Among the reasons I enjoy my faith -- if that notion strikes you as a bit strange, allow me to assure you that you're not the first -- is my attachment to the Catholic liturgical cycle. The cycle proper pertains mainly to the daily and weekly scriptural readings, which are intended to span the entire Bible over a three year period. More visible, and more immediately impinging upon human life, is the annual cycle:
- The liturgical year starts with Advent: the four weeks preceding the Feast of the Nativity (Christmas);
- There follows the Christmas Season, which spans from Christmas through the Feast of the Solemnity of Mary and, informally at least, ends with the Feast of the Epiphany;
- The first "ordinary" season proceeds from the Epiphany to the beginning of Lent;
- Lent spans the forty days preceding the Feast of the Resurrection (Easter);
- Easter Season stretches from there to the Feast of the Pentecost: fifty days in all.
- The second "ordinary" season covers the period from then to the start of the next Advent.
The humans live in time, and experience reality successively. To experience much of it, therefore, they must experience many different things; in other words, they must experience change. And since they need change, the Enemy (being a hedonist at heart) has made change pleasurable to them, just as He has made eating Pleasurable. But since He does not wish them to make change, any more than eating, an end in itself, He has balanced the love of change in them by a love of permanence. He has contrived to gratify both tastes together on the very world He has made, by that union of change and permanence which we call Rhythm. He gives them the seasons, each season different yet every year the same, so that spring is always felt as a novelty yet always as the recurrence of an immemorial theme. He gives them in His Church a spiritual year; they change from a fast to a feast, but it is the same feast as before. [From The Screwtape Letters, of course.]
But that's not the only rhythm embedded in the liturgical year.
The liturgical year is, of course, structured around the life of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God and the Redeemer of Mankind. The Gospels record nine-tenths of Jesus's life sketchily at best; though there were significant events during those first thirty years, the ones the Gospelers took pains to note were few and widely spaced. The major part of the Gospels deals with His ministry, Passion, Resurrection, and His commands to His Apostles before He ascended from this world.
The Resurrection is the key Christian miracle. You cannot validly call yourself a Christian if you disbelieve in the Resurrection, for that confirmed Jesus's identity as the Messiah and His authority as the Son of God. Without it, we would be intellectually free to disregard His New Covenant, which displaced the old Levitical Covenant of Moses. The Ascension provided the Apostles with further confirmation. The Pentecost equipped them with what they would need to "Go and teach all nations," as He had commanded them to do. But it all rests upon the foundation provided by His Resurrection.
The liturgical cycle, specifically the Lenten period, reminds us that the Resurrection was made possible by His Crucifixion.
Many writers, some more insightful than others, have focused squarely on the Crucifixion of Jesus. The lesser ones have used it as material for derision: How silly to think God could be killed by men! In the middle we have a group that ask whether the Passion and Crucifixion were really necessary; after all God is without the limits nature and time impose upon Man; He did not have to send His Son to suffer and die that our sins might be remitted. The profoundest of the lot look at the event with the best of eyes.
The Crucifixion was a temporal event, involving a material body wherein dwelt a Divine Person. All material bodies must eventually die; it's graven into the nature of Time itself. The Ash Wednesday ceremony that opens the Lenten season is intended to remind us of that. Indeed, in these days of ever advancing lifespans and quasi-miraculous medical techniques, it's a reminder we badly need. No matter how deep our understanding of our bodies grows, nor how advanced our medicine becomes, we shall all die.
Something that inevitable -- that necessary -- is not a proper subject for fear, but rather for our contemplation and, eventually, our acceptance.
Yama said: Choose sons and grandsons who shall live a hundred years; choose elephants, horses, herds of cattle and gold. Choose a vast domain on earth; live here as many years as you desire.
If you deem any other boon equal to that, choose it; choose wealth and a long life. Be the king, O Nachiketa, of the wide earth. I will make you the enjoyer of all desires.
Whatever desires are difficult to satisfy in this world of mortals, choose them as you wish: these fair maidens, with their chariots and musical instruments — men cannot obtain them. I give them to you and they shall wait upon you. But do not ask me about death.
Nachiketa said: But, O Death, these endure only till tomorrow. Furthermore, they exhaust the vigour of all the sense organs. Even the longest life is short indeed. Keep your horses, dances and songs for yourself.
The acceptance of our mortality brings with it two inestimable blessings:
- The recognition that material things "endure only until tomorrow;"
- The need to believe that, if our lives truly have meaning, there must be an afterlife to which our temporal lives are but a precursor.
Those blessings, sincerely accepted for what they are, move us to place a higher value on things of the spirit than on things of the world and the flesh. In particular, we seek, as far as possible, to know what follows the death of the body, and to learn how our choices in this life might impact what will befall us in the next one.
We who live under the veil of Time can never disregard the material, temporal world. It demands respect enough, at least, that we might sustain ourselves in some degree of decency for as long as we can. This is obligatory: our lives are all the opportunity we have to grow toward God and become acceptable to His nearness. But material and temporal things, as I've already noted, are impermanent, as are our temporal lives. They must not be permitted to becloud our higher understanding or our better judgment. Those faculties must be kept continuously aware that sooner or later, this life must end.
Then out spoke brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate,
"To every man upon this earth
Death cometh, soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods?"
[Thomas Babington Macaulay, Horatius]
The Romans of whom Macaulay wrote his Lays of Ancient Rome, though pre-Christian, were deeply imbued with an appreciation of the great virtues, most notably courage and reverence. Horatius exhibits both in the first of the Lays, and so wins undying honor and memory. Yet note well: Horatius's act would have been greatly lessened, perhaps to nothing, had the odds been heavily on his side. He had to face a near certainty of death; to do so, he had to embrace his duty as outweighing his mortal life.
Few are the men who could do such a thing believing that this life is all we possess.
Our passage through the Lenten season reminds us of all one must embrace to be sincerely Christian:
- Death is not the end;
- This life, however sweet or bitter, is merely a preparatory stage;
- Christ has assured us that an infinitely higher bliss is available, on conditions that are relatively easy to satisfy;
- His Crucifixion and Resurrection are the confirmations of His promise.
Most of us need those reminders.
May God bless and keep you all.