How the Liturgical Year Forms Us into the Likeness of Christ
“The seasons and feasts, the fasts and solemnities, if we are open and alert to them, lead us deeper and deeper into the self, beyond the pull of the present, higher and higher into the One who beckons us on through time to that moment when we will dissolve into God, set free from time to become one with the universe.”
- Sister Joan Chittister
Christians seeking spiritual formation, with a full imersion, should consider the liturgical year as a template for daily spiritual guidance and annual reflection of divine interaction. The liturgical year is captured in the Church calendar celebrating the life of Jesus in the past, present, and future through seasons, feasts, and saints.
The purpose of spiritual formation is for us to come out of ourselves completely in order to enter into the divine life of Jesus that engages with the present for the purpose of reengaging reality and our true selves, as people who bear the tangible presence of Christ that will change reality, as we know it. This allows the flourishing of human spiritually to be actively moving deeper within the soul where Christ is found.
The liturgical year not only invites us to be a part of the grand story of the Church, but also propels us to be instruments for conceptualizing the history of love as part of daily formation and ecclesial mission.
The liturgical year turns mundane time into sacramental time.
The liturgical year is inviting all people to engage in the evermore, grand story of love.
The Detachment of the Most Precious Commodity: Time
Author and contemplative Thomas Merton believes, “We do not detach ourselves from things in order to attach ourselves to God, but rather we become detached from ourselves in order to see and use all things in and for God.”
For humans, time is the most precious commodity, not money. Time is a limited resource offered in a twenty-four hour span suffocated with activities, events, work, leisure, sleep, and social media. The phrase, “If only a day lasted 36 hours,” is often vocalized by the average person, and the lack of spiritual formation is often due to the disordering of sacramental time.
To begin the immersion of formation, we must begin with detaching the self from the most precious commodity: time. Before money and materials can be given up for idolatry cleansing, ordering sacramental time appropriately will begin the journey of learning to embody the life of Jesus for the purpose of living into the grand story of love. The false self gets wrapped around the disordering of time that is often in direct relation to people, materials, money, and experiences.
"The only true joy on earth is to escape from the prison of our own false self, and enter by love into union with the Life Who dwells and sings within the essence of every creature and in the core of our own souls. In His love we possess all things and enjoy fruition of them, finding Him in them all. And this as we go about the world, everything we meet and everything we see and hear and touch, far from defiling, purifies us and plants in us something more of contemplation and of heaven." - Thomas Merton
If the mind can learn to see and comprehend time differently, as something sacramental, this can prompt a surrendering of the minute as an idol, in which the things that fill those minutes can become something of spiritual discernment. To see time as sacramental will sanction the liturgical year to become a living organism in the practice of a devoted Christian for the grand story of love.
The Ecclesial Community Worshipping in Sacramental Time
“The liturgical year reminds us as the church what kind of community we are meant to be.” - Sister Joan Chittister
When worshipping in the context of the sacred calendar on Sunday mornings, the perspective becomes more than just what is happening in the context of the present community, but is expanded into what Church is singing, speaking, remembering, celebrating, and mourning in the rest of the world. The microscope is taken off of the individual and is traded with a telescope that is looking into other communities worshipping the same God in different contexts.
“Bread and wine, water and oil, art and architecture, human touch and human speech, human faces and human bodies: all of these ordinary, earthly, and earthly things become the meeting place of God and the people of God. And among all ordinary things that form the ground upon which the human and the divine meet is time.” - Father Patrick Malloy
When we are gathered for worship in community, everything done is meaningful and purposeful. What can strengthen us more than knowing thousands of other like-minded believers are following the same course of formation?
At the end of the Sunday morning liturgy, the benediction sends us out into the world to continue engaging in sacramental time and following the liturgical year as a guide for spiritual formation for the purpose of changing reality. This keeps us accountable to think and live beyond ourselves. The most vital component of venturing into a holy life is remembering why we are doing it.
“The liturgical year is about putting down our worship of the self and growing more into the One who calls us." - Sister Joan Chittister
Anamnesis: A Certain Kind of Remembering
The liturgical year is wrapped around the importance of anamnesis. The word amamnesis comes from the Greek language and is defined as ‘remembrance.’ Father Malloy describes it as a certain kind of remembering. The purpose of reciting the lines “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again,” is to remember the life of the incarnate Christ, and remember the promise of the second coming.
The past informs the present for something sacred. God, who is eternal, is outside of the human ontology of time and exists in the past, present, and future. By the power of the Spirit, the past breathes into the present and the present breathes into the future. The responsibility for us is to represent Christ in the present that is informed by the past with our eyes looking toward the future of divine restoration in the second coming.
The Season of Advent: Anticipation
The liturgical year begins on the first Sunday of Advent. Advent reminds the Church about the first coming of the incarnate Christ and teaches believers to be engaged in the presence of Christ alive in them while they wait in anticipation for the second coming of Christ. Following the liturgical year is an active practice and it begins with anamnesis and anticipation.
