The Church Year

ADVENT engages us in preparing for Christ’s coming.  The word “advent” literally means “coming.”  Just as Easter is preceded by a time of self-examination and reflection, so also Christmas is preceded by a similar period.  The season dates from the sixth century and was widely practiced by the beginning of the eighth century.

In Advent we prepare to celebrate Christ’s birth, but it is much more than getting ready for Christmas.  More important, Advent engages us in anticipating Christ’s coming of God’s Kingdom.  It points us to the future, to reflect on the end of time.  With the ancient prophets we dream of a new order of life free from want, misery, war and hate.  We long for an age of peace, of love and justice.  Advent is therefore not so much a season of memory as it is a season of hope.

Such hope rests only with God, who in the beginning created, but who is creating still, in the One who not only started history, but who will also be at its end.  Immanuel, God-with-us, born in Bethlehem, gives us confidence for that which is yet-to-be.  We live in joyful hope of that day when the sun of righteousness already shining in Christ will rise and dispel the darkness of this world’s night.


PURPLE, the royal color of the coming King, is the traditional color of Advent.  However BLUE is increasingly used, since it expresses hope, the dominant theme of the season.

The nativity of Jesus Christ, CHRISTMAS, is the celebration of the incarnation, Word made flesh, Eternity breaking into time.  In Jesus, God came to us in human form, identifying with sinful humanity.


The actual date of Jesus’ birth is unknown.  The choice of December 25th as the time to celebrate the incarnation dates from Rome, early in the fourth century.  December 25th, in the calendar of that century, was the winter solstice when the light of the sun begins to gain ascendancy over darkness.  This day was firmly fixed in the minds of the people since it was an important festival, probably regarded as the birthday of the sun.  For Christians in Western Christendom this day, marking the return of the light, came to symbolize the hope of the world in the birth of Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, the Light of the World.

We need to be reminded that Christmas is not a single day, but a season.  Beginning December 25th, it continues for twelve days as a time of joyous celebration.  The traditional color is WHITE or GOLD, colors associated with joy and light.

The feast of EPIPHANY January 6th, originating in the Eastern Church, early centered upon three mysteries:  (1) the incarnation, God’s coming to us in Christ, (2) the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, and (3) Jesus’ first miracle, the changing of water into wine at the wedding in Cana.  Together these portray the way God manifested to the world in Christ.  (Epiphany means manifestation or showing forth.)  With the acceptance of December 25th as the feast of the incarnation, Epiphany in Eastern Christianity now focuses primarily upon the baptism of Jesus. In those portions of the East where December 25th has never been accepted,  it still retains its centering upon the incarnation as well.  In the Western Church, the adoration of the magi has long been associated with Epiphany.  It therefore has a focus on Christ as the light to the Gentiles.  Since Epiphany is a day, and not a season, it may be regarded as the end of the Christmas season.  WHITE is the traditional color for Epiphany, since it is a festival of the Lord.

The BAPTISM OF THE LORD is closely related to Epiphany and should be considered in relation to the feast.  Jesus’ ministry to bring in God’s rule was inaugurated in his baptism.  Coming out of the water, the Spirit rested on Jesus, and a sign of God’s approval was heard.  On his day we celebrate not only Jesus’ baptism but our own as well, for our baptism is rooted in Christ.  Baptism joins us to Christ and his church, and with all of the baptized we are called to share Jesus’ ministry.  In the waters of baptism we are buried with Christ, cleansed of our sins, and raised to share in his resurrection.  The Spirit is given us and we are declared the children of God.  WHITE is the traditional color, for it is a festival of the Lord.

The Sunday immediately before Lent is an appropriate time to celebrate the TRANSFIGURATION OF THE LORD, because this event marked a transition in Jesus’ ministry in which he “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51), where he would die.  In his Transfiguration we are assured that Jesus is the hope of the ages.  He is the One who fulfilled the Law given through Moses, the One dreamed of by prophets, of whom Elijah is the greatest in celebrating this event.  We rejoice in the divine majesty of Christ, whose glory shone even when confronted with the cross.  It is given us for our journey through Lent toward the agony of the cross and the victory of the empty tomb.  We celebrate this mystery in order that our faith may be renewed.  We are transformed into the new being in Christ as we join Christ in his death and resurrection in Lent and Easter.


From the ancient times, the feast of the Transfiguration has been important in Eastern Orthodox traditions.  In 1457, it was adopted into the Western Church with its date of August 6th.  In recent lectionary changes, it has been gaining greater prominence by giving it focus on a Sunday at the beginning of Lent.  In recommending to the United Presbyterian General Assembly that this day be included in the liturgical calendar, the Advisory Council on Discipleship and Worship stated “A renewal of an annual focus on this important revelatory event will nurture the faith and spiritual depth of our communion.  In this era the sense of awe and wonder is often lacking in the worship of Western churches…Yet the hunger for transcendent vision still lingers…Not the miracles but the mysteries of our faith are most in need of illumination in our time.  These alone will provide the inner dynamic to motivate and effect human transformation.”


