|How does the Church celebrate the seasons in its liturgies?|
We touched on the Church’s celebration of the seasons in its liturgies in previous answers, and we can expand on that in this answer. The primary means by which the Church commemorates a season in its liturgies is by the rubrics governing the liturgy.
During the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent, the seasons are marked with changes in the colors of vestments that the celebrants wear, cloths that are used on the altar and in the sanctuary, and sacramentals used during the liturgy (such as the candles on the wreaths used during Advent). During Advent and Lent, the Gloria, a joyful prayer of veneration of the glory of God, isn’t sung or recited. This isn’t because joy or veneration of God’s glory is strictly disallowed, but rather in recognition of the penitential character of those seasons. We yearn in expectation for the return of the Gloria at Christmas and Easter just as we do for Christ’s birth and resurrection.
The Church also notes the seasons in the prayers of the liturgy, prayers that ask God for perseverance during penitential seasons and give thanksgiving to God during the seasons of major feasts. The readings from Scripture are also geared to the seasons. During Advent, a time of anticipation of the Lord’s first and second comings, the readings are centered on anticipation of Christ’s birth and divine judgment. During the Easter season, the Church reads through the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke’s account of the apostles’ first ventures in missionary work after the ascension of Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
Sometimes, even the feast days of saints during the Church’s liturgical seasons can point to the larger theological import of the mystery of Christ. As we saw in answer 5, several saints whose feast days fall during Advent remind us of the overarching themes of the season. The same holds true for other liturgical seasons. Let’s look at Christmas as another example.
There is a slew of feast days right after Christmas emphasizing how that the events surrounding Christmas were an anticipation of Christ’s eventual suffering, death, and resurrection. December 26 is the feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr after the establishment of the Church. December 27 is the feast of St. John the Evangelist, the beloved disciple who stood at the foot of the cross and received the Blessed Mother from Christ to be his own mother. December 29 is the feast of St. Thomas à Becket, bishop and martyr. In between these two feasts is December 28, the feast of the Holy Innocents, the first martyrs after the birth of Christ.
Let’s look at the stories of these saints’ lives. We have St. Stephen, ordained a deacon to assist the apostles and to tend to the Church’s works of charity (Acts 6:1-6). He was martyred for his witness to God, and his martyrdom was one of the catalysts for the conversion of Saul, the great persecutor of Christians. In Stephen we first see how, as Tertullian noted in Apologeticus, the blood of the martyrs will become the seed of the Church.
Next comes St. John the Evangelist. Alone among the apostles, he stood at the foot of Christ’s cross. To him Christ entrusted his mother to be John’s mother. John also would stand as representative for all Christians, for whom Christ’s mother would become their mother (John 19:26-27). John witnessed the blood and water pour out from the side of Christ (John 19:34). He is believed to have been the last of the apostles to die and the only one not to die a martyr.
Thomas à Becket lived more than a thousand years after Stephen and John. He was martyred because he challenged the right of the king (Henry II of England) to try one of Becket’s priests. Although the relationship between Church and state has gone through many changes over the centuries, the human need for a supranational sanctuary to protect people who find themselves at odds with state authorities has not changed. We are called to obey and honor earthly leaders (e.g., Rom. 13:1-2), but we are also called to preserve for God that which is God’s (cf. Luke 20:19-25).
Finally, there are the Holy Innocents. When King Herod was alerted to the possibility of a usurper to his throne, he set about to crush that threat. When the Magi did not return, preventing Herod from interrogating them as to the newborn king’s whereabouts, Herod decided to murder with ruthless efficiency all the baby boys who might have a claim to the position (Matt. 2:1-18). Barring a miracle, the Holy Innocents did not consciously know the cause for which they died, but the blood they shed was quite possibly the only blood shed by martyrs that directly protected God’s life.
How does this relate to Christmas? It shows that Christ’s birth made possible his passion, death, and resurrection. The saints of the Christmas season show us that the birth of Christ points us to his sacrifice on Calvary and the redemption of mankind. [TAKEN FROM – 20 ANSWERS: SEASONS & FEASTS]