The Church Year
Christians live by the secular or Gregorian calendar just as everyone else does. Anglicans also live by another year, another calendar (sometimes spelled “Kalendar”), known as the Church year. While this is generally very similar to the Church year observed by other western Catholic Christians, it is different in some details and some nomenclature.
There are eight basic seasons in the Church Year, as well as a considerable number of saints’ days and other special observances. This array is made somewhat confusing by the fact that some of the days of the Christian year fall on fixed dates of the secular calendar while others are “moveable feasts”, falling on dates which vary from year to year, depending upon the date of Christmas (always fixed) and Easter (fixed by the moon). Another fact to bear in mind is that the Church year begins with Advent in late November or early December.
The eight seasons of the Christian (Anglican) year are:
The dates of all of these seasons vary from year to year, except for Christmastide, which of course begins on December 25th, and Epiphanytide, which begins on January 6th.
In addition, there are twenty-three special holy days of observance specified in the Book of Common Prayer, which occur regularly on fixed dates, but are not directly associated with the above-named seasons. Another sixteen observances are listed in the Book of Common Prayer but are “movable feasts”, without fixed dates. Although not specified in the Prayer Book, other special saints’ days may be voluntarily observed by the pious and faithful.
All of this information, and more, may be found in those introductory pages of the Book of Common Prayer numbered in small Roman numerals, and all too seldom consulted by good Anglicans! (See pp. vii – lvii, BCP.)
The Church calendar is not of much use for keeping track of time, except in terms of Church Sundays and Holy Days. But it is an invaluable guide and aid to the constant repetition and clarification of the Christian story. It charts our path past all of the mileposts of the Christian story. In a reasonably orderly manner, the Church year refreshes our memory of Christ’s coming, of His manifestation to the Gentiles (the non-Jewish world), of His temptation, His Passion, His Crucifixion and Resurrection and Ascension, of the Baptism of the Church by the Holy Ghost. Then, during the Trinity Season, it provides an opportunity for study and consideration of the moral teachings of the Bible and the practical duties of the Christian life. Along the way, it allows contemplation of various special occurrences in the Christian story (such as the Annunciation by Gabriel to the Virgin Mary, the Transfiguration of our Lord, etc.) and permits us to recall and be inspired by the lives and examples of the Apostles and other major saints.
Without this arrangement of the Church year, worship can become a disorderly and confused hodge-podge. With it, we review and relive, year by year, the facts and meaning of God’s gift to us of His Blessed Son, that we might know the Truth and be set free forever.
It may be added that in the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent, our worship is somewhat muted by the omission of the Gloria and by the use of violet (purple) as the liturgical color. Weddings and other festivities and partying are also to be avoided during these seasons, and flowers are not used on the altar.
The color used liturgically for the seasons of Christmas, Epiphany, Easter and Ascension is white, symbolizing purity, joy and hope. For Pentecost and Martyrs’ days, the colors are changed to red, for fire and blood. During Trinitytide and most of Epiphanytide, the color of the hanging is green, for hope and peace. Epiphany itself, and its octave (the following week) are marked by the use of white. Thus, not only does the Church year serve to remind us of the Christian story by the use of nomenclature, it reminds us through the ear by the use of appropriate Bible readings, and it reminds us through the eye by the use of color.
The English word, “Advent”, stems of course from the Latin word, “Adventus”, meaning coming or arrival. This word has therefore been applied for centuries to the season of the year when Christians prepare to celebrate the First Coming of our Lord Jesus Christ – His Nativity, His birth at Christmas.
Traditionally, the Church has taught that Advent is a season of preparation. This preparation means a review of one’s life, achieving a fresh sense of one’s sins and mistakes and shortcomings, and stimulating in one’s self a fresh desire for forgiveness and a new start. Therefore, traditionally, the Church has used violet (penitential purple) as the Advent color and has viewed the advent season as one for muted activity, without parties and other merrymaking, including weddings.
At the same time, paradoxically, Advent is a time of joy in looking to the approaching celebration of Christ’s birth. Through Christ, God came among us in human form. This great sign of God’s love and grace should make us joyful and thankful.
Advent is also a time to review the promises God has made to man for our salvation and eternal life. The First Coming was part of these promises – Christ’s birth, His life and teachings, His death, His resurrection, His ascension into heaven to rejoin the Father. All that has happened as foretold by the great prophets. But God has also promised a Second Coming, a New Advent, when evil will be vanquished, the dead will arise, judgment will be rendered and life eternal be granted to those who love God.
