Restore the Lost Seasons!

In today’s Catholic discourse, the label of ‘reactionary’ is used all too easily in discussions about liturgy, and I may well be called reactionary for what I am about to say. Let me first state, then, that I am hardly the progressive’s idea of a typical ‘reactionary’: I attend parochial Ordinary Form masses almost exclusively, and I think that–despite their banal texts, which I find rather lacking in spiritual, intellectual and literary excellence– Ordinary Form masses can be, and sometimes are, done in an edifying way; nor do I think that every idea behind the reform of 1969 was wrong in principle.

Nevertheless, I read Latin very readily, and so I had not long been Catholic before I discovered the Roman Breviary of 1960, finding it richer and more reverent than the adequate-but-bland Liturgy of the Hours. Hence I go to parochial Mass in the Ordinary Form, but I say some Offices in the Extraordinary Form.

Now, one thing that becomes obvious when one leads this liturgical double life, is that the old and new liturgical years have radically different shapes.

Consider the following table: 

Ordinary Form Extraordinary Form
Advent Tempus Adventus
Christmas Tempus Nativitatis
Tempus Epiphaniae
Ordinary Time Tempus Post Epiphaniam
Tempus Septuagesimae
Lent Tempus Quadragesimae
Tempus Passionis
Paschal Triduum Triduum Paschale
Easter Tempus Paschatis
Tempus Ascensionis
Octava Pentecostes
Ordinary Time (Resumed) Tempus Post Pentecosten

The two calendars below also show something of the difference in shape. Here is the new calendar for 2020 (minus optional memorials, which are rarely kept):

And here is the old calendar for 2020. One can see Septuagesimatide in purple from the 9th – 25th February, and the Vigil and Octave of Pentecost from the 30th May – 6th June. (Note also the ember days on the 23rd, 25th, and 26th September, and the vigils on the 23rd June and the 14th August):

As we can see, then, the new Form has five distinct seasons, and one Ordinary of Seasons (Ordinary Time), whereas the old Form has twelve distinct seasons. And what I want to suggest today is that each of the seven lost seasons of the old Form (Epiphanytide, Time after Epiphany, Septuagesimatide, Passiontide, Ascensiontide, the Octave of Pentecost, and the Time after Pentecost) guarded the faithful against serious errors, all of which are prominent in today’s Church and world. This, I will argue, is a good reason for restoring the old seasons to the new Mass. (Note: my argument will lead me to compare the old and new Missals, but here I do not mean to criticise the new Mass as such—only its defective calendar, and the consequences thereof).

To show the value of the lost seasons, I will now consider them in order.

Epiphanytide

In the new calendar, the time between the feast of the Epiphany and the Sunday thereafter forms part of the generic Christmas season. But in the old calendar, the time between the Epiphany and the 13th January inclusive forms the season of Epiphanytide.

To understand the value of this season, we need first to take a closer look at the Epiphany itself. After Christmas has told of the birth of our Lord, the feast of the Epiphany tells the story of the Magi. It explains that, prompted by their wisdom and learning, and guided by the star, they travelled long and hard to find and honour their newborn saviour. Thus Epiphany reminds us that all wisdom and philosophy leads to the Faith; that the Faith satisfies the human mind as well as the human heart, and explains and perfects all the long preceding ages of human striving after beauty, truth, and God.

