There appears to be a division within Christianity regarding the observance of the traditional church calendar. Many Evangelical Protestants do not recognize a liturgical year, aside from the single feast days of Christmas and Easter. For those who may be unfamiliar with the church calendar, a small explanation will be attempted here. For the sake of brevity, I will only be giving short descriptions of each of the major seasons within the church year. Please note that there are slight differences within various denominations regarding the church seasons and how they are celebrated. The Eastern Orthodox churches, in particular, often maintain different customs and times of observation than their Western counterparts. It should be emphasized that each season has its own traditions, colors, and regional observances.
Advent is the season which traditionally opens the ecclesiastical year. This season marks Christ's entrance into the world as an infant. Many believers feel that Christmas is better celebrated with the full preparatory season of Advent. During Advent, one is filled with a sense of anticipation for the coming of the Christ Child. Yes, the incarnation of Christ happened a very long time ago, but we can relive the excitement anew, year after year, during this special season. We feel the profound hope of our redemption through Christ as we light the candles of the Advent wreath and sing joyous hymns about the birth of our Messiah. Advent begins at the close of the Pentecost season (also known as Ordinary Time) and lasts until the season of Epiphany. As we move through Advent, there is scarcely a need to describe the bliss of the great festival of Christmas. True, it has become commercialized in the West, but the religious undercurrent of the season is eternal. Christ the King will not be trumped by Santa Claus. All Christmas gifts ultimately point to the Supreme Gift of the redemptive work of the Savior. Eventually, Christmastide arrives (the time between Christmas and Epiphany). Then the twelfth day of Christmas (Twelfth Night) finally arrives, and after that, we have a new season to celebrate: Epiphany.
Epiphany is the season between Christmas and Lent. It celebrates the Epiphany (the "showing forth") of Christ to mankind. Epiphany reminds us of the coming of the Magi to the infant Jesus, and also of the baptism of Christ. During the baptism, God was made manifest to man in all three aspects of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. During this season, people will often bake King Cakes (or King's Cakes), each with a tiny Baby Jesus figure inside. Good luck is said to come to whoever receives the piece of cake containing the Baby Jesus. The climax of Epiphany is Shrove Tuesday, otherwise known as Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, or Pancake Tuesday. This is another example of a commercialized religious holiday. Many people are not even aware that this is a religious holiday, and often associate Mardi Gras with debauched reveling in the streets. Obviously, the original intent of Shrove Tuesday was not to have people exposing themselves in public or drinking to the point of unconsciousness. Instead, "Shrove" refers to being shriven (absolved) of one's sins. It was a time to confess wrongdoings and to prepare oneself for Lent. However, many people celebrate Mardi Gras in a secularized manner. A common Mardi Gras activity involves catching beads and other trinkets tossed from festively decorated floats. The Mardi Gras social season can run throughout Epiphany, featuring parades, parties, costumed balls and other colorful examples of merrymaking. This holiday is also called Pancake Tuesday, or Pancake Day, in which traditional thin pancakes are served. At the close of Mardi Gras, Epiphany ends, and thus, we move into Lent.
The day following Mardi Gras is called Ash Wednesday. This is one of the most solemn days of the church year. Services are held in which an ashen cross is marked on each worshiper's forehead. These ashes are derived from the palm fronds carried into the church on the previous Palm Sunday. The palm fronds are burned to ash and brought out again on Ash Wednesday, sometimes mixed with a bit of olive oil. Most people will wash off the ash on their foreheads immediately following the service, but some will wear it throughout the day as a sign of public penitence. When the ashes are applied, one is reminded that they are dust, and to dust they shall return. This is a day to contemplate human mortality. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Lenten season. Lent is a time for the contemplation of sins, the seeking of forgiveness, the pursuit of Christian discipleship, and the renewal of one's relationship with God.
