The Church Year

In our daily lives we keep track of our activities and special events with a calendar, which is a system of organizing days, weeks, months and years. There have been many calendars used throughout history and around the world, but their origins are all connected to time as marked by the sun and moon. Today, most of the world uses what is known as the Gregorian calendar which divides years into 365.25 days and then adjusts time every fourth year with what is called a “leap” year.

The church throughout the centuries has also marked days and seasons and commemorated special occasions with a calendar. In so doing, the Christian church follows the example set in the Old Testament of structuring the year around the marvellous acts of salvation that God completed for us in his Son, Christ. We call this structure the Church Year.

The church year calendar is organized into three sections: Sundays and seasons, feasts and festivals, and finally, commemorations.  Each season of the church year is also identified by certain colors.

The church year has three major seasons: Christmas, Easter and the Time of the Church.

The Time of Christmas

Most North Americans would identify Christmas with the evening of December 24 and the day of December 25. Given the commercialization of Christmas in the west, many people consider the Christmas season or preparation for Christmas, as beginning after Halloween and ending with relief on December 25. However, for Christians, the time of Christmas has a different framework and understanding.

The Time of Christmas begins four Sundays prior to Christmas Day with the season of Advent, a time of preparation with various meanings. The Time of Christmas then culminates with the Nativity of our Lord, the birth of Christ, and the twelve day season of Christmas. However, the Time of Christmas doesn’t stop there, but continues into the Epiphany season which unwraps the gift of God for us in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Advent Season

The Advent season begins on the fourth Sunday prior to Christmas Day. The word “advent” is from the Latin word for “coming,” and as such, describes the first “coming” of our Lord Jesus Christ into the flesh.

Advent begins the church year because the church year begins where Jesus’ earthly life began — in the Old Testament prophecies of his incarnation. After Advent comes Christmas, which is about his birth; then Epiphany, about his miracles and ministry; then Lent, about his Calvary-bound mission; then Easter, about his resurrection and the sending of the apostles; and then Ascension (40 days after Easter) and Pentecost, with the sending of the Holy Spirit.

The first half of the church year (approximately December through June) highlights the life of Christ. The second half (approximately June through November) highlights the teachings of Christ. The parables and miracles play a big part here. That’s “the church year in a nutshell,” and it should help reveal how Advent fits into “the big picture.”

Advent specifically focuses on Christ’s “coming,” but Christ’s coming manifests itself among us in three ways — past, present, and future.

The readings which highlight Christ’s coming in the past focus on the Old Testament prophecies of his incarnation at Bethlehem. The readings, which highlight Christ’s coming in the future, focus on his “second coming” on the Last Day at the end of time. And the readings that highlight Christ’s coming in the present focus on his ministry among us through Word and Sacrament today.

The season of Advent has four Sundays with each Sunday names as follows:

  • First Sunday in Advent (Blue/Violet/Purple)
  • Second Sunday in Advent (B/V/P)
  • Third Sunday in Advent (B/V/P)
  • Fourth Sunday in Advent (B/V/P)

Some congregations choose to hold mid-week Advent services to emphasize a particular theme within the season.

Advent traditionally makes use of Advent candles (sometimes held in a wreath) to mark each Sunday in Advent. This tradition originated in eastern Germany prior to the Reformation. As this tradition came down to us at the beginning of the twentieth century, it involved three purple candles and one pink candle. Paraments in this season were also purple (purple for the royalty of the coming King). Since the middle of the twentieth century, however, some congregations have switched to blue candles and blue paraments as indicative of the message of hope which Advent also proclaims. The pink candle was the third candle to be lit (not the fourth) on Gaudete Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent. “Gaudete” means “Rejoice!” in Latin, which is taken from Phil. 4:4. Some churches have also included a white “Christ candle” in the middle to be lit during the 12 days of Christmas (Dec. 25 to Jan. 5).

The concept of giving each candle a name, i.e., Prophecy, Bethlehem, Shepherd and Angel, etc., is a relatively novel phenomenon and probably originates with certain entrepreneurial publishers seeking to sell Advent candles and devotional booklets.

Another common tradition during Advent is the use of Advent devotional booklets. Two excellent sources of these devotional booklets are Lutheran Hour Ministries and Lutheran Association of Missionaries and Pilots.

Christmas Season

Following the Jewish tradition of marking days as ending and beginning when the sun goes down (the evening), the season of Christmas begins on the evening of December 24 (Christmas Eve) and continues into December 25 (Christmas Day).