In keeping with the importance of this point, the eight days between the Epiphany and the the Baptism of Christ inclusive are, in the old calendar, days of Epiphanytide. The ferial readings are of the Epiphany, until the following Sunday intervenes (the Sunday of the Holy Family); thereafter, the ferial readings continue the important theme of wisdom by telling us of the youthful Christ’s astonishing teaching in the temple (Luke 2:42-52), and by reminding us that our reason needs to be grounded in our Faith if it is to be of use (Rom 12:1-5)[1]. The collect in this period is itself a prayer for sight: ‘O Lord, we beseech you, bestow heavenly piety upon the prayers of your suppliant people, so that they may see what needs to be done, and that, seeing it, they may gain the strength to do it.’[2]

Epiphany, Francisco Herrera the Elder (1576-1656)

In the new calendar and Form, however, the days between Epiphany and the following Sunday are generic days of Christmas, in which the readings follow what one can at most term a very loose theme of Christmastide, the baptism of Christ, and the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry (1 John 3:22-5:21, Matt 4:12-17, 23-25, Mark 6:34-52, Luke 4:14-22, 5:12-16, John 3:22-30). Even the official rationale for the Christmas schema sounds rather half-hearted (Lectionary for Mass, ‘Introduction’, chap. 5, par. 96.):

From 29 December on, there is a continuous reading of the whole of the First Letter of John, which actually begins earlier, on 27 December, the Feast of St. John the Evangelist, and on 28 December, the Feast of the Holy Innocents. The Gospels relate manifestations of the Lord: events of Jesus’ childhood from the Gospel of Luke (29-30 December); passages from the first chapter of the Gospel of John (31 December – 5 January); other manifestations of the Lord from the four Gospels (7-12 January).

This is a shame, because Epiphanytide, as presented in the old calendar, protects Catholics both from relativism and from Evangelicalism.

Let’s first consider relativism. Relativism is the theory that no one culture, belief or religion can be shown to be make more sense than any other. Epiphanytide refutes it by reminding us that the Magi, though far distant from the Jews in space, culture, and language, were nonetheless able to find their Jewish saviour, and, what’s more, to find him by exercising their wisdom and reason. This proves that the Faith has a universal rational appeal. It is the natural end-point of all human reason, and it therefore cannot be dismissed as ‘just one religion amongst many’, or as just a feature of one culture.

As I say, Epiphanytide also protects us from evangelicalism—a largely good, sincere, and worthy movement, but not one that Catholics gain by joining. For evangelicals tend to see ‘Christianity’ as standing in a striking discontinuity with all previous human reason and ways of worship; rather unhistorically, they regard the unity for which Christ and Paul prayed as possible if only everyone would read their bibles prayerfully; and finally, they base their distinctive theology on some logically and linguistically problematic interpretations of certain key bible passages. In other words, the evangelical faith has some irrational and some anti-rational aspects. But Epiphanytide reminds us that such a faith cannot be wholly correct; for it shows that the true Faith is rational.

Here we might note that, since the reform, South American Catholicism has been decimated (or worse) by Evangelical preachers, and the wider Church afflicted by relativism.

The Time after Epiphany, and Septuagesimatide

The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Masaccio (1401-1428)

Moving on, the old calendar’s Time after Epiphany then continues these themes, providing more of a sense of narrative direction than Ordinary Time, the first chunk of which now begins in the new Form. (Ordinary Time is supposed to be a kind of generic or timeless ‘Time’; that is, an ‘Ordinary of Seasons’). But then, 17 days before Ash Wednesday, the old Form drops the word ‘Alleluia’ from its liturgies, and moves to the Season of Septuagesima, with purple, penitential vestments.

This period is a preparation for Lent, which itself is a preparation for Easter; and some people nowadays quite reasonably ask why we need a preparation for a preparation. Well, the answer is simple. Lent is about fasting and spiritual preparation; but Septuagesimatide explains why we need to go through that uncomfortable preparation in the first place, steeling us for our Lenten resolutions. For its theme is Original Sin: the readings at Mattins are from Genesis 1:1 onwards, and the three Sunday collects (said in the office and at Mass) remind us of our fallen nature, and our absolute need of God’s grace, starting with the following:

O Lord, we pray, look with a kindly eye upon the prayers of your people, so that we who are justly afflicted for our sins may be mercifully freed, to the glory of your name. Through the Lord…[3]

Meanwhile, at Mass, we have the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matt 20:1-16), the Parable of the Sower (Luke 8:4-15), and then Jesus’ prediction of his passion, and healing of the blind man (Luke 18:31-43): these remind us that we cannot rest on our spiritual laurels, or be confident in our own goodness or salvation; and that we cannot be healed except through the Cross.