The liturgical year begins with shining light on the purpose of being formed in the likeness of Jesus that is critical for a life of holiness. Sister Chittister says, “Advent is about learning to wait. It is about not having to know exactly what is coming tomorrow, only that whatever it is, it is of the essence of sanctification for us,” she continues, “We learn in Advent to stay in the present, knowing that only the present well lived can possibly lead us to the fullness of life.”
Anamnesis and anticipation grants the Church rest in order to hold sacramental time in the peace of Christ.
The importance of Advent is to refrain from indulging in the holiday excess of secular feasts and consumerism, and keeping the one, who is to come, on the forefront of the mind and in the center of the heart.
It turns delusion and idolatry into hope, peace, joy, and love (which are the themes of each Sunday in Advent).
“The Advent mystery in our own lives is the beginning of the end of all, in us, that is not yet Christ. It is the beginning of the end of unreality. And that is surely a cause of joy! But unfortunately we cling to our unreality, we prefer the part to the whole, we continue to be fragments, we do not want to be ‘one [humanity] in Christ.’" - Thomas Merton
Spiritual formation must be the goal for us, and using the liturgical year allows us to come out of ourselves and into the heart of Christ.
This propels us into actual reality and away from unreality created by the narrow biases of corrupted souls.
Advent begins the journey of a life embodied in the nature of Jesus, the one who was, who is and is to come.
The Season of Lent: Penitence & Penance
Lent is a season of reflection, lamenting, penitence and penance, highlighting the sacrament of the Eucharist (communion), and once again: anamnesis.
The purpose of Lent is to prepare Christians for the celebration of Easter.
The process of making the journey to the resurrection of the Christ is just as vital for spiritual formation, as the revelation and proclamation of a risen Christ is.
The purpose of reflection and penitence (sorrow of sin) is to remember that humankind, in whom Christ came to save, martyred him as a criminal.
In present time, humans, particularly us Christians, martyr the good news of Jesus as we fail to love him with our whole heart and fail to love our neighbor as themselves.
Penitence leads us to penance (confession of sins and holy action) and this prepares us for the mission of the Church.
“Lent calls each of us to renew our ongoing commitment to the implications of the Resurrection in our own lives, here and now. But that demands both the healing of the soul and the honing of the soul, both penance and faith, both a purging of what is superfluous in our lives and the brightening, the intensifying, of what is meaningful. Lent is a call to renew a commitment grown dull, perhaps by a life more marked by routine than by reflection." - Sister Joan Chittister
Ash Wednesday: From Dust to Dust
The season of Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, and this day, this sacramental time, is a call to repent and follow the teachings of Christ, and the mantra of this day says, “Remember that you are dust, and dust you shall return.”
“Ash Wednesday confronts us with what we have become and prods us to do better. We need to repent of our senseless excesses and our excursions into sin, our breaches of justice, our failures of honesty, our estrangement from God, our savorings of excess, our absorbing self-gratifications, one infantile addiction, one creature craving another." - Sister Joan Chittister
The root of sin is idolatry, often the worship of the self, painted with a coat of fear and expressed through the actions of excess and aggression. To become detached from the self allows the proper ordering of worship and time to be directed to Christ, and the coat of fear is swapped for the coat of love, and the expressions of excess and aggression are transformed into kindness and hospitality.
This is what the season of Lent can propel the us to do, because the end of the season (Easter) will propel the Church into mission and into holy action.
In Lent, faith is tested, sin is purged, and Christians are met with the reality of suffering. Through the life of Jesus, suffering shows that holiness lives on the other side of death.
Holy Week: The Intersection of Lament and Glory
Several weeks following Ash Wednesday is Holy week, which is the last week of Lent, and this begins after Palm Sunday, which celebrates Jesus entering into Jerusalem recognized as a humble king coming to serve the weak and the broken. Holy Week is the most important season in the liturgical year.
Holy week begins the last week of Jesus before his death, burial, and resurrection.
Near the end of the week is Holy Thursday and this day represents the sacramental time that conceptualized mission and worship at the last supper with Jesus and his disciples.
At this gathering, Jesus ritualized the Eucharist (communion), what he had been practicing throughout his life with the weak and broken, as an act of worship for his followers (who were weak and broken) who would begin his Church with the weak and broken.
At this gathering, Jesus also washes the feet of his disciples, which symbolized the mission of the Church, which is to serve and love the world. This was the last act of Jesus before his death.
“Holy Thursday is the day of gifts given and gifts taken away. It is the sudden and intersecting experience of loss and gain, of joy and sorrow, of the tension between life and death–and all of them at the same time.” - Sister Joan Chittister
The following day is known as Good Friday and this is darkest moment of time during the liturgical year.
