The Church Calendar Orders Our Daily Lives and Helps Foster Unity

Teach us to count our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart.
– Psalm 90:12

At the end of November, we enter the season of Advent. It is the beginning of a new year on the Church’s calendar, pointing toward the new age that begins with God coming to dwell with humanity in Christ Jesus.

Today, the standard civil calendar used around the world for general and administrative purposes is the Gregorian calendar (established by Pope Gregory XIII), although a small number of places still use the older Julian calendar. Other calendars are used for other purposes, mostly notably those used to mark religious holy days and liturgical seasons.

As Catholics, our daily lives are also ordered around the Church calendar, with its special feast days and specified liturgical readings for each day forming a kind of catechism. Every day on this calendar in some way conveys the mysteries of God and salvation history in terms of fulfillment in Jesus. We number our days as we prepare in Advent for the Lord’s coming and as we then stay close to him from his birth to his death, from his resurrection to his ascension, from his sending of the Spirit to guide and sanctify us to his coming again in glory as King.

In the Church’s calendar some days are fixed, such as Christmas on December 25 and the memorial days of the martyrs and saints. Much like the holy days in Judaism that Jesus himself observed, other days on the Church calendar are moveable, following lunar calculations. For example, Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday following the first moon after the spring equinox.

Although the feasts on today’s Church calendar find their roots in that earlier Jewish calendar, it took quite some time for the Christian calendar to be universally agreed upon in the Western Church. Beyond resolving disputes over when exactly to celebrate a solemnity such as Easter, new days were added over time as the Church deepened her reflections on the mysteries of Christ and also in order to observe the deaths of martyrs and saints. Even then, periodic reforms were necessary as the number of feast days grew so much as to misshapen the Church year.

Recent times have seen Pope Pius XII and Blessed Paul VI institute reforms to return to the original spirit of the celebrations as practiced in earlier times and to bring the Paschal Mystery into sharper focus. They wanted to simplify the calendar in order to improve the quality of worship and, thus, better enable people to walk attentively in the footsteps of Christ through all the seasons of the year.

With a reform of the Church calendar to enhance our reflection on the Lord came a revision in the readings at Mass. In 1969, the lectionary was expanded so that more of the Word of God would be heard. On Sundays, we now follow a three-year cycle of readings instead of the previous two-year cycle and we hear three readings instead of just two. Following these revisions in the lectionary of the Catholic Church, many Protestant communities followed suit with their publication in 1994 of the Revised Common Lectionary.

Ancient lectionaries and sermons of the Church Fathers show that long-ago preachers from far-flung lands were using similar readings on given feast days. This history, together with the modern decision of many Protestant denominations to adopt their Revised Common Lectionary, shows how the marking of the days and worship combine to unite the entire Christian family. Simply by keeping the Church’s calendar and following its liturgical books, Christians worldwide can make sure they are all on the same page, One Church in Jesus Christ.

This blog post is based on passages from the book that Mike Aquilina and I wrote, “The Feasts: How the Church Year Forms Us as Catholics” (2014).