Now, it is surely noteworthy that today, when Septuagesima has long been suppressed, the Catholic faithful and the culturally Christian world have almost entirely lost their sense of Original Sin. Even the ‘I confess’ at Mass is usually omitted, apparently on the grounds that is unnecessary; and confessionals are under-used. Besides, our society today believes that God or the world owes it something, and is complacent in its pretended enlightened goodness. During Coronavirus, people have been very quick to ask ‘where is God?’, as if we deserve better of him. But, as one Italian bishop put it after a recent earthquake, we should of course be asking, ‘Where is man?’. How greatly the world needs some Septuagesima sensibility today!

Passiontide

To continue our narrative: both calendars now move into Lent. Then, after four weeks, the old calendar shifts a spiritual gear, entering Passiontide. The Lenten seasons of Lent and Passiontide are both about fasting and preparation, but Passiontide narrows our focus, unflinchingly reminding us of our Lord’s suffering. Most instances of the Gloria patri are dropped from the Extraordinary Form Passiontide liturgy (only those said after psalms in the Office, and at the beginning of each Hour, remain), and the Canon of the Mass now begins with the Preface of the Holy Cross, which focuses on the Passion, rather than the Preface of Lent, which focuses on fasting:

Preface of the Holy Cross

The Flagellation of Christ, Rubens

Vere dignum et iustum est, aequum et salutare, nos tibi semper et ubique gratias agere: Domine, sancte Pater, omnipotens aeterne Deus: Qui salutem humani generis in ligno Crucis constituisti: ut, unde mors oriebatur, inde vita resurgeret: et, qui in ligno vincebat, in ligno quoque vinceretur: per Christum Dominum nostrum.

It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks: Lord, holy father, almighty and eternal God, you who have set the salvation of the human race on the wood of the cross; so that, whence death had arisen, thence life should rise again, and he who had conquered through wood, should in turn be conquered by it: through Christ our Lord.

There is, then, a heightened sobriety, a bleakness, a sense of expectation in these two weeks of Passiontide, which cannot be sustained through the entire Lenten season. Passiontide draws us into the sacred action of the Triduum, and helps us to unite ourselves to the cross.

 The new calendar, however, fails to do this. In the new, generic Lent, the Glorias are never suppressed. Moreover, though the new missal does contain some passion-themed prefaces, the Fifth Sunday of Lent does not use one, meaning that Sunday attenders hear only the proper preface of Palm Sunday (peculiar to the new Form), which is arguably less graphic and visceral than the Preface of the Holy Cross (and certainly far less memorable):

It is truly right and just [etc]. For though innocent he suffered willingly for sinners and accepted unjust condemnation to save the guilty. His Death has washed away our sins, and his Resurrection has purchased our justification.

This is regrettable, because Passiontide introduces us to a mystery that the modern world has almost completely forgotten: the redemptive power of suffering. Indeed the modern world barely even admits that suffering is the default condition of man in his earthly journey. Hence, Coronavirus has come as a terrible shock. Before it, we had long believed that every accident, every misfortune, must be an aberration, for which someone was to blame, and for which some new precautionary procedure could profitably be devised. An adequate understanding of psychology, neurology, and an adequate education, we believed, would prevent all such accidents. And even when we encountered suffering, we treated it as something to be medicalized. Perhaps coronavirus has forced us to reassess things; but a familiarity with Passiontide would have made it less of a shock, and would now be helping us to trust that God is with us even now; that there is some point and meaning to even the worst events in life.

