1. In the first commandment of the Church the solemn observance of the holy-days is enjoined upon us. There are seven festivals of Our Lord, five of Our Lady, and three of the saints.
The early Christians kept a great number of festivals in order to keep alive the memory of certain events or benefits received from God as the anniversaries came round. These feasts were instituted that the events they commemorate might be remembered to all time by the faithful, and praise and thanksgiving be rendered to God for them. Unhappily some persons only mark these festivals by providing a more liberal table, as if, St. Jerome remarks, by eating and drinking one could honor those who sought to please God by fasting and mortification.
The seven feasts of Our Lord are (1), Christmas (Dec. 25th); (2), The Circumcision (Jan. 1st); (3), The Epiphany (Jan. 6th); (4), Easter; (5), The Ascension; (6), Pentecost; (7), Corpus Christi (the last-named is not a holyday for the United States).
As the nativity and the resurrection of Our Lord and the coming of the Holy Ghost are events of primary importance, they are celebrated with peculiar solemnity. In European countries the 26th of December, the feast of St. Stephen, and the two days immediately following Easter Day and Pentecost, are kept as feasts of devotion.
The five feasts of the Mother of God are: (1), The Immaculate Conception (Dec. 8th); (2), The Nativity of Our Lady (Sept. 8th); (3), The Annunciation (March 25th); (4), The Purification (Feb. 2d); (5), The Assumption (Aug. 15th). Of these festivals the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption are the only ones now observed as holy-days of obligation.
The life of the Mother of God is so intimately connected with that of her divine Son that the Church commemorates its principal events. Unlike the other saints, who are commemorated on the day of their death, because it was their birth to a better life, the day of Mary’s birth is solemnized, because she was born without sin.
The three festivals of the saints are: (1) The feast of St Stephen (Dec. 26th), no longer a holyday of obligation; (2), The feast of St. Peter and St. Paul (June 28th), not a holyday in the United States; (3), The feast of All Saints (Nov. 1st). In some lands the feast of the patron saint of the country is kept as a general holiday. These festivals are either fixed or movable. The former are kept yearly on the same day, the latter vary as to the date of celebration.
The fixed festivals are: The Immaculate Conception, Christmas, the Circumcision, the Epiphany, the Annunciation, St. Peter and St. Paul, the Assumption of and Nativity of Our Lady, the feast of All Saints. The movable feasts are: Easter, which is kept on the first Sunday following the first new moon after the spring equinox, consequently in the interval between the twenty-second of March and the twenty-fifth of April; the Ascension, forty days after Easter; Pentecost, fifty days after Easter; Corpus Christi, the Thursday of the second week after Whitsunday. The Church has instituted some of her festivals as substitutes for the feasts of the Old Testament, which were a foreshadowing of the Christian festivals. Others take the place of heathen festivities; the birth of Our Lord is commemorated in the season when the pagans consecrated the long winter nights to the worship of the sun; the processions in different countries on Candlemas Day is a Christianized form of the torch light processions held in the first days of February, when the days begin perceptibly to lengthen, in honor of the divinities of the ancients. This the Church did in order to render the evangelization of the heathen more easy, by changing, instead of abrogating, their ceremonies.
2. The holy-days of obligation ought to be kept in the same manner as the Sundays; we must abstain from servile work and assist at holy Mass.
The number of holy-days of obligation varies in different countries. In some certain festivals have been transferred to the Sunday following, as it was found that holy-days recurring too frequently produced the opposite effect to that for which they were instituted.
The Ecclesiastical Year.
The Jews of old used to observe a number of feasts besides the Sabbath in commemoration of important events in their history; e.g., the festival of Easter in memory of the exit from Egypt; Pentecost, in memory of the giving of the law on Sinai; the feast of Tabernacles in memory of their journey through the desert. The Church does much the same; she annually recalls events in Our Lord’s life on earth, representing them as vividly as is possible after so long a lapse of time. This is especially the case in the ceremonies of Holy Week.
1. The ecclesiastical year is an annual commemoration and representation of the life of Christ and of the time before and after His birth.
