The Church Year

The Church Year

Anglican, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Lutheran churches follow the Christian Church Year, with each making its own distinctive additions. A new emphasis on tradition is bringing the Christian Year into even wider use among all Christian faiths. The Christian Year is as old as the Resurrection of our Lord and as new as the last church which adopts it. After the resurrection, the disciples of Jesus began a weekly celebration on the first day of the week, Sunday. The disciples, like our Lord, had observed the Jewish ritual year. Eventually they substituted Sunday for Saturday, Easter for Passover, and the Baptism of the Holy Spirit for the giving of the Law from Sinai. Adding certain preparatory and penitential seasons, they had by the sixth century developed a Christian Year, substantially as we know it today.   

The Church Year begins on the Sunday closest to November 30. The four weeks of Advent are devoted to preparation for the birth of Jesus, celebrated in the Feast of the Nativity (Christmas). The season of Christmas lasts twelve days, from the traditional Christmas Eve services to the feast of the Epiphany (January 6), sometimes called 12th night. 

Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of Christ to the gentiles (non-Jews), symbolized by the coming of the wise men. We also mark Christ’s baptism by John on the first Sunday after the Epiphany. Epiphany is followed by a stretch of “ordinary time” that lasts until Ash Wednesday, that great day of penitence that marks the beginning of Lent. 

Lent, the forty days of preparation for Easter, is symbolic of the forty days spent by Moses in the wilderness, the forty years spent by the Jews traveling to the Promised Land, and Jesus’ forty days of fasting and temptation in the wilderness. For Christians, Lent is a time of fasting from food and from festivities, of prayer and self-examination that culminates in Holy Week.

The sixth and last Sunday of Lent is the beginning of Holy Week and is known as Passion or Palm Sunday. It commemorates the day that Jesus entered Jerusalem with his disciples to celebrate the Passover. Entering not on a war horse, but on a donkey, Jesus demonstrated that he would not accomplish his mission through violence, but through sacrifice and service. Maundy Thursday is the day of the “Last Supper” shared by Jesus with his disciples, during which he gave a “New Commandment” that the disciples “love one another” as Jesus loved them. Good Friday is the day that Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried. Holy Saturday is often marked by the first celebration of Jesus’ resurrection during the Great Vigil of Easter, either held on Saturday night or early on Sunday morning. These three days of Holy Week are sometimes called the Triduum of Great Three Days. Holy Week and the season of Lent ends with the joy of Jesus’ resurrection, celebrated at the Feast of the Resurrection, commonly called Easter Day.  It is the greatest of all festivals in the Church Year.

Easter falls on the Sunday after the 14th Paschal moon- that is- the calendar moon whose 14th day falls on or after the vernal equinox, March 21st. The Book of Common Prayer contains a chart to determine when Easter will fall. (BCP pg. 882-83) The celebration of Easter continues through Great 50 Days that follow.

They culminate in the Feast of Pentecost, celebrating the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church. It is often said that this day is the Church’s birthday. Pentecost is followed by Trinity Sunday and then a long stretch of "ordinary time" leading to the next Advent, when the Church Year begins again. 

The Liturgical Colors

Episcopal churches employ a color system that identifies festivals of the Church Year and special days. Altar hangings and vestments worn by clergy are changed to identify the season of the Church Year or the particular feast day that is being celebrated.    

Purple, the color of penitence and expectation, is used in the seasons of Lent and Advent. 

White, a symbol of purity and joy, is used to celebrate the most important days of the year relating to Christ—Christmas, Easter, the Ascension, Trinity Sunday, the Transfiguration, and the Epiphany, as well as marriages, baptisms, and burial. 

Red, a symbol of the Holy Spirit, is used at Pentecost, Holy Week, Confirmation and Ordination. It is also used for martyred saint’s days. 

Green, a symbol of hope, life, and nature, is used for the two longest seasons, Epiphany and Pentecost, which make up most of the Church Year.  

Black, a symbol of mourning, is the color for Good Friday. The altar and processional crosses are shrouded in black at the end of the Maundy Thursday liturgy.