How can the liturgical year help us grow in holiness? This talk given by Clifford Howell in the 1950s explains how in some beautiful analogies from nature and biology.
Intelligent participation in the Church’s year is a participation in the life of the Church herself, that is, in the life of Christ who is living on in his Church.
“The liturgical year,” says the Pope in Mediator Dei, “is no cold and lifeless representation of past events, no mere historical record. It is Christ himself, living on in his Church, and still pursuing that path of boundless mercy which ‘going about and doing good,’ he began to tread during his1ife on earth. This he did in order that the souls of men might come into contact with His mysteries and, so to speak, live by them. And these mysteries are still now constantly present and active… as Catholic doctrine teaches us.” (Mediator Dei, 177)
Now time, which is of the substance of the liturgical year, is of a dimension of its own, Philosophers have long, disputed about its precise nature and its definition. Ordinary people don’t dispute about it at all, for they have just got a concept of time, which may well lack philosophical precision and yet is very. vivid and real to their minds. Normally it takes the form of a spatial image of some kind, a rectilinear progression from past to future, like water flowing under a bridge. Time goes on and on and doesn’t repeat itself.
No doubt there is something in the nature of time that corresponds with that concept. And yet there are other aspects that make it seem repetitive or cyclic, for it has a cyclic basis in those phenomena of nature that we use for measuring time. The earth goes round the sun in one year. The moon goes round the earth in a month, or approximately a month. The earth turns round on its own axis and so it makes the sun seem to go round the earth once a day. And the growth of living things takes place in accordance with these cycles, especially those of the year and of the day. It’s by functioning according to the seasons of the year that the tree grows. In the springtime the sap rises in the trunk, and the buds come forth. In the summer the leaves and the fruit appear. In the autumn the fruits ripen. And when winter arrives the leaves fall off and the tree returns to the condition which it had a year previously.
Yet we know that it is not exactly as it was one year ago. It may look the same, but there’s an extra ring of wood that has developed under the bark; the tree is that much thicker and stronger and taller than it was twelve months ago – it has made an advance in the fullness of its growth by taking part in the cycle of the seasons. If it were possible for a tree to contract out of or totally ignore the annual cycle of the seasons it wouldn’t have grown at all; if it did so in practice it would be dead.
Now there’s an analogy we can use for the understanding of the liturgical year. It too is a time that has its seasons promoting growth. But they. are sacred seasons, and the growth promoted by them is a spiritual growth. If the soul takes part in these spiritual seasons, like a tree takes part in the natural seasons, then the soul will grow in grace and stature. Though each Advent and each Christmas may seem like its predecessor, the soul will not be exactly as it was 12 months ago, or it shouldn’t be – it will have grown somewhat towards its perfection, that is, towards its likeness to and its union with Christ. It will be more deeply rooted in Christ, capable of bringing forth richer fruits. It will have advanced further towards that ultimate confrontation to the glorified saviour which will be its permanent condition in heaven.
And so, although we can rightly think of the liturgical year as something cyclic, we shouldn’t picture it exactly as a circle, coming back to the precise point from which it started. A better representation is that of an ascending spiral, each circle of which springs from a point higher than that which the previous circle started., This great spiral of sacred time began in fact when the Eternal God entered into the world of time. Its originating or lowest circles are marked by the original and unrepeatable events of the Incarnation, Birth, Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension of Christ our Saviour. But those events, though unrepeatable in history, have not altogether disappeared into the nothingness of the past. They are still with us in mystery; they are mystically made present and active in those sacred signs which our Saviour left to his Church to be done again and again in memory of him until he comes. The signs indeed are repeated, but the realities that underlie them are not repeated – they are re-presented. Each turn of. the ascending spiral is punctuated by these signs and thus becomes filled with the reality of the redemptive work of Christ. And the spiral will go on and on and up and up until it reaches that point where no more signs will be needed because. the completed reality will have arrived that point that corresponds with the parousia, the second coming of Christ in glory.
Sanctified time, then, began with the first coming of Christ in history. It will go on until his second coming in majesty. And between these two comings stretches the spiral of innumerable liturgical years in each of which the sacred signs done by the Church, the Mystic Christ, according to the pattern of feasts and seasons, makes real to the people who are living in those years the coming of Christ in mystery. The personal life of each of us corresponds to a certain number of coils in that spiral – 30, 50, 70, whatever number of years it shall please God that we, remain in this world. And we can climb up the spiral towards Christ in his glory if we plunge ourselves into his sacred mysteries as they come round in each liturgical year. These mysteries are enacted now by Christ in his Mystical Body which is the Church, and we are members of that body – we are the Church. And so if we take our due part in these activities of the Church which are the acts of Christ, making them our own acts, we are thereby making Christ’s acts our acts, Christ’s life our life. And it is only by that means that we can ever make Christ’s glory our Glory.
This article appeared in the Pastoral Renewal Exchange September 1998.