Liturgical Year

A look at our church calendar
       As the wheel of the year rolls past the winter solstice we think about our church calendar: How does it relate to our lives? How does it mesh with our secular calendar? What are its seasons and what is their meaning?

Calendars are based on recurring events in nature: spring, summer, fall, and winter (solar calendars of 365 days) or on the phases of the moon (lunar calendars, 12 months of 28 days). The calendar of the Christian church year makes use of both kinds. It developed over many centuries, sometimes appropriating rituals common to many cultures, to tell the story of Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection as an expression of Christian theology.

The central event of Christianity is the Resurrection. An annual remembrance of Christ’s passion is therefore the central event of the Christian year, so it was the first event to be placed in the calendar. But the events of Holy Week took place at the Jewish Passover, and cannot be remembered without reference to it. Passover occurs in the lunar month Nisan. Because the lunar year is 29 days shorter than the solar year, an adjustment was necessary if Easter and Passover were roughly to coincide.

So Easter Day was made what is called a movable feast, falling on the Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox (March 21). The full story of the Passion is commemorated in the days of Holy Week, leading up to Easter Day. The Easter season was established as lasting seven weeks, ending on the Day of Pentecost (a word that means 50 days). The Jewish festival celebrated the wheat harvest, and, as recorded in Acts, was the occasion of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Christian church.

Easter was the time set aside for baptisms. So the next addition to the calendar was a time of preparation for baptism-the 40 days before Easter (not counting Sundays, which are always feast days). Over time, Lent became a time of repentance and renewal for everyone, and began with Ash Wednesday.

A second cycle developed, starting with the incarnation, which was placed at the winter solstice. In 338 AD the Emperor Constantine set the date of Christ’s birth at December 25, marking the beginning of the Christmas season. It was followed by Epiphany, the showing forth of Christ. January 6, the beginning of Epiphany, was the Egyptian date of the showing forth of the Sun. Epiphany was also an occasion for baptism, so a period of four weeks of penitential preparation before Christmas was added. It came to be called Advent, or preparation for the coming of Christ.

The weeks between Pentecost and Advent, the Season after Pentecost, complete the church year. These weeks are not to be thought of as merely filling up the rest of the calendar. They offer us a chance to explore our world and the meaning of our lives as we live them between the first Coming and the final Coming of Jesus Christ into the world.

When we celebrate the seasons and festivals of the church year we do more than commemorate: We perform sacramental actions in which we experience the living reality behind those seasons and festivals.

We begin with the season of Advent.

Advent was the last season to be officially added to the church calendar, in about 600 AD. It was made the first season of the church year because it begins the story of the events of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Advent always includes four Sundays before Christmas, this year (2018) beginning on December 2, 2018. Originally, in the Eastern Church, Advent focused on the Annunciation (when the angels told Mary that she would bear a son); but in the West it came to concern the first Coming at the Nativity, the future Coming at the end of time, and the present coming, through grace, to the hearts of men. Thus the themes of consciousness of the coming judgment and of joyful expectation have shaped our observance of Advent for centuries. Our Advent wreath candles, symbolizing the coming of the Light of the world, are to remind us of these themes. It has often been customary to have one rose-colored candle to symbolize joyful expectation. At Trinity we use Sarum (Salisbury Cathedral) blue, honoring the Virgin Mary who obediently anticipated the Incarnation, showing unbroken progress toward the coming of the Light.

Advent is a time of spiritual preparation, but is not as penitential a season as Lent. It is a time for calm and thoughtfulness before the hustle and bustle of preparation for Christmas.

The Service of Lessons and Carols
It is often customary to have a service of Lessons and Carols on the third Sunday in Advent. In this service we choose scripture readings, hymns, and anthems to show, as one person put it, “the loving purposes of God as seen through the windows and words of the Bible.” This service, which originated in England at Christmas, 1880, has now been broadcast by radio and TV for more than 70 years and is a Christmas must for families and churches worldwide. The service with Advent music rather than Christmas carols is often held, and is most compelling as a preparation for the coming of Christ.

The advent candles have been given several meanings. The candle for 1Advent is most often called “Anticipation and Hope.”
Decorating with greens traditionally begins in Advent: “the hanging of the greens.”
In Australia, where lighting candles doesn’t seem right in midsummer, the Southern Cross has been used as an Advent wreath: four of its stars are lit in Advent and the 5th on Christmas Eve.
Because Advent is an opportunity to reconnect with what is deep and holy, many churches find the liturgical element of silence to be especially appropriate during this season.
Christmas as a holiday needs no introduction for most of us-it has so much tradition that we may forget that the central event for Christians is not Christmas but Easter. In the early church the birth of Christ was commemorated, but not as a festival. As Christianity grew and became organized as a church, and as its mission spread, interaction with possible converts became important. The church then acknowledged many pagan customs rather than opposing them.

