The Christian year has its origins in the festivals held in the early centuries of the church’s life. These gradually grew into the annual marking of time that many Protestant and Roman Catholic churches share today.
The Christian year divides first into the seasons that lead us through the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, the Christ: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week (a part of Lent), and Easter, which ends on the Day of Pentecost. This is followed by the long Season After Pentecost, when, baptized by God’s fiery Spirit, the focus becomes our sending to the world God so loves, in light of the story of Jesus we have lived through once again in the first part of the year.
Each cycle of seasons spiral us ever deeper into what God calls us to—whole and abundant life for all. The Christian year is a gift of time marked by what God has done for us, none of which we could do for ourselves. It has been called “the church’s year of grace.”
Advent means “a coming, approach, arrival.” In this season we wait both for what we know has happened—the birth of our Saviour—and for Christ’s return and the fulfilment of Creation. In this, Advent is a season that holds within it the past, present, and future.
Advent, then, is a season of waiting on God. We wait on God, whom we cannot control, but in whom we are called to trust.
Waiting times offer an opportunity for reflection. And if we are honest and grounded in worldly reality, then our Advent reflections must begin with trouble. The liturgical colour for this season—blue—and the lectionary texts reflect this truth telling of trouble in our world, in our country, in our churches, in our families, and in ourselves. We wait longingly; aching for God’s saving action. O that you would tear open the heavens and come down. (Isaiah 64:1, Year B)
Our waiting, however, is not without form or expectation. God has acted in the past, God is acting in the present, and God will act in the future. We wait in hope. And if we are the least bit familiar with this wild God, we can expect to be surprised.
The lectionary texts in this season are harmonized—the four readings on each Sunday share a similar theme. Advent 1 texts are prophetic and apocalyptic. Advent 2 and 3 gospel texts focus on John the Baptist. Advent 4 tells of Joseph’s dream (Year A), the annunciation to Mary (Year B), or of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth (Year C), along with Mary’s Magnificat (Year B & C).
At Christmas, the Word that spoke Creation into being is made flesh. Christmas is a twelve day celebration of the gift of Jesus to and for the world. It begins on Christmas Eve, in the Jewish custom of marking the start of the new day at sundown.
Christmas is short for “Christ’s Mass,” the worship service that marks the birth of Jesus. We are given the gift of twelve days to “tell the story, to sing the carols, and to enjoy living in the good news that God still answers the Earth’s aching cry in the cry of Mary’s child.” (Ed Searcy, Telling Time, 2015) The Incarnation is a surprising marvel of God’s love in action, and in this season we are given the time to contemplate it and celebrate it with joy and thanksgiving.
The liturgical colours for Christmas are, like Easter, white and gold. They are reminders that the birth of Jesus is the beginning of a pilgrimage through suffering and death to new life.
The lectionary texts for Christmas include soaring statements of God’s actions for salvation and peace from Isaiah, celebratory psalms, the birth narrative from Luke and/or the Prologue to John’s Gospel. If there is a Sunday within the Christmas season, after December 25 and before January 6, there is a chance to hear of Joseph and Mary’s flight to Egypt with the baby Jesus (Year A), the presentation of Jesus in the temple and the prophets Simeon and Anna (Year B), or the story of Jesus’ visit to the temple with his parents when he was twelve years old (Year C).
Epiphany means “to make manifest.” The Day of Epiphany, January 6th, is when the church marks the arrival of the Magi from the East. Led by a star, these non-Jewish cosmic scholars come to worship and gift the newborn King. Already it is revealed that Jesus has come for the sake of all.
The visit of the Magi denotes the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of the Epiphany season. The next two Sundays we witness the baptism of Jesus and the beginning of his ministry with his first miracle of turning water to wine and the calling of his disciples. These are all events where Jesus’ identity and mission are beginning to be revealed publically—in Jesus, God is made manifest.
Epiphany in the early church was the third most important festival (Christmas was a part of Epiphany until it was separated into its own feast by the mid-fourth century). Epiphany is an older season than Christmas, and one with a significant message for the church and the world. Christmas marks the Incarnation, while the Epiphany witnesses to “the whole purpose of the incarnation: the manifestation of God in Jesus Christ.” (James F. White, Introduction to Christian Worship, Abingdon Press, 1990, p.66)
The length of this season varies, from six to ten weeks, depending as it does on the date set for Resurrection Sunday. For the remainder of the season, we sit as a church at the feet of Jesus, learning again what we are called to be and do through his ministry of teaching and healing. The final Sunday of Epiphany, we hear of Jesus’ Transfiguration on the mountain top. We hear the voice of God from the cloud, commanding us to listen to Jesus. And, as we turn to go into Lent, we hear Jesus telling us, “…do not be afraid.” (Matthew 17: 7b)
The liturgical colour for Epiphany is green, signifying new life and growth in discipleship
The word “Lent” comes from the Middle English word lente, meaning “spring,” which is from the Old English lengten, meaning “to lengthen” (as in the lengthening of daylight). A contemporary view of this season in the church has named this time as an opportunity for a lengthening of our discipleship.
This season was referred to as “forty days” at the Council of Nicaea in 325, when it was set to come before Resurrection Sunday. In the early church, this was a time of concentrated preparation of folk to be baptized at the Easter Vigil (after they had already been training for about three years). By the 400s, all Christians were encouraged to undertake this forty day season of preparation. Note that Sundays are not counted as part of the forty day fast of Lent, since Sundays are always a celebration of the Resurrection.