Advent, then, is a time for reflection, for penitence, for rejoicing in God’s love as shown in the First Coming and as promised in the Second Coming.
Of all the celebrations and commemorations in the Christian calendar, there is probably none more familiar to Christians than Christmas. It is also one of the oldest of our feast days, having apparently begun in Rome in the early years of the fourth century of the Christian era. That it falls on December 25this of no historical significance because no one knows the exact date of our Lord’s birth. There was, in the fourth century, a celebration of the birthday of the sun god on this December date, and it is probably that the Church fixed on the same date to celebrate the Nativity of Our Lord in an effort to create a Christian celebration at the time that would rival or even supplant, as it did, the pagan festival.
The Collect for Christmas Day is noteworthy because it is the most comprehensive Collect in the Book of Common Prayer for its theological content. It includes the whole of the doctrines of the Trinity and of the Incarnation, our adoption as children of God by His grace, and the daily renewal of Christ’s birth in us through the Holy Ghost. The Collect is a composition of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer.
The term “Christmas” came into use in England in the twelfth century. It means simply, “Christ’s Mass” and is thus a reminder of the central importance to us of celebrating the Mass, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, on this festal day. No Christian should ever miss the Christmas Eucharist save for grave cause. Indeed, the Church has often required such attendance as part of the requirement for communicant status in good standing.
Christmas is a time for joy, marking as it does, the coming among us of God, in the person of His Son in human form. We celebrate it with special decorations. Some of these, such as trees, holly, wreaths, etc. may be of pagan origin or modern secular origin. But some, such as candles in the windows, while deprived of religious significance by widespread adoption in the commercial and secular world, have a fundamentally religious meaning. Thus, we place a candle or candles in our windows to light the way for the Christ-child to come into the world and for this reason ought to light them first on Christmas Eve. In these days of over-commercialization and secularization of Christmas, the Christian must fight hard to replace and retain the deep spiritual and religious meaning of the commemoration. A religion begins to die when its sacred observances become merely popular customs. Thus, the Christian should avoid “drowning” his family and friends with material gifts, gifts which we give in remembrance of God’s gift to us of His Son and His forgiveness and His grace.
Christmas begins at earliest on Christmas Eve – not at Thanksgiving time! It ends on January 5th, the Eve of Epiphany – and not the day after Christmas or even New Year’s Day!
Christmas has a place of primacy in the Christian story, for the story begins with the birth of Jesus Christ, and thereafter unfolds steadily to Good Friday, Easter and Ascension Day. Every Christian should observe Christmas with spiritual rejoicing and should strive to maintain its spiritual primacy.
As in so many other cases, we have here a word which comes to us from the Greek, and it means an appearance, a showing forth. The Book of Common Prayer fixes this feast day for January 6thand subtitles it, “The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.”
The beginnings of this celebration tend to be lost in the mists of time, although in one form or another it can be traced back even to the end of the second century. As it started and developed, the celebration commemorated Christ’s manifestation in various ways – His baptism in Jordan by John the Baptizer or His birth at Bethlehem. Gradually, however, as the Western Churches took up the observance of January 6th, they focused on its significance on the coming of the Magi to worship the young child. Under the influence of such Psalms as Psalm 72, v. 10-11, the Church viewed the Magi as kings representing all nations, and thus the visit of the wise men came to be regarded as a manifestation of Christ to all nations, to non-Jews as well as Jews, to ”the Gentiles”.
It is particularly fitting that the Epistle for the day should be taken from St. Paul’s writings, because St. Paul was the one man of the apostolic age who more than any other emphasized the universal meaning and mission of Christ as the Savior of all men, of all nations, of “the Gentiles”. How appropriate then, that the Feast of St. Paul’s conversion (January 25th) is observed in the Epiphany season.
Most Christians are “Gentiles” and so the celebration of the Epiphany should be an occasion of special rejoicing for us, because it symbolizes our inclusion among those for whom our Lord lived and died and rose again. Epiphany symbolizes and emphasizes the universality of God’s love, the universality of Christ’s saving mission, the universality of His in-dwelling. He is not just for the chosen few, He is not just for the good, the faithful, the believers. He is for all men, for the sinners, the wicked, the unbelievers – “all sorts and conditions of men”. It is not without reason that we say in the General Thanksgiving at Morning Prayer that “we do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving-kindness to us, and to all men.”
