Octaves, Novenas and Seasons: The Catholic Way of Telling Time

Catholics have a holy way of using our time to prepare ourselves for eternity through the liturgical year.

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Throughout the ages, we’ve developed various systems for telling us how much time has passed and what time is coming. The sun and the moon and the stars have guided us; the seasons of planting and harvesting have provided guidance. Calendars, diaries, journals and other forms of record-keeping have helped us remember and prepare. We have seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, quarters, and years to keep us on track.

The Catholic Church has been deeply involved in all these methods of telling time, not to control it, but to celebrate the greatest event in human history: the Life of Jesus: His Incarnation, Birth, Life, Passion and Resurrection. Especially the Resurrection.


The Gregorian Calendar

Pope Gregory XIII issued a papal bull in 1582 reforming the old Julian calendar: the date of Easter, which is based on the spring Equinox, was drifting off schedule. The Church was trying to keep the date of Easter as close as possible to when the early Church celebrated it. Following up on one of the concerns of the Council of Trent, scholars reviewed astronomical observations and made mathematical calculations to adjust the calendar.

The revised calendar that Pope Gregory XIII announced on Feb. 24, 1582 in the Papal Bull Inter gravissimas went into effect in the Papal States as a civil and liturgical calendar on Friday, Oct. 15. Ten days had been removed to correctly identify the date on which the next spring Equinox would occur, from which the date of Easter would be determined (the last day on the Julian calendar was Thursday, Oct. 4). Pope Gregory required Catholic pastors and bishops to adopt this reform in their liturgical observances; he recommended that Catholic rulers and others do the same in their countries’ civil calendar.

Most Catholic monarchs accepted the reforms, but many Protestant countries, like England, did not. The Christian world was divided on its celebration of Easter and would not share the Gregorian calendar until the mid-eighteenth century. Anyone studying the history of England, for example, between 1582 and 1752 has to be aware of the Old and New Styles of dating. England remained on the Julian calendar while across the English Channel much of Europe was using the Gregorian.

As this calendar was acknowledged as an accurate measure of time, other countries, even Orthodox Christian and Muslim, accepted it for the convenience of diplomacy and trade. But the Church’s purpose for adjusting the calendar had not been diplomatic or commercial: it had been so that the Solemnity of Solemnities, the Holiest Day of the Church Year would be celebrated on the right Sunday.


Moveable and Fixed Feasts

On the Solemnity of the Epiphany, the Church proclaims the dates of Ash Wednesday, Easter, the Ascension, Pentecost, Corpus Christi—and when the new liturgical year will begin on the First Sunday of Advent. In 2018, Catholics will observe St. Valentine’s Day with fasting, abstinence, and ashes. On April 1, we will celebrate not April Fool’s Day, but the greatest Truth of All: Jesus has conquered death by His Resurrection.

While the date of Christmas is always the same, the date of Easter varies. Even fixed dates may be affected by the date of Easter: the Solemnity of the Annunciation is sometimes moved, for example. It will be moved to April 9 this year since March 25 is Palm Sunday.

For each liturgical year, the Secretariat of Divine Worship of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issues a calendar. The 2019 calendar is already available to order for those who need to plan ahead; the 2018 calendar is available online now.


Other Catholic Ways of Marking Time

You might notice when reviewing that liturgical calendar that it reveals other ways we observe this year: the cycles of readings for daily and Sunday Masses; the parts of the Liturgy of Hours we will pray during the year, especially which weeks of Ordinary Time we’ll observe; even the color of vestments that the priest should wear (and the sacristan prepare) for each Mass.

All these details are there to help us observe what Mircea Eliade called “sacred time.” As John Crowley quotes Eliade in an article for Lapham’s Quarterly, Sacred time is “indefinitely recoverable, indefinitely repeatable” and it “neither changes nor is exhausted.” We can experience the cycle of sacred time in the liturgical year over and over again throughout our lives, learning more and more about it and learning to love Jesus, His Mother, and the Saints and imitate them more completely.

In his article, “Time After Time,” Crowley also quotes the great historian of the Middle Ages, Jacques le Goff, who identified three ways Catholics observe time with the saints, Our Lord, and in eternity:

The first of these time frames is the sanctorale, the history of the saints and prophets as they appear one after another through historical time. Next is the temporale, the calendar of the church and its annual feasts, offices, and celebrations, which is cyclical and begins again where it ends. Third is the eschatological time of our progress toward Judgment Day, when time stops and eternity begins. 

And within those time frames, we have other ways of using time, spending our time, that precious present: we pray novenas for nine days usually before a saint’s feast or great solemnity; we observe octaves for eight days after a great solemnity, we have vigils before feasts, Forty Hours of Adoration, Holy Week, the Sacred Triduum, the thrice-daily prayer of the Angelus, etc.


In the World, Not of It

Our local grocery store chain marked down Christmas decorations and candy and stopped playing Christmas songs on Dec. 26—at least their stores closed early on Christmas Eve and remained closed on Christmas Day—and soon all the mark-downs were placed in carts so they could fill the shelves with Valentine’s Day gifts and candy. Commercially, Christmas was over and it was time to move on but we were still observing Christmas-tide and its saints in our prayers and at Mass.

To me, this was just another reminder that as Catholic Christians we may live in the world but we should not be part of the world. We’ve been given a holy way of using the time we’ve been given to prepare ourselves for eternity through the liturgical year with all its solemnities, feasts, seasons, and octaves. Gloria in Excelsis Deo!

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