The celebration of the birth of Christ on December 25 was set in the 4th century, adopting the dates of the Roman Saturnalia on December 17, and the birth of the Persian god Mithras on December 25, together with ancient celebrations of the winter solstice. Other Christmas customs have origins outside of church history: the Romans decorated their houses with greenery and gave gifts in January (the custom was resurrected in 19th century Germany and brought to England by Prince Albert). The Romans also had a festival of family and children with exchange of gifts. The singing of carols began with the singing popular religious folk songs at all festivals.

Later Christian customs were crêches, invented by St. Francis of Assisi, and the midnight service on Christmas Eve, which is a relic of the medieval custom of three masses, at midnight, dawn, and midmorning. At the time of the Reformation many Christians believed that Christmas was entirely a pagan and sacrilegious celebration and some Protestants, notably the Puritans in New England, abolished it. Perhaps this was taking concerns about the secularization of Christmas to the extreme.

Today it is all too easy for us to get caught up in being “pagans” in our Christmas activities, but we are brought back to the true glory of the season in our opportunities for worship. Our 4th century church was right in its decision to include all peoples’ ways of showing joy, at the festival time of Christ’s coming in glory.

We celebrate, on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany. “Epiphany” means “showing forth,” and the feast commemorates the first showing forth of Christ to the world, when His presence was revealed to the three Magi.

In the season of Epiphany we also:

remember the revelation of Christ to John the Baptist, to the disciples, and to all Christians.
remember Christ’s baptism and our own, together with the ways in which Christ was revealed to humankind, especially in the healing miracles.

ponder the ways in which we ourselves are called to bring Christ to the world.

The predominant symbol of the season is Light-the light from the Star of Bethlehem and the Light of Christ spreading throughout the world. The liturgical color of Epiphany is green.

The number of Sundays in the Epiphany season varies from four to nine according to the date of Easter Sunday (which is a movable feast derived from the lunar calendar). This year there are six. So you will see green altar cloth and green vestments every Sunday through February 10 (the last Sunday in Epiphany).


On Wednesday, February 7, 2018, we will enter into one of the most important seasons of the church year-the “40 days” of Lent. The word “Lent” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word lencten, or spring, the time of year when the days begin to lengthen. Lent itself is always the same period of time, but its starting date is tied to the movable feast of Easter and can be as early as February 4 or as late as March 10.

Lent is one of the most important seasons of the church year because it is a time of penitence, an introspective period during which we take stock of our lives and our relationships to discover and change what we must to prepare for Easter and experience the spiritual renewal that comes when we engage in this type of “making right” activity. So, during Lent we each follow the example of Jesus by sacrificing our own will to the purpose of God.

Starting on Ash Wednesday, the Lenten season includes 40 weekdays and five Sundays before Holy Week and the culminating triumph of the Resurrection at Easter. Lent has two major focuses:
The first is on baptism, which in the early church occurred only at Easter. The Sunday readings provide a short course on the meaning of baptism.
* The second Lenten theme-one with which most of us are now more familiar-is that of fasting and renunciation. This theme recalls Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, and through them the discipline of self-denial reflecting the sacrifice of our will to the purpose of God.

Tuesday, February 6, is the final day before the Lenten fast. This day is variously recalled in the celebration of Carnival (“farewell to meat”) which concluded on “Fat Tuesday” or Mardi Gras, and in Shrove Tuesday’s pancakes (consuming the eggs, milk and fat not allowed during the fasting of Lent). “Shrove” Tuesday refers to the ancient practice of being “shriven” (confessing and receiving absolution) in order to begin and keep a holy Lent.

The liturgical colors of Lent are purple, for penitence and royalty, or rough unbleached linen, based on the sackcloth of Old Testament mourning and reflecting the somber mood of the season.

Concluding the 40 days of Lent is Holy Week, when the events of our Lord’s passion and death are specially commemorated in preparation for the glorious celebration of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday.

Holy Week begins with the Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday. A special liturgy begins with a procession of the congregation and the blessing of the palms, commemorating the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. The Gospel reading is the complete story of the Passion, often done as a dramatic presentation. The service underlines the contrast between the crowd’s joyous greeting of their king and then their condemnation of him-the contrast between shouts of “Alleluia” and “Crucify him!”

On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday in Holy Week services with special collects and lessons deal with the themes of suffering and coming glory. Thursday in Holy Week is called Maundy Thursday, from the Latin for commandment: (After Jesus washed the feet of the disciples he said “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another”). Foot-washing is often included in the liturgy. The Eucharist commemorates the first Eucharist at the Last Supper. The service ends in complete silence with the stripping of the altar, in recognition of the despair and death to come.

Friday, Good Friday (“good” = a day or season observed by the church) commemorates the Crucifixion. In the early church pieces of the True Cross were revered at this service. The cross over the altar is draped in black. The Solemn Collects date back to the 4th century and are an early form of the Prayers of the People.

