The liturgical year begins with Evening Prayer I of the First Sunday of Advent. The season of Advent continues through the four Sundays of Advent and ends at Christmas Eve.
Advent, therefore, is first of all a time of preparation for Christmas. Even though Christ was actually born over 2000 years ago, during Advent we prepare our hearts to “receive” Jesus into the world each year as a light to the nations, at a time when our calendar is reaching its darkest period. Advent is also a time of looking forward to Christ’s Second Coming in the last days.
The liturgical color for Advent is violet, a deep bluish red (often mistakenly called “purple”) symbolizing mourning and penance. On Gaudete Sunday, however, rose-colored vestments may be used for this joyful day. Hence the one rose- colored candle among the other three violet candles of the Advent wreath.
No one knows the actual date on which the Child Jesus was born. The date on which the Church observes his birth has more symbolic value than anything, coming five days (five being the number of the physical senses) after the winter solstice. Thus we celebrate the Word become flesh, coming to dwell among us as the light of the human race, just after the darkest point of the solar year. And so Christmas is a holy day second only to Easter in the Roman calendar.
The Octave of Christmas (octave means eight; hence the octave of Christmas lasts for eight days) begins with Christmas day and ends after the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.
Then the liturgical calendar focuses on the next immediate Sunday, counting off days before and after it: Epiphany. Epiphany commemorates the recognition of Jesus as the Son of God by the three Wise Men (and by extension, by all nations). Also, by tradition, the movable feasts of the current liturgical year are announced to the people on Epiphany (Ceremonial of Bishops, 240).
The season of Christmas ends on the Monday after the Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord, which signifies the purification of the world, through Christ himself.
The liturgical color of the season of Christmas is white, symbolizing purity and joy.
Two periods in the Roman calendar are called Ordinary Time. The first period “begins on Monday after the Sunday following 6 January and continues until Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, inclusive ” (Ceremonial of Bishops [CB], 378). The second period begins “on Monday after Pentecost and ends before Evening Prayer I of the First Sunday of Advent” (CB, 378). This time is called “ordinary” because it is, well, ordinary; that is, not part of any special liturgical season. Of course, many feast days and solemnities occur in Ordinary Time: the Most Holy Trinity, the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist, the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, Saints Peter and Paul, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, All Saints, and All Souls, for example.
Weekdays during Ordinary Time on which no solemnities, feasts, or memorials of saints fall are called ferial days.
The liturgical color of Ordinary Time is green, symbolizing life and hope.
The liturgical season of Lent lasts for 40 weekdays in remembrance of the 40 days and nights that Christ spent fasting in the desert, tempted by Satan. The beginning of Lent, Ash Wednesday, is therefore dependent on the date of Easter.
Lent is a time of penance, so that the faithful may share in the joys of Easter Sunday with purity of heart. The three traditional forms of penance, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, “express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1434). For those adults preparing for Baptism at the Easter Vigil, Lent focuses on inner and outer scrutiny. For the baptized, Lent calls us to contemplate the redemption wrought for our sake by Christ’s passion; and it admonishes us to contemplate the effort we put into accepting that redemption. In our Baptism, this redemption was planted in us when we promised to renounce sin and Satan and to live a chaste, holy life in devout service to Christ. Our salvation depends on our fulfilling those promises.
Because of the austerity of Lent, Alleluia is not said in prayer or sung in liturgy. The Gloria is not sung at Mass during Lent except for the few feasts and solemnities which may occur then. During Lent, “the altar is not to be decorated with flowers, and the use of musical instruments is allowed only to support the singing” (Ceremonial of Bishops, 252).
The liturgical color of Lent is violet, just as for Advent. Rose-colored vestments, however, may be used on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, called Laetare Sunday from the first words of that day’s Introit at Mass, Laetare Jerusalem (“Rejoice, O Jerusalem”).
The season of Easter begins at the Easter Vigil. But before that, the week previous to Easter is called Holy Week; it begins with Passion Sunday (Palm Sunday). On Passion Sunday the Church celebrates Christ’s riding into Jerusalem on a road strewn with cloaks and leafy branches (Mark 11:8; cf. Matthew 21:8, Luke 19:36, John 12:13), as he set about to accomplish his paschal mystery. The week culminates with the Triduum (a Latin word for a three-day period) that includes Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter itself.
The Triduum begins with the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday. The next day, Good Friday, is the most somber day of the liturgical year, for it commemorates Christ buried in his tomb. The tabernacle is empty, the altar is bare, statues of saints are removed from the church (or veiled), and the holy water fonts are dry—and no Mass is celebrated. The Good Friday liturgy begins with the proclamation of the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to John, it continues with the veneration of the Cross, and it concludes with a simple Communion service with the Eucharist reserved from Holy Thursday’s liturgy.
The Triduum intensifies at Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday, a liturgy that begins in total darkness until the Gloria returns with a thunderous roar of bells and Alleluias. Christ is risen!
Easter is such a special time that it continues not just for the eight days of the octave of Easter (all celebrated as solemnities of the Lord), but for 50 days (including Sundays and counting Easter Sunday itself) of the season of Easter. The season of Easter comes to a close, and Ordinary Time returns, on the Monday after Pentecost Sunday (from the Greek pentekoste, fiftieth day) on which we celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-13).
The liturgical color of the season of Easter is white, symbolizing purity and joy. Red, the color of passion, is used on Passion (Palm) Sunday and Good Friday. Red, symbolizing fire, is also used on Pentecost Sunday.