first coming, we also look forward to the return of our Savior when He will return to judge the living and the dead. Advent proceeds over the course of four Sundays, with the third being Gaudete Sunday, the Sunday of Rejoicing, which marks the midpoint of our preparation. The fourth week of Advent, which begins with the Fourth Sunday of Advent, may be a whole week or may be just one day depending upon when Christmas occurs. Also, during the octave before Christmas (from Dec. 17 until the 24) our preparation intensifies with the Gospel passages for daily Mass recounting the genealogy of Jesus; the Annunciations to Zechariah, to Mary and to St. Joseph; the Visitation; and the birth of St. John the Baptist.
Christmas season begins with the Masses of Christmas Eve and vespers. The Sunday following Christmas marks the feast of the Holy Family. On January 1, the faithful celebrate the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God; however, if Jan. 1 falls on the Sunday after Christmas, then the feast of the Holy Family would be celebrated on Dec. 30. In the United States, the Sunday following Jan. 1 marks Epiphany, the visit of the Magi; however, in the universal calendar of the church, Epiphany is celebrated Jan. 6. The Sunday after Epiphany marks the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which closes Christmas season and sets the stage for the season of Ordinary Time. (Here’s a glitch: Because of the Sunday Epiphany rule in the United States, if Epiphany is celebrated Jan. 7 or 8, the Baptism of the Lord is then celebrated on Monday.)
Here we come to a “confusion.” Technically, according to the Roman Missal, Ordinary Time does not begin until the Monday after the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Then, the Sunday that follows is “the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time.” One could posit that the feast of the Baptism of the Lord not only closes Christmas season but would also be the First Sunday in Ordinary Time, especially since during “Ordinary Time” our Gospel passages relate the events of the public ministry of our Lord, the beginning of which is marked by His baptism.
Lent interrupts Ordinary Time, and lasts for 40 days (not including Sundays) and prepares us for Easter. As determined by the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325), Easter is the Sunday that follows the first full moon after the vernal equinox (spring). So, once the date of Easter is determined, back up 40 days (not including Sundays), and that marks Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. This period of preparation for Easter includes fasting, penance and almsgiving. As the catechumens prepare to receive the sacraments of initiation, the faithful also should consider this time as one of spiritual renewal. The Fourth Sunday of Lent is Laetare Sunday, a time to rejoice, marking the midpoint. The Sixth Sunday of Lent is the Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lor,d which begins Holy Week.
Here we come to another “confusion”: The Roman Missal states that “the 40 days of Lent run from Ash Wednesday up to but excluding the Mass of the Lord’s Supper” (Holy Thursday). With the renewal of the liturgy, the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, the Liturgy of the Passion on Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil are like one continuous event. If Lent stopped at Holy Thursday instead of the Easter Vigil, we would not have “40″ days. However, the missal also states: “On Friday of the Passion of the Lord and, if appropriate, also on Holy Saturday until the Easter Vigil, the sacred paschal fast is everywhere observed,” which suggests that our Lenten sacrifices continue on until the Easter Vigil except for Holy Thursday. (Technically, Sundays and other solemnities are also not part of Lenten penances.)
Easter season, which begins with the Easter Vigil Mass, is followed by the 40 days leading to the Ascension, and then concludes 10 days later with Pentecost. After Pentecost, Ordinary Time resumes and concludes with the solemnity of Christ the King, the last Sunday of the liturgical year.
The church also specifies certain solemnities with the obligation of attending Mass. According to the Code of Canon Law (No. 1246), Sunday, the day we celebrate the resurrection of Our Lord, is always observed as the foremost holy day of obligation for the universal church. The code also lists 10 other holy days of obligation: Christmas (Dec. 25); the Epiphany (Jan. 6); the Ascension of our Lord (40 days after Easter); the solemnity of Corpus Christi, the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (Thursday after Trinity Sunday); the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God (Jan.1); Mary’s Immaculate Conception (Dec. 8); the Assumption (Aug. 15); the solemnity of St. Joseph (March 19); the solemnity of St. Peter and St. Paul (June 29); and All Saints Day (Nov. 1).
As noted in the code, the local conference of bishops may reduce the number of holy days of obligation or transfer them to Sunday with the approval of the Holy Father. In the United States, Epiphany is transferred to the Sunday after Jan. 1 and Corpus Christi is transferred to the Sunday after Trinity Sunday. In the province of Baltimore (which includes the Arlington Diocese), the Ascension is transferred to the seventh Sunday of Easter. Other holy days of obligation include the solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God; the Assumption; All Saints Day; the Immaculate Conception; and Christmas.
While this may seem somewhat complicated and despite the “glitches” and “confusions,” the liturgical calendar provides an opportunity for the faithful to celebrate the sacred mysteries of our faith ever anew and with a refreshed spirit.