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Worship throughout the Year Sample Resource

What is the Christian Year?

The Christian celebrates the saving events of God in Jesus Christ by marking those particular events in which God’s saving purposes were made known.

The most common term for the yearly celebration of time in worship is the Christian year. The Christian year, developed in antiquity, was a vital part of worship until the Reformation, when Protestants abandoned much of it because of the abuses attached to it in the late medieval period. Protestants claimed that nearly every day of the year had been named after a saint. The emphasis on these saints and the feasts connected with their lives overshadowed the celebration of the Christ-event in the more evangelical pattern of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost celebrations. Consequently Protestants discontinued observing the Christian year and lost its positive aspects as they attempted to remove Roman excesses. The current return to the Christian year among Protestants advocates a very simple and unadorned year that accents the major events of Christ, a Christian year similar to that of the early church.

Contemporary liturgical scholarship has pointed out that the focal point and source of the Christian year is the death and resurrection of Christ. Even the earliest Christians recognized that the death and resurrection of Jesus began the “new time.” The fact that two major events of the church took place during Jewish celebrations—Passover and Pentecost—helped the early Christians to associate themselves with the Jewish reckoning of time and yet dissociate themselves by recognizing that a new time had begun. Thus, like the Jews, the early Christians marked time but, unlike the Jews, they marked their time now by the events of the new age.

The unique feature of the Christian conception of time is the major moment (kairos) through which all other kairoi and chronoi find their meaning. This unique moment is the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ. Thus, in Christianity, all time has a center. Paul developed this notion in his epistle to the Colossians declaring that Christ is the creator of all things (1:16), the one in whom all things hold together (1:17), and the one through whom all things are reconciled (1:20). Christ is the cosmic center of all history. Everything before Christ finds fulfillment in Christ. Everything since Christ finds its meaning by pointing back to Christ.

From Christ the center, three kinds of time are discerned. First, there is fulfilled time. The incarnation of God in Christ represented the fulfillment of the Old Testament messianic longings. Here, in this event, all the Hebraic hopes rooted in the sequence of significant historical moments of the Old Testament were completed. For in Christ the new time (kairos) had arrived as Jesus himself announced: “‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1:15).

Second, the coming of Christ is the time of salvation. The death of Christ came at the appointed time as Paul wrote to the Romans: “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6; see also Matthew 26:18; John 7:6). Jesus’ death was the moment of victory over sin: “Having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15). Consequently, the death of Christ introduced the time of salvation: “I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation” (2 Chronicles 6:2).

Third, the Christ-event introduces the Christian anticipatory time. This aspect of time is based on the Resurrection, the Ascension, and the promise of Christ’s coming again. Consequently, the church, like the Old Testament people of God, lives in anticipation of the future. Now, however, it is understood Christologically as the time of Christ’s glory (1 Timothy 6:14) and as the time of the final judgment (John 5:28–30; 1 Corinthians 4:5; 1 Peter 4:17; Revlation 11:18).

This Christian conception of time is important because it plays a significant role in the worship of the church. The historic and unrepeatable Christ-event is the content which informs and gives meaning to all time. Therefore, in worship we sanctify present time by enacting the past event of Jesus in time which transforms the present and gives shape to the future. The oldest evidence of a primitive church year is found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian Christians in a.d. 57. Here Paul refers to “Christ our Passover lamb” and urges the people to “keep the festival” (1 Corinthians 5:7–8). This reference seems to suggest that the early Christians celebrated the death and resurrection of Christ during the Jewish Passover.

There is considerable information from the second and third centuries to describe the significance of Easter. It became the major day of the year for baptism, which was preceded by a time of prayer and fasting. However, we do not have evidence of a fully developed church year until the fourth century.

The following summary outlines the church year and touches on the origin and meaning of each part.

Advent. The word advent means “coming.” It signifies the period preceding the birth of Christ when the church anticipates the coming of the Messiah. Although it signals the beginning of the church year, it appears that Advent was established after other parts of the year as a means of completing the cycle. Its purpose was to prepare worshipers for the birth of our Lord. The Roman church adopted a four-week season before Christmas, a practice that became universally accepted.

Epiphany. The word epiphany means “manifestation.” It was first used to refer to the manifestation of God’s glory in Jesus Christ (see John 2:11) in his birth, his baptism, and his first miracle. Although the origins of the Epiphany are obscure, it is generally thought to have originated among the Christians in Egypt as a way of counteracting a pagan winter festival held on January 6. Originally it probably included Christmas (celebrated on December 25 to replace the pagan festival of the sun). In the fourth century Christmas became part of Advent, and the beginning of Epiphany on January 6 became associated with the manifestation of Jesus to the wise men (i.e., the Gentile world). The celebration of Epiphany is older than that of Christmas and testifies to the whole purpose of the Incarnation. Therefore the emphasis in worship during Epiphany is on the various ways Jesus was manifested to the world as the incarnate Son of God. This period ends with attention to the Transfiguration.

Lent. Lent signifies a period of preparation before Easter. The origins of Lent lie in the preparation of the catechumen before baptism. The setting aside of a time of preparation for baptism goes back as early as the Didache and is attested to in Justin Martyr and detailed in the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus. Gradually the time of preparation was associated with the number forty: Moses spent forty years preparing for his mission; the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years; Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness. In addition, the congregation joined the catechumenate in preparation, making it a special time for the whole church.

Scriptural readings and sermons during this period highlight the ministry of Jesus, especially his teaching in parables and his miracles. Special emphasis is given to the growing conflict of Jesus with his opposition and the preparation he himself made for his death. The church joins Jesus in the recalling of this significant period of his life.

The period of Lent was gradually marked off by Ash Wednesday at its beginning and Holy Week at its ending. The beginnings of Ash Wednesday lie in obscurity. It was in use by the fifth century, and the meaning of it was derived from the use of ashes, a penitential symbol originating in the Old Testament and used in the church as early as the second century to symbolize repentance. The formula used for the imposition of ashes is based on Genesis 3:19: “Remember man, that you are dust and into dust you shall return.” These words signal the beginning of a time dedicated to prayer, repentance, self-examination, and renewal. It ends in the celebration of the Easter resurrection when the minister cries, “Christ is risen!”

Before Easter, however, the church enacts the final week of Jesus. Although traces of a special emphasis during this week can be found in the third century, Holy Week was developed in the fourth century by the Christians of Jerusalem. The essential feature of Holy Week was to link the final events of Jesus’ life with the days and the places where they occurred. Jerusalem, of course, was the one place in the world where this could actually happen. For here were the very sites of his last days. As pilgrims poured into Jerusalem, the church of Jerusalem evolved this structure to provide them with a meaningful cycle of worship. The worship services that were developed during this time are still used today in some churches. The use of the ancient Maundy Thursday service, the Good Friday veneration of the cross, and the Saturday night vigil make Holy Week the most special time of worship in the entire Christian calendar.

Easter. The Easter season stands out as the time of joy and celebration. Unlike Lent, which is somber in tone, Easter is the time to focus on resurrection joy. Augustine said:

These days after the Lord’s Resurrection form a period, not of labor, but of peace and joy. That is why there is no fasting and we pray standing, which is a sign of resurrection. This practice is observed at the altar on all Sundays, and the Alleluia is sung, to indicate that our future occupation is to be no other than the praise of God. The preaching of this period calls attention to the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus and the preparation of his disciples to witness to the kingdom. It is fifty days in length.

Pentecost. The term pentecost means “fifty,” referring now to the fifty days after Passover when the Jews celebrated the Feast of Weeks, the agricultural festival that celebrated the end of the barley harvest and the beginning of the wheat harvest. In the Christian calendar the term is associated with the coming of the Holy Spirit and the beginning of the early church. Possible evidence of Pentecost in the Christian church goes back to Tertullian and Eusebius in the beginning of the third century.

Pentecost is the longest season in the church, having twenty-seven or twenty-eight Sundays, lasting until Advent. Preaching during this time should concentrate on the development of the early church with an emphasis on the power of the Holy Spirit in the ministry of the apostles and the writing of the New Testament literature.

In sum, the following excerpt from the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy captures the importance of celebrating the church year: “The church is conscious that it must celebrate the saving work of the divine Bridegroom by devoutly recalling it on certain days throughout the course of the year. Every week, on the day which the Church has called the Lord’s Day, it keeps the memory of the Lord’s resurrection, which it also celebrates once in the year, together with his blessed passion, in the most solemn festival of Easter.”

Within the cycle of a year, moreover, the Church unfolds the whole mystery of Christ, from his incarnation and birth until his ascension, the day of Pentecost, and the expectation of blessed hope and of the Lord’s return. Recalling thus the mysteries of redemption, the Church opens to the faithful the riches of the Lord’s powers and merits, so that these are in some way made present in every age in order that the faithful may lay hold on them and be filled with saving grace.