Rorate Caeli

Guest Op-Ed - The festivals of the Church: The glories of the liturgical calendar

By Veronica A. Arntz

The glorious liturgical calendar reveals the heart of the Church. At the center of the Church’s life, we find profound festivity, for the liturgical year is comprised of many feasts in honor of our Lord, His Blessed Mother, and “the great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1, RSV). The liturgical year unites us more deeply with the Church, for through it, we enter into the ancient traditions of the Church, alongside the great communion of saints. At this beautiful time in the liturgical year, having just finished the Christmas Octave and as we approach the Feast of the Epiphany, it is fitting to reflect on what the festivity of the Church is, what it means for her members and how it influences man’s relationship with God.

Josef Pieper offers an excellent study of the nature of festivity and its relationship to the Church in his work, In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 1999). First, it is necessary to reflect on how Pieper defines festivity. According to Pieper, “To celebrate a festival means to do something which is in no way tied to other goals, which has been removed from all ‘so that’ and ‘in order to’” (p. 9). In other words, a festival is done for its own sake, as opposed to servile work, which is done for the purposes of creating some object or completing a project. Our daily work is often considered “servile work,” for it is done for some purpose. Servile work is not necessarily bad in Pieper’s mind; however, the abandonment of human activity meaningful in itself makes man more susceptible to a “totalitarian laboring society” (p. 9).

Without festivity, man becomes too focused on the “workaday world,” and he views reality through a pragmatic lens. The festival, on the other hand, is distinguished from servile work because it is done for its own sake. While the festival is not necessarily meant as a “renewal” so that man can pursue his work better, like a vacation, it is meant to fulfill man’s human nature. As Pieper explains, “The day of rest is not just a neutral interval inserted as a link in the chain of workaday life.” (p. 18). Rather, in celebrating the festival, man renounces the yield from that day’s labor, but for a higher purpose than merely to take a break from his work.

Thus, according to Pieper, we can understand the festival in terms of “‘the perfection of man,’ ‘eternal life,’ ‘bliss,’ ‘Paradise’” (p. 15). In a way, the festival is meant to lead man outside himself, so that he begins to experience heavenly blessing while still on earth. The true nature of the festival, then, is for contemplation.

As Pieper explains, “To celebrate a festival is equivalent to ‘becoming contemplative, and in this state, directly confronting the higher realities on which the whole of existence rests’” (p. 17). The festival is not marked by the bustle of the servile work of everyday life; rather, the festival is time set aside so that man can contemplate the higher realities, the things beyond himself. It is ultimately an act of renunciation, for he is renouncing the money he could make or products he could produce through servile work—the world of servile work is decidedly “unfestive” (p. 20). In such a way, the festival is not performed at random, nor can it be something that man simply “creates” (p. 20). A festival created by man for the sake of taking time away from work (such as the politically established Labor Day) is the opposite of a true festival, for its traditions do not take man entirely outside himself.
At the heart of the true festival, therefore, is love (p. 20-21). We only renounce things for the sake of love; indeed, we renounce our petty desires and dreams when we encounter the Beloved, when we encounter Love itself, incarnate in Jesus Christ. For this reason, Pieper argues that the highest festival is Christian worship. A festival manifests both love and joy; Pieper quotes St. John Chrysostom, who says, “Ubi caritas gaudet, ibi est festivitas” (p. 23). “Where love rejoices, there is festivity.” In Christian worship, the love that is rejoicing gives praise and thanks to God. Pieper writes, “All worship is affirmation, not only of God but also of the world” (p. 37).

Affirmation is central to the liturgical texts: “Every prayer closes with the word: Amen, thus it is…What is the Alleluia but a cry of jubilation?” (p. 38). Festivity is written into the very nature of Christian worship, for worship is an act of praise and thanksgiving, pointing beyond man to the divine. Worship is a time for joy, for it brings man in union with his Creator. Furthermore, worship is a time for deep love, because man is united with God in the Eucharist, which is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ.

