Introduction to the Christian Year
Copyright Â© 2010 by Mark D. Roberts and Beliefnet
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Note: If you’re looking for information about Advent in particular, please check this series: Advent Introduction: What is Advent? Why Does It Matter? How Can We Celebrate It?
Happy New Year!?!?
Happy New Year!
Are you having a Happy New Year?
know it’s early in December. Yes, I know we’re still in 2010. And, yes, I
know that the giant crystal ball in Times Square hasn’t yet fallen. Of
course I’m aware that we haven’t even celebrated Christmas yet. (Photo:
The crystal ball that fell in Times Square at the beginning of 2008.
Photo by Clare Cridland, Wikimedia Commons.)
Still, I want to ask: Are you having a Happy New Year?
you’re a member of a highly liturgical church, such as Catholic,
Episcopal, or Lutheran, what I’ve just said makes sense. (If you’re
Eastern Orthodox, you think I’m three months behind the time.) But if
you’re not involved in such a church, I had better explain what I’m
The Christian year, sometimes called the church
year or the liturgical year, is a centuries-old way that many Christians
have ordered the 365-day year. It depends, not on the positions of the
sun and moon, or on the start and end of school, or on the requirements
of the IRS, but rather on key aspects of the life of Christ that are
coordinated with the solar calendar. The major holidays (literally, holy
days) in the church year are Christmas (December 25), Good Friday and
Easter (in the spring, dated according to Jewish Passover), and
Pentecost (seven weeks after Easter). Every other special day or season
fits around these crucial days (Advent, Epiphany, Ash Wednesday, Lent,
Palm Sunday, Holy Week, Maundy Thursday, etc.).
When I have
taught worship leaders from around the country, I have often asked about
their awareness of the liturgical year. It used to be that the vast
majority had little or no knowledge of it, apart from the big holidays,
Christmas and Easter. If they had any sense of the liturgical year, they
assumed that it was something for Catholics and other high church folk,
with little relevance for the rest of us. I can understand this
perspective because I was raised in a church that recognized Christmas,
Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter, but that’s about it. I had always
assumed that things like Lent were for my Catholic friends. And since
Lent seemed to involve some sort of fasting, I was happy to leave it
well enough alone. Give me the feasts, I reasoned. Leave the fasts for
the Catholics and Jews. (I didn’t have any sense of Ramadan back then.)
wasn’t until I was preparing for ordained ministry that I gained some
exposure to the Christian year. I learned – much to my surprise – that
many Presbyterians and other Protestants take this stuff quite
seriously. For the first time in my life, I heard a Presbyterian pastor
get excited about the benefits of the church year for corporate worship
and private devotions. I was curious, though I didn’t quite get his
enthusiasm. What difference would the liturgical year make in my life?
The answer seemed to be: none at all.
When I became the Senior
Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church in 1991, the church had a history
of recognizing more of the liturgical year than I had acknowledged
before. During my sixteen-year tenure there, I grew to appreciate the
richness that such a perspective can bring to the worship life of a
church, as well as to my own devotional life. The truth is, all kidding
aside, that I actually began to experience the first Sunday of Advent
(in late November or early December) as the beginning of a new year.
though I am no longer a parish pastor, I can feel the flow that begins
with Advent and carries me through the birth of Jesus to his death and
resurrection, and beyond that to the sending of the Spirit and the
celebration of Christ’s kingly reign. Believe it or not, there’s a sense
in which early December begins my preparation, not just for Christmas,
but also for Easter. I know this may sound odd to you, even esoteric and
weird. But I’ve found that recognizing the Christian year has enriched
my faith in many ways. I’d like to share some of these with you.
let me hasten to add that nothing in Scripture demands recognition of
the church year. We do not have in the New Testament some equivalent to
Leviticus 25, where God lays out for Israel the major fasts and feasts
during the year. So, although the liturgical year is structured around
the biblical story of Jesus, it is not commanded in Scripture in the way
of the Jewish holidays for the Jews. Of course, Christians aren’t
commanded to celebrate Easter or Christmas in the way we do either. The
church year, therefore, is not something all Christians must observe, or
must observe in exactly the same way. (In fact, Eastern Orthodox
believers have a different pattern throughout the year and even
celebrate Easter on a different day!)
