Independence Day fireworks.
We love celebrating past victories and significant moments. The church is no different.
Over the centuries, the church developed a year-long pattern of celebrating touchstone moments in our faith. Many churches follow this liturgical calendar in their Sunday worship.
What Is the Christian Calendar?
The church calendar is a yearly cycle that starts in late November or early December and follows the life of Jesus, celebrating his resurrection in spring, and remembering the lives of saints for the remainder of the year. Three major holy days circle the season of Christ’s Incarnation and three occur during the Resurrection season, while Ordinary Time marks the other six months with regular Feast Days.
The Season of Incarnation
The church year begins with Advent, celebrated during the four Sundays leading up to December 25. During Advent, the church spends time reflecting on the birth of Jesus and his promised return. We acknowledge that we live in a world full of pain and confusion and that we are waiting for him to make all things new. It is a time of anticipation waiting for Christ’s return and the fulfillment of his kingdom.
Also known as the Incarnation, Christmas celebrates when God became a vulnerable baby, marking a seismic shift in the cosmos. God. Became. A human being. Pause and reflect on that glorious truth. As the hymn “O Little Town of Bethlehem” goes: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. For Christ is born of Mary . . .” But, unlike our cultural celebration, Christmas Day is only the start of the Christmas celebration on the church calendar. The celebration continues through the new year and, for the western church, up to January 6.
The season of Epiphany begins on January 6, the Day of Epiphany, at the end of the traditional twelve days of Christmas. Epiphany means “manifestation” and refers to Jesus being made known to Gentiles—first privately to the three Magi who traveled to find him after his birth, then publicly through his baptism and first miracle. The season “has a narrative arc beginning with the Magi and ending with the Transfiguration. The overall emphasis is the manifestation (showing forth) of the glory of Jesus Christ,” says Rev. Fleming Rutledge, Episcopal priest and author. Our Bible readings progress through the childhood of Jesus into his early days of ministry.
The Season of Resurrection
Forty days before Easter, the church inaugurates the season of Lent with Ash Wednesday, a holy day on which believers are encouraged to fast and pray. Lent is traditionally a time of self-denial and repentance, with churches swathed in dark colors. Special church services are held where ashes are smudged on the hands or foreheads of attendees. The traditional phrase pastors speak over congregations is, “From dust you came, to dust you will return,” though some offer an urgent “Believe the gospel!”
The pinnacle of the church year celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ as the one who defeated death and brings hope to all who call him Lord. He is risen! we tell one another. He is risen, indeed! we respond.
The Easter season lasts fifty days, as we follow Jesus's post-resurrection life to his Ascension forty days later and end with the feast of Pentecost.
Pentecost celebrates the new body of Christ, his church sent and empowered to share his love with the world, and falls fifty days after Easter. On this day, we celebrate him sending his Holy Spirit to indwell, fill, and empower his disciples. Churches focus on texts that highlight the Spirit and decorate their sanctuaries in red and white, symbolizing “the tongues like flames of fire” through which the Spirit descended upon the disciples (Acts 2:1–4).
The Season of Ordinary Time
The first half of the church year focuses on Christ while the rest of the year broadens its scope to the entire family of God. Ordinary Time focuses on the lives of biblical characters, telling us that our daily, ordinary lives matter to God and should matter to us as well.
Major Feast Days
Each day of the year is a feast day dedicated to the memory of a particular saint whose life offers us inspiration. Feast days tend to memorialize martyrs on the day of their death, which early Christians considered to be graduation from life to life. The feasts of Patrick and Valentine remain cultural touchstones even today.
Why Observe the Christian Calendar?
For those who worship in non-liturgical churches, consider some benefits you could gain from observing the church calendar. You don’t have to become fully liturgical, but you may end up adding a few elements common to other denominations to your habit of worship. So, why should you bother?
We reorient our view of the world.
The church calendar helps us to see the world through the life of Jesus our King. We live in an era where political messiahs come and go. One way to de-emphasize the politics of people is to proclaim the politics of heaven.
It offers a comprehensive exposure to the life of Christ.
We need to walk through Jesus’s whole life and emphasize different events so that God’s people can know the whole story. Easter is not complete without an Ascension Sunday. Celebrating the church calendar helps us understand the total Christ and his total life.
It is a tool for discipling children.
The church calendar gives parents, grandparents, and teachers beautiful ways to catechize, or teach, children about Jesus. It offers a structured way for kids to learn about the life of Christ, the hope of his second coming, and the rhythms of expecting what comes next in the Christian life.
It is a tool for discipling adults.
The church calendar helps us grow in our understanding of significant doctrines. Regularly remembering God’s work through Christ and other Christians will encourage us in our own faith.
It is a tool for evangelism.
Our neighbors and friends will see us giving something up for Lent or regularly attending church and they will ask, “Why?” Each feast day or new season gives us an opportunity to talk about Jesus and why he matters so much to us. And sharing those regular observances reminds us that we are part of something larger than ourselves. We love and follow a God bigger than the troubles of this world. That’s good news for us—and our neighbors.
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