The Rich Vocabulary of the Feasts

Feast Day Blog

Photo Credit: Fr. Mel Ayala

Today we celebrate the sixth day within the Octave of the Nativity of the Lord during the season of Christmas. Yesterday was the memorial of Saint Thomas Becket. Tomorrow evening, more than reveling in New Year’s Eve, we celebrate the vigil of the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God.

Day, octave, season, memorial, vigil, solemnity – the Church uses a rich vocabulary to mark the passage of time. What does it all mean?

Every feast day on the Church calendar celebrates Jesus and makes the saving events of God a living memory. The holiest day of the week is of course Sunday – the Lord’s Day – a weekly commemoration of Christ’s passion and resurrection in which we celebrate the Eucharist. It is the primordial feast and model for all others.

Today, the liturgical day generally runs from midnight to midnight. However, in ancient Israel and at the time of Jesus, the “day” began and ended at sunset, following the creation account set out in the first chapter of Genesis. This custom is still used today for some liturgical purposes. Thus, the observation of a solemnity begins the evening before with the “vigil,” and attending a vigil Mass fulfills the Church’s obligation for that Sunday or other solemnity.

The same Mass readings and prayers for Sunday are used for the vigil on Saturday evening. However, some solemnities have a particular vigil Mass with special prayers and readings, for example, the Vigil of Pentecost.

The “solemnity” is the most important Christian celebration, the first rank of liturgical days. A solemnity commemorates one of the principal mysteries of the faith and important events in the life of Jesus, Mary or the Church. Examples include Easter, which is the “solemnity of solemnities,” Christmas, Immaculate Conception and All Saints Day. Some of the feast days celebrating the lesser mysteries of Jesus or Mary, however, are technically designated as “memorials,” although most memorials are dedicated to particular saints.

Some solemnities are so important that, like Sunday, they deserve to take priority in the busyness of our lives. We call them “holy days of obligation.” They are the holidays when Catholics are expected to celebrate with the Lord at Mass. Canon law currently specifies ten such holy days for the Church Universal, but bishops’ conferences may modify the practice by dispensing with some days of obligation or transferring their observation to a nearby Sunday (Canon 1246). For example, in the United States, celebration of the upcoming Solemnity of Epiphany is transferred from January 6 to the Sunday after the completion of the Christmas Octave, which this year will be January 4, 2015.

Do not let the word “obligation” lead you to believe that this is a grim task. It is an opportunity to spend time joyfully with God in a special way and experience Christ’s love. On these days we are also asked to abstain from those works and affairs which would hinder the worship rendered to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s Day, or the suitable relaxation of mind and body.

Some solemnities are so great that they cannot be contained within a mere 24 hours. For Christmas and Easter, the Church celebrates for eight days, called an “octave.” The liturgies celebrate all eight days as if they were that solemnity. The eighth day is a special day in its own right, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, and Divine Mercy Sunday, respectively.

But even eight days is not enough. A “season” in the parlance of the Church calendar is an extended period associated with a great solemnity, either in preparation for it or as a celebration of it. Advent is the season of preparation for Christmas, like Lent is for Easter. The Christmas season itself begins Christmas Day and continues until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. The Easter season is celebrated for 50 days, until Pentecost.

Whether it is a single day or an entire season, each feast makes the Lord’s works of salvation a present reality, including both the events of the past and the great eternal banquet to come. When we feast, we show our confidence in the promises of heaven.

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