THE CHURCH YEAR is a wonderful gift we have inherited from the Christians whom came before us. In many ways the Church calendar is independent from the calendar that we use every day. The Church Year revolves around events in the life our Lord Jesus and His Church.
The Church Year is divided into two halves. The first half of the Church Year revolves around Jesus' life. It begins in November / December. As we worship through this part of the Church Year we re-live the main events of Jesus' life. Since most of the important days fall during this period, like Christmas and Easter, it is called the Festival Half of the Church Year. The other half of the Church Year is called the Non-Festival Half, or the Half Year of the Church. It begins in May or June and focuses on our Lord's teaching which He left to His Church to proclaim in all the world. Here we see what Jesus' life, death and resurrection mean to us in our everyday lives.
Each season has its own mood and to help bring out that mood we use different colors on the altar. Certain customs also reflect the mood of the season. All these things help emphasize the different / distinct message of that season.
Below is a brief look at the different seasons of the Church Year and what they are all about and how we observe them at church and at home.
THE SEASON OF ADVENT
Begins four Sundays before Christmas
ADVENT comes from the Latin adventus, meaning “coming.” Adventus signifies the approach of someone of dignity, power, and glory, someone who has the power to bestow favor or exact penalties.
For Christians, the season of Advent is a time of preparation for Christmas, a time of patient waiting for the reappearing of Christ, and a time to cultivate the gift of patience for daily life.
Calendar: Advent begins the last Sunday of November or the first Sunday in December. It is always four Sundays before Christmas.
Customs: Colors for the season are purple or blue. At church and at home, light Advent candles (four natural beeswax candles or red candles). Beginning on December 17th, sing the “O Antiphons” [which form the basis of the hymn “Oh, Come, Oh, Come Emmanuel”] which expresses Israel’s yearning for the Messiah. During Advent, set up a crèche or nativity scene at church or at home. The figures of Mary and Joseph should be placed in the nativity scene a day or two before Christmas. After the final Advent service a Christmas tree may also be set up at church or in the home. From Advent through the season of Easter, the Gospel readings at church focus on the life of Jesus. Read Bible stories to children each day.
[The Lord Will Answer: A Daily Prayer Catechism. St. Louis, MO: CPH, 2004 pg. 33]
THE SEASON OF CHRISTMAS
Begins December 25
CHRISTMAS means Christ Mass, that is, the liturgy celebrated on the day when Christ came among us as one of us. The Church celebrates the mystery of salvation revealed in Christ’s birth, rather than the birthday itself. We celebrate the mystery of God become man in Christ, who is both our King and Servant.
The Christmas season also places special emphasis on the name of the Lord our God 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.
Calendar: The Twelve Days of Christmas always fall on December 25—January 5.
Customs: The color white symbolizes the joy and the theme of light that plays so large a part in the biblical texts associated with the season. Christmas carols also express the joy and wonder of Christ’s birth. On Christmas Day, add the figures of Jesus, the angel, and the shepherds to the crèche or nativity scene at church or at home. Add the Magi on Epiphany (January 6th). The Christmas tree should stand throughout the 12 days of Christmas and be removed on Epiphany. Read the Christmas account from Luke 2 with your family.
[The Lord Will Answer: A Daily Prayer Catechism. St. Louis, MO: CPH, 2004 pg. 65]
THE SEASON OF EPIPHANY
Begins on January 6
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. Days were 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.
Calendar: Epiphany always begins on January 6th. The length of the season depends on the date of Easter. The last Sunday in Epiphany is always Transfiguration Sunday.
Customs: For Epiphany Day and… the first Sunday after Epiphany Day the color is white, symbolizing joy and purity. For the rest of the Epiphany season [until the Transfiguration of our Lord], the color is green, the color of life and growth. On Epiphany Day burn the Christmas trees at a bonfire. Sing carols or hymns… Read Bible stories with your children each day.
[The Lord Will Answer: A Daily Prayer Catechism. St. Louis, MO: CPH, 2004 pg. 79]
THE SEASON OF PRE-LENT
Begins 70 days before Easter
Before the 40 days of Lent, which is a time of self-examination and penitence, is the short, three Sunday season of Pre-Lent. These weeks serve as a countdown to Easter. This is seen in the names of these Sundays.
The first Sunday is called Septuagesima, which is a Latin word telling us there are about 70 days until Easter. On this Sunday we learn of God’s grace, lest we fear examining our hearts and lives this Lent. Whatever sins we recognize in ourselves cannot separate us from God’s love for us in Christ Jesus.
The second Sunday is called Sexagesima. This Latin name means that there are about 60 days until Easter. The emphasis on this Sunday is the word of God.
The third Sunday is called Quinquagesima, which is a Latin word telling us there are 50 days until Easter. The is the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, which begins Lent.
During this season, the altar colors are green because our focus is on growth in the faith before coming to Lent's deep penitence.
During this Pre-Lent season, we seek to strengthen our faith by looking ahead to Easter’s joy. God’s unconditional love for us in Christ gives us strength to examine ourselves honestly during Lent. Whatever sins we see in ourselves have been paid for by Christ and are forgiven—the Easter proclamation—and cannot separate us from God’s love for us in Jesus.
THE SEASON OF LENT
Begins in February or March
LENT The word “lent” has its origin in the same root as one of the German words for “spring,” Lenz. As nature awakens from the death of winter, so 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.