Lent is viewed by some people as being a season of severity, but it also contains incredible hope. There is, indeed, a certain darkness involved with meditating on one's shortcomings for such a long period. However, if one turns their sins over to God, there is the radiant assurance of forgiveness through Christ. During Lent, it is customary to refrain from using the word "Alleluia"(in some areas, this restriction is lifted on the night before Easter). The word is struck from all hymns and prayers. In some areas, bells are not to be rung for the entirety of Lent. Church decorations become spare, and at this time, the Stations of the Cross will become a popular meditation. Traditionally, during Lent, meat is not eaten on Fridays (the day of the Crucifixion). Many churches are now relaxing these rules, but there are still many people who will not eat meat on Friday during Lent (or during any other Friday of the year, for that matter). Fish is the traditional Friday meal of Lent. In Lent, fasting can also be observed as an exercise in self-denial. Sometimes, a daily meal is given up, particularly on Fridays. Many people will choose a "Lenten discipline", giving up something they enjoy for the duration of Lent. A favorite food or a bad habit will often be relinquished. One may give up chocolate, a hobby, a sport, or even the wearing of a favorite color. If a bad habit is given up, the person agrees not to engage in the behavior (such as smoking or cursing) during this time. Some individuals will "tax" themselves for each infraction, setting aside a small amount of money when they slip up. At the end of Lent, the money is donated to the church, or to a favorite charity. A modern take on Lent involves the giving up of negative or self-destructive psychological traits, such as anger, bigotry, or arrogance, rather than giving up a superficial pleasure, such as Twinkies.
Near the end of Lent comes a very special time known as Holy Week. Holy Week provides the bridge between Lent and Easter. The primary days of observation in Holy Week are Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday (also known as the Easter Vigil). The time ranging from the evening of Maundy Thursday until the evening of Easter Sunday is sometimes referred to as the Easter Triduum. Some people believe that the Easter Triduum ends on the eve of the Easter Vigil, while others count the Triduum from sunset to sunset, in which case, it would not end until sundown of Easter Sunday.
Palm Sunday is also called Passion Sunday. It is the Sunday before Easter. Scriptures are read concerning Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Many parishioners will stand as a group outside the church building and listen to the Scripture reading; then they will join a processional going into the building while holding palm fronds and singing hymns. The phrase, "Hosanna in the highest" is often used during these services. There are several ways of meditating upon the meaning of Palm Sunday. One can see it as a triumphant day of jubilation, or as a somber foreshadowing of the Crucifixion. Whether the holiday is viewed as joyous or solemn is sometimes dependent upon regional tradition.
Maundy Thursday is a solemn observance of the institution of the Holy Eucharist (Communion). It is a remembrance of the Last Supper that can be celebrated in various ways. "Maundy" comes from the Latin term, "mandatum", sometimes translated as "commandment". It is understood that Christ gave us a new commandment of love and service to mankind. It can also be interpreted as a commandment to memorialize the Last Supper via the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. Most churches will celebrate Communion at this time. In some areas, ritual foot washing is also observed, hearkening back to Christ's washing of the disciples' feet. Some will observe a Christianized Seder (Passover feast). Often, the altar coverings are removed following Communion, a ritual known as "the stripping of the altar". There is a bare, stark feeling to this service, calling to mind the moment in which Christ left His disciples after their final meal together and went to face his destiny. It is a time of profound reflection on what the disciples must have felt upon seeing their Master leave them. Their only comfort was a deep and abiding faith. Unlike us, they could not see the ending of the Calvary story. All they had to rely on was their absolute faith that Christ would rise again.
On Good Friday, the stripped altar is re-dressed, usually in black. This is the day of the Passion, the death of Christ on the cross. It is an extremely solemn day. Many churches will not observe Communion on Good Friday. In some churches, statuary and decorations are shrouded in black, and crosses and crucifixes will also be draped with black fabric. Some people will not engage in any activity on this day, aside from religious meditation or prayer. This is especially true at 3:00 on the afternoon of Good Friday (traditionally considered the time of the Crucifixion). Many people will not work or attend school on Good Friday. It is another appropriate time for the Stations of the Cross meditation. In some areas, Tenebrae services are observed. Sometimes, the Tenebrae ritual is observed only on Good Friday, but in other areas, it occurs on the final three days of Holy Week. It is a ritual of darkness, in which all lights are slowly dimmed, ending with only the single light of the Christ Candle flickering in the absolute darkness (and in some cases, even this is extinguished). This represents the idea that Christ is the only light in a sinful world, and that without Him, the world is a very dark place, indeed. Sometimes, a loud noise will be heard near the conclusion of the service, alternately symbolizing Christ's tomb being closed, or the earthquake that took place at the Crucifixion. It is generally customary to leave the church in silence on Good Friday, observing absolute reverence.
