One of the powerful unifying traditions for Christians throughout time and geography is the observance of the Church Year. The Christian tradition reflects its connection with the Jewish cycle of feasts and celebrations. However, while the Jewish cycle revolves around the Exodus, the Christian calendar revolves around the life of Jesus. Our tradition, starting with the expectation surrounding Advent and concluding with the celebration of resurrection on Easter Sunday, serves as a framework, a context for remembering, for spiritual reflection and for teaching the foundations of our faith.
The liturgical cycle divides a calendar year into a series of seasons. Just as each season in the world of nature has a distinct quality, each season in the Church liturgical cycle has a distinct mood and spiritual nuance.
By systematically remembering and re-experiencing the key aspects of the life and ministry of Jesus, we are refreshed, deepened and reconfirmed in our own faith and depth of understanding. And because we are not the same person with the same understandings from year to year, our experience of the Church Seasons is similarly different and deeper each year.
The Seasons of the Christian Year
The major categories into which the Church Year is divided include:
- Christmas (December 24 through January 5)
- Time after Epiphany (ordinary* time)
- Lent (including Holy Week, which is the last week of Lent)
- Easter (Pentecost is the last day of the Easter season)
- Time after Pentecost (ordinary* time)
*the word “ordinary” as it is used here does not mean “commonplace” or “unexceptional.” Rather, it is derived from the root “ordinal,” meaning “counted” time. So, weeks are counted after Epiphany and Pentecost.
advent:The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition
an arrival or coming, esp one which is awaited
(from Latin adventus, from advenīre, from ad- to + venīre to come)
For churches in the Western Christian tradition, the Church Year begins with Advent, a time when the pages of our secular calendars have just about run out!
The season of Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day and ends on Christmas Eve, December 24. In contrast to the celebratory mood of Christmas, Advent is a more subdued season, marked by a focus on preparation and anticipation – anticipation for the coming of the Christ, the Deliverer. Our word Advent is derived from the Latin word adventus, meaning “arrival” or “coming.” The ancient traditional color used to decorate the sanctuary for Advent is purple, the color of royalty. In the early church tradition, Advent was a time of penitence and fasting. It is, therefore, no coincidence that Purple is also the color used for church decoration during Lent. There are deep ties between Advent and Lent because we understand that the incarnation cannot be separated from the crucifixion. Over time, the Advent emphasis on penitence has changed in most Western traditions to that of hope. However, Advent is still a period of quiet, hopeful anticipation, in marked contrast to the frenzy of superficial cheer and gift purchasing promoted by those with more commercial interests.
East Church observes the start of Advent with the “Hanging of the Greens” ceremony. Children and youth participate in decorating the sanctuary with evergreen wreaths and garlands because they represent the new and everlasting life introduced by Jesus the Christ. An Advent Wreath is also featured at the front of the sanctuary with five candles: one for each week leading to Christmas and one final one, the Christ Candle, which is lit at the Christmas Eve service. Throughout the weeks of Advent, families participate in the Worship service by reading scripture and lighting a new candle at the beginning of the service. Each candle has an aspect of the Advent story associated with it.
It is also East Church’s practice to hold off singing “Christmas Carols” during worship until after Advent. Although you have probably been humming along with “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing” in the malls since well before Thanksgiving, the quiet, minor key of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is more in keeping with the attitude of Advent.
With contemporary eyes, it may seem astounding that, as recently as the mid-nineteenth century, Christmas was a fairly insignificant holiday. A normal work day in fact! Two of the gospels (Mark and John) skip the nativity altogether, choosing to start with Jesus’ ministry. Matthew and Luke present strikingly different versions of the narrative. The birth of the Christ wasn’t the center of the Christian story for the Gospel writers. It was supporting background material.
Christmas is a season, not a day, in the Christian calendar. Christmas begins at sunset on December 24 (Christmas Eve), and extends for twelve days, through January 5. Christmas concludes Advent (the period of expectant waiting) and precedes Epiphany (“to show”) which marks the arrival of the Magi who effectively revealed the Christ to the world.
The story we know and love today, composed of the “best parts” from Luke and Matthew and rounded out with some embellishments from retelling, is sweet and emotionally approachable. The theological significance, however, is profound: Christmas is about the incarnation of God and the realization of the concept of Emmanuel (“God is with us”). God came to be with people directly so as to be able to know and identify with us intimately. As it says in the hymn , “true man, yet very God.” Or, as John put it, God “pitched his tent among us.”
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition
- A Christian feast celebrating the manifestation of the divine nature of Jesus to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi.
- A sudden manifestation of the essence or meaning of something.
- A comprehension or perception of reality by means of a sudden intuitive realization.
(from Greek epiphaneia, manifestation)
The season of Epiphany is perhaps not as clearly understood by many Western Protestant Christians as are some other seasons such as Christmas or Lent. We observe the season of Epiphany from the twelfth day of Christmas (January 6th) until Ash Wednesday, when the season of Lent begins.
Coming from a Greek word which may be translated as “appearance” or “manifestation,” or “to make known” or “to reveal,” Epiphany is a very ancient feast which at one time was second in importance only to Easter. Consequently the observance of Epiphany has accumulated many varied traditions, chiefly:
- the visit by the three sages (or Magi) to Bethlehem,
- Jesus’ baptism, and
- the first miracle at the wedding at Cana.
