Most people raise eyebrows and wear a quizzical look when I wish them a happy new year near the end of November. Why? Because the liturgical year ordinarily begins toward the end of November with the first Sunday in Advent. “Advent,” from the Latin, means “coming toward.”
The “coming toward” is actually an underlying theme in the church year because the year represents God becoming human in the person of Jesus Christ–an actual “coming toward” from heaven to earth.
In order to gain somewhat of a clarification of the church year, the image of a circle would be very helpful. The line coming from the top-down (left side of circle) would be the period we know as ADVENT-CHRISTMAS. This period utilizes the primary motif of “Immanuel,” Hebrew for “God with us.”
The line from the left-right (lower part of the circle) represents LENT-EASTER. This period recounts Jesus’ life, preaching and teaching which results in the Jewish leaders’ eventual anger and hostility. This series of events results in Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection, and ultimately Jesus’ victory over death.
The following period (the line from the bottom-up, right side of circle) is known as as the time of PENTECOST, which includes the Ascension of Jesus, the time when he commissions his disciples to carry on his ministry. Soon follows the feast of Pentecost when the disciples receive the empowerment of the Holy Spirit enabling them to preach and teach the message of Jesus to others.
Completing the circle is the period known as ORDINARY TIME (the line from the top-right to the top-left). It is during these days that the biblical readings at Mass suggest to the disciple some of the attitudes and patterns of behavior that can help proclaim Jesus’ message to others.
For example: First, the church year is a constant reminder of the IMMANUEL promise (“God with us”). The period ADVENT-CHRISTMAS presents the reality that God became human in the person of Jesus Christ. The presence of God with his people was important to the people of the Old Testament as was later demonstrated in the person of Jesus in the New Testament. The feast of the Epiphany (shortly after Christmas) demonstrates that Jesus came for Gentiles as well as for the Jews.
Second, suffering is very much a part of the Christian life. The period LENT-EASTER points out that Jesus’ message was one of promoting justice, compassion, understanding, forgiveness and the like. Not everyone will be happy with that which would most likely lead to suffering and perhaps death for many disciples (maybe us?). Yet the Resurrection promises new life.
Third, depression is sure to follow negative experiences in our proclaiming Jesus’ ministry to others. The period of PENTECOST offers us hope with the help of the Holy Spirit, not only because of our Baptism, but also because of our reception of the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist.
Fourth, ORDINARY TIME is a good time because we have the opportunity to renew ourselves for the ongoing struggles against the bad folk. And as long as we continue to fulfill Jesus’ ministry on earth, in spite of the challenges, we will be able to maintain the IMMANUEL promise. As a reminder, maybe next year, on or about the First Sunday of Advent, we can wear funny hats and blow noisemakers as we wish one another “Happy New Year!”