Nevertheless, I believe
that an awareness of the liturgical year can enrich our worship and
therefore our relationship with God. In fact, when I’ve taught on this
subject to worship leaders who have very little idea of what I’m talking
about, they have come away excited about the potential for their
On Monday, I’ll provide a brief overview of the Christian year, highlighting some of its main features.
Click here for an updated and reformatted version of this series.
Overview of the Christian Year
In last Friday’s post, I began describing the Christian year (or
liturgical year, or church year). Today, I want to provide an overview
of this year in case you are not familiar with it.
Before I do this,
however, I should say that there is not one, universally-recognized
version of the Christian year. In fact, you’ll find variation in timing
and practices, sometimes even within one denomination or tradition. For
example, many Presbyterian churches use purple as a primary Advent
color, while other Presbyterian churches use royal blue, and other
Presbyterian churches decorate their worship spaces with secular
Christmas colors of red and green without paying much attention to
Advent. None of these choices is necessarily wrong or right, though, as
you may guess, I would encourage any church to recognize Advent and be
enriched by its themes. Color schemes are clearly secondary in
importance. (Photo: My Advent wreath combines purple and pink candles
for Advent, with a white candle for Christmas, with the greenery we
associate with secular Christmas celebrations.)
versions of the Christian year, to my knowledge, recognize Christmas
and Easter as the twin hubs around which rotate a wide variety of
feasts, fasts, and seasons of the year. But even the specific dates for
Christmas and Easter vary among different Christian traditions. So, the
Christian year I’m going to describe is a version of the Western
tradition, which you’ll find in many Protestant denominations, as well
as the Roman Catholic Church.
Here, in summary form, are the basic days and seasons of the church year, along with some of the main themes:
Begins four Sundays prior to Christmas. Includes all days until
Christmas Eve. Length varies according to date of first Sunday. The
beginning of the Christian year.
Themes: Waiting; Expectation;
Hope; Yearning; Our need for a Savior. A minor theme of joy. Christians
remember the Jewish yearning for the “advent” (from Latin for “coming”
or “visit”) of the Messiah. We also get in touch with our hope for the
Messiah’s second advent.
25th through January 5, a twelve-day season. Many Christians begin
celebrating Christmas on Christmas Eve. Of course most people think of
Christmas as a day, not a season. But, as the song narrates, there are
twelve days of Christmas.
Themes: Celebration of the Incarnation of the Word of God; Salvation; Joy; Kingdom; Peace; Giving.
When: January 6, the day after the season of Christmas.
Some traditions emphasize the visit of the Magi (Wise Men) and the
universal import of salvation in Christ. Other traditions focus on the
baptism of Jesus.
When: Times during
the year when there is not a special day or season. Ordinary time
begins the day after Epiphany and extends until the day before Lent
(Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday). Ordinary time begins again after Pentecost,
extending until the day before Advent.
Themes: Ordinary time is
not “plain, boring time,” but rather “counted” time. Different
traditions include many celebrations during ordinary time, such as
Trinity Sunday, Christ the King Sunday, All Saints Day, and so forth.
The themes of ordinary time include the basic elements of the Christian
When: Forty weekdays prior to Easter,
beginning with Ash Wednesday. The precise dates vary according to the
date of Easter, which can range from March 22 to April 25. The six
Sundays during the season of Lent are not counted in the forty days.
Penitence; Morality; Human Limitations; Need for a Savior; Self-Denial;
Preparation for Good Friday and Easter. Some Christian traditions
emphasize Lenten fasting (from food and other delights). Other
traditions focus on adding spiritual disciplines.
The last seven days of Lent, prior to Easter. Holy Week includes: Palm
Sunday (Passion Sunday), Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy
Themes: The last week of Jesus’ life; The death of
Jesus and its meaning; Love for one another (Maundy Thursday). Palm
Sunday celebrates Jesus and king, but leads into a solemn preparation
for remembrance of his death.
fifty-day season of the year, beginning on the evening before Easter and
continuing for seven Sundays until Pentecost. Includes Ascension Day.
Easter Sunday or Resurrection Day is celebrated on the first Sunday
after the first full moon after the Spring equinox (March 21). (The
Eastern Orthodox Easter occurs a week later.)
Themes: Salvation; Victory; New life; Joy; Christ reigns.
When: The seventh Sunday after Easter.
The outpouring of the Holy Spirit; The birth of the church; Power for
service in the church and the world; The inclusion of all of God’s
people in ministry. “Pentecost” comes from the Greek word for fifty,
from the phrase “fiftieth day [after Easter].” In some traditions it is
called Whitsunday (White Sunday), perhaps owing to the white garments of
those baptized on this Sunday.
Ordinary Time (again)
When: From the day after Pentecost through the day before Advent, about five months.
The Eastern Orthodox Alternative
Orthodox year begins in September and includes several feasts and fasts
that are not part of the Western Christian year. For example, what
Western Christians call Advent, for Orthodox Christians, is called the
Christmas or Nativity Fast. It begins on November 15 and is a 40-day
season of serious fasting in preparation for the 12-day season of
Christmas. For more information on the Orthodox calendar, see this
article on “Easter Orthodoxy Sacred Time.”
In tomorrow’s post I’ll explore in greater detail the colors associated with the Christian year.
The Colors of the Christian Year
Part of what makes observing the liturgical year special is color.
Different events and seasons are reflected in a variety of colors,
including purple, white, green, black, red, pink, blue, gold, and some
other colors as well. The seasonal color, usually displayed in various
ways in the place of worship, reflects and augments the thematic
elements of the season. So, for example, because purple is understood to
symbolize penitence (among other things) it is used during the season
Once again, I should emphasize that there is no single
color scheme either recognized by or imposed upon all Christians. In the
twelfth-century, Pope Innocent II systematized the Roman Catholic color
scheme, but since Vatican II in the 1960s, Roman Catholic churches have
exercised some freedom in their use of alternative or additional
colors. In recent years, many Protestant churches have moved from using
purple in Advent to using royal blue. This move reflects a variety of
motives, depending on the congregation. For the most part, it seems to
be an effort to distinguish Advent from Lent. Blue continues to
symbolize royalty and solemnity. Some churches connect blue with the
color of the night sky or as a symbol of creation. A compromise popular
in some congregations is the use of purplish-blue in Advent and a
reddish-purple in Lent. Such freedom in the use and interpretations of
color can allow for innovation and distinctive celebration, though it
can also be a bit confusing.
If you’re looking for a more
in-depth examination of the church year, I would highly recommend an
outstanding website: The Voice: CRI Institute. Their material on the church year is top-notch.
chart below is my attempt to reflect what seems to be a consensus among
many churches. I will identify the day or season, along with calendar
dates, themes, and common colors.
In tomorrow’s post I’ll talk a bit more about the colors of the Christian year and their use in worship.
Liturgical Colors and Visual Art in Worship
In yesterday’s post, I gave an overview of the Christian year, including
a chart that listed key themes and colors. Today, I want to talk a bit
more about liturgical colors and their meaning.
The use of color
and visual art in worship is nothing new. For centuries, the Roman
Catholic church incorporated elaborate artistic works in her
sanctuaries. But, with the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century,
and especially in the Reformed branch of the Reformation (my theological
tradition), the perceived excesses of Catholic art in worship led to
the virtual excommunication of visual art from worship. Visual symbolism
in Reformed churches was minimal (cross, pulpit, baptismal font) and
This artistic minimalism continued to be the dominant
force in most evangelical churches in the United States, though some
mainline Protestant churches developed visual traditions along the
familiar lines of the Roman Catholic tradition.
In the last
decade, however, many churches throughout the Western world have
“discovered” the power of the visual in worship. Owing partly to the
pervasive influence of visual imagery in our culture, partly to the
cross-pollination between different streams of Christian tradition, and
partly to the power of digital projection, churches that would never
have considered the use of visual art in worship have not only begun to
use it, but even to major in it. Many large evangelical and charismatic
churches, the kind that only twenty years ago would have incorporated
only words and music in worship, have even hired staff whose primary
responsibility is to provide stunning visuals for liturgical purposes
(though they would avoid the word “liturgical” in favor of something
like “celebrative” or “worshipful”). (Photo: The cross at the front of
the sanctuary of Irvine Presbyterian Church.)
believe that, for the most part, the rediscovery of visual art in
worship is a positive development. Yet some churches have set off on the
journey of liturgical art as if they were groundbreaking pioneers,
rather than pilgrims traveling along a well-worn path. These churches
might do well to look into the use (and occasional misuse) of visual art
in Christian history. We all have much to learn from the centuries of
Christian worship that precede us. Or, to use a different metaphor, we
who are beginning to utilize the visual in worship might just find in
Christian tradition a treasure trove with gems just waiting to be used
In my opinion, the colors of the Christian year are part
of this treasure trove. The intentional use of colors and color changes
in worship spaces can enliven and deeper our worship, as well as add to
the beauty of the experience. Colors can symbolize truth. Colors can
delight the eyes. Colors can move the heart. Colors can suggest and
symbolize and hint in a way that words cannot.
Let me give just
one example among many from the worship in Irvine Presbyterian Church,
where I served as senior pastor of sixteen years. One of the most
striking aspects of the worship space in this church is the cross at the
front of our sanctuary. Its simplicity and power convey symbolically
and emotionally the truth of the Gospel. During my tenure as pastor,
along with the members of my congregation, I meditated upon this cross
many times, remembering what Jesus did for me. It impacted both the
depth and the passion of my worship. (Photo: The Irvine Presbyterian
cross on Good Friday. In the foreground are crosses upon which members
of the congregation nailed pieces of paper on which we listed our sins.)
cross stands alone, not as a decoration, but as a simple image of
salvation. We never hung anything from the cross, except for one day of
the year: Good Friday. Early in the morning of Good Friday, somebody
draped a basic black cloth over the horizontal bar of the cross. I knew
in advance that this would be there. I was not surprised to see it. Yet,
every year, when I entered our sanctuary on Good Friday and saw the
black drape, my heart was struck. For some reason that black cloth
hanging on the cross brought home to me the horror and the wonder of
Jesus’s death. I often found myself brought to tears by that compelling
yet basic symbol.
This is just one example among many
possibilities from my personal experience. It illustrates, I think, the
potential power of color to motivate and shape our worship.
that some of you will relate immediately to what I’m saying because your
experience is similar. Others of you will understand what I’m
describing, but it isn’t something you yourself know in a personal way.
Some of my readers will no doubt wonder if the use of color is
consistent with biblical teaching. My response to this concern would
point to God’s good creation of a colorful world. I would also
underscore the colors of the Tabernacle in the Old Testament, not to
mention the brilliant colors of the new creation as seen, for example,
in Revelation 21. Surely a God who has created such a wide spectrum of
color would welcome our use of his colorful creation to worship him.
of worship, tomorrow I’ll say a bit more about how paying attention to
the Christian year can enrich our worship. Stay tuned . . . .
The Christian Year and the Textures of Worship
In this post I want to pursue a bit further how the Christian year can
enhance our worship and therefore our relationship with God.
Christians we worship in light of the Gospel. Our worship is a response
to the God who has reached out to us in Jesus Christ, saving us from
sin, death, isolation, and meaninglessness. Thus, Christian worship is
consistently infused with joy and gratitude. Moreover, since we worship
the King of king and Lord of lords, we approach God humbly as well as
boldly. And because God is glorious and majestic, our worship is filled
At the core and in many of the details, Christian
worship from day to day, from week to week, and from year to year, is
essentially the same. If we ever stop worshiping the one true God, if we
ever stop responding to God’s love given in Jesus Christ, if we ever
stop offering ourselves to God in gratitude and love, then we’ve lost
the core of worship. But this is not to say that our worship should be
monotonous and monochromatic. In a given worship service we might focus
on one particular aspect of God’s nature and therefore utilize
distinctive expressions. We might, for example, focus on the holiness of
God, praising God’s perfection, thanking him for the gift of the Holy
Spirit, and asking God to finish in us his work of sanctification
(making us holy). In another service we might emphasize God’s grace,
praising him for his forgiveness, and seeking help to be gracious with
one another. And so forth and so on. When our worship responds to the
multifaceted character of God, and especially when it is shaped by the
diversity of biblical revelation, it will have different textures and
colors, even though the basic fabric is consistent from week to week.
liturgical year can enrich the variety of our worship. Therefore, it
helps us to have a broader, deeper, and more vital relationship with the
living God. It keeps us from the possibility of our worship becoming so
routine that we cease to wonder at the grandeur of God. To put it
bluntly, the variations of the Christian year help us not to become
bored in worship.
