Ecclesiastical Year for Catholic Schools - Andreas Petz

The First Festal Cycle

Christmas Season

1. The first festal cycle is the Christmas season. It begins with the first Sunday of Advent, and closes with the Saturday preceding Septuagesima Sunday; its central point is the feast of Christmas. Advent forms its remote preparation, its proximate preparation is Christmas Eve. The immediate subsequent commemoration extends from the feast of St. Stephen, until Epiphany, the remote subsequent commemoration from Epiphany to Septuagesima.

2. The main thought of this festal cycle is the birth of Christ. Advent shows the longing and preparation in the Old Law for the coming Messiah, which finally attains its object in the birth of Christ. Christmas shows us the Messiah as He reveals Himself to mankind, and proclaims His kingdom. The Christian should prove himself in Advent, and endeavor to gain greater purity of heart. At Christmas he should renew his resolution to live only for Jesus, and to become more like unto Him, and in the time following he should endeavor to enliven and confirm his faith.


1. The word Advent comes from the Latin and means "The coming." The four weeks preceding Christmas are so called because they are set apart by the Church to prepare for the coming of Christ.

2. With great longing, the world, for four thousand years, waited for the coming of the Redeemer. God, Himself, nourished this longing by repeated prophetic promises, which became more distinctly clear as the time of fulfillment approached. The universal misery in which mankind then languished increased this longing for the Redeemer. These four thousand years are typified by the four weeks before Christmas. The longing for the Messiah, announced by the prophets, is partly expressed in the Rorate Masses, but more especially so in the Divine Office, which becomes more and more beseeching as the feast of Christmas approaches. The penance which we are exhorted to practice during this time is symbolical of the misery of sin.

3. The Church wishes to awaken this longing and penitential spirit in the hearts of the faithful, in order to prepare them for the advent of the Redeemer. Therefore:

a) Solemnization of marriage is forbidden during this time, so that the solemnity of the season may not be disturbed by noisy pleasures.

b) The violet color used at Mass is to remind us that heaven closed against sinners, can be opened again by penance.

c) The Gloria is omitted on those days on which no feast falls.

d) The preaching of St. John the Baptist in the Gospels, and the exhortations of St. Paul in the Epistles of the Sundays of Advent, as well as the fast days of this time, point distinctly to penance. These fast days are all the Fridays of Advent, the Ember days, and the Vigil of Christmas.

4. The severity of penance, is however, moderated by a glance at Mary, who appears as the Rosy Dawn to gradually dispel the darkness of sin. Therefore the joyous feast of the Immaculate Conception is celebrated in the midst of this penitential season. Throughout the Breviary and the prayers of the Mass, Mary, the Mother of the Redeemer, is often referred to as the Rosy Aurora of our Redemption, especially so in the Rorate Masses sung at early dawn. The feast of the Expectation on the 18th of December should arouse increased devotion and longing for the coming Messiah.

The Rorate Masses take their name from the Introit of the Mass, frequently used during Advent, which begins with Rorate Coeli (drop down dew ye heavens). They are also called Masses of the Angel, because the Gospel of these Masses relates to the Annunciation of the Mystery of the Incarnation of the Blessed Virgin.

5. In order to keep Advent in a befitting manner the Christian should:

1st.    Awaken a penitential spirit and practice works of penance,—he should endeavor to conquer at least one prominent fault and to cultivate or practice some particular virtue.
2nd.    He should devote himself to prayer, and have a special devotion to the Blessed Virgin, and
3rd.    Have a great longing for the birth of the Christ Child in his heart.

6. Even in the first centuries the faithful prepared themselves for the coming of Christmas by a long season of prayer and fasting, but Advent was not definitely fixed until the fifth and sixth centuries.

7. The following important feasts fall in Advent:

a) The Feast of St. Andrew the Apostle,
which was celebrated in the earliest times. This Apostle stands conspicuous at the entrance of the Ecclesiastical Year, for Advent begins with the Sunday nearest the feast of St. Andrew. Not only is Andrew the first born of the Apostles, but he led the other Apostles to Christ, and as a special lover of the Cross, he tells us that the cross is the key of the kingdom of Jesus Christ, and the foundation of the Ecclesiastical Year. This feast admonishes us, as it were, to begin the year with a love for the Cross, and to make the resolution of practicing self-denial.

b) The Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
This feast was celebrated by the churches of the East, even in the fifth century, and by the churches of the West since the seventh century. Pope Pius IX. in the year 1854 proclaimed, to the joy of the whole Catholic world, the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin to be a dogma of the Church. Since then this feast has been more zealously kept. With the conception of Mary, the Morning Star of the Redemption arose. On this beautiful feast the Christian should pray God to enlighten him, that he may know the faults of the past year, and learn from Mary, by purity of heart, to prepare for the coming of Christ.

c) The Feast of St. Thomas, Apostle.
Dec. 21.

