The liturgical calendar is a yearly cycle that corresponds to the life of Jesus from His birth to His resurrection, and then to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. It involves major holy days (Christmas, Easter, Pentecost) and seasons (Advent, Lent, Holy Week), and includes a few other significant days (Epiphany, Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and Trinity Sunday) within these seasons.
I did not grow up in a church that followed a liturgical calendar. We celebrated Easter and Christmas, but terms like Advent and Lent were lost on me. Recently, however, I’ve come to appreciate not only what these days and terms mean, but the value of participating in them. The church has a long and rich history of using the calendar to guide their worship throughout the year.
The liturgical year begins with Advent, which starts four weeks prior to Christmas (the Christian new year actually begins at the end of November!). During these weeks, we focus our attention on Israel’s hope and longing for its Messiah to appear, seeing how the Old Testament prophesied and prepared God's people for their coming Savior. Advent is a season of expectation. As the saints of old awaited the coming of a Redeemer, we, like them, await Jesus’s return.
Following Advent is the season of Christmas. According to tradition, Christmas is a 12 day celebration that begins December 25th and ends January 5th (hence the song, “Twelve Days of Christmas”). Punctuating the Christmas season is Epiphany. On this day, the church traditionally remembers the coming of the Magi to worship the Christ-child. Epiphany means “appearance,” so during this time the church focuses attention on the doctrine of the incarnation: the reality that God came to Earth in the flesh through Jesus Christ.
After Epiphany, there is not another holy day until Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is a day on the church calendar that marks the beginning of the season of Lent (see part 1 of this blog series for more on Ash Wednesday). Lent, which begins 46 days (40 weekdays plus 6 Sundays) before Easter is a season of fasting and preparation. It is intended to mimic the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness being tested.
The last seven days of Lent are called Holy Week, which recall the last days of Jesus on Earth before His crucifixion. Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday and ends on Holy Saturday (the day before Easter). During these six days we remember Jesus’s death for us and its significance. To help us focus on the meaning of Christ’s death, the church often holds a Maundy Thursday or a Good Friday service.
Holy Week culminates with Resurrection Day (Easter). On this day we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and its meaning: through His resurrection, Jesus conquered Satan, death, and hell.
Fifty days after Easter is Pentecost, a day in which the church recounts the outpouring of the Holy Spirit recorded in Acts 2. The following Sunday, June 11th, is Trinity Sunday. On this day the church celebrates the mystery and wonder of our Triune God, and explores the importance of this doctrine.
Ultimately, the hope in following the liturgical calendar is that as a church we would grow in our understanding of significant doctrines as we follow the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Through celebrating these special days and seasons, my hope is that our love, thankfulness, and faithfulness to God would increase.
Pastor of Preaching & Vision