Bored in worship? Is it possible? Logically
speaking, this seems utterly impossible. If we remember that we worship
the awesome Creator of the universe, it’s hard to factor boredom into
the worship equation. But, sometimes, no matter how wonderful God is,
and no matter how truthful our worship might be, if our expressions of
worship are virtually the same from week to week, a kind of monotony can
set in, and we can become – Heaven forbid! – bored. Perhaps you’ve had
the experience of learning a new hymn or worship song and absolutely
loving it. As you sing, your mind and heart are truly lifted before God.
But, after you’ve sung the same song for the hundredth time, it loses
some of its punch. Its tune is still memorable and its lyrics still full
of truth, but its power to move your heart and stretch your mind has
been diminished. (Photo: The Grand Tetons)
in the same mode every week is a little like driving for a long
distance through awesome mountains. When I first see the Rocky
Mountains, for example, my heart explodes with joy and awe. These
feelings continue for quite a while. But, after I’ve driven among the
Rockies for a day or more, I must confess that my appreciation begins to
wane just a bit. I no longer remark on the stunning scenery, but begin
to take it for granted. Of course the mountains themselves are still as
majestic as ever. They haven’t changed or diminished, but my own
sensibilities have become dull. I need refreshed vision so I can see the
Rockies once again in their awesome beauty.
If, however, my
scenic menu were to be varied a bit, I’d be much less likely to become
complacent in my admiration of the scenery. A few summers ago, my family
and I took a driving trip from Southern California, through the
southwestern desert, the rangelands of Utah, and the verdant forests of
eastern Idaho. We drove through the varied terrain of Yellowstone
National Park and alongside the majestic Grand Tetons. Then we returned
by way of the stunning redness of Zion National Park. In over two weeks
of travel, I was never bored because my world kept changing. There were
always new wonders to behold. (Photo: Angels Landing in Zion National
I’ve just described is analogous to worshiping in light of the
liturgical year. We begin in the rising plain of Advent, which leads us
to the top of the celebrative pinnacle of Christmas. Then, after a month
of travel through the fertile grasslands of “ordinary time,” we enter
the parched desert of Lent in which our thirst for God is magnified.
Holy Week guides us through the tortuous geography of Jesus’ last week,
culminating in the dark cave of Holy Saturday. On Easter morning, the
sun breaks forth with glorious light, and we are filled with awe as we
gaze upon the towering mountain of God’s victory over death. Throughout
the season of Eastertide, the world seems brighter, more alive than ever
before. At Pentecost, we remember the our fellow travelers and refuel
to continue on through the rolling hills of ordinary time, until we
return to where we began at the start of Advent.
Christians who have been uncomfortable with certain aspects of the
Christian year. They haven’t liked the waiting of Advent or the focus on
our mortality in Lent. They want to live each day as if it were Easter.
Now, in a sense, my friends are theologically correct. We should indeed
live daily in light of the victory of God in Christ. But, speaking from
my own experience, the less celebrative seasons of the church year
(Lent, Advent) actually prepare me to experience greater vitality and
rejoicing on the great feasts of Christian year, Christmas and Easter.
Before I paid much attention to Lent and Holy Week, Easter zipped by
without making a major dent in my consciousness. Now, as I keep the
seasons of Lent and Holy Week, and as Easter has been stretched to
include Eastertide, my joy over the resurrection has been multiplied
several times over.
Once again I should emphasize that what I’ve
been describing here is not a matter of biblical rule. You don’t have to
recognize the Christian year to be a faithful follower of Jesus. But
the experience of countless believers throughout the centuries should at
least encourage you to consider shaping your yearly life by the themes
and narratives of Scripture – and this is, after all, what the Christian
year is really all about.