Human nature is very weak, as every reader of these words well knows. People, most people, can only take so much of solemnity, of serious introspection. They have to have relief in some kind of relaxation of the body and mind, in humor, in carefree moments. Thus it is that the many of the forms of popular celebration of Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday have taken hold among us. Originally, this was a day for confession and for being “shriven” or absolved from one’s sins. But before facing confession, people wanted to have a last “fling”, to be merry one last time. And so in England, they eat pancakes and in New Orleans they dance and parade in the streets, and in many places throughout Christendom they celebrate in an especially light-hearted way (sometimes to excess).
Why did all the merrymaking develop? And why did one makes his confession on Shrove Tuesday? Simply because the next day, Ash Wednesday, is the beginning of a season called Lent. Lent is a penitential and preparatory season for the Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection of our Lord. It lasts forty days in commemoration of the forty days in which our Lord prepared Himself for His ministry by withdrawing into “the desert” to fast and pray and to reflect – and to be tempted by Satan.
The word “Lent” comes from an old English word meaning in the season of spring. The Church’s Lent always occurs in the spring, of course, but since its beginning, Ash Wednesday, is determined by the date of Easter, and Easter is a moveable observance reckoned by lunar calculation and can occur as early as March 22nd or as late as April 25th, Lent itself begins at variable dates in the spring. The Lenten season actually extends over a period of 46 days, but the Sundays occurring during the period are not part of Lent but are feast days.
The observance of Lent in the Christian Church is very ancient. It began in the second century, although it was much shorter in the beginning; it did not extend for forty days until the fourth century and was also not associated with the forty days of Jesus in the wilderness until some time later. It has always, however, had a penitential character as a time of preparation for the Crucifixion and the joy of the Resurrection. During this period, Anglicans fast, as a means of suppressing the flesh and exalting the spirit, as a means, too, of sharpening the spiritual awareness and mental contemplation of the approaching great sacrifice of Christ for mankind. It is a period of increased prayer and self-examination so that we may bring ourselves closer to God and become more obedient to His will for us. It is one of those several periods appointed by the Church (Advent is another) to help intensify our religious belief, to remind us how far we may have fallen away, and to recall us to God.
A good Lent leads to a good Easter and the satisfaction of a deepening spiritual awareness and dedication developed through Lent allows us to open ourselves fully to the glorious joy of the Resurrection.
It may be added that during Lent, the liturgical color is violet (commonly called purple) and weddings and festive merrymaking are to be avoided.
If there is any one week more central to the Christian faith than any other it is Holy Week. This is the period ushered in by Palm Sunday running through Easter Even. Nowhere in the Book of Common Prayer will we find the term “Holy Week”. It is simply a popular and customary name which has long been used in the Western Church and had its origins in the observances which began to appear in the fourth century in the Church in Jerusalem, that fertile seed-bed of so many Christian traditions.
The week runs the gamut of human emotion and experience as found in these last days of our Lord’s earthly life-triumph of Palm Sunday, the sharp encounters with enemies on Monday and Tuesday, the almost feverish ministry of healing, teaching and miracles, the contract of betrayal by a close follower on Wednesday, the intimate and sacramental fellowship of the Last Supper on Thursday, the calm agony of prayer in the Garden later that night, and then the arrest by the retainers of the High Priest, the trials, the humiliations, the suffering and finally the death on the cross on Friday, the limbo of Saturday during which the Lord descended to the place of departed spirits, and finally the glorious and mighty triumph of the Resurrection and the empty Tomb on Easter.
What a kaleidoscope of events that is! No wonder that this week of all weeks in the Christian calendar is called “Holy” and marked by deep introspection, unusual devotion and daily worship.
The Book of Common Prayer provides for a service of Holy Communion on each of the first four days of the week. The story of Christ’s Passion is read for the Gospels on each day, using in order the accounts from the four Gospels. On Good Friday it has long been customary in most Anglican churches to have only the Ante-Communion or some special and appropriate observance, but the Book of Common Prayer does not forbid a Eucharist on this day, for which, indeed, it provides a Eucharistic Collect, Epistle and Gospel.
