Living the Liturgical Year, Part 2: Cherry-Pickin’ Christian

winter berries and lights

cher·ry-pick (v.) to selectively choose the most beneficial items available

If you’re just joining us, welcome! We’ve been discussing how to begin living into the liturgical year this year. Today, we’re ready to dive into the church calendar. With so many ways to celebrate, and so much to learn, it can get a little overwhelming. We’ve decided to start small.

I don’t know about you, but the first thing that comes to mind when I think of the year is seasons. Each one seems to command it’s own expectations, it’s own particular variant of joy.

Winter welcomes us to cocoon all cozy, to plan and dream until the rich scent of spring fills the air, inviting us to plunge our fingers in wet earth, to marvel over all that grows and all that’s green. Summer sings a siren song of sultry ease that calms the bustle of our lives if we let it. Autumn is crisp with excitement, with relishing work well-done, and turning over a crimson leaf to the promise of new.

Do you feel the rhythm? The in-breath of winter, the exhalation in the spring when we plunge forward to exert, to create, to birth? Inhale again the summer sun, then out again as autumn winds beckon us to school and harvest and table. In…out…in…out. Year in, year out. A time for everything, and everything in it’s time.

In the same way, the Church invites us to step into the natural rhythm of liturgical life.

Christmas wreath

We begin in the deep of December with the lighting of the Advent candles. The in-breath before the birth: Christmas. Twelve days of celebration leave us breathless, panting for ordinary, and so we find ourselves in Ordinary Time. There’s a brief respite before Lent with it’s intense retrospection, it’s call to action in preparation for fifty days of glorious celebration: HE IS RISEN! At last, we celebrate the descending of the dove, the coming of the Spirit, and we are equipped for the long, green expanse of Ordinary Time again with it’s own humble rhythm of rest and renewal.

Advent ~ Christmas ~ Ordinary Time

Lent ~ Easter ~ Ordinary Time

When you break it down to chunks, it all becomes simpler. We can break the seasons down further into a hierarchy of days.

SOLEMNITIES

These are the most important dates on the church calendar. They commemorate key events in the life of Jesus or Mary, or the life of a particular saint. Some are considered Holy Days of Obligation.

FEASTS

Feasts rank just below solemnities. They include lesser events in the lives of Jesus, Mary, and the Apostles, or serve to honor the lives of other important saints.

MEMORIALS

Memorials may be obligatory (for a particular country, diocese, or religious order), but most are optional. These are days that commemorate lesser-known saints or events in church history.

In addition, there are rogation days of prayer and fasting and ember days to mark the shift of seasons. As my parish priest is fond of saying,

“We are a feasting people, and we are also a fasting people.”

fingerprint nativity

Even if we simplify, though, the fact remains. The dilemma is obvious. There are simply far too many “special days” in the Church year for us to meaningfully celebrate them all. It would be like throwing a party every second day. Anyone would get burned out trying.

For those of us with young children, it is especially important to err on the side of intimacy rather than overwhelm.

We have no choice but to cherry-pick. But how do you choose which days to celebrate? There are as many ways to choose as their are Christians. This is how I tackle the Church calendar.

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The first thing I do is to take a look at the broader seasons. What is the general feel I want for my family during this time? Busy, big family excitement? Quiet anticipation? A rich time of ministry and service? This will guide me in choosing which days to observe.

Next, I grab my calendar and highlight all the Holy Days of Obligation (in the US there are 6). I then pen in the rest of the solemnities. These are the non-negotiables.

I take note of any special family celebrations: birthdays, baptismal anniversaries, wedding anniversaries, and namedays. I also mark important events that I know about in advance, such as school field trips, weddings, youth group retreats, and sports tournaments. After that, I take a peek at the remaining feasts and memorials.

Our personal preference as a family is slow living. We keep things simple so we can live into the spaces that let us see each other and hear the still, small voice of the savior. Because of this, I try to limit liturgical celebrations to no more than four per month, with no more than two major celebrations.

You know your family best. You know what you need in terms of rest versus novelty, and how you like to celebrate (a big party, or a small affair). Let this be your guide. Be ready for your needs and expectations to change as you shift through the seasons of your life, and invite the change to inform your year.

Don’t feel you have to do it my way, and don’t feel you have to do it all. Every year. The same way. The liturgical year is a gift, and should never induce guilt or anxiety. Celebration should never feel like a burden.

To make things easier, let’s take one month and look at how you might want to approach “cherry picking” it. And just because it’s usually the hardest month to handle, I’ll choose December.

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Think back on the one that just passed. What worked? What didn’t?

December is a unique point in the church calendar, not only because it is the start of the liturgical year, but because it straddles two seasons – Advent and Christmas – just as it straddles the natural seasons of autumn and winter. We’ll begin with Advent.

