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Fasting and Feasting: Winning Back the Catholic Calendar

Last week, the display cases at my Catholic high school, which house the most recent creations of the art students, caught my attention. They contained dioramas commemorating family members and close friends who were clearly deceased. I assumed, it being the week of All Souls’ Day, that this was a project coinciding with that feast. The one peculiar thing about each of the memorials was the presence of a colorful voodoo-esque skull.

It didn’t cross my mind again until the morning of November 2, when I booted up my computer. Upon opening Google, I was confronted with an image of the same sort of skulls above the search bar. When I clicked on the image, a host of results popped up regarding the “Day of the Dead.” To my dismay, I discovered this to be a cultural celebration of the deceased, popular in Mexico, and not a direct corollary to All Souls’ Day.

After conferring with several students, the general opinion held that the Day of the Dead wasn’t influenced by Catholicism, but had its origins in Aztec culture. Further research confirmed that it was originally celebrated in the summer and moved to November only after the introduction of Catholicism to the continent in the sixteenth century.

At this point, I was feeling demoralized over another hijacking of a Catholic feast. This accommodation to paganism seemed to continue the process of morphing of All Hallows’ Eve into Halloween two days earlier. From a celebration of the Church Triumphant descends a holiday that tends to glorify the occult and demonic and is preoccupied with manifestations of evil and darkness.

My consternation continued through the weekend. On Sunday, the fourth grade religious education class had a coloring assignment that involved decorating one of these skulls. I wondered whether this same class could explain the communion of saints or the intercessory relationship between us and the Church Suffering that All Souls’ Day celebrates.

I understand that Catholic missionary work involves inculturation – taking what was best from a culture and incorporating it into the Christian faith. But in the case of my school and parish, it feels more as though Catholicism is being inculturated into paganism.

How did we get to this place, where another one of our hallmark Catholic celebrations has been subsumed by the secular culture and had its spiritual content diluted? It is not an original thought to propose that it began in the aftermath of Vatican II with the desacralizing of the liturgy. But this case raised a broader problem than the demystification of the Mass; we have lost the sense of the sacredness of time. The flow of the liturgical calendar is intended to sanctify the progression of life throughout the year and to draw one into the lived experience and historical reality of Christ’s Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery.

Without the rhythm of the liturgical calendar in one’s life, it becomes all too easy for the secular world to co-opt the vestiges of Catholic culture, which always entails a stripping of any spiritual content or supernatural faith. The examples of Christmas and Easter are so obvious that they are barely worth mentioning. The spirituality of these seasons has been replaced by a fat man who is the patron saint of consumerism (no disrespect to the genuine St. Nicholas) and a rabbit that lays chocolate cream eggs.

Then there are feasts that are practically overlooked in the new calendar, but for which a corresponding secular celebration still carries a shadow of the meaning. On February 2, the Church celebrates the Presentation of the Lord or Candlemas. This date is now synonymous with Groundhog Day – a perfect example of how rich spiritual meaning can be reduced to something entirely mundane.

The Presentation is the last event in Scripture from Jesus’s infancy, so it traditionally marked the conclusion to the Christmas cycle, when the Nativity scene was retired until next season. At the same time, it signaled the coming of spring, with lengthening daylight hours, and thus foreshadowed the impending seasons of Lent and Easter. Combine the increase in natural light with Simeon’s recognition of Jesus as the “light of revelation to the nations,” and it is clear why this day was a harbinger of spring and chosen for the blessing of light-giving candles. I don’t think it is unfair to say this feast goes unnoticed by most Catholics today, and the prophecy of spring on February 2 is now delegated to a rodent universally despised by anyone with an agricultural background.

The secular manifestations of Catholic feasts would not be a disconcerting trend were Catholics themselves wedded to the spirituality of the liturgical life of the Church. The culpability for this decline in liturgical awareness lies largely with the Church and particularly with the empowerment of bishops’ conferences. Some of the decisions made by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) regarding liturgies are particularly puzzling.

When discussing holy days of obligation every year, my students always ask why we aren’t obliged to attend all of the holy days listed in the Catechism (2177). The most glaring exclusion is the Feast of St. Joseph. The USCCB dispenses the faithful from venerating the foster father of Jesus, a member of the Holy Family and an epitome of male virtue. That doesn’t seem right.

Nor am I a fan of moving holy days to Sundays as an accommodation to the faithful. For example, the Epiphany, which is celebrated almost everywhere else in the world on January 6, changes every year in the U.S., depending upon what day the following Sunday is. It is difficult to explain the 12 days of Christmas to my students when the length of the Christmas season changes every year. More frustrating is the moving of the Ascension to a Sunday, instead of acknowledging the Biblical reality and the numeric symbolism of Christ rising forty days after Easter, on a Thursday.

Sure, the argument is that more people will be present for a feast celebrated on Sunday than during the week. But doesn’t attending Mass during the week communicate that the feast is special and worthy of extraordinary observance? That in turn is what develops awareness of and appreciation for liturgical calendar, which is so sadly missing among so many Catholics. Lastly, if the feasts of the Epiphany and the Ascension get moved to Sunday so more people will attend, then what does that say about the three feasts of Our Lady that aren’t moved to Sunday? Are they less important? Or should her feasts go the route of St. Joseph and be dispensed as well?

My appreciation for the sacredness of time has developed significantly since I started fasting and abstaining again on Fridays for the sanctification of the Church. By uniting myself to Christ’s passion through penance on Fridays, I feel a heightened sense of celebration and feasting on Sunday, with a consciousness that it is not merely self-indulgence, but glorying in the Resurrection. This weekly participation in the passion and resurrection of our Lord has given me a longing to make the same journey on a larger scale later this month, beginning with the penitential season of Advent and leading to the celebration of Christmas.

“Time after” certain feasts on the Church calendar, called “ordinary time” in the Novus Ordo calendar, is supposed to create this same anticipation. “Ordinary” in this sense does not mean “common” or “usual”; rather, it comes from the Latin “ordinalis,” implying the counting down of time. This is life immersed in the liturgy: one is in a state of penance, in a state of feasting, or counting the time in anticipation of the cycle beginning again. An individual week is a microcosm for the broader liturgical calendar.

The liturgical rhythm of penance, feasting, then counting down conforms perfectly to our human nature. Acts of self-denial and delayed gratification help us to grow in virtue and direct our attention to the goods beyond this world. Celebrations and feasting fulfill a human need given to us by God for joy and happiness. Finally, the forward-looking nature of the rest of the year reminds us that we are pilgrims always looking forward to our true home beyond this life. Like the Incarnation and the sacraments, the rhythm of the liturgical life fulfills a deep human desire, which God our Creator foresaw and for which He providentially provides.

For those you know, like my students, who need to have their sense of the liturgical cycle of life awoken, start small. Encourage fasting or penance on Friday followed by feasting on Sunday to celebrate the Resurrection. With habituation to that weekly participation in the Paschal Mystery, one will be well prepared to entered into the broader rhythm of the Church’s liturgical life and all the other feasts and memorials that accentuate it. Renewal in the Church will come through restoring the liturgical cycle as the heartbeat of the spiritual life.

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