The Ebb and Flow of the Liturgical Calendar
Catholics often start off strong at the beginning of the Lenten season. Fasting? Check. Almsgiving? Check. Prayer? Check and double check. Many Catholics are marked with ashes on Ash Wednesday and dive headfirst into the penitential season. But, after the beginning of the great season of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, Lent becomes hard and arduous, leading many to abandon their Lenten promises just as many abandon New Year’s resolutions.
One of the reasons that so many people fail to retain zeal is because they fail to recognize Lent for the marathon that it is. Lent is a marathon that many try to sprint through. But any athlete can tell you that trying to sprint a marathon is, well, not a very wise idea. Rather, runners learn to pace themselves so that they can persevere and run the marathon through.
Part of the “pacing” that one must do during Lent is accepting one’s own limitations. Each of the core pillars of Lent can only be exercised so much within our lives. And what I may be able to do may be quite different than what you may be able to do. Lent does not call us to enter into competition with each other. In fact, it calls us to quite the opposite. It calls us to focus inwardly, on ourselves and our own relationship with God. It calls us to spend time, as Christ admonishes, removing the log from our own eye rather than the splinter from the eye of our neighbor.
Of course, this does not mean that we should not exercise concern for one another. Instead, we are called to improve ourselves so that we can become better brothers and sisters. We are called not to compare ourselves to others, but simply to improve ourselves in the best way that we can. Here again, we recognize that Lent is different for everyone.
Perhaps another challenge that many Catholics find with Lent is balancing the pillars of Lent. Many Catholics focus too heavily on one of the pillars while at the same time focusing too lightly on another. But, these pillars of Lent are best when integrated. A building is not as strongly supported by one pillar as it is by three. For example, by fasting we are called to give up something, like food or listening to music, so as to make room for something else, like prayer or time for others.
As I mentioned earlier in this article, many Catholics do all that I have mentioned above really well during the beginning of Lent. However, at this point in the Lenten season, many Catholics begin to lose the zeal with which they started the season. Now, it seems, is the time at which we Catholics just want to complain about not having this or that. Now, is the time that we start slacking off on the prayer that we have worked to improve during the beginning of Lent. Now is the time that we seem to forget to care for each other, to care for our brothers and sisters in Christ, to help each other run the race of Lent.
In the marathon of Lent, this time of the season is when we begin to get winded and our legs become tired. Yet, the Church is here to save us. The Church recognized, in her wisdom, that we would become exhausted from our time of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. So, she created her liturgical calendar in such a way that various feasts penetrate the Lenten season.
A few of these notable feasts that fall in the Lenten season are the Solemnity of St. Joseph, Husband of Mary and the Solemnity of the Annunciation. These solemnities (the highest liturgical rank of a feast in the liturgical calendar), as well as the solemnities of every Sunday, are days in which the pains of Lent can be eased. If these solemn feasts fall on Fridays, we are permitted to eat meat on that Friday. If you feel a strong desire to enjoy whatever you have been fasting from for Lent on one of these solemnities, you are permitted to indulge. (Though, you would do well to remember that gluttony is a sin…)
You see, these solemnities act as water stations in the marathon of Lent. On these days you are able to get a brief reprieve from the struggles of Lent. You can take a break and regroup. These days were placed here in the liturgical calendar so that Catholics would not be overwhelmed by the difficulties of Lent. These days allow us to regather our strength and then proceed onward along the path of the marathon.
This lesson is important to remember. Feasting and fasting go hand in hand. One cannot feast without end—that is gluttony. One cannot fast without end––that is a life of misery, and often unhealthy. For this reason, the Church’s liturgical calendar gives us ferial days, days in which nothing particularly special is celebrated. Then, there are seasons such as Christmas and Easter which focus on rejoicing. Finally, there are seasons like Lent and Advent which focus on penitence. These seasons all work together to help form a steady ebb and flow of feasting and fasting throughout the liturgical year.
While it is important to wholeheartedly participate in the penance that Lent (and to a lesser extent, Advent) calls us to, it is also important to remember to take a break from our long run and cool down at the refreshing water stations provided to us by the feasts and solemnities. This is one of the main reasons that it is so important to rely on your patrons. Children are baptized (or should be baptized) with a Christian name, a saint’s name, as a sign that the child’s parents are entrusting the care of their child’s soul to a particular saint. Later, the child may take on the name of another patron saint when they receive the Sacrament of Confirmation. These saints are meant to be our help and guides on the path to Heaven. In honor of them, we celebrate them on their feast days.
These feast days, as stated above, scattered throughout the Church’s calendar and can be used as “water stations” when they fall during the penitential season. For example, the saint I was entrusted to when I was baptized was St. Patrick. And, while his feast was trumped by the Sunday solemnity on March 17 this year, I was still able to celebrate in honor of him. I could relax my Lenten penitence and enjoy a time of celebration for the saint who has long looked after me.
And so, by recalling our patrons and by following the ebb and flow of feasting and fasting in the Church’s calendar, we can recognize that this marathon of Lent is not meant to be sprinted through. Rather, it is meant to be run, and run well––as an athlete would run a marathon. We are meant to stop and rest at the water stations of feasts and solemnities along the way. Lent is not meant to be a time that overpowers us with nonstop fasting and endless prayer. We are instead meant to fast and pray to help better ourselves and to even more greatly recognize the gift God has given us when we reach those times of joyous celebrations on feasts and solemnities.
So, if you have started to struggle this Lent, “Be not afraid!” as Pope St. John Paul II said. Instead, slow down. Catch your breath. Do not sprint through this marathon. As the tortoise beats the hare, so too will those who pace themselves in Lent reap a greater benefit from this wonderful season of penitence than those who lose sight of what its meaning is in their haste to reach the end.
St. Patrick, pray for us!
Patrick is a freshman studying mathematics and theology. Patrick is named after the greatest of all saints, St. Patrick. (This is a completely unbiased statement). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.