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The Liturgical Year

The calendar of the Roman Church included a great number of feasts that fell into two main categories: the Feasts of the Lord and the Feasts of the Saints.

The year of the Church starts with the First Sunday of Advent: that is, with the first of the four Sundays preceding Christmas which constitute a period in preparation for the arrival of Christ. Beginning with this day the year can be divided into four periods: the first centering around the Nativity, the second leading up to Easter, the third leading up to Pentecost, and the fourth comprising the rest of the year.

The Christmas period continues with the Second, Third, and Fourth Sunday of Advent, the last being preceded by the Ember Week of Advent. In this week three days--Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday——are set apart for fasting and prayer. Altogether there are four such Ember Weeks, one in each of the four seasons of the calendar year.

After the Fourth Sunday of Advent comes the Nativity of Our Lord (Christmas) on December 25, which is followed, a week later, by the Circumcision of Our Lord on January 1 and, on January 6, by the Epiphany, which commemorates the adoration of the Magi (Three Holy Kings). The Sundays after Christmas are: Sunday within the Octave of Christmas, Sunday between Circumcision and Epiphany, Sunday within the Octave of the Epiphany, and Second (Third, etc.) Sunday after the Epiphany.

In the seventeenth century two feasts were introduced: that in honor of the Most Holy Name of Jesus, and the feast of the Holy Family. The first of these falls on the Sunday between the Circumcision and the Epiphany or, if no Sunday occurs between these two feasts, on January 2. The second falls on the Sunday within the Octave of the Epiphany. The traditional formulary for this Sunday is transferred to one of the following week days.

The second period starts with Septuagesima Sunday, that is, the ninth Sunday before Easter. Since Easter is a variable feast whose date depends upon the moon (Easter is the first Sunday after the full moon that falls on or next after the twenty-first of March) the beginning of this period varies accordingly—— from as early as January 18 to as late as Febru­ary 21. As a consequence., the number of Sundays after Epiphany varies from a minimum of one to a maximum of six. Septuagesima Sunday is followed by Sexagesima, Quinquagesima, and Quadra— gesima Sunday. The Wednesday before Quadragesima Sunday is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, the long period of fasting before Easter. Quadragesima Sunday is therefore also called the First Sunday of Lent, and is followed by the Second, Third, and Fourth Sunday of Lent. The liturgical importance of the Lenten period is indicated by the fact that not only tine Sundays but each week day has its individual liturgy and chants.

After the Fourth Sunday of Lent the next two Sundays are Passion Sunday and Palm Sunday, the second of which opens the Holy Week leading to Easter. This is indeed the most solemn week of the entire liturgical year; each day is filled with a ritual of steadily increasing importance, elaboration, and im­pressiveness, especially Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. The liturgy for these three days alone fills almost 150 pages in the Liber usualis. The crowning point is Easter Sunday, celebrating the Resurrection of Our Lord. Its miracu­lous event continues to be commemorated in daily celebrations during the ensuing week, called Easter Week (Easter Monday, Easter Tuesday, etc.).

The Saturday of this week marks the beginning of the third period called Paschal Time. The next day is Low Sunday, also called Quasimodo Sunday after the Introit Quasimodo which opens its Mass. This, being the first Sunday after Easter, is follow­ed by a Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth Sunday after Easter. The next Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday are the Litanies or Rogation Days, days of special supplication, which are followed, on Thursday, by the Ascension of Our Lord. The next Sunday is called Sunday within the Octave of the Ascension and precedes Whit Sunday (Whitsun Day) or the Feast of Pentecost, which com­memorates the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles. Sim­ilar to (and in imitation of) Easter Week, each day of the following week is celebrated in commemoration of Pentecost. The fact that this also is an Ember Week explains the varying designations for the single days: Whit Monday, Whit Tuesday, Ember Wednesday, Thursday in Whitsun Week, Ember Friday, and Ember Saturday. This is the end of Paschal Time.

