What Are the Liturgical Seasons of the Catholic Church?

The Yearly Cycle of Salvation History

The liturgy, or public worship, of all Christian churches is governed by a yearly calendar that commemorates the main events in salvation history. In the Catholic Church, this cycle of public celebrations, prayers, and readings is divided into six seasons, each emphasizing a portion of the life of Jesus Christ. These six seasons are described in the "General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar," published by the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship in 1969 (after the revision of the liturgical calendar at the time of the promulgation of the Novus Ordo). As the General Norms note, "By means of the yearly cycle the Church celebrates the whole mystery of Christ, from his incarnation until the day of Pentecost and the expectation of his coming again."

Fully lit Advent wreath with a central Christmas candle on a home altar. (Photo © Scott P. Richert)
A fully lit Advent wreath with a central Christmas candle on a home altar, in front of icons of Saint Stephen, Saint Michael, and Our Lady of Czestochowa. (Photo © Scott P. Richert)

The liturgical year begins on the First Sunday of Advent, the season of preparation for Christ's Birth. The emphasis in the Mass and the daily prayers of this season is on the threefold coming of Christ—the prophecies of His Incarnation and Birth; His coming into our lives through grace and the sacraments, especially the Sacrament of Holy Communion; and His Second Coming at the end of time. Sometimes called a "little Lent," Advent is a period of joyful expectation but also of penance, as the liturgical color of the season—purple, as in Lent—indicates.

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Detail of a Fontanini Nativity scene during Advent. (Photo © Amy J. Richert)
Detail of a Fontanini Nativity scene during Advent, before the Christ Child is placed in the manger on Christmas Eve. (Photo © Amy J. Richert)

The joyful expectation of Advent finds its culmination in the second season of the liturgical year: Christmas. Traditionally, the Christmas season extended from First Vespers (or evening prayer) of Christmas (before Midnight Mass) through Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord (February 2)—a period of 40 days. With the revision of the calendar in 1969, "The Christmas season runs," notes the General Norms, "from evening prayer I of Christmas until the Sunday after Epiphany or after 6 January, inclusive"—that is, until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Contrary to popular celebration, the Christmas season does not encompass Advent, nor end with Christmas Day, but begins after Advent ends and extends into the New Year. The season is celebrated with a special joy throughout the Twelve Days of Christmas, ending with the Epiphany of Our Lord (January 6).

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Statues of the Apostles, Jesus Christ, and John the Baptist on the façade of Saint Peter's Basilica,
Statues of the Apostles, Jesus Christ, and John the Baptist on the façade of Saint Peter's Basilica, Vatican City. (Photo © Scott P. Richert)

On the Monday after the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, the longest season of the liturgical year—Ordinary Time—begins. Depending on the year, it encompasses either 33 or 34 weeks, broken into two distinct portions of the calendar, the first ending on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, and the second beginning on the Monday after Pentecost and running until evening prayer I of the First Sunday of Advent. (Before the revision of the calendar in 1969, these two periods were known as the the Sundays After Epiphany and the Sundays After Pentecost.) Ordinary Time takes its name from the fact that the weeks are numbered (ordinal numbers are numbers indicating positions in a series, such as fifth, sixth, and seventh). During both periods of Ordinary Time, the emphasis in the Mass and the Church's daily prayer is on Christ's teaching and His life among His disciples. More »

Ash Wednesday 2010, St. Matthew Cathedral, Washington, D.C. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Catholics pray during an Ash Wednesday Mass at the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle, Washington, D.C., February 17, 2010. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The season of Ordinary Time is interrupted by three seasons, the first being Lent, the 40-day period of preparation for Easter. In any given year, the length of the first period of Ordinary Time depends on the date of Ash Wednesday, which itself depends on the date of Easter. Lent is a period of fasting, abstinence, prayer, and almsgiving—all to prepare ourselves, body and soul, to die with Christ on Good Friday so that we may rise again with Him on Easter Sunday. During Lent, the emphasis in the Mass readings and daily prayers of the Church is on the prophecies and foreshadowings of Christ in the Old Testament, and the increasing revelation of the nature of Christ and His mission.

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Detail from Giotto di Bondone's Kiss of Judas, Cappella Scrovegni, Padua, Italy. (Wikimedia Commons)
A detail from Giotto di Bondone's Arrest of Christ (Kiss of Judas), Cappella Scrovegni, Padua, Italy. (Wikimedia Commons)

Like Ordinary Time, the Easter Triduum is a new liturgical season created with the revision of the liturgical calendar in 1969. It has its roots, though, in the reform of the ceremonies of Holy Week in 1956. While Ordinary Time is the longest of the Church's liturgical seasons, the Easter Triduum is the shortest; as the General Norms note, "The Easter triduum begins with the evening Mass of the Lord's Supper [on Holy Thursday], reaches its high point in the Easter Vigil, and closes with evening prayer on Easter Sunday." While the Easter Triduum is liturgically a separate season from Lent, it remains a part of the 40-day Lenten fast, which extends from Ash Wednesday through Holy Saturday, excluding the six Sundays in Lent, which are never days of fasting.

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A statue of the risen Christ at Saint Mary Oratory, Rockford, Illinois. (Photo © Scott P. Richert)
A statue of the risen Christ at Saint Mary Oratory, Rockford, Illinois. (Photo © Scott P. Richert)

After Lent and the Easter Triduum, the third season to interrupt Ordinary Time is the Easter season itself. Beginning on Easter Sunday and running to Pentecost Sunday, a period of 50 days (inclusive), the Easter season is second only to Ordinary Time in length. Easter is the greatest feast in the Christian calendar, for "if Christ is not risen, our faith is in vain." The Resurrection of Christ culminates in His Ascension into Heaven and the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, which inaugurates the mission of the Church to spread the Good News of salvation to all the world.

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In addition to the six liturgical seasons discussed above, the "General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar" lists a seventh item in its discussion of the yearly liturgical cycle: the Rogation Days and Ember Days. While these days of prayer, both of petition and of thanksgiving, do not constitute a liturgical season of their own, they are some of the oldest annual celebrations in the Catholic Church, celebrated continuously for over 1,500 years until the revision of the calendar in 1969. At that point, the celebration of both the Rogation Days and the Ember Days were made optional, with the decision left up to the bishops' conference of each country. As a result, neither is widely celebrated today. More »