The Church Year – Life by a different calendar
Many people who come to our church might not understand things like the church calendar we reference, the different colors they see displayed, or the lectionary readings of scripture we follow. This paper is written to cover just the basics and could be called Church Year 101. I do hope this answers some of the basic questions you might have.
There is great diversity in the church world. Some Christians have only been exposed to a tradition of simplicity while others come from churches that are far more formal and filled with symbolism that we are. If you come from a tradition of simplicity you may be wondering about terms like epiphany, lent, paraments, vestments and more.
Yet symbols are almost impossible to eliminate. Even churches with real simplicity have their own symbols. You’ll find them in things like an open Bible on a communion table or a cross on the lid of a tray of communion elements. Even the location of the pulpit from which the pastor preaches is symbolic. Do you know that churches that place the pulpit in the center of the platform as saying that the most important part of the service is the Bible message that is preached. Other churches place the altar (communion table) in the center and the pulpit to the side indicating that receiving the sacraments are the most important part of the service.
Life itself is filled with symbols including wedding rings, medals, badges, uniforms, diplomas, flags, birthday candles, school colors, wrapping paper and many others. Symbols all convey a message.
I was raised in a tradition that prided itself on simplicity and they would never have considered following the church calendar. Christmas and Easter were celebrated but only as days on the secular calendar not spiritual seasons. Actually many of the celebrations in the life of the church were built around purely non-Christian events. We held Valentine socials, Halloween alternatives, Easter egg hunts, observed Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and national events like Thanksgiving. This is what the calendar was built around with no thought that there was any other option.
I’m glad that I came to value what I am about to share. It may new to you because you’ve also come from a church background like I just described. But I also know from experience that many have been raised in a church just like ours and they have never been taught the meaning of what was part of every church service they have ever attended.
I am not sharing anything new or original to me. What follows are the basics of what it means to follow the calendar of the Christian faith.
By means of the church calendar, the whole year is arranged to accomplish three basic goals. The first goal is to teach us and renew our minds to the events in the life of Christ. The second goal is to focus our attention on these events so they become more real to us by bringing it into the present. The third goal is to counter the heathen/secular holidays of the society into which the church was born.
In the church calendar three fourths of the church year hinges on the date of Easter which is determined each year by the moon. One fourth of the church year is set by Christmas which is a date that does not move from year to year.
Three Cycles in the each year. They are Christmas, Easter, and the Time of the Church. The Time of the Church is often referred to as Ordinary time.
*see these on your handout sheet
While some church uses more colors in their tradition I will also introduce you to the four key colors that we use as visual reminders connected to the church calendar.
The key Feast Day for Christians, as opposed to a day when one might fast, is every Sunday (first day of the week). Every Sunday is a celebration of creation, new beginnings, the resurrection of our Lord and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Sundays are feast days to be celebrated and never days to fast.
With those basics let’s begin to look at the three cycles of the year starting with the Christmas Cycle.
THE CHRISTMAS CYCLE
ADVENT is the start of the Christian year. It is a four week period beginning the Sunday nearest to November 30th and ending Christmas Eve.
The word advent means “coming.” The focus of advent is on the three fold coming of Christ. The three comings of Christ are His coming to Bethlehem in his earthly birth, His coming into our hearts at salvation, and His coming again at the end of the world. As such this is a period of time set aside to expect, anticipate, reflect, repent, and prepare.
Color of advent is PURPLE which is symbolic for serious preparation. In advent we are not celebrating yet we are preparing for Christ’s coming. Part of that coming is his return as our judge which explains our being reflective during this season of preparation.
Let me add an aside here: the preparation is also leading up to baptism at Epiphany. The key dates for baptism before the start of infant baptism were Easter, Pentecost and Epiphany. Baptism was to be seriously prepared for in one’s life. One was to repent and be baptized and as such baptism was for adult believers.
In our culture where the secular Christmas season starts earlier each year, we tire of Christmas before it gets here. Actually Christmas songs were to be held and not sung till Christmas actually arrived.
As part of our custom during Advent you will see the Advent wreath of evergreen and candles. We light one candle each Sunday. This way the light increases indicating that the light of Christmas (his coming) was drawing near.
There are numerous meanings for the various candles in the wreath. Here is one we most commonly use. The first candle we light is called the Prophecy candle and it represents the time period of waiting for prophecy to be fulfilled. The second candle is called the Bethlehem candle and it represents preparing to receive or cradle the Christ child. The third candle is called the Shepherd’s candle and it represents the act of sharing Christ. The fourth candle is the Angels candle and it represents the heralding of his coming. Finally the Christ candle is placed in the center of the wreath and we light it on Christmas Eve. With the lighting of the Christ candle we begin the celebration of His birth.