Christmas Eve

1. This vigil is the only one which, in its original form, is celebrated by Divine Service at midnight. Because Christ was born at midnight the Church has always celebrated this hour with prayer and canticles of praise.

2. In some European countries the houses are blessed on this vigil, and also on the vigils of the Circumcision and Epiphany, to show that not only the hearts of the faithful, but also their houses, should be purified from the curse of sin, and sanctified as a worthy dwelling place for the new born Saviour.

3. On this Holy Eve, the faithful should, with renewed fervor, increase their longing for the coming Messiah, by a greater spirit of penance: Christmas gifts should be received as actual gifts from the Christ Child, for if He had not come into the world, there would be no Christmas gifts. These temporal gifts should remind us of the far more precious gifts of grace which Christ brought from heaven.

4. The Christmas tree, hung with candles, fruits of all kinds, and surrounded with gifts, has a beautiful meaning. It reminds us of the tree of pride and disobedience in Paradise, whose fruits brought sin and death into the world; but it also reminds us of the tree of life, the tree of humility and obedience, that sprang into life through the Incarnation of Christ, and on which the Redeemer purchased grace and life; for us. From this tree the light of faith and the different forms of grace are imparted to the faithful. For this light of faith, for these gifts of grace, the Christmas tree admonishes us to thank the dear Christ Child.

5. The Crib which is set up at Christmas time owes it origin to St. Francis of Assisi, who lived in the thirteenth century. His burning love for the Christ Child impelled him to erect a crib with figures representing the birth of Christ, and thereby enkindle this love in others. This example found widespread imitation. The cribs often represent different scenes of the Old and the New Testament, all referring to the dear Christ Child. This is to teach us that Christ is the central point of the New Testament,—that all mankind should in a spiritual manner gather around Him, and offer Him sacrifice and adoration.


1. The word Christmas comes from Christ's Mass, shortened into Christmas, or from Christ's Feast,—feast being Mass.

2. Previous to the fourth century the people of the East celebrated this feast on the 6th of January, in union with the Feast of the Epiphany. From this time on, it was invariably celebrated on the 25th of December, as it had been by the churches of the West, even from the time of the Apostles.

3. Christmas as chief feast, is especially distinguished from other feasts by: 1) When Christmas falls on Friday there is neither fast nor abstinence. 2) On this day priests are allowed to celebrate three Masses, contrary to the rule which prevails on every other day of the year. 3) This feast is intimately united with several feasts of the most illustrious saints.

4. It is not definitely known when the practice of saying three Masses on Christmas day originated, still, from the time of Pope Gregory the Great in the sixth century, this has been the universal custom.

This threefold sacrifice represents the threefold birth of Christ; namely,

a) The first Mass at Midnight
is offered up in memory of His birth as man, of the Blessed Virgin; it is read at midnight because Christ was born at that hour, and because He came, as the light of the world, to dispel the darkness of sin; it is called the Mass of the Angels. because the Angels announced the birth of Christ to the shepherds, and at the same time peace on earth to men of good will. The faithful should pray for this peace, especially at Midnight Mass.

b) The second Mass at daybreak
is said in remembrance of His birth in the hearts of His followers. It is said at daybreak as a symbol of the (lawn of the spiritual life in our hearts by the Sun of Justice. It is also called the Mass of the Shepherds because the Gospel read at this Mass relates to the adoration of the Shepherds; it exhorts us to adore the Christ Child with the shepherds.

c) The third Mass
commemorates His eternal birth from the Father before all ages, and for that reason its Gospel tells of the time when the Word was, "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." It is said in the daytime that its brightness may figure the glories of the Godhead. The faithful should seek to acquire greater knowledge of Christ, and endeavor to imitate His example—thereby obtaining the fullness of His graces.

Christmas Octave

1. This octave is not like the octaves of other high feasts—a simple repetition of the feast itself, but the Church surrounds the manger of the Infant God with the names of her most illustrious Saints, like brilliant planets encircling the sun.

2. The feast of St. Stephen, of the Apostle John and the Holy Innocents belong to the oldest feasts of the Church, and are always found in connection with the feast of Christmas; on the other hand the feast of St. Sylvester and of St. Thomas of Canterbury, the great saint of the English race, were added later.

