By: David Gambrell
The Christian year is an ancient pattern of seasons and festivals by which congregations and individuals immerse themselves in the story of God’s saving love through Jesus Christ. This way of keeping time is sometimes called the liturgical year or church calendar. I prefer the name “Christian year” because it helps us remember the central focus—patterning our lives according to the great mystery of our faith: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” Following the Christian year isn’t about fulfilling liturgical righteousness or organizing church programs; it’s about ordering our time in such a way that we grow more and more each day as Jesus’ disciples.
The Christian year revolves around two cycles—the Christmas cycle and the Easter cycle. These two cycles correspond to two principal tenets of Christian faith: the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ, respectively. Each cycle, in turn, consists of a season of preparation and a season of celebration, as Advent leads to Christmas and Lent leads to Easter. Thus the Christian year includes four seasons—not winter, spring, summer, and fall, but Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter. Within and around these four seasons are a number of festivals—special days for commemorating events or themes in the story of salvation, and primarily, the life of Jesus Christ. Following the seasons of Christmas and Easter are two periods of “Ordinary Time”—so named not because they are more mundane than other times of the year, but because they fall outside of the seasons, and their distinctive pattern consists of observing the Sundays “in order” after Epiphany and Pentecost.
The full pattern looks like this:
- The season of Advent: a period of four weeks, in which we (first) anticipate the glorious return of Jesus Christ at the consummation of history and (second) prepare to celebrate his “first coming” at his birth in Bethlehem.
- The season of Christmas: a period of twelve days between the Nativity of the Lord (Christmas Eve/Day) and the Epiphany of the Lord (January 6; sometimes observed on the preceding Sunday), in which we rejoice in the gift of God’s Word made flesh to live among us.
- The time after Epiphany / Ordinary Time: a period of variable length (depending on the date of Easter) between the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of Lent; this time is bracketed by the Baptism of the Lord and the Transfiguration of the Lord.
- The season of Lent: a period of six weeks or forty days (plus Sundays), in which we practice repentance, renew spiritual disciplines, and seek reconciliation with God and one another as we prepare to celebrate Easter; this time begins with Ash Wednesday and concludes with Holy Week, including Palm/Passion Sunday.
- The great Three Days: a kind of bridge or threshold between the seasons of Lent and Easter, in which we remember Jesus’ commandment to love and serve one another (Maundy Thursday), his suffering and death on the cross (Good Friday), and his resurrection from the dead (Easter Vigil)—the culmination of the story of salvation.
- The season of Easter: a period of seven weeks (a “week” of weeks) or fifty days from the Resurrection of the Lord to the Day of Pentecost (meaning “fiftieth day”), in which we give thanks and praise to God for the gift of redemption and new life in Jesus; this time includes the Ascension of the Lord (sixth Thursday of Easter; sometimes observed on the following Sunday), forty days after Jesus’ resurrection.
- The time after Pentecost / Ordinary Time: a period of variable length (again, depending on the date of Easter) between the end of the Easter season and the beginning of a new Christian year in Advent; this time is bracketed by Trinity Sunday and Christ the King (or Reign of Christ), and includes All Saints’ Day (November 1; sometimes observed on the following Sunday).
Keeping the Christian year involves remembering and retelling the stories of our faith—but this kind of remembering is much more than the mere recollection of former things. This is faith in the past, present, and future tenses. We are proclaiming the mighty acts of the One who was and is and is to come. We are praying for God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven. We are putting our trust in Christ the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.
Beyond the Christian year, there are other patterns of time-keeping that help us mark and order the Christian life. The weekly rhythm of Lord’s Day worship celebrates Christ’s resurrection from the dead on the first day of the week. The discipline of daily prayer (especially at evening and morning) is, at its heart, about the baptismal theme of dying and rising with Christ, as each evening we rest in Christ’s peace and each morning we rise to walk in newness of life. The human life cycle (from childhood to old age) represents another way of living out our baptism, as the journey that begins at the font is completed at the Christian funeral. All of these are ways of keeping time with Christ, the Alpha and the Omega.
David Gambrell is associate for worship in the PC(USA) Office of Theology and Worship. He was an advisory member of the Glory to God hymnal committee, edits the journal Call to Worship, and is co-editing (with Kimberly Bracken Long) a revision to the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship (forthcoming in 2018). David also serves on the Consultation on Common Texts, the ecumenical body responsible for the Revised Common Lectionary.