CHRISTMAS is a time of joy because prophecy is fulfilled and the light of the world has come.
Why is Christmas at this time each year? We are at the time of the least daylight in the year. The light (Jesus) has come and we now look forward to greater light because of His coming. Christmas day was set about 350AD to stand counter to the celebration of the winter solidus. The 25th was the exact date of pagan Roman holiday.
Christmas continues for 12 days, till January 6. The Color is WHITE for joy, happiness & purity.
EPIPHANY is the celebration of Christ’s power and glory being revealed to all people as the light of the world. It begins on January 6 and runs till Ash Wednesday.
The word epiphany means to show forth, manifest, or reveal.
Jesus was manifested (show forth for who he was) at his dedication, to wise men(gentiles), at his baptism and his transfiguration. This is a time to rededicate ourselves to missions and evangelism. During Epiphany we rededicate ourselves to doing our part in spreading the light of Jesus to our world.
The color is GREEN which represents the church and its growth. The three key Sundays are Epiphany, the Baptism of Jesus and the transfiguration.
THE EASTER CYCLE
LENT began as a time to prepare those who planned to be baptized on Easter. As such the color is PURPLE for preparation. The word “lent” means long days or spring.
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends the day before Easter. That is forty six days minus six Sundays which leaves forty days for fasting. You’ll remember that Sunday’s are never days for fasting.
Forty is symbolic of personal preparation and confrontation with one’s self and with God. It is a time of decision and discipline. We see 40 days in the Bible in life of Moses on Mountain, Elijah in 1 Kings 19, and Jesus in Wilderness.
On Ash Wednesday the custom grew of carrying to church the palms of the previous Palm Sunday. The palms were burned and the ashes placed on the forehead in the sign of the cross. This was a symbolic sign of the beginning of the time of repentance and recognition of our mortality. It marks the beginning of a time to evaluate and make reconciliation with others and with God.
Lent involves fasting, special commitments, good deeds, prayer, and reflection. Key purpose is to understand Christ’s death and resurrection as the means to our living renewed lives. This is where the enablement to live differently comes from.
PALM SUNDAY is the first day of Holy Week. The color is PURPLE because, though joyous, the victory of the cross was not yet realized. Some churches use red for Holy Week.
Crosses in the church are usually veiled in purple as a symbol that Jesus suffering was drawing near. As early as 300AD in Jerusalem, there was a procession of palms from outside the church to the inside waving the palms in the procession. The palms were then kept till the next Ash Wednesday.
MAUNDY THURSDAY is the day Jesus commanded the Lord’s Supper and for us to love one another. In fact, the word “Maundy” means commandment.
The color is WHITE during the communion part of the service only. All church bells are silenced until Easter morning. Following communion the alter is stripped of everything but the cross to symbolize Jesus being divested of his garments. We know that as early as third century foot-washing was observed on Maundy Thursday.
GOOD FRIDAY is considered the darkest day of the church year. Noon services are often held on Good Friday to observe the time of crucifixion. The church never observes communion on this day.
HOLY SATURDAY is a day of fasting which includes the Vigil of Easter which runs from sunset to sunrise. This was the time for baptism in the early church. Why? This was the time of the passing from death to life, from Christ death to resurrected life.
EASTER is the highest point of the church year when we celebrate God’s power over sin, the devil & death. The color is WHITE for confidence and hope.
Easter runs from Easter Sunday through the Day of Pentecost (fifty days.) There is no fasting during any of Easter.
ASCENSION DAY – is forty days after Easter and always falls on a Thursday. This day begins the expectation and anticipation of the coming of the Holy Spirit as promised by Jesus as our Comforter.
Day of PENTECOST is the 50th Day and means 50. It celebrates the birth of the Church and the arrival of the promised Holy Spirit. The Color is RED, as a symbol of the “tongues of fire” referenced in the book of Acts.
SEASON (Cycle) OF PENTECOST is considered the time of the church. The season continues till Advent and the beginning of the next year.
TRINITY SUNDAY is the first Sunday after Pentecost and is set aside to put focus on the doctrine of the trinity (God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. The color that Sunday is WHITE.
Pentecost is important as the season for us to grow and mature in the Word, especially as it pertains to the teachings of Christ. The one key word for these six months is growth or discipleship. The color is GREEN for growth.
As we conclude, think about the wonderful wealth of our faith & truth. The drama of our faith is lived out every year through the church calendar. Think of what a great way this is and was intended to be, in terms of living out each year. This is also a great teaching tool especially in teaching our children.