3. These five feasts are, so to say, the representatives of all the feasts of the Saints in the entire Ecclesiastical Year; they encircle the cradle of the new born Redeemer, from whom all holiness proceeds. These feasts teach us that, as the life of Jesus was a continual sacrifice, so should the life of every Christian be one of sacrifice.

4. Every Christian must follow one of these leaders if he wishes to live for Christ:

a) St. Stephen is the leader of all martyrs,
for he was the first to suffer martyrdom" for the faith. He bears aloft the red banner of our holy faith.

b) The Apostle John is the leader of all virginal souls,
who serve the lord in love and innocence. He was the beloved disciple of Our Lord, and faithfully preserved his innocence and love until death. He bears aloft the white banner of virginal love.

c) The Holy Innocents are the leaders of all penitents,
for both are purified from sin—the former from Original, the latter from Actual sin—not through any merit of their own, but only through the blood of Jesus Christ. The Holy Innocents march onward with the violet banner of Penance.

d) St. Thomas, Bishop of Canterbury,
who suffered martyrdom for the Church, is the leader of those who suffer persecution patiently for the Church of Christ; and finally,

e) St. Sylvester,
who through the loyal discharge of his duty for the welfare of the Church, is the leader of those who faithfully devote their lives to the service of the Church.

5. On the Feast of St. John, in some countries of Europe, it is customary to bless wine after Mass. According to an ancient tradition this Apostle was offered poisoned wine, which he blessed and drank without injury.

6. The Feast of the Holy Innocents is celebrated with violet vestments in remembrance of the mothers of Bethlehem lamenting for their innocent children, waiting in Limbo for the Redeemer, and of the penitents who follow the Holy Innocents to the crib. On the octave of this feast, red vestments are worn. The Church remembers on this day the glory of these martyrs as well as the reward awaiting he persevering penitents in Heaven.

7. The Feast of the Circumcision of Our Lord forms the close of the Octave of Christmas. This feast was introduced in the middle of the sixth century to counteract the influence of the heathen feasts of this season of the year, celebrated with great immoral excesses. At first this day was kept as a day of fast and penance, but gradually assumed more of a festive character, to remind us that the Redeemer, in obedience to the Mosaic law, submitted himself to circumcision, whereupon the name of Jesus was given Him. With this day the civil year begins—therefore this day reminds us to begin and end the new year in the name of Jesus.

8. The Christmas celebration is continued after the feast of the Circumcision by the Octaves of St. Stephen, the Apostle St. John, and the Holy Innocents, until finally it reaches its zenith in the feast of the Epiphany.


1. The word Epiphany means manifestation. It is kept in grateful remembrance of Christ's manifestation to the Gentiles. This feast dates from the time of the Apostles, according to an old tradition the Church celebrates three remarkable events on this day: The adoration of the Magi, Christ's baptism by John in the Jordan, and the changing of water into wine at the wedding of Cana. The Feast of the Epiphany, or Manifestation, celebrates the threefold manifestation of Christ to mankind; namely,

a) By the wonderful Call of the Wise Men,
Christ revealed Himself to the Heathen as King—for the heathen Wise Men sought and adored the new born King of the Jews.

b) By His Baptism in the Jordan,
He revealed Himself to the Jews as the looked for prophet, whom a voice from heaven commanded them to hear.

c) By the Miracle of changing the water into wine
at the wedding of Cana, He revealed Himself as High Priest.

4. Among these three mysteries the first one stands prominent, therefore the day is often called the Feast of the Three Kings. The Wise Men are called kings, either because they were princes of small countries in the East, or because they came of a royal race.

5. On this day the faithful should thank God for the priceless blessing of Christian faith,—they should renew this living faith, and also remember to pray for the poor Heathen who have not been awarded this saving gift. Out of gratitude they should offer their Redeemer, with the three Wise Men, the gold of faith, the frankincense of prayer, and the myrrh of mortification.

Subsequent Commemoration

The subsequent commemoration of this festal cycle is limited to the six Sundays after Epiphany, but which may be fewer, according to the date of Easter.

1. These six Sundays show us Jesus in the temple and in the house of His parents, as a model for youth; and then also in His public life, teaching in the temple and working miracles, He showed Himself to be the expected Prophet. Since His teaching and miracles are the foundation and propagation of His divine kingdom, as well as that of His Church upon earth, so these Sundays may partly belong to the third festal cycle.