Common to all of these traditions is a celebration and commemoration of the revelation, the manifestation, of the Christ to the wide world, inclusive of all people.
God miraculously took on human form (the incarnation) at the Nativity, Christmas, but that was just the beginning of the story! This incarnate, purposeful God was revealed to the world of mortals by the Epiphany. The importance of the season of Epiphany is to help us understand our work and mission in the world moving forward from the miracle of the manger.
Many of us familiar with the Protestant tradition of Christianity are less deeply connected with the season of Lent than are our brothers and sisters of the Roman Catholic tradition. We certainly know Holy Week, and we may have vague images of fasting or fish on Friday or foreheads marked with ashes, but we may feel we lack a rich appreciation for the liturgical season of Lent.
At its simplest, Lent is a season of spiritual preparation.
In much the same way that Advent is a period of preparation for the Incarnation (Christmas), Lent is a period of preparation for the Resurrection (Easter).
The season of Lent was defined in the seventh century as a period lasting for forty days, beginning with Ash Wednesday and concluding the Saturday before Easter. (If you look at a calendar, you may notice there are more than forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. This is because Sundays, already a day of worship, are not counted.) Holy Week and Easter, as important as they are, represent only the climactic conclusion to the rich season of Lent.
In early Christian traditions, baptisms were performed once a year, on the Easter Vigil. Lent for those believers was an intensive period of preparation for their baptism. The word “Lent” initially simply meant “spring,” derived from a Germanic root for “long” because the daylight starts to get longer in the spring.
You may recognize the number forty as one having rich symbolic meaning the the Bible. Moses spent forty days with God on Mt. Sinai. It rained on Noah for forty days, and it took forty years for the children of Israel to reach the Promised Land. However, it is the forty days Jesus spent in solitude in the desert, preparing for his ministry by fasting, praying and facing temptation, that the forty days of Lent reflect.
The focus of Lent traditionally is on preparation for the celebration of Easter, the defining act of redemption which is the core of what Christianity is all about. Although that preparation is often expressed through repentance and recognition of the need for God’s Grace, contemporary Christians don’t feel the need to beat themselves up for forty days. We do derive great benefit from a focused, immersive spiritual pilgrimage involving introspection, Bible reading and meditation on the meaning of Jesus’s message and ministry (and of course his passion and sacrifice). The emphasis is on practicing things that draw us nearer to God. This self-reflection, taken in the context of Jesus’s discipline and self-sacrifice, helps us to grow while at the same time recognizing ourselves as small and powerless and in need of that which is bigger and stronger than we are.
We also recognize that, in order to be able to appreciate the contrast of Easter’s brilliant light, we need to walk through the hard darkness that begins with the ashes which represent mortality and ends, grieving, at the cross.
You may feel the prevailing feeling of Lent is sadness. The music sounds mournful and the colors tend to be dark. It may help to think of Lent as solemn instead of sorrowful. There is certainly a theme of grief, sorrow and apprehension. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, Lent it sometimes known as the season of “Bright Sadness.” Recognizing that the darkness is necessary but temporary deeply enriches the celebration of Easter.
The following text, which summarizes Holy Week and Easter, is from a page on the UCC web site entitled Sacred Seasons, A journey through the Church Year.
Lent ends with Holy Week, beginning with Palm (or “Passion”) Sunday and continuing with Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. (“Passion” is from the Latin passio, meaning “suffering.”) The color for most of Holy Week is red – symbolizing the blood shed by Jesus on the cross.
Maundy Thursday, however, is an exception to the somber and introspective mood that normally prevails during Holy Week. On Maundy Thursday, Christians gather to remember the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples—an event Christians associate with the first celebration of Holy Communion (or the “Lord’s Supper”). So the color of the day is festal white.
Maundy is derived from the Latin word, “mandatum,” meaning “commandment.” The celebration recalls not only the Last Supper but Jesus’ last commandment to his disciples: “love one another as I have loved you.”
Good Friday is the observance of the arrest, crucifixion and burial of Jesus. The center of attention is the cross: hanging criminals on a cross was a common method of execution in the Roman Empire. As Christians behold the cross on Good Friday, they remember the arms of the Savior of the world, stretched out on the wood of the cross for the salvation of humanity.
Easter Sunday celebrates the resurrection of the crucified Lord from the dead. It is the greatest festival in the Church Year. In many churches, it begins with a solemn “vigil” on Saturday night. Stories from the Bible about God’s loving care for humanity are read, and bells are rung while the congregation sings “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people on earth.”
The celebration of Christ’s resurrection continues for 50 days. The color of the season is festal white.
The season ends with Pentecost Sunday—exactly 50 days after Easter Sunday. (Pentecostē means “fiftieth [day]” in Greek.) The custom of counting 50 days from Easter to Pentecost was borrowed from Jewish tradition, which celebrates the harvest festival of Shavuot 50 days after the feast of Passover.
In Christian tradition, Pentecost Sunday celebrates the gift of Christ’s Holy Spirit to the church. The Spirit is often symbolized as fire, so the color of Pentecost is red.