Following Good Friday is Holy Saturday (often called the Easter Vigil, or the Great Vigil). This is generally considered to be the final day of Lent (although some people feel that Lent actually ends on Maundy Thursday). In some areas, it is a solemn observance, and in other areas, it has a more festive feel. Some see it as a day of meditation, fasting, or observing memorials for the dead. Generally, there is an evening service. In some areas, it is still considered a time of sadness, as followers of Christ contemplate His body lying in the tomb. However, in other areas, the word "Alleluia" is returned to the liturgy in anticipation of Christ's resurrection, and bells are rung again. In some Easter Vigil services, parishioners will bring their own small bells and ring them whenever the word "Alleluia" is said.
As for Easter itself, it is considered by many to be the greatest feast day in Christianity, perhaps even more important than Christmas. This is the day that Christ arose from the dead. Easter is one of the Church's moveable feasts. It is celebrated not according to a rigid date, but rather, according to the lunar cycle. In some traditions, Easter is not merely a single day, but a church season in itself. In this case, it is known as Eastertide, and begins at sundown of the Easter Vigil and runs for seven Sundays until Pentecost. Easter Sunday is often celebrated with special music and festive services. Fragrant Easter lilies appear on the ornate, white-draped altar. Crosses are sometimes decorated with flowers. People wear their finest clothes, often purchasing new clothing especially for the Easter service. Following the service, many children celebrate with Easter baskets filled with candy, or Easter egg hunts on the church lawn. The seventh Sunday of Eastertide is called Ascension Day (but note that in some areas, it is actually celebrated on Thursday). After Eastertide comes Pentecost Sunday and the lengthy Pentecost season.
Pentecost is, by far, the longest season of the church year. It is often referred to in the church calendar as Ordinary Time. It begins with Pentecost Sunday, sometimes called Whitsunday (an old reference to the white worn by the newly baptized). It is a celebration of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the early Christian church. Churches are decorated in vivid red, and in some areas, parishioners attend church wearing red clothing. Some feel that the red is symbolic of the tongues of fire that descended upon the Apostles, and others maintain that red is simply the traditional color of the Christian church. The celebration of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Sunday is an important day in the church year, honoring the third person of the Godhead. Some services feature the Gospel being read in multiple languages, reminding people of the gift of tongues given by the Holy Spirit. Other services feature parishioners carrying flowers. Aside from the red worn on Pentecost Sunday, green is generally the color associated with the Pentecost season. On the second Sunday of Pentecost, Trinity Sunday is observed, in celebration of the doctrine of the Trinity. There are other celebrations within the Pentecost season, such as various saints' feast days and other observances, but it is fairly relaxed compared to Advent or Holy Week. The final Sunday of Pentecost is known as Christ The King Sunday. The next church season is Advent, which brings us full circle to the beginning of a new liturgical year.
Faithfully observing the holidays of the ecclesiastical calendar can be a very powerful reminder of God's grace. As we celebrate each season, a strong sense of tradition arises. One looks forward to worshiping God not just on Christmas, but throughout the year as the familiar and beloved rituals are replayed. The celebration of church seasons and holy days transforms mundane time into sacred time. And the creation of sacred time is one of the most meaningful of God's gifts.
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Thanks so much for this guide to the Ecclesiastical Year. It might be brief, but it seemed very comprehensive to me and allowed me an insight into areas I was not aware of before. Your explanations were clear and very interessting. Thank you once again.