Easter Even is also generally observed by using the Ante-Communion, although again, the Book of Common Prayer provides for the possibility of a Holy Eucharist. This day, too, has long been the special occasion for baptisms, in keeping with the new life in the Resurrection signaled by the coming Easter Day. It is worth noting, in passing, that the Book of Common Prayer calls the sixth day of Easter Even, not “Holy Saturday”, a term which has crept into partial usage from the Roman Church. And, again, the name for Easter is “Easter Day”, and not “Easter Sunday”.
There is no other period in the Christian year which contains so much sharp alteration and contrast between joy and sorrow. The sorrow, the tragedy, the pain, are properly to be remembered, and felt by Christians, for our blessed Lord experienced these to the fullest extent in the week’s events leading to the physical and psychological agony of His Crucifixion. But faithful Anglicans are also aware of the joy of the Triumphal Entry as a portent of the eternal rule of God, the joy of the Last Supper as a testimonial of His presence left by the Lord, and the supreme joy of His triumph over death on Easter Day as a further and final sign of Christ’s deity and a promise to all who believe in Him.
No week means more to us. No week demands more of us. No week condenses the entire Christian message into so few days of packed action as Holy Week.
Since the fourth century, when the Church in Jerusalem began to mark the Ascension of our Lord as a special occasion, this Feast has been celebrated in the Christian Church. Just as Ash Wednesday comes forty days before Easter, so Ascension Day is dated forty days after Easter. This reckoning stems, of course, from the assertion in the Epistle that our Lord, after His Passion, was “seen of them (the apostles) forty days” (Acts 1:3).
It has been said that Ascension Day is one of the most neglected occasions in the Christian calendar. Yet surely, it is at last on par in importance with Christmas Day. Just as Christmas marks the coming into the world of God the Son, so Ascension Day marks His leaving the world to return to the Father. Part of the reason for neglect of this day is, of course, the fact that it never comes on a Sunday, but always on a weekday, Thursday.
What happened that day? The Gospels according to Sts. Mark and Luke record the event briefly. Sts. Paul and Peter refer to it still more briefly in several of their Epistles. The fullest account is found in the Acts of the Apostles. After promising to send the Holy Ghost to empower and inspire them, Jesus is described as having been “taken up” and received into a cloud “out of their sight.” Two angels – two men who “stood by in white apparel” – assured the apostles that Jesus would eventually return in like manner.
Our Lord’s return to the Father was, of course, entirely outside the range of ordinary human life and occurrences. Yet the resurrected body which had returned to the disciples from the Tomb did depart from them in a manner which they saw and understood to be an “ascent” in a return to God the Father and which put the final seal upon their acknowledgement and understanding of Christ as the Son of God. They returned to Jerusalem rejoicing and none of them ever again wavered in his faith.
The Ascension is the period at the end of the earthly story. The story began with the Incarnation of God as Jesus, as a baby born to a Virgin by the Holy Ghost. It began with miracle and as a mystery, a manifestation of God’s power and love. The Incarnation was announced by an archangel and accompanied by a “multitude of the heavenly host” singing hosannas.
In a like manner, God withdrew His Son again to Himself in “heaven.” The corporal / spiritual resurrected body simply disappeared “upward” from the sight of the apostles. This end to the earthly story was, again, a miracle and a mystery. And again, like the beginning, it was attested to by angels present at the scene. Just as the birth to a Virgin was a promise from God and a sign of the Babe’s divinity, so the departure from Mount Olivet was a promise from God and confirmation of the Lord’s Divine Nature.
Annunciation, Incarnation, Birth, Ministry, Passion, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension – these are the chief milestones along the Way of our faith. Each one is an essential element in the Testament of our Lord’s life and purpose and union with God the Father and God the Holy Ghost in the Trinity. Ascension Day should be an annual occasion for celebration both solemn and joyful, for all Anglicans as well as other Christians.
The Pentecost (Whitsunday)
Fifty days after Easter, Christians celebrate a day called by several different names. Pentecost is its true name, meaning the fifth day. But it in Anglicanism is has more generally been called Whitsunday. This originated from the white garments worn by the newly baptized on this day. Baptisms were popular and frequent on this day, more so than on Easter, because the climate in England and other northern countries made it a more suitable time for baptism than the earlier and colder Easter Day.
Pentecost has long been a Jewish festival, a time of thanksgiving for the wheat harvest. Appropriately enough, it has also commemorated the giving of the Law to Moses, and thus was in effect the birthday of the Jewish Church. This made it easy to transform it into a kind of birthday of the Christian Church.
