The Church Calendar: Holy Seasons and Holy Days
On the fourth day of creation, God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:14-15).
God has ordered his creation around the rhythm of the seasons. Fall. Winter. Spring. Summer. Seasons and weather change, yet a rhythm and patterns emerge. The maple tree that turned red and orange and then barren slowly begins to turn green again.
The life of the Christian congregation is similar in many ways. In the Christian Church there is a rhythm of holy seasons and holy days. The Lutheran Church follows a church calendar. Like our wall or digital calendars, the Church’s liturgical calendar orders our days around the important events in Jesus’ life and salvation for us: Jesus’ birth for us at Christmas. Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection for us in Lent and Easter. Jesus’ life that fills the church with his Spirit, Word, and Sacraments in the season of Pentecost. In every season of the church year, and on every holy day on the liturgical calendar, the focus is the same: the saving work of Jesus crucified and risen for you.
The Christian Church calendar is often divided up into two halves. Advent marks the beginning of the church year, as well as the festival half of the church calendar which goes from Advent through the Day of Pentecost. This festival half of the church year draws our eyes, ears, worship, and praise to the saving work of Jesus in the past, present, and future. The second half of the church calendar, also called the non-festival half, lasts from Trinity Sunday through the end of the church year, or the Last Sunday of the Church Year. This half of the church calendar draws our attention to life of the Christian Church as she is fed, strengthened, and nourished by Jesus’ saving gifts to us in His Word and Sacraments.
While in creation there are four seasons, the Christian Church celebrates six seasons that ground us in the saving work of Jesus crucified and risen for us: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost.
Over the centuries, each season has become associated with various liturgical colors, symbols, and themes.
The liturgical color of Advent is often blue, depicting hope in Jesus’ promised return and reign. In some congregations, purple is used for Advent, recalling that Jesus is our King who came to be crucified. Purple also highlights the penitential nature of Advent, as we prepare for Jesus’ second advent (coming) on the Last Day.
The liturgical color for Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, and Trinity Sunday is white, the color symbolizing holiness, purity, glory, and joy that are ours in Christ.
In the season of Lent, the season before Easter, the color purple, or violet, recalls Christ’s sacrifice for us on the cross, and our repentant preparation for the feast of Easter.
During the seasons of Epiphany and Pentecost, green is used to remind us of the life and growth God gives us through the work of the Holy Spirit in the Word and Sacraments.
The Day of Pentecost itself, however, is red, the color that recalls the tongues of fire on the apostles’ heads as the Holy Spirit was poured out, as well as the blood of the Christian martyrs who died confessing their faith in Christ.
Black is also used for Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, recalling the suffering and death Jesus endured on our behalf when he who knew no sin became sin for us.
Jesus’ Autobiography: A Brief History of the Church Year
History is fraught with questions, none more challenging to the historian than this: when did the event in question begin? The history of the Christian church year is no different.
It is as intricate as a puzzle and as sprawling as an old family farmhouse, growing with each addition, serving each new generation. It begins in the opening chapter of history, where, among the many wonders of creation, God ordered days and seasons. And on the seventh day God rested. The church year began with the Sabbath. For Yahweh is the God of the holidays, the holy days. His children – at all times, in all places – are no different. He patterned Israel’s liturgical life after himself. The holy days of Leviticus – Feast of Weeks, Passover, the Day of Atonement and so forth – were centripetal in delivering Yahweh’s life and salvation to his people, Israel.
It is, finally, through Christ’s death and resurrection where Israel’s church year finds consummation and boundless joy. Messianic hope is fulfilled in Christ’s past, present and future Advent. The Lord’s Supper is the new and greater Passover, followed swiftly by Jesus’ Day of Atonement. Fifty days later, the Church rejoices as the Spirit breathes life into the Feast of Weeks, sowing and gathering a baptismal harvest at Pentecost. As we follow the church year, we live in the history – and abiding presence – of Christ’s saving work.
In a similar, albeit trivial manner, I discovered this once on a field trip to Fort Clatsop, Lewis and Clark’s winter haven near the utter west of the Oregon territory. There – beneath the mossy evergreens, in the cool, damp air, while playing in woodsy replicas of a bygone era – the history of their arduous journey came alive. I, too, thought I had explored distant, new lands.
Egeria, a 4thcentury French nun French, experienced something similar on her pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, Egeria discovered a rich liturgical life. Thankfully, like Lewis and Clark, she kept a detailed diary replete with formative information on the Christian church year, its festivals, customs and theology. History “came alive” as she witnessed the church year celebrated in the very places Jesus was born, lived, died and rose.
As Christianity continued to spread, the church continually found her future in the history of the liturgical calendar. For it was none other than the history of Christ’s saving work for his people. So, it reads like a timeless history book: Easter came first and then Epiphany. Later, 2ndcentury church father, Irenaeus, wrote the next chapter: a Lenten fast before the Paschal feast. The Council of Nicaea (325) set forty days of Lent. Surrounded by the darkness of Roman paganism, Christians first celebrated the true Light of the world at Christmas publicly around A.D. 336. Advent came to us later from Gaul (modern day France), in the mid 6thcentury, Holy Trinity from Pope John XXII (14thcentury), and Transfiguration was first introduced to Lutherans by Luther’s pastor, Johannes Bugenhagen (16thcentury).
This is anything but a dead and doleful history. The church year is not, as Screwtape would devilishly trick us into believing, merely “the same old thing” year after year. But how does history “come alive” for us who are so far removed from the early church and the historical places in Scripture?
Thankfully, pilgrimages and exploration are not required for the history of the church year to “come alive” for us. Our Lord does this every Sunday. In the Divine Service – Christians’ holy day – we find the pages of church year history unbound and alive. What began in the early church with the celebration of the Holy Triduum – Good Friday, Easter Vigil and Easter – now marks the festive epicenter for the entire church year. From its beginning in Advent to its Last Sunday, the church year announces the saving work of the Holy Trinity. During Christmas we rejoice in the Father who sends His Son in human flesh to die for the sins of the world. During Easter we celebrate the Son’s resurrection, a new Sabbath, where we find true rest in the liturgy and the Lord’s Supper (Acts 2:42). During Pentecost, we marvel as the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son to the Church through Baptism, preaching and teaching.
The Church’s use of the historic church year is more than preservation; it is proclamation: Christ Crucified for you, for the world. The life of Christ’s Church is patterned around his own life-giving salvation, our future shaped by his saving work in history. From beginning to end – feast after blessed feast, throughout all seasons – the history of the Christian church year is Jesus’ autobiography, a vibrant, joyous book, each chapter greater than the last.
For more resources and reading on the Christian Church Year, check out the following resources: