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The Seasons of the Church's Liturgical Year

Advent

The church begins its new year with Advent Sunday, the first Sunday of the Advent season. Advent Sunday always falls on or nearest St. Andrews Day, November 30. Because the secular calendar changes from year to year, Advent Sunday may fall on any day between November 27 and December 3. The season varies from 22 to 28 days in length, ending on Christmas Eve. It always contains four Sundays.

Advent originated as a time of preparation for candidates for church membership prior to their baptism on Epiphany, January 6. Between the fourth and seventh centuries, the season varied from three to as many as seven weeks in different parts of Christendom. During this time, Advent came to be seen as a time of preparation for all believers in anticipation of Christmas. The Roman church set the season's length at four Sundays in the sixth century, and in the eleventh century Gregory VII decreed that this would be the standard for the whole church. In the late Middle Ages, penitence was added to the emphasis on preparation.

Advent is above all a time of joyful anticipation. The word "Advent" means "coming." It has a threefold meaning for Christians today: the coming of the Lord in human form at Christmas, the coming of the Lord in Word and Spirit, and the coming of the Lord in glory at the end of the age. It is, therefore, a time when the church looks back at the historical event of Christ's nativity, looks around at the revelation of Christ in scripture and experience, and looks ahead to Christ's return at the end of time. It is still thought of as a time of personal introspection and preparation. During Advent, emphasis is placed on the reading of Old Testament prophecies of the coming of the Messiah.

The lighting of an Advent wreath is a familiar custom during this season in churches and in homes. A wreath is formed, usually of evergreen branches, and adorned with four purple or blue candles. Some churches substitute a pink candle for one of the purple ones. A single white candles sits in the middle of the wreath. On each Sunday in Advent a new purple or red candle is lit until, at last, all four candles are burning. Some churches attach meanings to the four candles, such as hope, peace, love and joy. The increasing light shed by the candles represents the believers' increasing joy as the day of Jesus' coming approaches. On Christmas Day the white candle is lit to proclaim that the Light of the World has come.

The traditional liturgical color for Advent is purple (violet), though blue is gaining in popularity.

Christmas

Christmas is a season that begins on Christmas Day and lasts for 12 days (hence the title of the popular Christmas song, "The Twelve Days of Christmas"), until January 5, the eve of Epiphany (known in England as "Twelfth Night"). The Christmas observance developed relatively late in the history of the church — early Christians considered the celebration of the Resurrection to be far more important, and both Jesus' birth and baptism were celebrated on Epiphany, January 6. In the fourth century, Roman Christians appropriated a pagan festival day honoring Sol Invictus (The Unconquered Sun) which was celebrated on December 25, the date of the winter solstice. On this the shortest day of the year, the Roman pagans hailed the "rebirth" of the sun, which from that day forward would increasingly rule the day. Christians saw an obvious parallel with the "Sun of Righteousness," a prophetic name for the Messiah. (Because of errors in the secular calendar, the winter solstice occurs in our day on December 21.)

The word "Christmas" is a contraction of "Christ Mass," the name given to the worship service for the day. Christmas is a season of great joy and is marked by reading the story of Jesus' birth, singing Christmas carols and songs, and by giving gifts after the pattern of God's greatest gift to us — His own Son.

Many of the popular customs of the Christmas season, such as the Christmas tree, the Yule log, and the Christmas wreath, have their origin in pagan observances and were adopted and given new significance by Christians.

December 26 is the Feast of St. Stephen, popularly known in Commonwealth countries as Boxing Day. Stephen was one of the church’s first deacons, appointed to help feed the widows and the poor among the church’s fellowship. He was also the first believer to be martyred for his faith. Boxing Day is celebrated by giving gifts of food (“Christmas boxes”) to employees and to the poor after the example of Stephen. St. Stephen’s Day is the setting for the popular yuletide carol Good King Wenceslas, written in 1853 by John Mason Neale.

The liturgical color for the Christmas season is white.

Epiphany

The Epiphany season, which begins on Epiphany Day, January 6, varies in length depending on the date set for Easter. It lasts until Septuagesima Sunday, 64 days before Easter. With the exception of Easter, it is the oldest season of the church year. In the early church, it was a time when new converts were admitted to the church after a period of preparation.

Like several other Christian seasons, Epiphany was appropriated by the church from a pagan festival. As early as 1996 B.C., the Egyptians celebrated the winter solstice (which then occurred on January 6) with a tribute to Aeon, the Virgin. At first, Epiphany was a celebration of both the birth and baptism of Jesus. After Christmas became a separate season, Epiphany became an observance of Jesus' baptism in the Eastern church and of the visit of the Magi in the Western church.