The Church places these events before us in order that we may meditate upon them and imitate Our Lord’s life. In Advent we are called upon to anticipate with the patriarchs of the Old Testament, the coming of the long-expected Redeemer; at Christmas we rejoice with the shepherds at His birth; in Lent we fast forty days with Christ; at Easter we rise again with Him; at Pentecost we join with the disciples in praying for the coming of the Holy Ghost. On almost every day of the year the Church commemorates one or more of the saints; they are like planets, revolving around the Sun of justice. She bids us consider their lives, how they imitated Christ, and thus became patterns of Christian perfection; and she desires to encourage us to imitate Him too. It is besides the intention of the Church that we should implore the intercession of the saints, that we may the more surely be made partakers of the merits of Christ. Finally by weaving these saints days into the cycle of the ecclesiastical year, she would teach us amid all our earthly occupations to keep our thoughts fixed upon God, doing all, as the Apostle exhorts us, to His glory (1 Cor. x. 31).
2. The ecclesiastical year begins upon the first Sunday in Advent; its three principal feasts are: Christmas, when the birth of Christ is celebrated; Easter, the day of His resurrection; and Pentecost, when the coming of the Holy Spirit is commemorated.
Thus the ecclesiastical year sets forth the glory of the Holy Trinity; it displays the charity of the Father, Who sent His Son into the world; the charity of the Son, Who died for our sakes, and the charity of the Holy Spirit, Who descended to abide with us. Therefore the first Sunday after Pentecost is dedicated to the Holy Trinity; this feast links all the other three together.
Each of these three great feasts has a season of preparation preceding it as well as a subsequent commemoration.
Advent is the season of preparation before Christmas. In the subsequent period we have the feast of the Circumcision, the Epiphany, the Purification, and the Sundays after the Epiphany.
The four weeks of Advent represent the four thousand years during which the coming of the Messias was expected. The Immaculate Conception occurs most suitably in Advent, the eighth of December, for at the birth of Christ the Sun of justice rose upon the world, dispelling the darkness of sin and ignorance; Mary was like the aurora (Cant. vi. 9), heralding the coming day. The period after Christmas is symbolical of the youth of Our Lord, and of the time which intervened before His entry upon His public ministry; His hidden life, that is, at Nazareth.
The forty days of Lent are the preparation for Easter; and the Paschal time lasts during the subsequent forty days before the ascension.
The preparation for Lent includes the three Sundays called respectively Septuagesima (70), Sexagesima (60), and Quinquagesima (50). They were so named because in the early days of Christianity many communities began the fast fifty, sixty, or seventy days before Easter, in order not to have to fast every day of the forty. The Wednesday after Quinquagesima is called Ash Wednesday, because of the ceremony of sprinkling ashes upon the foreheads of the faithful. On Ash Wednesday the season of Lent commences; it is forty-six days before Easter; thus the number of days is completed without the six Sundays, on which we do not fast. During Lent the public life of Our Lord is set before us, His previous fast, His Passion and death. The forty days which intervene before the ascension represent the forty days He spent on earth after His resurrection. The three days before the ascension are the Rogation days; on these processions are held.
The ten days after the ascension are the period of preparation for Pentecost. The subsequent commemoration lasts for twenty- four weeks, sometimes even longer.
The ten days before Pentecost represent the ten days during which the apostles awaited the coming of the Holy Spirit; the weeks that follow represent the time that shall elapse before the Last Judgment. Consequently on the last Sunday after Pentecost the Gospel read in church is that which foretells Our Lord’s coming as our Judge. The feasts of All Saints and All Souls close the ecclesiastical year. This is to signify that we are in unbroken communion with the blessed in heaven and the holy souls in purgatory and that our separation from them is but temporary. All Souls Day occurs suit ably when the face of nature presents an image of death.
3, The aspect of nature corresponds to the three principal festivals.
In Advent, at least for us who inhabit the northern hemisphere, the nights are longer than the days, and the life of vegetation is at a standstill; so it was in the spiritual order before the coming of Christ. After Christmas the days begin to lengthen; just so the birth of Christ brought light to the world. At Easter nature awakens to new life and decks herself with verdure; Christ rises glorious from the dead. At Pentecost trees and meadows are in their full beauty of leaf and blossom; with the coming of the Holy Spirit a fresh era commences for mankind, and fair flowers of holiness are brought forth.
The epistles and gospels, as well as the hymns and sequences of the Mass, are suited to the festivals and seasons of the ecclesiastical year.
The gospels are portions taken from the four gospels, and the epistles from other parts of Holy Scripture. They were originally compiled by St. Jerome.
This article, 1. THE FIRST COMMANDMENT OF THE CHURCH: THE OBSERVANCE OF SUNDAYS AND HOLYDAYS is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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