No Catholic liturgy embodies the modern, suffering-denying, view, of course; but the new calendar does not contradict it nearly as clearly as the old one. For without a clear Passiontide, everything in the Lenten period becomes just a little sanitized. Indeed, one might well suspect that the key problem with modern Catholic liturgy is that it lacks a Passiontide sensibility: all too often, it adopts that wearingly chronic, salvation-assured jollity that many Protestant churches took to, once their notion of total depravity had become too bleak to cognize any longer. Yet such an attitude is not a satisfying or satisfactory intellectual response to our earthly journey in ‘this vale of tears’. Indeed, liturgy infected by it lacks dignity and rational authority: it will do little to convince any thinking person that the Faith is grounded in reason.

Moreover, if coronavirus helps our societies again to be aware of the reality of suffering and death, and of our need and duty to trust in God even in the very worst times; but if the Church goes on sidelining such things in her liturgy: then even to believers her services will look increasingly irrelevant, and will seem to have nothing to say about the things that really matter. The old system of seasons is timeless; the new one already looks like an outmoded product of the 60’s, a relic of a theology overtaken by events.

I should be clear what I am saying here. I do not mean to suggest that Catholic liturgy should be of a Calvinist, whitewashed bleakness. I am, however, saying that it should not be it be happy-clappy and shallow. Theologically, the Church has the resources to hold the awe-full and the joyous together[4]; but how often does she do so today? I suspect that a restored Passiontide would allow her to achieve this urgently-needed integration once again. In a suffering world, we cannot know the joy of the resurrection unless know Calvary too; and Passiontide helped us to do this.

Ascensiontide

The Ascension, Pietro Perugino

Passiontide over, the old calendar now accords with the new until the Ascension. But between the Ascension and Pentecost, the old calendar keeps the season of Ascensiontide—whereas the new calendar continues with a generic Easter. Now, in this period, the new Mass does retain some distinctive post-Ascension features, such as Ascension-themed prefaces. But the Ascension theme is much clearer in the Extraordinary Form, with its distinct Ascensiontide season: aside from the Preface of the Ascension, the Ascensiontide gradual chants exult in the Ascension story (unlike the Ordinary Form’s responsorial psalms, which take their place), and so do the Offertory Antiphons (which are usually omitted in said Ordinary Form masses). The old calendar also grants the Ascension the dignity of a vigil day, which helps us to prepare for the great mystery to be recounted.

The old Ascensiontide thus makes the Ascension of Our Lord a more prominent and memorable part of the liturgical year. This is helpful, because a key aspect of the mystery of the Ascension—one that has been largely forgotten today, with tragic consequences—is that Our Lord’s Ascension was bodily. The modern person tends to see the body as an instrument or tool of gratification, to be shaped, surgically altered—or assigned a sex—according to its ‘owner’s’ whim. But if Our Lord Ascended bodily, then our bodies cannot be mere shells; our very nature as men must be one that unites our body and soul. Furthermore purity and respect for one’s body, the following of a philosophy of life that tends to lead to health, an avoidance of physically unhealthy practices, and a respect for sexual difference, must all be important. All these are points that the world—and even some parts of the Church—would do well to learn once again.

The Octave of Pentecost

After Ascensiontide, the old calendar moves to the Vigil and Octave of Pentecost. In these nine days the old Mass employs the Preface of the Holy Spirit, a proper Communicantes, a proper Hanc igitur, a proper Sequence, and the red vestments of Pentecost, plus the special hymn Veni creator spiritus at the office of Terce. The Wednesday, Friday and Saturday of the Octave are Ember (fasting) Days, in which we try to heighten our readiness to receive the Spirit. The seasonal Sequence well illustrates the tone of the period:

Come, Holy Spirit, send the rays of your light from heaven. Come, father of the poor, come giver of gifts, come, light of hearts. O best of consolers, welcome guest of the soul, sweet consolation; O rest in labour, cool in heat, solace in weeping. O most blessed light, fill the innermost hearts of your faithful. Without your power, there is nothing in man, nothing that is not harmful. Cleanse what is sordid, water what is dry, heal what is wounded. Soften what is hardened, warm what is cold, correct what is astray. Grant to your faithful, who trust in you, the holy sevenfold gifts. Grant the reward of virtue, grant the deliverance of salvation, grant eternal joy.[5]

The mindset that such passages instil in the hearer provides an excellent defence against another error, namely Pelagianism. For the Vigil and Octave of Pentecost, including the Ember Days, remind us of our urgent need of the Holy Spirit’s illumination, and the fact that we have to make an effort to be receptive of Him. Moreover, this season helps us to put our interfaith efforts into context. It reminds us that, though non-evangelizing dialogue and diplomacy is vital and fruitful, our most important task as Christians is to spread the faith: for the gifts of the Holy Spirit provide the deepest and fullest justice and peace in the world.

Pentecost, from a 15th century French breviary

Once again, we must therefore look with some regret upon the state of the new calendar. Indeed, its omission of the Octave of Pentecost is perhaps its most extraordinary and inexplicable defect. It constitutes a huge curtailment of the concluding mystery of Easter—and of the primary celebration of one Person of the Trinity. If the Roman Rite was already marked by its austere, binitarian atmosphere, the removal of the Octave of Pentecost takes it beyond the bounds of theological and liturgical good taste.

Given this omission, one has to mention that Pelagian attitudes are rife in today’s Church; and indeed that too many Catholic parishes have become inward-looking and non-evangelizing, with no confidence in their own ability to offer anything beautiful or inspiring to the outside world.[6] Too often, such communities seem to believe that the Church’s mission to promote justice and peace is primarily to be fulfilled through non-evangelizing dialogue.

 On the first point, the recent remarks of the ever-rewarding John Haldane are worth quoting in full:

…Catholics beginning in the US but now throughout the West have absorbed and internalized as matters of faith, which they are not, the prevailing cultural and political norms of progressive and conservative sections of secular society. The first thing to note is the destructive effects of this, including a corruption of conscience, excusing among one’s own what one would condemn in one’s opponents, and a lack of charity regarding the motives and behaviour of anyone with whom one disagrees. There is also a form of displacement of the attention due to God towards moral causes: in the case of the right towards battling against abortion, euthanasia and homosexuality; in the case of the left towards campaigning against world poverty, capital punishment and global warming.

Both Jesus and Paul are strong in their denunciation of idolatry, i.e. the putting in place of God, and worship of God, various forms of natural or human construction, including ‘works’. Paul is also very clear that nothing human beings do matters so far as their salvation is concerned save to the extent that it is redeemed by the grace of Christ’s sacrifice and that sacrifice alone. This warns us against the spiritual vice of meritorianism: religious pride is pharisaism.[7]

The Time after Pentecost

 A final problem about the new arrangements for Pentecost leads us, lastly, to the old Time after Pentecost, as contrasted with the Ordinary Time of the new calendar. Pentecost ought to lead us naturally and smoothly into Trinity Sunday, in which we celebrate the Father, the ascended Son, and the descended Holy Spirit, the fundamentals of our salvation history having been recounted. Hence, in the old calendar, Trinity Sunday immediately succeeds the Ember Saturday of the Octave of Pentecost. But in the new calendar there is now a rather pointless period of six days of Ordinary Time between Pentecost Sunday and Trinity Sunday. These days do not have the narrative function of the old Time after Pentecost, in which we reflect on the mysteries presented in the first half of the liturgical year; and they compromise the pattern of exposition-and-then-reflection that the old system embodied. Indeed it would be no exaggeration to say that the loss of the Octave of Pentecost undermines the whole balance and rationale of the Christian liturgical year.

This six day interlude is of course only possible because the new calendar removes all sense of liturgical progression from the ‘Green’ seasons: Ordinary Time is, as I say, an Ordinary of Seasons, a sort of neutral or timeless liturgical time; and this contrasts with the Time after Epiphany and the Time after Pentecost, which are inherently integrated with the movement of the liturgical year.