The word CHRISTMAS means Christ Mass, that is, the liturgy celebrated on the day when Christ came among us as one of us. In this time, the Church celebrates the mystery of salvation revealed in Christ’s birth, rather than the actual birthday itself. We celebrate the mystery of God become man in Christ, who is both our King and Servant (Philippians 2:1-11).

The Christmas season also places special emphasis on the name of the Lord our God (January31-December 1) because Jesus would have received His name eight days after His birth when He was circumcised.

When the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph and told him that Mary was with child through the Holy Spirit, the angel also told Joseph what to name the Child: Jesus, which means the LORD saves (Mt. 1:20-21). Eight days after Jesus’ birth, when He was circumcised, Joseph and Mary named Jesus as the angel had instructed.

The Christmas season is twelve days in length (December 25January 5). Many of these days also celebrate other feasts and festivals like the martyrdom of St. Stephen (December 26) which gives this season a slightly different flavor than the one portrayed by the larger society. Go to the following link for more information on the Twelve Days of Christmas.

From the purple/blue of Advent, the paraments now change to the color of white for the season of Christmas. The color white symbolizes the joy of this season and the theme of light also plays a large part in the biblical texts associated with the season.

Music is a big part of the Christmas season with many familiar Christmas carols bearing witness to the joy and wonder of Christ’s birth.

There are many visible traditions practiced during this season. For example, reading the Christmas account from Luke 2 with your family before opening your gifts. .Then on Christmas Day, the figures of Jesus, the angel, and the shepherds can be added to the crèche or nativity scene at church or at home. Where many in our society have had a Christmas standing since the beginning of December and throw it out as soon as Christmas Day is over, the Christmas tree should really stand throughout the 12 days of Christmas and be removed on Epiphany.

The Christmas Seasons is marked by the following worship services:

  • The Nativity of Our Lord (White)
    • Christmas Eve (December 24)
    • Christmas Midnight (optional)
    • Christmas Dawn (optional)
    • Christmas Day
  • First Sunday after Christmas (White)
  • Second Sunday after Christmas (not every year) (White)

Epiphany Season

The season of Epiphany officially begins January 6 with the Epiphany of Our Lord. Since this feast day most often occurs on a week day, many congregations unfortunately do not celebrate it.

The Greek word epiphaneia refers to the appearance of a god among mortals. The same word was adapted to describe the visit of a king to a favored city. He was greeted with pomp, followed by days spent in feasting and revelry, all at the king’s expense.

The epiphany of Jesus is the Lord’s gracious appearance to His people with signs and wonders and favors given at His own expense. Epiphany is about the Magi, the gathering of the Gentiles as God’s people. It is also about the Baptism of our Lord, who prepares the waters of Baptism for us. Epiphany is about Jesus’ first sign or miracle performed at Cana to bless a marriage.

The length of this season depends on the date of Easter. The shortest season of Epiphany consists of four Sundays while the longest is nine Sundays. The last Sunday in Epiphany is always Transfiguration Sunday

For Epiphany Day, the first Sunday after Epiphany Day (The Baptism of Our Lord) and Transfiguration Sunday (the last Sunday after the Epiphany) the color is white, symbolizing joy and purity. For the rest of the Epiphany season, the color is green, the color of life and growth.

In some congregations, Epiphany Day is a time to burn the Christmas trees at a bonfire.

The Season of Epiphany is marked by the following worship services:

  • The Epiphany of Our Lord (January 6 – White)
  • First Sunday after the Epiphany/The Baptism of Our Lord (White)
  • Second to Eighth Sundays after the Epiphany (Green)
  • The Last Sunday after the Epiphany/The Transfiguration of Our Lord (White)

The Time of Easter

Many pastors used to talk about “C&E” Christians – those Christians who would show up at Christmas and Easter services. The Twenty-first century has changed those infrequent flyers to just “C” Christians and mostly, to no-flyers at all. Whereas one can still hear Christian Christmas carols leading up to Christmas, Easter has been totally relegated to bunnies. Even among Christians, attendance at Easter services has become limited to Easter Sunday while avoiding all the lead up events (Jesus’ passion) that make Easter what it is. How is it possible to celebrate the resurrection without going to the cross? This is what the time of Easter has become, but it is not what the Church celebrates.

The Time of Easter does not begin with the resurrection, but with the Lenten season that prepares Christians for the critical events of Holy Week which lead to the Easter Season that includes the Resurrection of Our Lord, the Sundays of Easter covering Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, Christ’s ascension into heaven and finally, the Day of Pentecost, when the promised Holy Spirit arrives to carry the Church forward in the name of Christ.

Lenten Season

LENT begins February or March. The word “lent” has its origin in the same root as one of the German words for “spring,” Lenz. Just as nature awakens from the death of winter in spring, so also the Christian finds newness of life in Christ, rising from sin’s death.