            WHITE is the color for the Transfiguration for it is a festival of the Lord.

In the early centuries of Christian history, LENT provided the final, intensive period for the instruction of new converts for their baptism at Easter.  The annual celebration of the death and resurrection of Christ was recognized as the most appropriate time for baptism, for in the baptismal waters one enters into death with Christ and is raised with Christ in his resurrection.  The baptized life is to die daily to sin and the old life, and to be raised to live a new life sharing in the new creation.


Lent later came also to include the reconciliation of those who had lapsed from the faith.  Easter was the time for them to reaffirm the covenant previously established in their baptism.  Lent’s scope was further enlarged when it became a time for all the baptized to prepare for celebrating the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.


Lent is therefore best understood as a time to reflect on the meaning of being joined to Christ in baptism.  Lent leads us back to the waters of the font into all that it means to be Christian.  It is a time of repentance, of reaffirming the faith, of prayer and discipline, of rebirth and renewal, of probing the questions of faith and life, of overflowing in mission to do God’s will in the world.  The dominant spirit of Lent therefore should not be to give up something as it is to take up anew all that it means to belong to Christ.

ASH WEDNESDAY marks the beginning of Lent.  The day receives its name from the ancient practice of marking the forehead with ashes as a sign of repentance, of human mortality, and of the need to totally depend upon God for life.


PURPLE is the traditional color for Lent, used to denote penitence and humility.  However, somber hues of earth colors in fabrics of rough, coarse textures might convey the mood of Lent more effectively.  BLACK or GREY might be used on ASH WEDNESDAY.   

PALM SUNDAY (also known as Passion Sunday) begins a sharper focus upon the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the central event of the Christian faith.  A prelude to the passion is the brief outburst of joy in the triumphal entry into Jerusalem with sung “Hosannas.”  But the ride into the royal city led to death.  The greater theme of the day moves us toward Jesus’ passion, hence, the preferred name, “Passion Sunday.”

HOLY WEEK dates from the late fourth century.  It should not be seen as a chain of separate events, but as a concentration upon the passion as a whole.  We should not see Holy Week merely as an act of remembering, but as the occasion to appropriate into our lives all that Christ’s death and resurrection means, and commit ourselves anew to Christ’s service.

On MAUNDY THURSDAY the drama of the mystery of redemption begins to intensify.  We recall that in humility Jesus kneeled before confused disciples and washed their feet.  We are also reminded that on the same evening Jesus gave us the Lord’s Supper.  The name “maundy” is derived from the Latin word mandatum, meaning “a command.”  It refers to John 13:34, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another.” These words stand in sharp contrast to the betrayal of Jesus that followed later that same night.

On GOOD FRIDAY we are confronted by the event of Jesus’ death.  We are moved to adoration of Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  Good Friday provides a time for reflection on the significance of Christ’s sacrifice of himself.  But the austerity of Good Friday and HOLY SATURDAY are the somber prelude to the exuberant joy of Christ’s resurrection.  Christ died, and was raised from death that through Him all might have life.  Only the reality of resurrection can transform that Friday into good Friday.   

EASTER is the Christian festival having the oldest roots.  From earliest times, each Sunday has been a celebration of Christ’s resurrection, with clear references, dating from early in the third century, to an annual celebration of the resurrection-the Sunday of all Sundays.  This festival is the center of the liturgical year, for it celebrates the event that is at the very core of our faith.


Just as ancient Israel was delivered from slavery through the sea, so in the death-resurrection of Christ, we pass from bondage to freedom, from death to life.  “Christ our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed.  Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival” (1 Cor. 5:7-8).


In early Christian centuries, the death-resurrection of Jesus was celebrated in a vigil held throughout the night.  This PASCHAL VIGIL was the crowning festival of the Christian year.  Motifs of light and darkness, water and fire were intertwined with readings from Scripture that recalled the events of salvation history, climaxing in the death-resurrection of Christ.  It was the time for the baptism of those prepared during Lent, and for all to celebrate the Eucharist with the newly-baptized as they came to the table for the first time.  This ancient service is being recovered today.  The ancient song from the Vigil should pervade all our Easter celebrations:


            Rejoice, heavenly powers!  Sing choirs of angels!

            Exult, all creation around God’s throne!

            Jesus Christ, our King is risen!

            Sound the trumpet of salvation!