"Epiphany" means "to be made manifest," and Epiphany observances emphasize the manifestation of Jesus as "Light to the Gentiles" and the "Glory of Israel" to Simeon when Jesus was presented at the temple, the manifestation of Jesus as God's beloved Son at His baptism, and the manifestation of Jesus to the whole world as represented by the Wise Men of the East. In fact, the earliest Epiphany observances were based on the Jewish Feast of Lights, which today is called “Hanukkah” (“Dedication”). The Jewish holiday celebrates the rededication of the temple under the Maccabees, but the Christian observance of Epiphany celebrates the astonishing revelation that it is in Christ that God dwells on earth among men. Jesus made many references to himself as the true temple (e.g. John 2:12-22).

The liturgical color for the Epiphany season is white.

Pre-Lent

Pre-Lent lasts for three and one-half weeks, from Septuagesima Sunday until Ash Wednesday. The three Sundays that fall during this season are called Septuagesima (seventy), Sexagesima (sixty) and Quinquagesima (fifty). Septuagesima may fall as early as January 18 and as late as February 22, depending on the date set for Easter. The last few days of the season have traditionally been a time of profound celebration in anticipation of the arrival of Lent on Ash Wednesday. The last day of Pre-Lent is known as Shrove Tuesday (named for the "shrift," or confession, made before Lent began), or Fastnacht in Germany, Mardi Gras in France, and Fasten's Eve in Scotland.

The origin of the season is difficult to ascertain, but it appears to have derived from a period of fasting for candidates for the monastery. It has no widely regarded character, but is seen as an interim period between two major seasons.

The liturgical color for Pre-Lent is purple (violet) in the Roman and Anglican churches, where is is considered an extension of Lent. In some Protestant churches, green is used instead.

Lent

Lent is a season lasting forty-six days which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on the eve of Easter. (The name "Ash Wednesday" comes from the practice, continued in some churches today, of sprinkling ashes on the heads of the penitent.) Lent includes Holy Week, the last week of the season. The six Sundays during Lent are exempted, which means that Lent is observed for a total of forty days.

Lent derives from two sources: the fast preceding the Pascha (an early commemoration of both the Passion and the Resurrection), and a period of preparation for candidates for baptism. The fast originally lasted one day but was eventually extended to six. It became the model for Holy Week observances which were separated according to the events of Jesus' last week. The preparation period became the rest of the Lenten season.

The word “Lent” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word lencten, which means “springtide” (the time of year when days begin to lengthen). Lent covers the 40 days, not including Sundays, leading up to Easter. It can begin as early as February 4 and end as late as April 24. Sundays are not included in Lent because worship services on the Lord’s Day are always a celebration of the Resurrection, and the Lenten observance must be set aside for such a joyful day. Therefore, these Sundays are referred to as the “Sundays in Lent” rather than the “Sundays of Lent.” The number 40 has a biblical connotation of trial and testing, as in the Hebrews’ 40 years of wandering before reaching the Promised Land and, more specifically to Lent, the 40-day trial of Jesus in the wilderness (e.g. Luke 4:1-13). In an important sense, Lent is meant to give us the experience of having been tested as well.

Some churches continue the tradition of Lenten fasting today. Others encourage believers to make a sacrifice of self-denial in preparation for Easter observances. Lent is characterized as a time of personal reflection and repentance.

The last Sunday of Lent is Palm Sunday, when Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem is commemorated. Churches may be decorated with palm leaves, or worshipers may carry them in to the service as a reminder of the palm branches that were strewn before Jesus as he rode into the city. Palm Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week, which is given to meditation on the events of Jesus' last week before His crucifixion. Thursday of Holy Week is called Maundy Thursday. "Maundy" probably comes from the Latin word "mandatum," which means "commandment." The reference is to Jesus' command that his disciples wash one another's feet. Maundy Thursday is a commemoration of the Last Supper, the Passover meal Jesus celebrated with His disciples the night he was betrayed. It is usually celebrated with Holy Communion. Friday of Holy Week is called Good Friday ("Good Friday" is probably a variant of "God's Friday," the same way we say "good-bye" today instead of "God be with ye"). Good Friday is an observance of Jesus' crucifixion. It is a somber day of reflection and repentance, and some churches remove flowers and all decorative elements from the sanctuary to reflect the mood. Saturday of Holy Week is sometimes called Holy Saturday, and is characterized by watchfulness and preparation.

The liturgical color for Lent is purple (violet). On Good Friday, black is substituted.

Easter

The Easter season begins on Easter Sunday and continues for fifty days until Pentecost and includes the Feast of the Ascension. Easter Sunday is the most joyful day of the Christian year. Though every Sunday is considered to be a "little Easter," Easter Sunday itself is the day of days on which Christ's Resurrection is celebrated. It is the oldest of Christian festival days.In some churches, Easter is celebrated with baptism or renewal of baptismal vows. In liturgical worship, the joyful “Alleluia” returns to the service order after having been omitted for the duration of Lent.