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, when the sign of the cross is marked on Christians’ foreheads using the ashes made from the previous Palm Sunday’s palms, and we are reminded that “we are dust, and to dust we shall return.” (Genesis 3:19) The season of Lent is a gift of intentional time for us to re-turn to the God revealed to us in Jesus. Like people lost in the wilderness, we need to undertake some orienteering skills—devotions, fasting, almsgiving—to find again our centre point in Christ.
The lectionary readings in Lent remind us of Jesus’ forty days of temptation and testing in the wilderness, along with the stories of humanity’s fall from grace, the rebellion of God’s people, and the steadfast love of God in renewed covenants, provision for our needs, breathing new life into a dead people, and the promise of doing a new thing.
Purple is the liturgical colour for Lent, signifying pain and suffering, which bring grief and penitence. It is also the colour of royalty, a sign to us that Jesus is our Messiah, literally our King—but who redefines this as servant leader who lives and dies for others.
Holy Week—a part of Lent—begins our highest holy time, when Christians re-tell the final week of Jesus’ life: his arrival in Jerusalem, the last supper, his betrayal, arrest, trial, and crucifixion. This is the story of Christ’s passion; literally the story of Christ’s suffering. In this story, we discover God’s aching compassion for the world.
Maundy Thursday is so called from the Latin mandatum, for “mandate” or “commandment,” referring to the new commandment we are given by Jesus to love one another as Jesus has loved us (John 13:34). Good Friday comes from the Middle English “God’s Friday.”
We mark Holy Week with worship rich in ancient ritual: communion, footwashing, solemn reproaches from the cross, Tenebrae services that end in silence and darkness when all light is extinguished. The week has a grave seriousness to it, as we are compelled to move through the final events of Jesus’ life, to the cross and his words, “It is finished.” (John 19:30)
The liturgical colours are red for Palm Sunday, signifying blood (martyrdom), and black for Good Friday and Holy Saturday, signifying death.
The Resurrection of Jesus is, for Christians, the heart of history; it is the flashpoint from which time, and everything else, is reordered. It is the beginning of the new thing that God is up to, defeating death and therefore fear, inaugurating the new Creation that God will bring to full fruition in God’s own time.
The centrality to the church of Jesus’ Resurrection as a sign and foretaste of what is to come can be seen in the centrality of the celebration of the Resurrection in the Christian year. The first day of the week, Sunday in the Roman calendar, quickly solidified as the day Christians would gather once a week, before sun rise, to worship and share the Eucharist, as this was the day on which Jesus rose from the dead. So there are 52 celebrations of the Resurrection a year, a special feast day once a year, and a season of “the Great Fifty Days,” ending on the Day of Pentecost, in which to mark, meditate upon, and sing with joy about what God has done in Jesus, the Christ.
The lectionary readings during this long season focus on the appearances of Jesus to his disciples, the promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit, Jesus as the Good Shepherd, and the worship, preaching, healing, and teaching of the apostles.
The liturgical colours are white, signifying purity and holiness, and gold, signifying majesty, joy, and the presence of God.
There are two significant feast days in this season besides Resurrection Sunday. One is Ascension Day, marked on the fortieth day, when the church commemorates Jesus’ return to heaven—to God’s space—from where his reign of self-giving love continues, and which we are called to participate in already now. The other feast is the Day of Pentecost, which is the last day of the Resurrection season, and marks the coming of the Holy Spirit, who emboldens and guides the followers of Jesus. Pentecost, from the Greek for “fiftieth,”** is considered the birthday of the church—the Body of Christ, over which Jesus is the Head. Pentecost was, in the early church, second only to the celebration of the Resurrection.
* Easter – a current theory on why English and German speaking people refer to the celebration of Jesus’ Resurrection as Easter/Ostern is because of the name of the month, Eosturmonath/Ostarmanoth [the month of opening, as in blossoms] in which it was usually celebrated, the month we now refer to as April. Most other languages use a variant of the Latin Pascha [Passover; paschal refers to the suffering and death of Jesus] to name this holiday.
** Pentecost – This is also a Jewish festival, when the first fruits of harvest are presented to God 50 days after the Passover, and which, by the 1st century, had started to include a celebration of the giving of the law to Moses on Mt. Sinai.
Having been taken through the birth, life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus, and baptized by the Holy Spirit, the church now emerges into a long season of renewed and deepened discipleship, reflected in the deep green of this season’s liturgical colour.
The lectionary readings shift, becoming consecutive readings (rather than thematically related*) from the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament:
- Genesis to Judges in Year A;
- I Samuel to Job, including some texts from Ruth, the Song of Solomon, and Proverbs in Year B;
- I Kings through the prophets in Year C, the Epistles:
- Romans, Philippians, and I Thessalonians in Year A;
- 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, James, and Hebrews in Year B;
- Galatians, Colossians, Hebrews, Philemon, 1 & 2 Timothy and 2 Thessalonians in Year C, and the Gospels:
- Matthew in Year A;
- Mark in Year B;
- Luke in Year C [John is used during the Advent to Resurrection cycle of the year]
There are two significant feast days, along with the marking of Thanksgiving in Canada and the United States, in this long season. All Saints Day on November 1st focuses, via the Saints, on the love of Jesus, whose Spirit always inspires and encourages us. The last Sunday in this season, Reign of Christ, emphasizes that our first and foremost allegiance is to the risen and reigning Christ, Jesus. We celebrate our anticipation of, and longing for, Christ’s coming again in glory. We pray for the time when God’s true intentions for Creation are finally fully accomplished. We wait in hope.
* Note that some Roman Catholic congregations use the thematically related readings that the Revised Common Lectionary offers as an alternative during this season.