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New year, new liturgical seasons

By Josh Perry

As we began Advent, the Church throughout the world ushered in a new liturgical year. We began again the annual observances with which we are very familiar. Advent, a time of hopeful waiting, gives way to the joyous celebrations of Christmas. Soon enough we find ourselves in the Lenten Season, with its disciplines of fasting, prayer and almsgiving. In the midst of spring, we celebrate the Resurrection of
Jesus at Easter, extending our feasting 50 days until Pentecost where we especially celebrate the Holy Spirit in our Church and in our lives. The long span of Ordinary Time follows; it is this time that points us to the life of Jesus Christ in all its aspects — not just His birth, not just His Passion, not just His Resurrection — but all of His life. And the cycle of the year comes — once again — to winter, and we find ourselves entering another Advent. Another Christmas. Another Lent. Another Easter. The cycle continues.
 
The occasion of the new year encourages us to look back on the year just passed and ahead on the year to come. We recall the past year — the joys and sorrows that we faced, the rights and wrongs that we may have done. Many of us then resolve to do something different in the coming year. A little more exercise. A better diet. Being nicer to siblings or children or parents. Maybe we resolve to go to church more, learn more about the faith or go back to confession. One of the most important reflections we can make is on how God was present in our lives in the past year and how might we respond to God’s presence in the year to come.
 
This process of looking back and looking forward is, I believe, essential to our personal growth and our growth as a Church. Without this reflection, the cycle of the liturgical year remains simply that — a cycle. If you “draw” the liturgical year on a piece of paper, you get a circle. But this process of looking back and looking forward — of reflecting on the past and making resolutions for our future — transforms that
circle. The circle becomes a spiral.
 
You see, a spiral is cyclical, but it doesn’t end up in the same spot. We celebrate Advents and Christmases, Lents and Easters year after year, but we are not the same people. Our past has shaped us, and our future might give us reason to hope (at least for a few weeks before we break our resolutions). I am not the same person I was five years ago, 10 years ago. My experiences have shaped me. Herein lies the beauty of observing the liturgical year. Passages from Scripture are repeated every three years both at Christmas and at Easter. The themes and disciplines of Advent and Lent do not change. But you and I have changed. And perhaps we will experience those same stories and experience those same disciplines in a different way, simply because we are different.
 
The upcoming diocesan synod is an extraordinary time for our Catholic Church in Vermont to reflect on its past and look forward to its future. In order for the synod to be fruitful, however, we need to take seriously the call to reflect on past, present and future. We can’t leave all this work simply for other people to do, just as we can’t delegate our own personal reflections over our lives in the new year (and
God forbid we have someone else make New Years resolutions for us!). As a Church, we reflect together with the help of the Holy Spirit. That reflection may lead to difficult conclusions and challenging resolutions ahead — just as our personal reflections might lead to challenging resolutions in our lives. Without these reflections as a Church, however, we can only hope to remain stuck in the same circle.
 
In this new liturgical year — and beyond — my prayer is that all of us are resolved to be involved in the life of our Church. It’s the time to reflect. As Church, where have we been? Where should we be going? And how shall we get there?
 
--Josh Perry is director of worship for the Diocese of Burlington.
--Originally published in the Winter 2017 issue of 
Vermont Catholic magazine.
 

Living by Church's calendar at home

Growing up in St. Louis, Susanna Spencer loved her family's Advent tradition of adorning a Jesse Tree with Old Testament symbols leading up to Christ's birth.
 
She continued the tradition while in college at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, where she met her husband, Mark.
 
"After seeing (Advent traditions) in my childhood, I thought, I want to do this the whole year, not just for the short four weeks before Christmas," said Spencer, 31.
 
Even before they were married, Susanna and Mark both felt "drawn to liturgical life" and began incorporating more aspects of the Catholic Church's calendar into their daily lives, from praying the Liturgy of the Hours to observing saints' feast days.
 
Now parents of four, ages 2 to 8, and parishioners of St. Agnes in St. Paul, the Spencers are intentional about shaping their home with the rhythm of the Church seasons.
 
"A lot of the things that we've done are taking the Advent wreath idea and conforming it to the other liturgical seasons," Susanna said.
 
The first Sunday in Advent marks the beginning of a new Church year, and for some Catholic families, the liturgical "New Year" is tied to special traditions at home. This year the first Sunday is Dec. 3.
 
While enhancing a family's "domestic church" through aspects of the liturgical calendar is nothing new, Catholics who are interested in liturgical home practices can find an increasing wealth of information online, where Catholics share ideas on blogs dedicated to the practice, such as Carrots for Michaelmas, carrotsformichaelmas.com, and Catholic All Year, catholicallyear.com.

Spencer noted that Sts. Louis and Zelie Martin, the parents of St. Therese of Lisieux, used a set of 15 books dedicated to the annual cycle of feasts and fasts in their 19th-century French home; Spencer has an edition on a shelf in her own living room.
 
In the Spencer's West St. Paul home, the Church's season is regularly reflected in two spots: the dining room table centerpiece and the family's small prayer table. The latter contains candles and a few icons, statues and artworks of saints and devotions, some of which change to reflect certain feasts or seasons.

The family prays there together daily, often noting that day's saint or memorial. Sometimes, they mark a saint's feast by attending daily Mass, where the saint is commemorated in the liturgy.
 
The Spencers' centerpieces range from an Advent wreath, to a crown of thorns during Lent, to fresh flowers during ordinary time. Susanna anticipates feast days while meal planning, serving spaghetti on an Italian saint's memorial or a blueberry dessert on days honoring Mary, which the Church traditionally symbolizes with blue.
 
"One of the ways that you can learn about holiness is living with the saints," she told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. "If we never think of them, we … can't benefit from their intercession."
 
She realizes that observing the Catholic Church's calendar can feel like another task on the to-do list, and therefore potentially overwhelming or discouraging. She encourages Catholics who want to try it to keep it simple.
 
In West St. Paul, Heidi Flanagan's family has developed an Advent tradition that has connected its members more intimately to the communion of saints.
 
On the first Sunday of Advent, Heidi; her husband, John; and their six children -- ages 2 to 12 -- select a slip of paper from a shoebox. On that paper is the name of a saint who becomes their patron for the liturgical year.
 
Heidi, 43, received the box -- and the idea -- about eight years ago from a friend who does something similar in her home. The Flanagans say a small litany of the saints daily, asking each member's patron saint for that year to pray for them. They also celebrate their feast days throughout the year.
 
"I feel like it's given them this buddy in heaven -- this sense of security -- that we're not alone, that they have these superheroes rooting for them and praying for them in heaven," Flanagan said of her children. "They develop friendships with these saints."
 
The tradition has provided an opportunity to learn more about the saints' lives, and the saints have helped all of the Flanagans grow in their spiritual lives. Before they select their saints, the Flanagans also pray that the saints selected would also "choose" them.
 
"It' s been so cool how often we look back at the year and say, 'Oh, I can totally see how this saint chose me,'" because different challenges or opportunities seemed suited to that saint's intercession.
 
  • Published in Nation
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