During the 40 days of Lent, God’s baptized people cleanse their hearts through the discipline of Lent: repentance, prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Lent is a time in which God’s people prepare with joy for the paschal feast (Easter). It is a time in which God renews His people’s zeal in faith and life. It is a time in which we pray that we may be given the fullness of grace that belongs to the children of God.

Ash Wednesday always begins the season of Lent and it may fall as early as February 6 or as late as March 10. The dates for Lent depend on the date of Easter. Ash Wednesday is always 46 days before Easter.

The memorable action of the Ash Wednesday service is when ashes are placed on the forehead in the shape of the cross to symbolize repentance. The color for this service is black or purple whereas the color for the rest of Lent is purple. It is traditional for the hymns and services of Lent to not include the joyful word, “Alleluia.”

It as quite common to have midweek Lenten services as a means of focusing on a particular theme within Lent. This tradition, however, is seen in fewer congregations these days because of the hectic lifestyles of many younger families and individuals.

Some people still engage in Lenten disciplines such as fasting during daylight hours or abstaining from something else like television or another leisure activity and replacing these things and times with meditating on God’s Word and prayer. If you do take up such disciplines, you do not have to do them on Sundays which are not part of the 40 days of Lent.

The Lenten Season is marked by the following worship services:

  • Ash Wednesday (Black/Violet/Purple)
  • First to Fifth Sundays in Lent (Violet/Purple)

Holy Week

No other week in the Church year has so strong an aura of special devotion. The eight days from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday immerse us in the central mystery of God’s work of salvation through the Lord’s death and resurrection.

Holy Week contains in itself not only the final days of Lent but also the celebration of the Passion of Christ as our Lord suffers and dies for the sins of the world.

Holy Week falls into two distinct parts. First, there is Palm/Passion Sunday, Monday. Tuesday, and Wednesday of Holy Week, and the day hours of Maundy Thursday. Of these days, all congregations will celebrate the Sunday, either focusing solely on the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, often waving palm branches or combining it with a long reading of the Passion narrative from one of the Gospels in preparation for the rest of Holy Week. It is rare to see congregations holding services on the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesdays of Holy Week.

The Holy Communion of Maundy Thursday begins the Three Holy Days, or Triduum, which is completed at Evening Prayer (Vespers) on Easter Day. The services of these days form a single unit of celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection. Maundy (Latin for mandatum or command) or sometimes called “Holy Thursday,” focuses on the the Last Supper of our Lord. The end of this service has the chancel area being stripped of paraments and candles. Good Friday brings Christ’s modern followers to the foot of the cross to again recall what our Lord has done for us in His death. Like the first three days of Holy Week, Holy Saturday is rarely celebrated.

Holy Week is marked by the following worship services:

  • Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion (Scarlet/Violet/Purple)
  • Monday in Holy Week (Scarlet/Violet/Purple) – Optional
  • Tuesday in Holy Week (Scarlet/Violet/Purple) – Optional
  • Wednesday in Holy Week (Scarlet/Violet/Purple) – Optional
  • Holy/Maundy Thursday (White/Scarlet/Violet/Purple)
  • Good Friday (Black)
  • Holy Saturday (Black) – Optional

Easter Season

EASTER IS THE CHIEF FEAST of the Christian year, though in many cultures and even in many churches, Christmas may seem to overshadow it. The world can find something to celebrate in Christmas, but it is baffled by the Day of the Resurrection of Our Lord. This represents the great mystery of the Christian faith.

Whereas Lent was a time of preparation for the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ, the Triduum [Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday] is a time of participation in the Pasch [Passover] of Christ, with Easter as the 50-day celebration of new life given through Christ. The celebration of Easter begins at the Easter Vigil (after sunset on Saturday) and culminates on the Day of Pentecost.

The Resurrection of Our Lord is always the first Sunday after the full moon that falls on or after March 21. Easter Sunday may fall as early as March 22 and as late as April 25.

The color for Easter is white for joy.

The celebration of Easter may begin with Easter Vigil on Saturday evening. Historically, this was the service whereby new Christians kept watch and listened to Scripture throughout the night. At dawn they would then be baptized and then, for the first time, they would be welcomed to participate in the Lord’s Supper. Easter Vigil is still held in a small number of congregations, but not as a night long vigil. Instead, participants listen to a lengthy series of readings highlighting God’s mighty works.

There are still many congregations that begin their Easter celebrations with an Easter Sunrise service. Some of these may even occur at the local cemetery. This is often followed by a breakfast and then a fuller service with communion. Optional services may even be held in the evening or over the next three days.