Calendar: Ash Wednesday 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.
Customs: Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, when ashes are placed on the forehead to symbolize repentance. The color for this service is black or purple. The color for the rest of Lent is purple. The hymns and services of Lent do not include the joyful word, “Alleluia.” Consider fasting during daylight hours. Spend your regular mealtime in prayer and devotional reading. If you cannot abstain from food for health reasons, abstain from something else (e.g. television or another leisure activity). Do not fast on Sundays which are not part of the 40 days of Lent. Read Bible stories with children each day.
[The Lord Will Answer: A Daily Prayer Catechism. St. Louis, MO: CPH, 2004 pg. 147]
Begins a week before Easter
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. Holy Week falls into two distinct parts. Palm Sunday, Monday. Tuesday, and Wednesday of Holy Week, and the day hours of Maundy Thursday complete our time of preparation. 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. The week thus faces both back to the very beginning of Lent, and forward to the 50-day celebration of the resurrection, which is sealed on the Day of Pentecost.
Calendar: Holy Week is always the week before Easter.
Customs: On Palm Sunday, have a procession of children waving palms and singing. For many congregations, Palm Sunday is the day of confirmation. Congregations or individuals may renew their confirmation vows through the questions and answers of the confirmation service. Traditional confirmation gifts include Bibles, hymnals, and prayer books….Read the entire story of Jesus’ passion from the Gospels. Spend Good Friday in quiet contemplation (turn off your radio, television [and computer]). Show kindness to those who cannot repay you.
[The Lord Will Answer: A Daily Prayer Catechism. St. Louis, MO: CPH, 2004 pg. 191]
THE SEASON OF EASTER
Begins in March or April
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.
Lent was a time of preparation, the Triduum [Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday] was a time of participation in the Pasch [Passover] of Christ, and Easter is a 50-day celebration of the new life given through Christ. The celebration begins at the Easter Vigil and culminates on the Day of Pentecost.
Calendar: Easter is always the first Sunday after the full moon that falls on or after March 21. Easter may fall as early as March 22 and as late as April 25.
Customs: The color for Easter is white for joy. Begin the Easter service at the church cemetery. Sing joyous hymns, which include “alleluia.” Display Easter lilies at home and at church. Explain common symbols of Easter for children: the emerging of a butterfly from its cocoon and chicks from their eggs represent transformation and new life. Prominently display the baptismal font and explain its use to children. Read Bible stories with them each day. On the 40th day, commemorate the Ascension of Jesus up to heaven.
[The Lord Will Answer: A Daily Prayer Catechism. St. Louis, MO: CPH, 2004 pg. 199]
THE PENTECOST SEASON / THE SUNDAYS AFTER TRINITY
Begins in May or June
Pentecost is a Greek term meaning “fifty”, referring to the Old Testament feast held 50 days after Passover.
Christians celebrate Pentecost 50 days after Easter. On Pentecost the Lord poured out His Spirit upon the church. The gift of God, once limited to a chosen few, was given to all. The intimacy of the Father and Son is ours. Bound together in Christ, we are received into most intimate fellowship with the Father. By the Spirit’s testimony through us, the world will be called to repentance.
Calendar: Pentecost may fall as early as May 7 or as late as June 14. Pentecost is always on the Sunday 50 days after Easter.
Customs: Red is the color of Pentecost. White is the color of Trinity Sunday, the first Sunday after Pentecost. The color for the rest of the season is green for new life and growth. During the Pentecost/ Trinity season, the Gospel readings at church focus on the teachings of Jesus… On Trinity Sunday the Athanasian Creed is said in unison or in parts.
[The Lord Will Answer: A Daily Prayer Catechism. St. Louis, MO: CPH, 2004 pg. 249]
THE LAST THREE SUNDAYS OF THE CHURCH YEAR
The last three Sundays of the Church year focus on mortality, suffering in a hostile world, and the promise that Christ will return to deliver us.
Calendar: The Third-Last Sunday always falls seven Sundays before Christmas.
Customs: Christians should at all times focus on the promise of Christ’s return and fervently pray for His return. Live in expectation of His reappearing, abstaining from every appearance of evil. Witness boldly to others that Christ is returning as Savior and Judge. Read Bible stories to children each day.
[The Lord Will Answer: A Daily Prayer Catechism. St. Louis, MO: CPH, 2004 pg. 443]
Scattered throughout the Church Year
In addition to the seasons of the Church Year there are also single days and dates that we observe in all the seasons—the Saints’ Days. A certain day of the year is set aside to remember the life and blessing of a certain great Christian of the past. This is also a reminder to us that the Christians on earth and in heaven make up one Church. The color of most of the saint days is red—the color of blood—because most that we remember were killed on account of their confession of faith in Christ. As Lutherans we do not worship the saints or pray to them but we do honor and remember them.
Our Lutheran Confessions put it this way: Our confession approves honors to the saints. For here is a three-fold honor to be given. The first is thanksgiving. For we ought to give thanks to God that He has shown examples of mercy; because He has shown that He wishes to save men; because He has given teachers or other gifts to the Church… The second service is the strengthening of our faith; when we see the denial of Peter we also are encouraged to believe the more that grace truly superabounds over sin, Rom. 5.20. The third honor is the imitation, first, of faith, then of the other virtues, which everyone should imitate according to his calling. (Apology [Explanation] of the Augsburg Confession, Article 21)