What experience do you wish to evoke this coming Advent? Do you want to revel in the pre-Christmas frenzy with it’s parties and trimmings, it’s lights and good will? Does a Dickensian sort of experience sound right for this year: complete with service to the least of these and a reminder of God bless us every one? Maybe you’re just looking for peace this time around, a candlelit quiet in which to contemplate the coming of the Christ child.

Whatever you are seeking in this season, let it help you decide which events to prioritize, which to let go. Keep the vision before you as the invitations roll in. Seek His will in prayer, if you need to, remembering as you do that Christ is Lord even of our social calendars. He knows what you need.

Do this same visioning exercise for Christmas. What do you envision for the days that stretch from the Nativity to Epiphany? Do you want to toss the tree as soon as the presents are opened, or might you do things differently, linger a bit this year? What does joy to the world feel like to you? How can you inspire that joy through your celebrations?

In addition to its two seasons, December boasts two Holy Days of Obligation (for Americans; your country or diocese may differ): The Immaculate Conception on December 8th and Christmas on the 25th. Go ahead and mark them down.

Are there any December birthdays or important events in your family? School Christmas concerts? Retreats or service days for your parish? End-of-term parties or exams? Write them down. You may choose to celebrate Sundays in your ordinary way or do something special to mark the Sundays of Advent. Take this into account, so that you don’t spread yourself too thin.

Now look at the white space. Is there enough of it? Do you need to call it quits at this point in order to hold on to the vision of Advent you first had? Or do you find you’re eager to add a few more special celebrations to brighten the season?

Be sure to evaluate whether the events you have scheduled at this point are necessary or simply “expected,” because of tradition, a sense of obligation, or relationship. Is there an event you have always attended, but you feel a stirring within yourself that it is just not what’s best for you or your family this year? Pray over this stirring. Seek guidance from the Holy Spirit. It can be hard to imagine letting go of long-held traditions without snubbing anyone. Be creative. There is almost always a way to do what is needed for your heart and your family without hurting others.

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If you find that you do have space and a desire for more liturgical celebration in this usually quite busy month, here are your optionsNow it’s time to start cherry-picking.

Click on the link above. Look over the names. See what calls to you. If you don’t recognize a saint or liturgical event, read about it to find out more. You may find a kindred spirit or an inspiring life.

If you have a deep love of the Scriptures, you may wish to celebrate the Feasts of Lazarus and Saint Stephen, whose stories are found in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. Those with young children might enjoy celebrating Saint Nicholas of Myra, who is the patron saint of children and the real-life inspiration for our modern-day Santa Claus. If you have enjoyed Jesse trees in past years, you could incorporate the O Antiphons (December 17-24) into your Advent devotions. And if you have a heart for the pro-life movement, you certainly should consider honoring the Feast of the Holy Innocents (December 28).

The highlight of Advent for my family is always December 13, when we celebrate Saint Lucy in the style of our Swedish ancestors. However, if your family hails from Mexico, you may want to forgo Lucy’s feast day to give Saint Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin (December 9) and the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe (December 12) pride of place.

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Don’t feel guilty about what you choose to let go. There is nothing stopping you from changing your mind next year. Just remember these steps and you’ll be fine.

  1. Hold tight to your vision for the season.
  2. Pen in the non-negotiables.
  3. Gently let go of what is not best and what is not blessing.
  4. Fill in the white space, leaving enough to give peace.
  5. Be Spirit-led as you cherry-pick.

Have fun. Be inspired. And let the rest go.

We, each of us, are celebrating this great big gospel-story in our own way. It’s not right or wrong, better or best — it’s yours. And that’s all it ever needs to be.

continue the conversation: Leave a comment below to share how YOU celebrate your faith story!

stay tuned: Now that you have a sense of which days you want to choose, we’ll take a closer look at how to celebrate them!

To read the rest of the series:
Part 1: Where to Start?

6 comments

  1. Lea says:

    HI Bethany,

    Thanks so much for this series! I’m not Catholic, I’m Lutheran and we try to follow the church year in our home too. We don’t have any obligation days but as a Pastor’s wife, I so want to model the rhythm of the church year in our lives and for others to witness. At first glance it is so overwhelming. Thanks so much for sharing – it is helpful for me in this season of life!

    Blessings,
    Lea

    PS I read your old blog and I love this one too! Thanks for sharing!

    • Bethany says:

      I’m so glad you’re finding the series helpful, Lea! I love seeing how Protestants interpret the liturgical celebrations – I feel like we all bring so much to the table that is worth sharing, and it does my heart glad to see the Church celebrating together despite our differences!

  2. Brandy says:

    We’re Lutheran, too. In recent years, I have become very interested in learning more about and celebrating more with the church year. A big one we are working on is focusing more on Advent during Advent and then celebrating Christmas for the entire 12 day season. I want to learn more about certain times, such as Epiphany. We also want to create better Easter traditions, because we don’t do enough to honor the wonderful news that Christ is Risen!! The church year is fascinating. There is so much to learn, but like you say, we can take it slow.

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