Now, the great problem with a timeless liturgical time, is that it gives the impression that the Church is no longer a corporate community for salvation, united on a journey, with a sense of movement and purpose, but is instead a mere voluntary club for the sequential exposition of the scriptures. ‘Ordinary Time’ is almost an insult to a parish’s strenuous and joyful journey through Lent, Easter and Pentecost; its name and its rationale imply that it in no way consolidates or extends that journey. Hence Ordinary Time may well have contributed to the loss of the sense of corporate salvific purpose in the Church today.

Summation

This completes the cycle of the liturgical year. What, then, are our conclusions? Of necessity, this has been a linear and detailed article. But I think that we can draw our findings together. The missing seasons, fundamentally, show us our need of God: Epiphanytide, our need of God if we are to follow and develop our rational faculties; Septuagesimatide, our need of God’s forgiveness; Passiontide, our need of the saving passion of the Son; Ascension, our need for God to bring our bodies and souls back into their proper order; Pentecost, our need of the Holy Spirit. Without this sense of need, Christmas becomes a nice story, Lent a useful discipline, Easter a joy to the faithful; but each becomes something that one can take or leave as one wills. We forget that the world urgently needs converting.

Naturally, the Church as a whole never forgets these things, nor does the modern calendar make it impossible for her to communicate them. But it does make it harder. It does mean that simply living the liturgy protects one against today’s typical errors much less well than it ought to do. I am in my twenties, and it will be the task of my generation to recover the many good and viable traditions that the Church jettisoned in the 1960’s. In my view, the first things to be recovered are the old seasons, along with their clear, distinctive liturgical characters.  


[1] This, a least, is a point that the Vulgate Latin seems to make. Douay-Rheims has ‘For I say, by the grace that is given me, to all that are among you, not to be more wise than it behoveth to be wise, but to be wise unto sobriety, and according as God hath divided to every one the measure of faith.’.

[2] ‘Vota, quaesumus, Domine, supplicantis populi caelesti pietate prosequere: ut et, quae agenda sunt, videant, et ad implenda, quae viderint, convalescant’.

[3] ‘Preces populi tui, quaesumus, Domine, clementer exaudi: ut, qui iuste pro peccatis nostris affligimur, pro tui nominis gloria misericorditer liberemur’.

[4] For a good explanation of this, see ‘Orazione dell’Umile; sopra la terza Beatitudine: Beati qui lugent: quoniam ipsi consolabuntur, in Joseph Antonius Saxius (ed.), Noctes Vaticanae: seu Sermones Habita in Academia a S. Carolo Borromeo Romae in Palatio Vaticano Instituta, Joseph Marellum: Milan (Mediolani), 1748, pp.56ff, available online. It could be said that Luther’s great failing was his inability to hold the awful and the joyous together, both in his own psychology and in his theology.

[5] ‘Veni, Sancte Spiritus, et emitte caelitus lucis tuae radium. | Veni, pater pauperum, veni, dator munerum, veni, lumen cordium. |  Consolator optime, dulcis hospes animae, dulce refrigerium. | In labore requies, in aestu temperies, in fletu solacium. | O lux beatissima, reple cordis intima tuorum fidelium. | Sine tuo numine, nihil est in homine, nihil est innoxium. | Lava quod est sordidum, riga quod est aridum, sana quod est saucium. | Flecte quod est rigidum, fove quod est frigidum, rege quod est devium. | Da tuis fidelibus, in te confidentibus, sacrum septenarium. | Da virtutis meritum, da salutis exitum, da perenne gaudium. Amen. Alleluia’.

[6] I should say that this is comparatively rare in the U.K., from which I write.

[7] John Haldane, ‘It’s Déjà vu all over again’, New Blackfriars 2018