In the 1959 English edition of The Church’s Year of Grace (originally Jahr des Heiles), Pius Parsch states, “…the concept of a Church year as a specific period beginning with the first Sunday of Advent is a fabrication. It would be better in the future to speak of liturgical seasons or of festal seasons rather than of a liturgical year” (pg 7). Rather than a year-end sign, the post-Pentecost Gospel passages are “a tie” with the Advent season, thus deteriorating the notion that we have come upon a “new year”. The arrival a decade later of a reformed lectionary certainly increased this eschatological theme in the final Sundays of what is now called “Ordinary Time.”
Parsch proposes that our approach should be primarily sacramental, and not historical. An historical approach obviously begins with the natural birth of Christ, leads to his death and resurrection, and concludes with the post-Pentecost life of the Church. A sacramental / mystery approach, on the other hand, begins with Septuagesima / Lent. “It would be hard to find a more fitting and beautiful beginning for the Church year” (pg 9) because it invites humanity into the paschal mystery, the foundational source of the Christian life.
Within this sacramental / mystery approach the season of Advent “is really a continuation of the Church’s autumn season, her preparation for the Savior’s return” (pg 10) and thus Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany serve primarily as emblems of eschatology. And so, Parsch may have been glad to know that the 1969 Lectionary revision utilizes the Prophet Isaiah and in general places greater emphasis on the eschatological nature of the Advent season, as pointed out by Patrick Regan to the readers of the November 2010 edition of Worship.
But after making his proposal, Parsch readily admits that, practically, to switch from an historical approach to a sacramental / mystery approach is untenable because of the strong historic themes which today surround the Christmas feast. An example of this might be the popular crèche scenes which we inherited from the early Franciscans.
And even though he calls the “Church year” a “fabrication” he himself goes on to employ that same language in his writings, but not so much as a “liturgical year” but as a “year of grace.” And the title, Seasons of Grace, was given to the 1963 publication of his work into English, again positing the need to think of seasons instead of an historic “year.”
If indeed we are to approach Christmas not merely as an historic acknowledgment of the Child Jesus but also to approach the solemnity with an adult Christ put back into Christmas, as hoped by Raymond Brown, then the salvific work of the crucified and resurrected Christ must be recognized even within the Annunciation and his birth. That is to say, the eschatological nature of the feast must not be lost.
Whether our approach is primarily historical or primarily sacramental / mystery, or if indeed as seems to be the case both approaches are simultaneously at work (General Norms for the Liturgical Year and Calendar, 39), the present coming of Christ is one of daily grace. The historical events of Christ’s earthly life serve as foreshadows of our current life of grace. As Pope St. Leo the Great stated, “what was visible in our Savior has passed over into his mysteries.” So as to prepare our hearts to receive this grace properly and more fruitfully, we observe the holy season of Advent. Parsch writes, “What we read as past history and what we await as future hope merge into a holy now and a holy today in the Mass” (pg 5).