There are many traditions connected to the celebration of Easter such as the reintroduction of the “alleluia,” the displaying of Easter lilies, the use of symbols for resurrection such as the butterfly, and the prominent positioning of the baptismal font along with the paschal candle.

The season of Easter lasts fifty days, but on the fortieth day is the celebration of the Ascension of Our Lord. This service is held on a Thursday and like Epiphany, has lost much familiarity for many Christians.

The Easter Season ends with the Day of Pentecost which celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit. The color for this day is red and although most congregations hold only the one daily service, Pentecost celebrations may include a Pentecost Eve service, Sunday evening, Monday and Tuesday services.

The Easter season is marked by the following worship services:

  • The Resurrection of Our Lord (White)
    • Vigil of Easter (White) – Optional
    • Easter Sunrise (White) – Optional
    • Easter Day (White)
    • Easter Evening/Easter Monday (White) – Optional
    • Easter Tuesday (White) – Optional
    • Easter Wednesday (White) – Optional
  • Second to Sixth Sunday of Easter (White)
  • Ascension Day (Thursday) (White)
  • Seventh Sunday of Easter (White)
  • Pentecost (Red)
    • Pentecost Eve (Red – Optional)
    • The Day of Pentecost (Red)
    • Pentecost Evening/Pentecost Monday (Red – Optional)
    • Pentecost Tuesday (Red – Optional)

The Time of the Church

We’ve travelled through God’s time, marking God’s coming among us in Jesus (Christmas) to God’s time of salvation in Christ’s life, death and resurrection (Easter) and now we are in the time of the Church, both working and waiting for our Lord to come again (Advent).

After the festival of Pentecost the church celebrates the Holy Trinity. This is the one festival that openly recalls and proclaims a foundational doctrine of the Christian faith, that being, “Who is God?” In the Trinity the Church confesses together that God is one and yet mysteriously three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is what God’s Word reveals and what the historic church has confessed in the three Ecumenical Creeds.

After the festival of the Holy Trinity, the Church begins its longest yet perhaps least-celebrated season of the Church Year: the Season after Pentecost. This is not some grand finale but rather a time for Christ’s living body, the Church, to live life together, to bear witness to Christ and to serve the neighbour as faithful followers of Jesus.

The season after Pentecost moves the Church back into the normal walk of life. Whereas the first half of the calendar began with the exhilaration of Advent and Christmas, continued through Epiphany and Lent, and culminated in the high point of the Church Year—the death and resurrection of Christ—the second half of the Church Year sees rather ordinary.

After Pentecost, the red garments are tucked along with the blue, white, purple, black, and gold, and the altar, pulpit, and pastor’s vestments are covered with a familiar green that will stay in the sanctuary throughout the second half of the Church calendar. Festival days at this time are few and far between, and the Church settles into a faithful rhythm of hearing God’s Word, receiving forgiveness from Christ, and partaking of His Sacraments as we wait for the return of our Lord.

After celebrating Jesus’ nativity, Baptism, transfiguration, death, and resurrection, the season after Pentecost allows the Church to experience the life of Jesus in a different way. In this season we are brought alongside Jesus to patiently walk with Him as He teaches, preaches, gives, and forgives. In walking with Christ, the Church is being conformed and transformed into His image.

Like most things in life, this spiritual renewal is a process; requiring patience and faithfulness. Every week as the church gathers together, the Church hears of how prophets pointed to the Messiah in the Old Testament, how the Church faithfully continued Christ’s teachings in the Epistles, and how Jesus Himself taught and lived in the Gospels.

The long season after Pentecost clings to Christ and and the rich gifts He offers for faith and life. Day by day, week after week, and from year to year, the Church really is always living out the season after Pentecost, praising the risen Jesus and immersing itself again and again in His saving grace.

This season after Pentecost is a chance for the Church to reflect on what it has celebrated in the first half of the Church Year, but also to step into the story it has just heard—a story of God’s love for His people marked by the fleshly coming of His Son, and as He lives, dies and rises as a member of our human, broken world.

There is no Christmas celebration or Easter festival at the end of the season after Pentecost. In fact, the Last Sunday of the Church Year is known as “End Times Sunday.” We come to this end, clinging to Christ’s promise of His second coming, where we will experience the resurrection and renewal of our earthly bodies that He accomplished for us on Easter morning. Then we will ascend to heaven as He ascended; we will be changed as He was changed on the Mount of Transfiguration.

We arrive at this time, not in disappointment when it does not occur, but moving on we continue to follow Jesus in faithful living and service as fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, friends, and neighbours.