For Catholics, the cornerstone of the practice of the faith is the sacraments. And among the sacraments, the Eucharist is the place where our life comes together most completely. In the Eucharist, Christ becomes fully present to an extent not found elsewhere. The celebration of the Eucharist is the pinnacle of the Christian life.
But not every celebration of the Eucharist is the same. In every Mass, the bread and wine are transformed into Christ's body and blood. The Liturgy of the Eucharist is essentially the same from one Mass to the next.
Each Mass, however, has its own unique character or flavor which draws on the Liturgy of the Word. The Scripture readings change from one week to the next. And as those readings change, the coloring of the celebration is altered.
The church will soon enter the season of Advent. The readings for that season will be colored by hope and anticipation of Christ's coming. We will hear from the Hebrew prophets, particularly Isaiah, more than at any other time of the year. We will see an emphasis on John the Baptist as the forerunner who prepares the way for the Lord. We will experience some of the mystery and awe Mary must have felt as she learned she was to become the mother of the Lord.
During the Easter season, the church emphasizes the glorification of the risen Jesus, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the courage and faith of the first Christians as they spread the Gospel. In Ordinary Time, we learn what it means to walk with Jesus and live the Gospel in daily life. We read the lessons and stories from many different books of the Bible and see the nature of salvation from many vantage points.
The flow of the seasons of the Spirit is called the liturgical year. The centrepoint of our faith is Christ's death and resurrection. We celebrate that in every Mass. But we also celebrate different aspects of that mystery, now emphasizing one aspect, now another.
The whole celebration -- both the Liturgy of the Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Word -- is an exercise of our religious memory. This "memory" is not just a calling to mind; it is making the past present for the sake of the future. The Eucharist makes Christ's one sacrifice present; the Word makes present whatever part of Scripture we are reading today.
We used to be afraid of being imprisoned in the past. But Pope John Paul noted that today we sometimes feel ourselves to be "prisoners of the present" (Light of the East, 8). We have instant everything. Technology changes so fast few of us can keep up. No one wants last year's fashions -- in either clothes or ways of thinking -- except, of course, when retro becomes fashionable.
There is genuine slavery in our being caught in the present. We are not ourselves if our identity is dictated by ever-changing fashions and techniques. Authenticity comes from touching the past -- my personal past or our common tradition -- so that we have something to offer to the future.
Liturgy does that. Liturgy of word and sacrament touches the memory of God in our midst. It is a liberation from the tyranny of the present. It transforms us by making the past real. And it does this in a way that differs from one celebration to the next.
Purity of heart is to will one thing. The one thing we will is to participate in Christ's death and resurrection. But in different seasons, that means different things. At Advent, it means hope. At Christmas, it means joy. In Lent, it means repentance. At Easter, it means an even fuller joy. At Pentecost, it means courage. In Ordinary Time, it may mean poverty of spirit, trust in God or one of many other things. All these themes are diverse ways of touching the paschal mystery. And we need different seasons for entering into different aspects of this mystery more fully.
So, we have the fullness of Christ's presence in the Eucharist. But the grace given to us at each Mass has a unique character which may move our lives in a different direction than the grace of a previous Mass. The grace is tailored to the movement of the seasons of the Spirit and to the particular readings of the day. It strengthens us to deal with the diverse and sometimes unexpected events of our lives. The liturgical year is a mirror of life and an instrument for helping us to live that life more fully.
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