The next day is Trinity Sunday, which marks the beginning of the final period of the year. The last major feast of the Temporale, Corpus Christi, falls on the Thursday thereafter, and is followed, on Friday of the next week, by the Feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. The Sundays of this season are simply numbered as Sundays after Pentecost, Trinity Sunday being the first in the series. Since the date of Pentecost varies with that of Easter——it occurs exactly seven weeks after Easter, as is indicated by its name which is the Greek word for “the fiftieth” (day)--the number of these Sundays varies from a min­imum of twenty—three to a maximum of twenty—eight, a fluctuation corresponding to that of the Sundays after Epiphany: the fewer Sundays after Epiphany, the more there are after Pentecost, and vice versa. In fact, the services for the additional Sundays after Pentecost are taken from those provided for the last Sun­days after Epiphany. The regular succession of Sundays in the final period is interrupted only by the Ember Week of September.

The numerous feasts for the Saints of the Roman Church are grouped under two categories, Common of Saints and Proper of Saints. The latter includes the feasts in honor of a specific Saint or, occasionally, two specific Saints, e.g. St. Andrew, St. Lawrence, SS. Peter and Paul, etc. In the early medieval books the feasts of the Lord as well as those of the Saints (then much fewer in number than now) were arranged together according to their succession during the year, and it was not until the thirteenth century that the groups were completely separated. When this was done, some of the feasts of Saints were left in their original place, mainly those that occurred right after the Nativity, probably because their association with the Nativity was too close to be destroyed. To the pres­ent day the Proper of the Time includes five feasts of Saints: St. Stephen on December 26, St. John the Apostle on December 27, Holy Innocents on December 28, St. Thomas on Dec­ember 29, and St. Silvester on December 31.

The Common of Saints gives the chants, prayers, etc. that are used for various Saints, these being grouped under categor­ies such as Martyrs, Doctors, Virgins, Virgin Martyrs, etc. For instance, St. Jerome is a Doctor of the Church, and therefore the service for his feast is found in the Common of Doctors.

Eight times during the day a service for the offering of prayer and worship is held. This is called the Divine Office, Canonic Hours (from canon law) or Office Hours. These are:

1 - Matins (matutinum) before sunrise
2 - Lauds (laudes) at sunrise
3 - Prime (ad primam horam)
4 - Terce (ad tertiam horam)
5 - Sext (ad sextam horam)
6 - None (ad nonam horam)
7 - Vespers (ad vesperam) at sunset
8 - Compline (completorium) before retiring

Prime, Terce, Sext, and None take their names from the old Roman calendar, in which the hours of the day were numbered from six in the morning (prima hora) to six in the afternoon, so that mid—day was sexta hora. Naturally, the time when these Offices are held varies somewhat with the seasons of the year.

The hours from Prime to None are called Little or Lesser Hours, because of the greater simplicity of their services. Also the term Day Hours is used, properly, to denote all the Hours other than Matins, that is, from Lauds to Compline.

The Office Hours were not instituted together at a given date, but developed gradually during the first six centuries of the Christian era. The earliest was the Night Office, call­ed Vigils (wakening), which had its origin in the custom of keeping watch the night before Easter, in expectation of the reappearance of Christ. Later this custom was observed weekly before each Sunday though no longer as a continuous gathering during the entire night. In the fourth century we find it divided into three separate Prayer Hours: one at sunset, when the lamps were lighted, and therefore called lucernarium; one after midnight; and one at sunrise, called laudes matutinae (morning praise). Eventually these received the names Vespers, Matins, and Lauds. Terce, Sext, and None originally had the character of private Prayer Hours, held in the family or in small groups. The Rule of St. Benedict, dating from around 530, is the earliest document containing the complete course of all the eight Office Hours.  

In addition to the Office Hours, the daily ritual includes the Mass, which is of an entirely different character. The Office Hours are mainly occasions for prayer, similar to and, no doubt, partly derived from the prayer hours of the Jews. The Mass, on the other hand, is a service of distinctly Christian character, although it also incorporates elements of an ancient Jewish ritual. It is essentially the commemoration of the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, taking on the form of a mystic repetition of the Last Supper. Like the Last Supper, the Mass took place originally in the evening, was later shifted to the morning hours, and is now generally celebrated in the forenoon, between Terce and Sext. Originally called Eucharistia (Eucharist being the Greek word for “good grace”), it was later called Missa, a term derived from the words of the closing benediction, “ite, missa est” (Depart, this is the dismissal), and used as early as 400 (St. Ambrose).


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