Subseasons of the Time After Pentecost

With one stark exception, the liturgical seasons of the Roman Rite generally last from 2 to 6 weeks.

And this time frame certainly makes psychological sense. As any retail store marketer will tell you, it’s hard to keep people’s interest levels up without seasonality.

So what then are we to make of this long season after Pentecost…which grinds along in liturgical green for 24+ weeks–fully half the year?

The key is seeing the seasonality within the season, the way Gaudete and Laetare Sundays sprinkle some joy into the prayerful watchfulness of Advent and the austere penance of Lent. And the way Passiontide gives a keener focus and renewed spirit to the end of Lent.

The Time after Pentecost was not always so uniformly defined or named. During the Carolingian Period, as we find in Alcuin’s writings, it was carved up into various subseasons pegged to the major feasts within it:

Post Pentecosten (after Pentecost)

Post Natale Apostolorum (after the birthday of the Apostles, from June 29th)

Post Sancti Laurentii (after St. Lawrence, from August 10th)

September (of the seventh month)

Post Sancti Angeli (after the holy angels, from Michaelmas on Sept. 29 to Advent)

In some places this general scheme lasted throughout the medieval period, with regional variations depending on which saints were especially honored in the area.

The Missal of Pius V did not adopt any of these named subseasons. Yet we can still detect some shifts in tone and emphasis from Pentecost to Advent, particularly when we also consider the readings from Matins in the Divine Office–the other half of the sacred liturgy.

As Dom Gueranger observed, the two objects presented to our consideration in the Time after Pentecost are “the Church and the Christian soul.” And they are presented with a certain flow that makes logical sense.

During the month of July, the Divine Office closely follows the Missal in keeping the ”Sundays after Pentecost” up until the Eleventh Sunday. And Matins during this period highlights the historical books: Josue, Judges, Ruth, and Kings—which give us a chance to contemplate how the history of the Jews foreshadows the growth of the Church after Pentecost.

But during August the readings in Matins no longer follow the Mass pattern of Sundays After Pentecost. They now switch to a monthly cycle: First Sunday in August, Second Sunday in August, etc., then First Sunday in September, and so on. (This monthly pattern will continue all the way to Advent, with different books of the Old Testament read during the weeks and months.) August also sees a shift away from the historical growth of the Church and towards the personal growth of the soul. The Matins readings are now taken up with the Sapiential or Wisdom books: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom, and Ecclesiasticus. In this period of late summer, roughly corresponding with the Missal’s 12th through 17th Sundays of Pentecost, we are in the fullest, most lush growth of the “green” time after Pentecost. The Mass texts continue to sound a consistent theme of right living.

But September brings another subtle shift. Gueranger sees this subseason as a practical application of August’s exhortations to wisdom: “Supernatural truth produces holiness, which cannot exist, nor produce fruit, where truth is not. In order to express the union there is between these two, the Church reads to us, during the month of September, the Books called Hagiographic; these are, Tobias, Judith, Esther, and Job, and they show Wisdom in action.” And note from these books how we are starting to see a more ominous tone creep into our consideration. The Scriptures cast us in with the Jews who face a series of threats to their very existence, whether from internal temptation as with Job, or from external enemies as with Judith and Esther.

This tendency becomes even more pronounced in the following month. Back to Gueranger again: “At the end of the world, the Church will have to go through combats of unusual fierceness. To keep us on the watch, she reads to us, during the month of October, the Book of Maccabees.” The Mass Introits have been drawing from the Psalms all year up till now, but beginning with the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, they draw from the Old Testament. Instead of prayers for assistance to live a righteous life, we see more prayers for peace, mercy, and deliverance from tribulation. We also see more Gospels that talk about the end of the world, and the tone begins to get more apocalyptic.

Finally we arrive at the Last Sundays after Pentecost—an unusual subseason that might seem to consist largely of liturgical filler: the intercalated Sundays. Though their readings are from the post-Epiphany Masses, however, it would be wrong to simply regard this time as a “catch-up” period without a distinct character of its own. In Gueranger’s words: “The near approach of the general judgment, and the terrible state of the world during the period immediately preceding that final consummation of time, is the very soul of the Liturgy during these last Sundays of the Church’s Year”. The Introit Dicit Dominus and the De Profundis at the Offertory are like an insistent drumbeat announcing the end of time. At Matins the readings are, appropriately, warnings from the Prophets: Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, and Micah.

We have thus reached the end of the liturgical year, and we have seen the whole history of the Church presented sequentially: birth at the Pentecost Octave, growth and maturity during August, the triumph of the saints during September, steadfastness in the face of persecution and oppression in October, and the end of the world in November.

So notwithstanding the invariant green vestments, the sacred liturgy presents different mysteries to us during summer and autumn, and following its lead will help us strengthen our endurance on earth and prepare for life in heaven.

July 15, 2020