What happened on Pentecost? The story is simple, powerful and inspiring. Jesus’ followers had all gathered for worship. Suddenly they were aware of a sound described as “of a rushing mighty wind”. Startled, they all looked up and saw a ”cloven tongues” or flames as of fire resting upon each head. The narrator saw this as the very baptism which John the Baptizer had foretold. Filled with the Holy Ghost, those present began to tell the Gospel story in a great diversity of languages, emphasizing the universal character of the Christian gospel.
Thus, in a sense, the Church began. Thus were fulfilled in a dramatic and public way so many promises of Christ that the Holy Ghost would be sent to comfort, to teach, to inspire and to strengthen. Thus was the Church suddenly moved to realize its great objective of carrying the Gospel to all men, to Gentile as well as Jew. It was Milestone One on the long road of the Church’s development and progress.
Whitsunday is one of the oldest and most continuous of Christian celebrations. In a sense, it caps the celebration of Easter. On this day, fifty days after the apocalyptic events of Easter, the Resurrection took on meaning, the Church came alive, the Holy Ghost gave tangible evidence of His deityship with the Father and the Son. It is no wonder then, that this day of Pentecost has become one of the major celebrations of the Christian year, ranking with Easter, Ascension and Christmas in importance. That is why the Church has long expected every member to receive Holy Communion on this day, and what the Church expects in this case is certainly no more than what every faithful follower of Christ should fervently wish to do.
The Transfiguration of Christ
Saint Peter and James and John had the inexpressible and lonely privilege of being the only witnesses to that event which we call the Transfiguration of Christ. They went with the Lord up into a mountain where they first went to sleep and then awoke to what St. Peter calls “eyewitnesses of his majesty.” What they saw was a Jesus utterly transformed in bodily appearance. The overwhelming impression was an unearthly bright whiteness. If we remember nothing else from the Gospel accounts, it is that the word “glistening” – “his raiment was white and glistening.”
A cloud covered the scene and the voice of God was heard saying, “this is my beloved Son; hear him.” At the beginning, the Disciples had seen their master conversing with Moses and Elijah; after the cloud passed they saw that He was alone.
This event was surely one of the major miracles of Christ’s life and ministry, ranking with the raising of Lazarus from the dead, the feeding of the five thousand, the turning of the water into wine at Cana, and only just below the supreme miracle of the Resurrection.
No one can say precisely what happened on that mountain. The three Apostles who were eyewitnesses did not know what to make of it, except that it as a revelatory moment in which God vouchsafed them a glimpse of their Lord’s real nature. They saw nothing which revealed to them the true divine nature of Jesus, a nature confirmed audibly to them by the voice of God.
It would seem, if we are to read aright the significance of this great moment, the ineffable transformation, that suddenly the divine light previously hidden in the soul of Jesus was allowed for a brief moment to burst forth in His body, changing its character and appearance beyond all previous or subsequent experience. Jesus’ divine nature suddenly bursts the bonds of His human form and irradiated His body with a force which could have come only from the Creator. It was the same force which was to well up in the tomb and propel Him irresistibly through the folds of the shroud and into His resurrected form.
The Transfiguration is thus, in very fact, a preview, a portent, of the Resurrection. Saints Peter, James and John could not understand it until the Resurrection was a fact and the Ascension and Pentecost had opened their eyes. We, too, cannot understand this event except in the most limited way. But we know it as a confirmation, in His lifetime, of the fact that Jesus is very God of very God, and it gives vivid meaning to the creedal description of Him as “Light of Light.”
Anglicanism, along with other branches of the Western Church, observes the Feast of the Transfiguration on August 6th of each year. The Eastern Church makes more of it than do we in the West. Nevertheless, there are surely few events in the Christian story, few days in the Christian year, more glorious, more worthy of remembrance. It is a day of reassurance that Christ is indeed Lord, that He is God’s very Son, “Being of one substance with the Father.” It is a day of all days in which to give thanks to God in the Holy Eucharist.
(It may be noted as of interest that early Christian tradition identified the place of the Transfiguration as Mount Tabor. This is an 1800 foot high mountain standing in Galilee in the northern part of Israel, between the cities of Nazareth and Tiberias. There is of course no certain proof that this legend is correct.)
This page is part of a series of Anglican teaching leaflets originally written by Perry Lankhuff and offered by Christ Church Anglican.