Long before I was a Catholic, I gave things up for Lent. Though I was loathe to admit it, there were things about the Catholic Church that appealed to me, and one of them was the idea that our tiny sacrifices help us grow closer to the One who sacrificed everything for us. So, I gave up sweets as an annual Lenten fast and when Easter morning arrived, I proclaimed, “Break out the chocolate bunnies! He is risen!”
I fasted from Ash Wednesday to Easter, including every Sunday. Back then, I had no idea that the Church doesn’t include Sundays as part of Lent. Of course, I was too busy making up my own rules about Christianity to care what the Catholic Church said. I’d been baptized as an adult and I had my own ideas about nearly everything -- fasting and feasting, too. I had no inkling that there might be a prescribed or better way. There was just my way.
This held true for my treatment of all liturgical seasons (which I didn’t fully understand yet.) For example, when Christmas rolled around and people said, “I love this time of year! Why can’t every day be like Christmas?” I said, “It can! Become a Christian!” Jesus was the wellspring of the generosity and the desire to give, the very definition of Christmas, so why not treat every day as a commemoration of that? I thought I’d stumbled onto a profound truth: we can have Christmas every day, because Christ is with us.
However, much as I tried to keep “the Christmas spirit” every day, instinctively I knew that real life wasn’t like that. “All good things must come to an end” and so it was with the joys of Christmas. I soon found that in my real world, every day did not feel like Christmas, and Christmas joy couldn’t be forced where it didn’t fit.
Five years after my baptism, I was received into the Catholic Church. When I learned about the liturgical calendar, light bulbs went on. I finally began to see that we can live our Christian lives much more fully than trying to see “every day as Christmas.”
Through the liturgical year, we enter deeply into every aspect of Jesus’ life. Our earthly mother, the Church, knows what we need. In giving us a liturgical calendar to follow she has given us a prescription for how to live each day.
If the commercialism of Christmas is tempting us, Mother Church offers us Advent to slow us down. We learn to watch and wait with patience and a sweet anticipation. Then we are given not just one day of Christmas, but twelve. And on Twelfth Night, the feast of the Epiphany, we have the privilege of celebrating again as we commemorate the Magi’s gifts to the baby Jesus.
As the weeks after Christmas pass, and the joy of the celebration fades, zeal can easily fade, too; perhaps we become dry in prayer, or lax in some other area of our spiritual lives. In the past, I tried the superficial “every day can be Christmas!” approach to remedy this. But the wiser path is the one the Church offers us: the season of Lent. In this beautiful liturgical season we’re called to examine our lives and our relationship with God, to make sacrifices and renew promises. Lent offers us the methods and the necessary time to make this examination with seriousness and depth. It’s not a mere passing fancy, a fleeting self-exam– it’s six weeks of traveling inward, facing our weakness, and begging God to be our strength. Lent is an annual retreat in the desert, and our loving God’s invitation to draw nearer to Him.
But, we can’t stay in the desert forever, fallen and weak as we are. Are we struggling? Just in time to save us, Easter arrives and we delight in what was “lost” during Lent. Break out those chocolate bunnies, because God wants us to enjoy the legitimate goods and pleasures of His creation. He created the feast – and the chocolate -- as well as the fast.
And what a feast it is. Easter is celebrated for a full week, an “octave” on the Church calendar, because (as with Christmas) one day is not enough to contain this great solemnity. Ironically, for a week, I now get to relive my old attempt at making every day a feast. It really is “Easter every day” from Easter until the following Sunday. And, as I learned after being received into the Church, every Sunday is a “little Easter” worthy of the same intense joy of that first Easter morn. That’s why Sundays aren’t a part of Lent. It simply wouldn’t be proper to fast on such a glorious day of celebration.
The liturgical calendar is a sublime gift from the Church. Even in “ordinary time” we observe feasts, memorials and saints’ days that remind us of our call to holiness. By submitting to seasonal rites and practices, we acknowledge that we are bodily creatures in need of regular maintenance. The Church calendar doles out that maintenance throughout the year. We begin with Advent, awaiting the Savior’s birth and then celebrate the Incarnation. We plod through ordinary time, then venture into Lent, where we feel the desert of life without Him, contemplate the pain of His passion and death, and finally feel the joy of His resurrection. Our Lord’s life and death become more real to us, and more profoundly understood, when we live our lives in rhythm with the Church’s liturgy.
The liturgical calendar is also a helpful tool in our domestic churches to aid us in the battle against the commercialization of Christian holidays. When we spend four weeks directing our children’s focus to the manger, we help them to see that the vital gift is Jesus, not the shiny package under a tree. When we walk through the desert of Lent with them we teach them, through our meager offerings, what sacrifice means in the real, everyday world. The Cross becomes tangible and the joy and relief of the Resurrection are palpable.
As a new Christian, I was on the right track when I longed for every day, in some way, to be Christmas but I was missing a big part of the puzzle. The liturgical calendar supplied the last of the missing pieces. As a Catholic, I’ve delighted in living the liturgical year and the ways in which it deepens and revitalizes my (and my family’s) spiritual life.
A wise mother knows that her children can’t celebrate all the time. Every party has an end. Can every day be a feast? No, but every day can be Christ-filled and imbued with spiritual meaning as we follow, pray about, relive and celebrate the events of our Lord’s earthly life. We can thank our wise mother, the Church, for the wisdom of such a gift -- on Christmas morning, in the desert of Lent, at the foot of the Cross, and on Easter morning.
Break out those chocolate bunnies! He is risen!
(A shorter version of this article appeared several years ago in New Covenant, and later, this extended version appeared on Catholic Exchange.)