Easter is not a day but a season which is appropriately called The Great Fifty Days.  It is a time of great joy and excitement as the meaning of the resurrection is unfolded and we anticipate the significance of the giving of the Holy Spirit.

The traditional color for Easter Day is WHITE or GOLD, with white remaining until the Day of Pentecost.  The use of fine and elegant fabrics expresses joy.


ASCENSION DAY, forty days after the celebration of the resurrection begins (Acts 1:3), marks the assumption of glory and power by the crucified and risen Lord.  This is what we affirm when we say in the Apostles’ Creed that we believe in Jesus Christ who rose on the third day, “ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”  Ascension Day embodies the meaning of the Easter season - resurrection, ascension and the giving of the Holy Spirit - Jesus Christ is Lord!  He is Lord not just of the church, but is Lord over all creation.  At his name “every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil 2:9-10).

The day of PENTECOST brings the Easter season to a climactic finale.  The world rejoices with unrestrained joy, for the God who raised Jesus from the dead has raised the church, and sent it on its missionary tasks, and has given the Holy Spirit to be its life-giving soul.


The roots of Pentecost are in the Jewish festival of Shavout; of which the Greek word Pentecost is the equivalent-the “fiftieth day.”  Shavout is the fiftieth day after the beginning of Passover; the Christian Pentecost is the fifteith day of Easter.  For Israel, Shavout was a day of thanksgiving for the wheat harvest, and an annual commemoration of the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai.  Just as the giving of the Law marked a new relationship between Israel and the God who had delivered them from Egypt in the Exodus, so Pentecost marks the beginning of a new relationship between humanity and the God who raised Jesus from the dead.


On that Pentecost following Jesus’ resurrection, Jews from all parts of the Empire were gathered together.  The hearing in one language came as a sign of the reversal of Babel when the unity of the people of earth was broken by sin.  The Spirit comes to bring together the scattered of earth.  The Spirit comes to heal a division and restore unity.  Just as all barriers of nationality and language were transcended in the first-century Pentecost, so it is for us a sign of that day when all barriers separating people will be broken down and humanity will find its true unity in God.

RED is the traditional color, suggestive of the flames of Pentecost and the birth of the church.

TRINITY SUNDAY was added to the liturgical calendar about A.D. 1000.  It centers on a theological doctrine rather than on an event.  It proclaims the Triune God, into whose name we are baptized, and who is active in redeeming the world.  WHITE is the traditional color.

ALL SAINTS’ DAY, November 1, is a time to rejoice in all who through the ages have faithfully served God.  It reminds us that we are part of one continuing, living communion of saints.  It is a time to claim our kinship with the “glorious company of apostles…the noble fellowship of prophets, the white-robed army of martyrs” (Te Deum).  It is a time to express our gratitude for all who in ages of darkness kept the faith, for those who have taken the gospel to the ends of the earth, for prophetic voices who have called the church to be faithful in life and service, for all who have witnessed to justice and peace in every nation.


To rejoice in God with all of the faithful of every generation expands our awareness that there is a great company of witnesses above and around us like a cloud (Heb. 12:1).  It lifts us out of a preoccupation with our own immediate situation and the discouragements of the present.  In the knowledge that others have persevered, we are encouraged  to endure against all odds (Heb. 12:1-2).  Reminded that God was with the faithful of the past, we are reassured that God is with us today, moving us and all creation toward God’s end in time.  In this context, it is appropriate for a congregation on All Saints’ Day to commemorate the lives of those who died during the previous year.  WHITE is the traditional color for All Saints’ Day, since it is Christ in the lives of the faithful whom we celebrate.

The festival of CHRIST THE KING ends our marking time “after Pentecost,” and moves us to the threshold of Advent, the season of hope for Christ’s coming again at the end of time.

The day centers us upon the crucified and risen Christ, whom God exalted to rule over the whole universe.  Christ reigns supreme.  He rules in peace.  His truth judges every falsehood.  As the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, Christ is the center of the universe, the ruler of all history, the judge of all peoples.  In Him all things began, and in Him all things will be fulfilled in the end.   Christ will triumph over all of the forces of evil.


Such concepts as these cluster around the affirmation that Christ is King.  As sovereign ruler, Christ calls us to a loyalty that transcends every earthly claim upon the human heart.  To Him alone belongs the supreme allegiance of our lives.  He calls us to stand with those who in every age confessed, “Jesus Christ is Lord!”  In every generation, demagogues emerge to claim an allegiance that belongs only to God.  But Christ alone has the right to claim our highest loyalty.  The blood of martyrs, past and present, witnesses to this truth.


 Behold the glory of the eternal Christ!  From the beginning of time to its ending, Christ rules above all earthly powers!  Since it is a festival of the Lord, WHITE is the traditional color for Christ the King.

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