Sanctifying the Seasons: Liturgically Based Catechesis

by Joyce Stolberg

   The Church has urged us to develop our catechetical processes in conjunction with the readings of the lectionary cycles, because what we pray in the liturgy actually becomes what we believe (lex orandi, lex credendi).  We have done so, while adhering to the fundamental principle of catechesis: what is being taught builds on what has previously been presented and, hopefully, internalized.  You have just been offered a sample calendar plan for the 2011-2012 catechetical year, presented as a free download.  The overall year-round plan for all three liturgical cycles is prominently placed in the supplement section of the catechetical edition of God Calls You by Name.  Hopefully, these two documents will assist you in aligning the subject material within your process to reinforce the liturgical readings while still applying sound pedagogical principles.  Yet, though we wholeheartedly commit ourselves to this method, we frequently struggle to coordinate our lessons with our readings.  Fortunately, a tide more basic to both our human nature and our worship experience ebbs and flows at the shore of our awareness: the very progression of earthly time and seasons obeys all God's laws (Preface, Ordinary Time).  Liturgical seasons, celebrated fully, actively, and consciously, can complement our lectionary by sublimely attuning us to timeless eternal realities.

  Jesus Christ became man, lived among us, and accomplished the saving mysteries of his Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension once for all time.  In order for these eternal mysteries to touch our spirits through our physical senses, commemorations of the many facets of this one Paschal Mystery are spread out over the course of each liturgical year.  Therefore, the liturgical seasons, as well as the individual Sunday readings, become our "lex orandi, lex credendi."  Liturgical and seasonal awareness can smoothen and fill the residual lacunae and discontinuities naturally inherent in the best lectionary based catechesis systems.  Please allow me to explain what I mean as I propose the complementary concept of LITURGICALLY BASED CATECHESIS.

  Ordinary Time, for example, is anything but a flat transition from the Easter season of one year to the following Advent: it throbs with its own development as it reveals the three years of Jesus' public life, teaching, and ministry.  August celebrates midsummer when vegetables, fruits, and grains are ripening for harvest.  Readings from Matthew in Year A are ripe with agrarian imagery.  The good seed in rich soil, the tiny mustard seed, healthy wheat growing together with maliciously sewn weeds, are all symbols of Christian growth in virtue.  Reflect on the humanity of Jesus as you anchor your late summer lessons onto this seasonal development.  The feast of the Assumption honors Mary as the first fruits of Jesus' saving work.  Then we move on to Jesus' selection and training of St. Peter and of his call to all of us to follow him on the way of the cross.

  Here, as you begin to transition from your summer process to the more formal autumn catechesis, observe how Ordinary Time mirrors and sanctifies the progression of the natural seasons in the Northern Hemisphere.  We will soon be reaping the rewards of virtue.  Social issues and even taxes are dealt with during autumn and provide background for your essential instruction on the 10 Commandments, conscience development and moral issues.  Later in the season, while the fallen leaves are raked and the sheaves and fruits are gathered, you will be celebrating the victory of all the saints and the final harvest of souls at the end of time.  Many of us have ambivalent reactions to the secular celebration of Halloween.  Think about holding a party where children come dressed as their favorite saint; adjust your games to reflect catechetical themes.  Consider a timely catechesis on the "last things" --- death, judgment, heaven, and hell, as you round out the liturgical year between the feast of all Saints and the climactic celebration of Christ the King.  Look at the seasonal as well as the weekly aspects of Ordinary Time when you calendar your instructions.

  You may also be celebrating an initial harvest of Christian virtue as you prepare for the Rites of Acceptance and Welcome.  You are encouraged to incorporate the themes of all Saints, final victory, and the Beatitudes in your preparation retreat for these rites; see page S-85 in the supplement to God Calls You by Name.

  The other seasons catechize as well: I have offered some thoughts in past newsletters and in the supplement to God Calls You by Name, and will continue to do so in the future.  I will ruminate on them briefly here.  In the season of Advent we consider deeply the mystery of the Incarnation and we ponder the privileges given to Mary, the mother of God.  The longing for the coming of the Messiah is expressed as much by the haunting tones in the Advent music and the colors in the vestments as it is by the readings.  The awe and wonder of the marriage of divinity with humanity unfolds as the Christmas season progresses.  Our human nature has to express its astonishment by filling the environment with brilliant flowers, perhaps Christmas trees, and the symbolic manger scene.  Our music joins the angels as we burst forth in great joy.  Catechesis on the sacraments resonates with Christ the incarnate Word of God, the great sign, or sacrament, of God's love, throughout the Christmas season and the ordinary time of winter.  The somberness of Lent, completed by the exhausting liturgy of Good Friday, then calls us to ponder deeply our commitment to follow Christ through his passion, and to die and rise with him in the baptismal fountain at Easter.  Then the limitless joy of Easter overflows once again.

  Can a choir rehearse, record, or simply sing "O come, o come, Emanuel" and not project a wistful yearning for the Messiah?  Can we sing "My people, what have I done to you!" as we kiss the cross on Good Friday without feeling Jesus' pain?  Can the Elect listen to the Easter Exultet and not be thrilled to share Christ's triumph over the grave?  Can you sing, "For all the saints who from their labor rest" and not ponder your own eternal destiny?  The very moods created by the environment, music, colors, and use or withholding of liturgical enhancements such as incense all contribute to our catechesis.  When you simply can't --- try as you might --- correlate a sequential lesson with a specific Sunday reading, consider the pedagogy prompted by the deeply seasonal aspects of the liturgical cycle itself.

  Jesus Christ, whose laws all times and seasons obey, himself celebrated the festivals of the seasons during his earthly pilgrimage.  By so doing he made the seasons themselves a source of both grace and catechesis for us.  Let us complement our application of the lectionary by incorporating the broader aspects of the liturgy into our weekly lessons.