As Pieper writes, “Christian worship sees itself as an act of affirmation that expresses itself in praise, glorification, thanksgiving for the whole of reality and existence” (p. 38). And because man gives thanksgiving for all of reality in his worship, he is ultimately giving thanksgiving to God, the Creator of the universe. Moreover, God is the author of worship; unlike an anti-festival, something that man creates of his own accord, God gives man the pattern for the worship owed to Him. God has asked that man give Him all praise and glory, and when man attempts to turn worship into his own creation or action, he is ultimately denying the festive nature of worship.

We can now begin to see the centrality of the festivals of the liturgical year to the life of the Church, for all the Church’s festivals are accompanied by worship. Having just celebrated Christmas, and with the approaching festivals associated with the Christ Child, we can reflect on their festive nature. We are all too aware of society’s attempt to turn Christmas into a purely human holiday for exchanging gifts and well wishes, spending time with family and friends, and sharing meals. While all of those are good things, they do not comprise the festival; moreover, Pieper comments that the phrase “Happy Holidays” is a “trite formula” and therefore anti-festive (p. 41).

Concerning Christmas, Pieper writes the following: “If the Incarnation of God is no longer understood as an event that directly concerns the present lives of men, it becomes impossible, even absurd, to celebrate Christmas festively” (p. 24). To celebrate Christmas festively, we must both celebrate Christ’s Incarnation and remember that His coming is central to our daily lives.

And not only is His Incarnation essential for our daily living, it is essential for our salvation. To forget the role of the Incarnation in our lives is to forget that we are need of being saved, and indeed, we have been given the possibility of salvation because Christ assumed flesh. The festival of Christmas points beyond man himself to his salvation and to the eternal life that he will hopefully someday share with Christ. The worship we give to God on Christmas is very profound, for we are recalling in a particular way the great gift we are given through the Incarnation.
The festival of Easter is related, for then we are celebrating both Christ’s death on the Cross and, more specifically, His Resurrection, which ultimately opens the gates to Heaven.

This festival of celebrating the Resurrection is not restricted only to Easter—rather, we celebrate it every Sunday. We take every Sunday as a “day of rest,” but not merely as a day of rest to prepare ourselves for servile work during the week. Rather, Sunday is a time set aside each week for the sake of contemplation, for the sake of giving praise to God. Every Sunday, we recall with great joy the salvation that Christ brought us through His Passion, Death and Resurrection. We receive Him into our souls spiritually and into our bodies physically. The festivity of Sunday is meant to point us beyond ourselves and to the praise and glory of God, in which the angels and saints partake in Heaven. When we turn the Sunday festivities into our own projects or ignore to celebrate them at all, we are denying our great human need to partake in something beyond ourselves and, more importantly, we are denying the proper worship owed to God.
The liturgical calendar of the year is rich with great festivals that bring man more deeply into the life of the Church. These festivals bring man outside himself and unite him more deeply with God. They are true festivals, for they have been passed down through the tradition of the Church. For indeed, the festival unites the members of the Church with the whole of the Church’s life, not just her worship, as we can see in the following quote from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

The beauty of the great cathedrals, the beauty of the music that has developed within the context of the faith, the dignity of the Church’s liturgy, and in general the reality of the festival, which one cannot make for oneself but can only receive, the elaboration of the seasons in the liturgical year, in which then and now, time and eternity interpenetrate—all that is in my view no insignificant accident (“The Church’s Credo: Why I Am Still in the Church Today,” in Credo for Today: What Christians Believe, [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009], p. 198).

The beauty of the Church lies in the organic development and relationship of her art, liturgy and celebration of festivals. This beauty must penetrate the baptized individual’s life, for it unites him with God and the Church; this beauty brings him out of himself and penetrates him with the joy and the knowledge that he is not created for this world, for he is meant to be perfected in heavenly bliss.

We ought to guard and protect the festivals of the Church, for us and for coming generations, for we have indeed been given a precious and inestimable treasure.