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Dear Johan,
                I was struck by the priest wishing people a happy New Year on the First Sunday of Advent. It made me wonder about the liturgical calendar and how it connects to the civic calendar. Wouldn’t it be easier to have just one calendar? I find it confusing.


Gentle Reader,

               I cannot help but ask, did he also inquire about your New Year’s resolutions?

But seriously, unlike space, which can easily be measured, time is much more elusive. So, be assured, you are not the only one to be confused by time. Throughout the ages we have tried to mark time as best we can by developing calendars based on the movement of the sun or the moon or a combination of the two. These calendars have allowed us to better relate to the seasons of the year and also to mark important events, both civic and religious.

Today the most widely known and used calendar is the Gregorian calendar. It was instituted by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 as a corrective to the Julian calendar, instituted by Julius Caesar in 45 BC. By 1582, the Julian calendar was eleven days behind the solar cycle. Thus, the spring equinox, for example, fell around March 10 rather than around March 21. In order to reconnect the calendar with the solar cycle the pope ordered that eleven days simply be skipped. This happened in October 1582 when the calendar shifted from Thursday, October 4, 1582, the last day of the Julian calendar, to Friday, October 15, 1582, the first day of the Gregorian calendar. He also adjusted the calculation of leap years to avoid accumulating discrepancies between the calendar and the cycles of the sun.

Though some churches still use the Julian calendar, the Catholic Church and many other denominations base the computation of the liturgical year on the Gregorian calendar. As a result, Christmas in the liturgical calendar coincides with December 25 of the Gregorian calendar. This feast is one of many feasts that are connected to a specific date. There are also moveable feasts that are not connected with a specific date. Easter and all feasts and seasons connected to Easter, for example, change from year to year relative to the first full moon following the spring equinox (March 21). This formula to calculate the date of Easter was established by the First Council of Nicea (325). According to this council Easter is to be celebrated on the first Sunday following the first full moon, following the spring equinox. The council set March 21 as the spring equinox, though astrologically speaking March 20 is more often the actual date of the spring equinox.

The liturgical year, then, uses the Gregorian calendar yet exists in its own right. While the Gregorian calendar is tied to the cycles of the sun, the liturgical calendar is connected to the mystery of salvation. Thus the liturgical year as we know it today begins with the incarnation cycle (Advent and Christmas), which celebrates the birth of our salvation in Jesus Christ. Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas each year. Therefore the dates for the Sundays of Advent differ from year to year.

The other major season in the liturgical year, of course, is the paschal cycle (Lent and Easter), when we remember the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Together these two cycles comprise the most important moments of the liturgical year. The rest of the liturgical year unfolds around these two dates, concluding with the last Sunday of the year being Christ the King.

Given that we begin a new liturgical year on the First Sunday of Advent, it was appropriate for the priest to wish you a happy New Year. It would also have been appropriate to invite you to come up with some New Year’s resolutions. After all, each new liturgical year we are given a new chance to do just a little better in terms of our Christian calling than the previous year.

© 2015 Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota. Excerpted from What’s the Smoke For? And Other Burning Questions about the Liturgy by Johan van Parys © 2014 Order of Saint Benedict, published by Liturgical Press, Used by permission.

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