Holy Saturday was once a day of fasting in preparation for the Great Vigil of Easter and for baptism. No Eucharist is celebrated, but the Prayer Book provides for the reading of the Passion and an anthem from the Burial of the Dead.

The Great Vigil lasted in the early church from sundown Saturday until cockcrow on Sunday. Now shortened, it still rehearses the pivotal events of the Old and New Testaments: the Passover (the Pascha) is related to our release from sin and new life in baptism. The Vigil begins in darkness, with lighting of candles, singing of the Exsultet, and scripture readings, all timed so that sunrise of Easter day dawns halfway through the service. As the rising Easter sun lights our stained glass and Easter flowers we ring bells, and glorious Easter begins.

Palm Sunday 

Processionals are an ancient practice, both religious and secular. The first Palm Sunday processional was in 381AD: the congregation in Jerusalem heard the story of the entrance into Jerusalem, went home for a quick meal, met at the Mount of Olives and marched into the city waving palm branches and singing.

Maundy Thursday
Foot washing was included in the earliest Roman liturgies. It continued as a royal institution until the 18th century-Elizabeth I washed the feet of 20 poor women, and other kings washed the feet of peasants.

In the Sarum rite Maundy Thursday began with a separate service with penitents outside of the church who then entered and prostrated themselves; this service was followed by communion and vespers. At this time the holy oils and elements were consecrated for use at all the Easter services.

Good Friday  The first Good Friday services included prayers at all the places discovered by Queen Helena, mother of Constantine the Great-The Holy Sepulcher, Gethsemane, etc.
Eastertide is more than Easter Sunday. It is the defining event of Christianity, and so the Church has always observed it for longer than the Day itself.

The Passion took place at the Jewish Passover, and 50 days after Passover the Jews celebrated a Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost, which marked the time of the wheat harvest. (Why 50? Pentecost is Greek for 50th day, or seven weeks: that is, seven times the period of each phase of the moon and also seven times the period of Creation).

At Pentecost after the Resurrection the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles and the people, so the Christian Pentecost also marks the end of one church season and the beginning of the next. For seven weeks, then, we mark our church services as special festival days: the liturgical color is white or gold; we stand for the Great Thanksgiving; we keep the Paschal candle lit, we close services with a special alleluia.

Collects are mostly those written in very early times (in the current Book of Common Prayer the more important the day the more likely that ancient elements will be used). Scripture readings are from the New Testament only, saying what happened after the Resurrection. The Thursday in the sixth week of Easter marks Ascension Day, when Jesus was lifted up into heaven.

The Day of Pentecost is a day of Christian celebration observed on the seventh Sunday after Easter. On Pentecost we remember an event that occurred to the disciples 50 days after the Passover during which Jesus was crucified and 10 days after they watched Jesus literally ascend into the clouds.

The disciples and followers-we are told there were 120 in all-had gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish feast of Shavuot. With Passover and Succoth, Shavuot was one of the three pilgrim holidays on which all Jewish adult males who were able to do so were required to come to Jerusalem to sacrifice the first loaves from the new grain on the altar in the temple.

When Jesus’ disciples met for this holiday it must have been a difficult time, given the recent events they had experienced. While they were gathered there was a sound like a violent wind, then something that looked like tongues of flame came down and rested on each person’s head. The disciples all began to speak in such a way that people of many different languages could understand them, each in their own language. Hearing the noise, others came to investigate and were astonished to hear this group of mostly uneducated Galileans speaking the various languages of many countries.

The people began to ask each other what all this could mean. Some thought the young men must be drunk, but Simon Peter pointed out that it was only 9 o’clock in the morning and offered another explanation: Peter equated the events of Jesus during his life and beyond with fulfillment of prophecy, reminded them of the miracles they had all witnessed, including their Rabbi’s resurrection. He equated the physical ascent of Jesus that they had witnessed to Jesus’ being exalted to the right hand of God and declared that it was the Spirit of God, which Jesus had promised, who had “poured out” what the crowd was seeing and hearing that day. His conclusion was that God had made Jesus both Lord and Messiah. The first Pentecost ended with Peter baptizing all 3,000 people in the crowd in the name of Jesus.

Christians consider the Day of Pentecost the birthday of the church because, from that moment on, the disciples carried the message of Christ everywhere they went all over the world. A Pentecost tradition is to wear red to symbolize the tongues of flame and the Holy Spirit.

The Season after Pentecost, in which Christians develop their relationship with the risen Christ, lasts from the Day of Pentecost to the day before Advent. Thus it begins on May 20 this year (2018) and ends on November 25.

Decorations on the Day of Pentecost are red to symbolize tongues of flame and the Holy Spirit; during the season of Pentecost they are green to symbolize the growth and life of the church.

Adapted from St. George’s Church, Arlington, Virginia