A mosaic depicts the Transfiguration as a radiant Jesus meets with Moses and Elijah. CNS photo/Greg Tarczynski

Fr. Raymond de Souza: Syro-Malabar calendar elevates summer feasts

  • July 29, 2020

Our calendar of liturgical seasons is rather bare compared to some of our sister Catholic Churches. That is never more evident than in our long season of “Ordinary Time,” an uninspired translation of a banal original (in Latin, “Sundays of the Year”).

Ordinary Time takes up most of the calendar, falling in two parts: after the Christmas season until Lent, and after Pentecost until Advent. Before the liturgical reform of the 1960s, there was no Ordinary Time. Sundays were counted as “Sundays after Epiphany” or “Sundays after Pentecost.” That had the advantage of anchoring the “ordinary” Sundays to the great feasts by which Christians keep time.

Even that older Roman tradition, though, is not as rich as some of the Eastern liturgical traditions. Last winter I was blessed to visit Kerala, the southern Indian state which is home to the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. Their calendar has nine seasons instead of our four, and it is especially rich at this time of year, in the prominence given to the feast of the Transfiguration (Aug. 6).

The first four Syro-Malabar seasons are roughly comparable to the Roman seasons that we follow: Annunciation (which corresponds to our Advent and Christmas), Epiphany, Great Fast (Lent), Resurrection (Easter).

The next five seasons replace our Ordinary Time: Apostles, Summer, Elijah-Cross, Moses, Dedication of the Church.

The season of Apostles begins with Pentecost and commemorates the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles and the early Church. It includes the solemn feast of Sts. Peter and Paul (June 29). It is followed by Summer, or perhaps better translated as “harvest time.” This season marks the work of the apostles and the fruit born from their missionary activity.

Perhaps the most interesting are the seasons of Elijah-Cross and Moses, sometimes understood together as a single period. The season points to the second coming and the final victory of Christ crucified. The central feast of the season is the Triumph of the Cross (Sept. 14).

In both the Syro-Malabar calendar and the Roman calendar, the feasts of the Transfiguration and Triumph of the Cross are 40 days apart, similar to the other great “forties” in the calendar — Christmas to the Presentation (Feb. 2), Lent and Easter to Ascension Thursday.

The Transfiguration, which we celebrate in a few days time, has a greater prominence in the East. The Syro-Malanakara Church, for example, has a season of Transfiguration. The Syro-Malabar calendar understands the Transfiguration as being more than a moment to strengthen the apostles for the Passion to come. It points far beyond, to the end of history and the Lord’s return in glory. The “completion” of the Transfiguration 40 days later with the Triumph of the Cross means that the cross, too, is a moment of glory.

Elijah and Moses appear with Jesus at the Transfiguration. The seasons of Elijah-Cross and Moses thus remind the Church of the long preparation for the coming of Jesus in the history of the Chosen People, and that we are awaiting His return in glory.

In the Roman calendar, the Advent season commemorates both “advents” — the coming of the Lord Jesus at Bethlehem and His second coming at the end of history. The Syro-Malabar calendar gives the second coming greater attention with its own seasonal focus in Elijah-Cross and Moses.

The Roman calendar, after the post-Pentecost feasts (Trinity, Corpus Christi) settles into a sort of ordinary routine. There are many significant feasts to be sure — Sacred Heart of Jesus, St. John the Baptist, St. Peter and Paul, Assumption — but too often there is a sense that once Pentecost is over the liturgy is on cruise control until Advent. One long season of ordinariness can have that effect.

The Syro-Malabar calendar lifts up the twin feasts of summer, Transfiguration and Triumph of the Cross, reminding the faithful that the ordinary story of salvation remains extraordinary for all time. The Lord Jesus shares His Father’s glory from all eternity and manifests that glory in love on the Cross, that we might share in that glory, a glory that we will behold when He returns at the end of history.

Celebrating the figures of Moses and Elijah gives the Syro-Malabar faithful a greater attentiveness to the Old Testament, which is fully revealed in the mystery of Christ. The prophet Elijah is given an honour in the Eastern traditions that has been lost in the Western, an honour which is confirmed in the Gospels themselves, not only at the Transfiguration but in declaration by Jesus that John the Baptist is the “Elijah” who will return before the Messiah. Elijah and Moses are the pillars of the Jewish people and their prominence in the Syro-Malabar calendar reminds us that, in St. Paul’s words, the Gentiles are grafted on to the covenant with Israel.

The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church in Canada is growing with the establishment last year of its own eparchy (diocese) in Mississauga, Ont. Its tradition has riches which can increase the liturgical knowledge and piety of all Catholics.

(Fr. de Souza is editor-in-chief of Convivium.ca and a pastor in the Archdiocese of Kingston.)

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