Living a Liturgical Life: Details of the Catholic Liturgical Year


Now that we have established some essential definitions, I would like to share a few reflections on the Catholic liturgical year. This material comes from the Liturgical Year Course offered on and is just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many insightful meditations in the liturgical year for us to consider that these are just a small piece of that.


To many in our world today, Advent is non-existent and the Christmas season is viewed as starting on the day after Thanksgiving (with Christmas shopping and Christmas carols) and ending on December 26th. To a faithful Catholic who wishes to live in conformity with the Church’s liturgical year, this secular practice makes absolutely no sense. In fact, it is so backwards that it borders on blasphemy.[1]

With the First Sunday of Advent, the Church begins anew the liturgical year. In the words of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, it is in one liturgical year that the Church re-lives the 33 years of Christ’s life – thirty years obeying, three years teaching, and three hours redeeming. Advent is a unique season of its own, not an extension of Christmas. It is neither an appropriate time to sing Christmas carols nor is it a time for Christmas parties

Advent is a time of penance in anticipation for the Nativity of Our Blessed Lord. The Four Weeks of Advent recall the four millennia of the Old Testament when mankind awaited the Savior. Hence, a spirit of penitential preparation should prevail. Moreover, Advent is also a time to focus and meditate upon the reality that we should always be prepared for the Final Judgment and the Second Coming of Christ.

Advent as a season is quite ancient. The season itself went through slow development, taking form back in the 4th century and reaching a definite form in Rome by the 6th century. Advent starts on the Sunday nearest November 30th (Saint Andrew’s feast day) and formed the beginning of the liturgical year by the 10th century. Advent started earlier at one time (as early as November 11th) because it was fashioned after Lent – so it had forty days originally in some areas – and even earlier in other areas (starting in September), which formed the basis of the monastic fast. However, by the 6th to 7th centuries the number was set as a span of four Sundays. And the 1962 Missal preserves most of the ancient Masses of this season, but they were not included in the Novus Ordo.

And while post-Vatican II Catholics are generally familiar with Advent, the main part of Advent that they are largely ignorant of is the Advent Embertide and Christmas Vigil Fast. Yes, according to our tradition, December 24th is a day of prayer, fasting and abstinence – so that we can more adequately prepare ourselves spiritually to celebrate the great Nativity of Our Lord. Yet how many Catholics have a great feast on December 24th rife with meats, sweets and alcohol? Ember days (in Latin, the Quatuor Tempora, meaning “four times”) are three days at or near the beginning of the natural seasons (Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter) established by the Church as days of fast and abstinence.


Ember Days

Although the observation of Ember Days is no longer required in mainstream Catholicism following Vatican II, they can – and should – still be observed by the faithful. In fact, many Traditional priests encourage the faithful to observe these days. Ember Days are set aside to pray and offer thanksgiving for a good harvest and God’s blessings. If you are in good health, it is recommended that you fast during these three days – Wednesday, Friday and Saturday of Ember Weeks – and pray the additional prayers prescribed (for Ember Days) in the Breviary. Remember the words from the Gospel: “Unless you do penance, you shall likewise perish” (Luke 13:5).[2] We are called to do penance throughout the year, and we can do that by uniting ourselves to the traditional times of penance which have nearly all been forgotten.

I now, with some slight modifications, quote from the New Advent encyclopedia:

“They were definitely arranged and prescribed for the entire Church by Pope Gregory VII (who reigned 1073-1085) for the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after December 13th (St. Lucia), after Ash Wednesday, after Whitsunday (another name for Pentecost Sunday), and after September 14th (The Exaltation of the Cross).

“The purpose of their introduction, besides the general one intended by all prayer and fasting, was to thank God for the gifts of nature, to teach men to make use of them in moderation, and to assist the needy. The ‘Liber Pontificalis’ ascribes to Pope Callistus (who reigned 217-222) a law ordering the fast, but probably it is older. Pope Leo the Great considers it an Apostolic institution. When the fourth season was added cannot be ascertained, but [Pope] Gelasius (around 495) speaks of all four. This pope also permitted the conferring of priesthood and deaconship on the Saturdays of ember week – these were formerly given only at Easter.”

Although it seems Ember Days were originally associated with the fruit of the earth which provides man with physical sustenance, it naturally took on greater significance. A second related level of importance was the fruit of the womb and the propagation of mankind. Thus, these days encompassed special intercessory prayers for all pregnant women, for safe deliveries, for healthy babies, and for all those longing for the blessing of a child.

Finally, a third connected level was that of fruitfulness in the life of grace, for which the priesthood is indispensible. Hence, Ember Days were also days when the entire Church prayed and fasted for holy vocations to the religious life and priesthood. In fact, in centuries past, nearly all men were ordained to the priesthood on an Ember Saturday.

It certainly would be laudable if we personally made the commitment to recover the practice of the Ember days in our own life and that of our families. We could dedicate the fasting and prayers of these days to beseech and thank God for physical nourishment, pregnant mothers and holy vocations.

By observing these Ember Days (in Advent as well as during the other three seasons), we truly live a more liturgical life. Not a single day of the year should pass when we do not feel a connection with the liturgical calendar. To do so, to neglect the feast days and fast days before us, is to live as orphans. Just as we keep these holy days, so too the heavenly host observes these holy days. It is our purpose in life to make it to Heaven, and so we must prepare ourselves by living a heavenly life here and now. If we do not feel within ourselves a desire to unite with the Church in honor and praise of Almighty God through the liturgical year, then we are sadly not living truly Catholic lives.

[1] Editor’s Note: We do well to bear in mind that the Church’s liturgical year, so to speak, ‘incarnates’ the great mysteries of the Life of Christ. This is the principal means by which Catholics, on a daily basis, enter more and more profoundly into the Mysteries of Christ. Truly, Catholics live in accordance with the patterns and rhythms of the liturgical year so as to conform themselves more to Christ, living out His life in their own. This is, after all, the essence of the spiritual life. St. Paul expresses it thus, “And I live, now not I; but Christ liveth in me” (Gal 2:20). Moreover, God makes special graces available to His flock in unique accordance with the liturgical seasons and feasts, but one must be disposed to receive them. This disposition is more readily acquired by the one living in accordance with the liturgical year. If we live Advent as if it were already Christmas, then we miss out on many graces, weaken our understanding of the Mysteries of Christ, and our life conforms less to that of Our Divine Lord and Redeemer.

[2] You should look up this verse (Lk 13:5) in your Bible. The Latin Vulgate and corresponding Douay Rheims English version clearly state the word “penance.” Unfortunately, many modern translations have changed this passage of Scripture. In fact, the editors of quite a few modern bibles have systematically removed the word ‘penance’ from the entire New Testament!