The Tradition of Transition: Living the Liturgical Year After Christmas – EpicPew

The Tradition of Transition: Living the Liturgical Year After Christmas

Have you ever had the experience of feeling a little bit of holiday whiplash? First there is Advent and the secular rush up to Christmas. Then the celebration! A feast! (Both liturgically and literally!) But then it’s time to take everything down by Epiphany and maybe you feel just a little bit melancholy. As if the Christmas excitement led to a liturgical let down. Then before you know it, it is Ash Wednesday and you may be wondering how is all happened and feel like you’re already behind the Lenten ball and trying to catch up.

This experience is shared by many Catholics who may find themselves thinking, “I wonder if there is a different way to approach this time of year? A way that doesn’t seem to be so abrupt. So jarring. A way in which the end of Christmas doesn’t leave me feeling depressed and exhausted and Lent doesn’t sneak up on me!” Well, if this is you, there is good news! The church’s wisdom and tradition provide a beautiful and gentler way to transition between Liturgical seasons. Let’s learn more about them.


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One of the traditions of the Church’s liturgical year that has been making a comeback is that of leaving up some (or all) Christmas decorations until the second day of February. This is the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or Candlemas (named thus because it is on that day that the Church’s candles are blessed for the coming year along with candles that the faithful wish to have blessed for their private devotions).

This practice of observing Candlemas as the last Christmas feast, and the last time the Church asks us to celebrate and contemplate Christ as a child through the Liturgy, can give us a sense of closure after a lengthier Christmastide. The procession with candles that the Mass for the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary includes in the usus antiquior gives the faithful not only the sense of the end of the Christmas season but then redirects our interior gaze towards Easter, as the candles offer us a reminder of the Easter candle which will be blessed and lit. The candles glowing in procession remind us of the Easter Vigil, with its candlelit glow, and the faithful are offered an opportunity to re-orient themselves, leaving Christmas and the child Jesus behind to look towards Easter and Christ suffering, crucified, and then glorified.

The ‘gesimas’

The return to “ordinary time” can seem anti-climactic. Often interpreted as “boring time” this part of the church’s year can lend itself to lulling us into a loss of a sense of time passing, until It’s Ash Wednesday and everyone is walking around with their foreheads smudged while still trying to figure out what to give up for Lent! Here the gentle tradition of the Church can aid the faithful once again. Three Sundays before Ash Wednesday (approximately seventy days before Easter) the old calendar marks the beginning of a micro-season in the Liturgical year called “Septuagesima.

Septuagesima Sunday is three Sundays before Ash Wednedsay, Sexagesima Sunday is two weeks prior to Ash Wednesday (approximately sixty days before Easter), and Quinquagesima is, you guessed it, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday and just about fifty days before Easter.

Traditionally, these Sundays saw the priest donning purple and the absence of the Alleluia from the Mass, but the altar and sanctuary remained adorned with flowers or cloths that were not Lenten. These three Sundays were the church’s way of saying “Heads up! Lent is coming! It is time to get ready!” The easing into Lent that these three Sundays of “pre-Lent” provided are a stark contrast to the sudden and abrupt changes that the faithful see once Ash Wednesday arrives in the usus recentior—the absence of the gloria, the purple worn by the priest, a bare and unadorned sanctuary, and the lack of an “Alleluia” are all very apparent and even jarring when Ash Wednesday and then the first Sunday of Lent arrive.

Burying the Alleluia

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If this heading made you do a double-take, that’s okay! It sounds a little silly. This, however, is part of the tradition of the church! Recall that “little t” tradition “is of human origin and includes beliefs, practices, customs, even interpretations of the Gospel, that may sometimes be more relevant for a certain time and/or place in the history of the Church.” In the case of burying the Alleluia, it was Pope Alexander II who made a decree that the Alleluia be removed or dismissed on the Saturday before Septuagesima Sunday. Over the years this ceremony took different shapes but resulted in the burying of the Alleluia by altar boys (a special privilege!) and it came to resemble a funeral. That’s right, the tradition of the church was to have a funeral for the Alleluia, and bury it until Easter! This particular tradition lends itself particularly well to families who may want a tangible way to prepare for the changes that Lent brings to the Liturgy with smaller children. Burying, hiding, or having a good-bye party for the Alleluia are all ways that small children can be introduced to Lent coming.

Passion Week

When you hear this term, you probably think of Holy Week—the week leading up to Easter—but if you consult an old Liturgical calendar you’ll notice something curious: Passion Week is the week before Holy Week. Yes, in the tradition of the Catholic Church, the two are not interchangeable. Passion Sunday is the Sunday before Palm Sunday and it kicks off Passion Week. It is on Passion Sunday that the tradition of veiling the pictures and statues in the church and at home takes place. Passion Week’s purpose is to ease the faithful into Holy Week. Its goal is to orient us all the more towards Christ’s passion, death, and then resurrection.

Much as Septuagesima offers the faithful a gradual entrance into the solemness and starkness of Lent, Passion Week helps the faithful transition internally into contemplating and embracing the rigor and beauty of Holy Week and Christ’s Paschal Mystery. The covering up of statues and sacred images provides a visual reminder and cue to the faithful, signaling that things are escalating and we are about to enter into the holiest of weeks. Once again, we can see the wisdom of the Catholic Church as she gently points us towards what we should anticipate next, giving the faithful time to absorb and interiorly accept the transition.

by Andrewgardner1 CC BY 4.0

These are just a few of the traditions that the Catholic Church has passed down for centuries and millennia. As one learns more about the time between Christmas and Easter and how this time was treated throughout history, it becomes clear that keeping some or all of these traditions can help the faithful to transition from the anticipation of Advent to the joy of Christmas and then to the solemness of Lent and the hope of Easter. Which of these traditions do you still celebrate? Which do you think you want to try to follow this year? Tell us in the com-box!

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