Easter was originally called “Pascha” after the Hebrew word (“Pesach”) meaning “Passover,” and much of Christendom still uses this term. The word “Easter,” on the other hand, is derived from ancient names for the month of April in which Easter often falls.  The Easter season, sometimes called the “Great 50 Days,” begins on Easter Sunday and continues until Pentecost. Easter was originally celebrated as one continuous festival, but in the fourth century it was divided into separate observances of the Resurrection and the Ascension.

The date of Easter, which determines much of the rest of the church calendar, is fixed according to the Paschal Calendar developed by Dionysius Exiguus, a Scythian monk, in 527. Essentially, Easter falls on the first Sunday following the first full moon falling on or after the first day of spring (March 21). Fixing Easter in such a manner causes it to fall at the same time as the Jewish Passover, since the first Easter coincided with that feast.

Because of Easter's relation to the lunar calendar, many popular seasonal traditions, such as Easter eggs and the Easter bunny, are more closely associated with pagan rites of fertility and spring than with Easter.

Ascension Day falls on a Thursday, 40 days after Easter, but it is usually celebrated in worship on the following Sunday. Ascension Day commemorates the bodily return of Jesus to heaven (recorded in Mark, Luke and Acts) where he now reigns at the right hand of the Father. Although there is no record of its observance before the fifth century, St. Augustine assigned it apostolic origin and wrote of it as though it had been celebrated long before his time. Although the feast often passes with little fanfare, Jesus’ ascension is associated with several important events. It was likely at or near the time of his ascension that Jesus gave the “Great Commission” to his disciples. It is also associated with his promise to empower them and to be eternally present with them. Properly observed, the Feast of the Ascension sets up a keen sense of anticipation for the next great event in the Christian calendar — Pentecost.

The liturgical color for the Easter season is white.

Pentecost/Trinity

Pentecost, which means "fiftieth day," is the beginning of the longest season of the church year. It lasts until the first Sunday in Advent. In most traditions, the Sundays following Pentecost comprise the church's longest period of "ordinary time," though many refer to them informally as the "Trinity Season." In some churches, Pentecost is known as Whitsunday, after the white robes once worn by candidates for baptism on that day.

On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples while they were gathered in Jerusalem, and they were empowered to preach to people from every nation who had come to Jerusalem for the feast. The Acts of the Apostles records that about 3,000 were added to their number that day. Christians since have considered this event to be the founding of the church.

The model for the Christian Pentecost was the Feast of Shavuot celebrated by the Jews at the end of the grain harvest. It was a time when they offered the firstfruits of their harvest to God in acknowledgement of His providence—two loaves of unleavened bread, of five pints of meal or four pounds each, according to Leviticus 23:16,17. It was also called the Feast of Weeks because it fell seven weeks after the Passover.

Over time, the Feast of Weeks also came to be associated with the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses, which was believed to have occurred on the fiftieth day of the Exodus. The Jews saw this event as the founding of the Jewish nation, and early Christian believers were quick to note a parallel with the founding of the Christian church. Believers themselves represented the firstfruits of the vine, which is Christ Himself (John 15:5). On Pentecost, Christians celebrate the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to build His Church upon the confession made by St. Peter: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” recorded in Matthew 16:18.

The Sunday after Pentecost is known as Trinity Sunday, and is notable for being the only major Christian festival that celebrates a doctrine of the church rather than an event in its sacred history. The belief that we worship one God in three Persons is a distinctive of the Christian faith, but the early church was plagued by contrary views. The Athanasian Creed, named after St. Athanasius, Archbishop of Alexandria, is recited in some churches on Trinity Sunday because of its strong affirmation of the Triune nature of God. The ordinal Sundays following Trinity Sunday are focused on Christian growth and discipleship after a long period of emphasis on the life and ministry of Jesus.

Protestant and many Reformed churches celebrate the Reformation on the last Sunday of October in observance of Martin Luther’s legendary posting of his “95 Theses” on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, on October 31, 1517. Essentially a challenge to his colleagues to debate the efficacy of the Roman practice of selling “indulgences” (the sale of forgiveness of sins as a means of raising money to build St. Peter’s Basilica), Luther’s daring act is viewed by many as the touchstone of the German Reformation and others that followed.

The last Sunday of the Christian year is called the Feast of Christ the King. It can occur on any date from November 20 to November 26. A relatively modern festival (it was introduced in 1925), Christ the King provides an opportunity at the end of the liturgical year for the church to proclaim and celebrate the eschatological reign of Christ over all creation. More personally, it is an occasion for every disciple to ponder and affirm the Lordship of Jesus in his or her own life.

The liturgical color for Pentecost is red. The liturgical color for the Sundays after Pentecost is green.