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The Church Year

by Pastor Mentz 

Introduction:

The Jews were required by God to follow a religious calendar marking and recalling numerous events of God’s saving activities. Our Lord Jesus observed the festivals associated with the Jewish calendar. After the death and resurrection of Jesus, Christians made use of the Jewish religious calendar and began to incorporate other special observances that centered on the life and work of Jesus Christ.

The Lutheran Church Year is based on the two major events in the life of Christ: His birth and His resurrection. The Church Year begins on the first Sunday in Advent and concludes on Christ the King Sunday.

The Christmas Cycle:

  • Advent Season

    The Church year begins with the season of Advent. Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day, which is the Sunday nearest November 30, and ends on Christmas Eve (December 24). If Christmas Eve is a Sunday, it is counted as the fourth Sunday of Advent, with Christmas Eve proper beginning at sundown. The word Advent means, “coming.” During Advent we emphasize the constant coming of the Lord Jesus to us in His Word and Sacraments, His final return at the end of time, and His first coming at Christmas.

    The liturgical color for Advent is blue. One can see this and the other colors on the paraments of altar and pulpit coverings. Blue is a symbol of royalty and reminds us that the King of Kings is about to be born. Blue is also used to remind us that our future is with our Lord in heaven.

  • Christmas Season

    The celebration of the birth of Jesus our Savior. Christmas begins on Christmas Eve, and lasts for 12 days, concluding on January 6. Christmas was not universally celebrated in the church for the first three centuries. Easter was felt to be more important than Christmas. There are records of Christmas being celebrated on December 25 as early as 336 A. D. January 7 was and still is the accepted date for Christmas among most Eastern Orthodox Churches. We do not know the day or year that Jesus was born. The date of December 25 was chosen as the birthday of Christ to replace the pagan festival, Saturnalia. Saturnalia marked the return of the sun at the winter solstice on December 21. That is the shortest day of the year. The Christian Church felt that since this pagan holiday marked the beginning of the lengthening of the days; why not celebrate the birth of Christ who represents the Light of God in a world darkened by sin. The color for Christmas is white, the color of perfection and purity.

  • Epiphany Season

    Epiphany is January 6. On this day the church remembers the visit of the Wise Men, Magi (Gentiles) to the Christ child. The Epiphany season goes from one to nine Sundays depending on the date of Easter. The Epiphany message stresses that Jesus is for all people. The color for Epiphany is white.

    The Easter Cycle

    • Ash Wednesday

      The first day of Lent. Ash Wednesday receives its name from the custom of placing ashes in the form of a cross on the forehead of a person. Ashes remind us that because of our sins we will die and return to ashes. Ashes were also used as a cleansing agent and so the ashes remind us that Jesus paid for our sins by His death.

    • Lent

      Lent - Six weeks from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday. The Sundays during this time are not considered as part of Lent, therefore you have 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday. Forty days is the traditional time for Lent based on the 40 days of the flood, the 40 days Moses spent on Mt. Sinai receiving the 10 Commandments, the 40 days Jesus was tempted in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry. The color of Lent is purple, the color of repentance.

      The last week of Lent, Holy Week, is a special observance. During this week, the Church celebrates numerous events in the life of our Lord.

    • Palm Sunday

      The Sunday before Easter when Jesus rode into Jerusalem.

    • Maundy or Holy Thursday

      Celebrates the establishment of Holy Communion. “Maundy” comes from the Latin word Mandatum meaning “command.” “Maundy” refers to Jesus command that we should observe the special meal, Holy Communion, and the command to love one another as He has loved us (John 15:12,13).

    • Good Friday

      The day Jesus died for our sins. The color for this day is black.

    • Easter

      Easter is the most important celebration in the Christian Church. This is the day Christians celebrate Christ’s resurrection from the dead.

      Perhaps you have noticed that the date of Easter changes each year? Why is this? The early Christian Church celebrated each week as “Easter,” the day Jesus rose. Therefore, there wasn’t a strong desire or push to recall the exact date Jesus rose from the grave.

      By 150 A. D., there was a movement to set a date for Easter. The problem was which date would the Church use? All Christians were no longer using the Jewish calendar, which provided the date for observing Passover. This was due to the increase in the number of Gentile Christians into the Church. The Jewish calendar was a lunar-based calendar while the Romans were moving to a solar-based calendar. Also, the Jewish Passover was a moveable festival. It fell on the 14th day of the Jewish month, Nisan, whichever day of the week that occurred. There was also the problem of not knowing which year Jesus was born or the exact year He died.

      Various dates and methods for determining Easter were put forth, but none were universally accepted. Finally, at the Church Council of Nicea of 325 A. D., the Church accepted a formula that is still being followed. The main factor for setting the date of Easter is the arrival of the spring equinox on March 21. The arrival of Spring, marked by the Spring equinox, was symbolic of the death of winter and the birth of spring. Since Jesus’ resurrection marked the end of death, it was felt that His resurrection should be observed around the equinox. The Church agreed that the celebration of Easter should occur on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring equinox.

      Many today would like to set Easter on a specific Sunday; for instance, the first or second Sunday of April. Yet this would rob Easter of the rich symbolism of Jesus’ resurrection, which ties into the start of spring. Easter will continue to be a movable feast!

    • Ascension Day

      Forty days after the Resurrection, Jesus returned to His place in heaven.

    • Pentecost

      Pentecost means fifty. At his Ascension, Jesus promised to send a helper to the disciples. This helper is God the Holy Spirit who continues to work in His church (John 14:15-21). The color for Pentecost Sunday is red, the color of blood and fire.

      After Pentecost the church observes the season of Pentecost. This continues until the church celebrates Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the church year. The Sunday following Christ the King is the first Sunday in Advent and the beginning of another church year. The color for most of Pentecost is green which recalls the renewing work of the Holy Spirit.

      The Season after Pentecost

      • Other Festivals

        Besides the major seasons mentioned above, the Lutheran church observes a number of minor festivals

        The most important of the minor festivals for the Lutheran church is The Festival of the Reformation on October 31, or the Sunday nearest the 31st. On this day, Lutherans remember how Dr. Luther nailed the ninety-five theses to the door of the castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany. This date marks the beginning of the Lutheran Church. The color for Reformation is red, the color of the Holy Spirit and for the Church.