2. The following important feasts fall in this season:

1) The Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus.
According to Holy Scriptures, this name was venerated at all times; a special feast in honor of this most Holy Name was instituted first in the Franciscan Order in the sixteenth century. In 1721 Innocent XIII. ordered this feast to be celebrated throughout the Church on the second Sunday after Epiphany. Write this most holy name on your hearts.

2) The Feast of the Espousals of the Blessed Virgin
with St. Joseph on the 23rd of January was established about the same time as the former feast. It teaches us especially to recognize St. Joseph as the head and the guardian of the Holy Family, and admonishes us therefore to venerate him as the keeper of God's treasures.

3) The Feast of St. Peter's Chair at Rome,
January 18th, and the Conversion of St. Paul, January 25th, are of ancient origin. The examples of these Apostolic Princes ought to enliven our faith.


1. Candlemas, or the Feast of the Purification, forms, so to say, the transition feast from the Christmas season into the Easter season. If it did not originate in the time of the Apostles, it is nevertheless from the first centuries.

2. A double celebration takes place on this feast; namely, the Purification of the Blessed Virgin, and the presentation of Our Lord in the Temple of Jerusalem. It is, therefore, a feast of Our Lady and one of Our Lord.

3. As a feast of Our Lady it belongs to the Christmas cycle. Through Mary we received Jesus, Who revealed Himself to us in the first festal cycle as the Light of the world. In humble obedience she brings her Divine Child to the Temple, where Simeon and Anna acknowledge and greet Him as the Light of the World. The Blessed Virgin still continues to obtain for all Christians, who like Simeon and Anna truly desire it, the knowledge of this heavenly light.

4. As a feast of Our Lord, it belongs to the Easter cycle. In Mary's arms Jesus offers Himself for the first time in the temple for the redemption of man, thereby beginning His priestly sacrificial life, which represents the second cycle. The Christian, who in the first festal cycle was enlightened by the gift of faith, should now with Simeon and Anna not only gratefully thank God for this gift, but he should take Jesus in his arms and also walk with Him on the way of sacrifice.

5. This day is usually called Candlemas Day, because on this day candles are blessed for the whole year, followed by a procession with lighted candles. This procession, and probably the blessing of candles, originated in the sixth century, at the season when the heathen feasts and processions were celebrated. This may have been an exterior motive for the introduction of processions with candles, but the symbolic meaning is, at all events, derived from the feast itself.

6. This procession also reminds us of that procession in which Mary, Joseph, Simeon and Anna accompanied Jesus, "The Light of the World," to His first sacrifice in the Temple with the light of faith and sacrificial love in their hearts. As Christ, "The Light of the World," was sacrificed, or consumed for the salvation of the world, so the candles consume themselves while they reflect light. The burning candles are, therefore, a symbol of Jesus Christ, and signify the double meaning of this feast.

7. Candles are blessed because everything used in connection with the Divine Service should be blessed. In the blessing of the candles, the Church prays especially that the significance of these candles may be realized by the faithful. In general, the spirit of the Church in regard to blessed candles has been caught by the faithful, who have come to look upon them as one of the most efficacious of the sacramentals. They have wax candles blessed on this day to use in their homes on solemn occasions, in times of danger, especially from the elements, and to place in the hands of the dying; the material light being thus made a symbol of the invisible light which is to guide them after death to the realms of everlasting happiness.

8. Lighted candles were used in all divine services from the earliest times—not only at night, but also in the daytime. The lighted candle was always recognized as a symbol of Jesus Christ, who enlightens us and obtains our salvation, through Whom alone every act of divine service receives power and efficacy. The lighted candle is also a beautiful emblem of the Christian life. As the candle is dedicated to the service of God, so is the life of a Christian by Baptism. As the wax from which the candle is made is laboriously gathered by the bees, so the life of a Christian should be a collection of virtues and good works. The burning candle is consumed, so should the life of a Christian be consumed in the service of God.

Finally, the ascending, illuminating, and consuming flame is an emblem of the three divine virtues: Faith, Hope, and Charity, which make the whole life of man acceptable to God.

9. On the Feast of St. Blase, February 3rd, it is customary, in many places, to bless the throat with candles in the form of a cross. This blessing is used as a preventive, or cure of throat diseases, because St. Blase, as related in his life, miraculously cured a child of a dangerous throat disease. The Christian may see in this blessing with candles in the form of a cross an admonition to follow Christ in the light of faith, on His way of the Cross, which the Second Festal Cycle of the Ecclesiastical Year places before us.