On this day, the Church laments and remembers the innocent death of a humble king who came to serve the weak and the broken.
The importance of following this day is for Christians to feel the weight of the death of the incarnate Christ.
It is to realize that all people, including Christians, have the capability of crucifying innocence.
Good Friday is not a funeral, but a piece of music used for anamnesis that connects the head to the heart. It is part of the symphony of glory revealed.
It’s a moment in sacramental time when Christians may feel present with the past. It is the day that makes Easter Sunday possible. It is the death that makes resurrection, glory, and redemption a part of the grand story of love.
Easter: The Glory of Christ Revealed
Easter Sunday is the biggest day of the liturgical year and for the ecumenical Church.
It is where Christians get their fire.
It is where is where doubters get their faith.
It is where sinners get their hope.
It is the center of liturgical year. It is where every liturgical season points to. It is the glory of Christ revealed.
“Easter Sunday is the moment Christmas points to, the moment the Passion obscures, the moment the tomb reveals.” - Sister Joan Chittister
Easter Sunday not only reveals the glory of Christ through the resurrection, but also the glory of Christ revealed in the life of the Church.
This day marked the beginning of the end that is the restoration of the world.
Striving for a holy life through spiritual formation is learning to live out the resurrection of the new self–found in Christ that came from the detachment and death of the false self.
Ordinary Time: From Mundane to Sacramental
The gap between the seasons of Epiphany and Lent is known as Ordinary Time, and the larger gap between the season of Easter and Advent is also known as Ordinary Time.
Ordinary Time is a season for embracing mundane time for the purpose of seeing it as sacramental time.
These seasons are opportunities for learning to practice what was revealed during the seasons of anticipation, lament, and glory. These seasons are opportunities for practicing detachment and the ordering of time for the purpose of properly directed worship.
Every Sunday can be a miniature celebration of Easter.
Every liturgy (worship service) is an anamnesis (a remembering) and a mandate (a commissioning) for washing the feet of the world.
Every mass (service) can be an encounter with the tangible presence of Christ through the sacrament of Eucharist (communion).
Every day can become sacramental through the detachment of the false self and the attachment of Christ to the soul.
The liturgical year continues to tick as each day passes, and the feast days, in the honor of past saints, are made available to remember and commemorate the fathers and mothers who went before present-day Christians, who lived sacramental and devoted lives of holiness.
“There is nothing ordinary about Ordinary Time at all. It makes dailiness, stability, fidelity, and constancy, the marks of what it takes for Christians to be ‘Christian’ the rest of year." - Sister Joan Chittister
Christians who seek a saturated anatomy of spiritual formation; the liturgical year is made available for them and all people yearning to live a life beyond themselves.
The liturgical year moves us from living in the grand story of the self to the grand story of love: who is Christ.
To come out of the self, the false self can then enter into the divine relationship of Christ where the true self is found.
“From the moment that we have responded by faith and charity to His love for us, a supernatural union of our souls with His indwelling Divine Person gives us participation in His divine sonship and nature. The union of the Christian with Christ is not just a similarity of inclination and feeling, a mutual consent of minds and wills. It has a more radical, ore mysterious and supernatural quality: it is a mystical union in which Christ Himself becomes the source and principle of divine life in me.” - Thomas Merton
To be formed in the likeness of Christ is not just about the spiritual benefit of the self, but for the benefit of all who encounter those who are formed.
Spiritual formation makes ecclesial mission possible and effective.
Unformed Christians often engage in ecclesial mission and this ends up causing more damage than healing to a broken world.
“We receive God, in the Spirit, and in the same Spirit we return our love to God through our brothers." - Thomas Merton
Engaging time sacramentally can be expressed through the practices of prayer, worship, and mission, but also theming the life around the liturgical year, which is part of the grand story of love.
This spiritual formation puts to death–the false self, and the true self is resurrected in the likeness of Christ.
“The liturgical year is, then, actually about Easter. It is about the Crucifixion and the Resurrection of Jesus, about the cross and the empty tomb, about the intersection of the life of Jesus with the rest of humankind, with us and our lives, with us and our death.” - Sister Joan Chittister
The liturgical year is a template for living beyond the false self and into the resurrection of the true self found in Christ.
May we be formed in your likeness, Oh Christ. Be in our minds. Be on our lips. Be in our hearts. And use our hands for your glory. May we see each day as an opportunity for love and living beyond ourselves and for others. May we put you first, as we put our neighbors before ourselves. May we see all created things as good and holy. May we surrender our most precious idol that is time. May time become sacramental. May all things done in and through time be holy, sacred, and pure. Teach us to walk in your will and walk in your ways for the glory of your name. Amen.
Joan Chittister, The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2009).
Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1961).
Patrick Malloy, Celebrating the Eucharist: A Practical Ceremonial Guide for Clergy and Other Liturgical Ministers (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2007).