And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done. …. Genesis 2:3. From earliest times, people have recognized that not merely places, things, or persons were sacred. Time itself can be holy. The annual cycle of seasons, the waxing and waning of the moon, the movement of sun and stars all inspired awe. As a natural response, people developed an annual cycle of feasts and fasts, ferias and festivals, holy seasons, and ordinary time.
Every major religious tradition has a calendar, a series of commemorations to mark anniversaries of events, to call to remembrance the acts of God and of people in the past. The Christian Church is no different. We have a calendar to help us call to mind the important events of our salvation history: to recreate the events in the life of Jesus; to commemorate the saints whose writings, actions, and lives inspire us; to call us to renewal of life, and to celebrate the mighty saving acts of God.
This is a brief guide to the Calendar as used by the Episcopal Church. It is not our own invention, but the accumulated tradition of centuries. Those from other traditions, especially Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and even Eastern Orthodox, will see similarities to their own faith tradition. Our Calendar is also a work in progress. Every generation reflects on sacred time, and adds or rearranges feasts, fasts, and commemorations as they deem appropriate. For example, the General Convention, in the summer of 2003, added commemorations for Janani Luwum, the Archbishop of Uganda who was martyred under Idi Amin, and Florence Nightingale.
o Holy Week.
o All Saints Day .
o Other Days of Commemoration.
The liturgical year begins in late November/early December, with the season of Advent. The name comes from the Latin, “adventus,” “coming,” for these are the four weeks before Christmas when we prepare for the birth of Jesus. It is both a backward-looking time and a forward-looking time. We look back to the first Christmas in Bethlehem. We look forward to our own encounter with Christ, who promised he would come again. The traditional color is Purple, for repentance, as this is a time of reflection, marked by some, but not all, people with additional prayers, abstaining from luxury items or fasting. Some parishes follow the Sarum Rite (an old English customary) and use Blue instead of Purple.
Although we don’t really know the actual date, or even the time of year, we celebrate December 25 as the birth of Jesus the Christ in Bethlehem; it is thought this happened some time around 4-8 B.C. It is the most popular holiday of the year, in both secular and religious America. The traditional color is White or Gold, the sign of celebration. Christmas is so important, it does not all happen on one day: the feast lasts twelve days. During those twelve days, there are special commemorations for St. Stephen, the first Deacon and first Martyr; St. John the Apostle and Evangelist (patron of this parish); the Holy Innocents, recalling Herod’s serial attempt to eliminate the child claimed to be born the King of Jews; and for the Name of Jesus.
On January 6 we celebrate the arrival of the Magi, those mysterious astrologers from the East, to worship the Christ Child. This is considered one of the major feasts of the church, for it is a sign that the Gentiles, i.e. all people, are welcome and may enjoy God’s salvation. As an example of this inclusiveness, this is one of the traditional days for public baptism in the Church. This day is the twelfth day of Christmas. The Sundays after Epiphany form an “ordinary time,” when the Church goes back to Green, the everyday color. During Epiphanytide, the season of Epiphany, we, at St. John's, select a Sunday to celebrate our patronal festival of St. John the Evangelist, to avoid competing with the secular and sacred observances of the Christmas holidays.
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, in February or early March. The name “ash” refers to the tradition of marking the foreheads of worshipers with the sign of the cross with ashes. The ashes are the burnt palms from the prior year’s Palm Sunday. This is a sign of penitence, and indeed the entire season of Lent is marked by calls to prayer, to holy reading, to fasting and abstinence, to reconciling broken relationships, and contrition. Liturgically, we avoid using celebratory anthems and phrases, such as the Glory to God in the Highest at the Eucharist (or Holy Communion) and the word “alleluia.”
Lent lasts 40 days. Forty has long been a significant number: the children of Israel wandered in the desert for 40 years before arriving in the Promised Land. Jesus fasted in the wilderness for 40 days after his baptism before he began his active ministry. Therefore, we strive to live in the wilderness, to fast and pray with Jesus, for 40 days. (The reason Lent begins on Ash Wednesday? If you count backwards from Easter 40 days, skipping Sundays, you will end up on Ash Wednesday. However, all Sundays are Feasts of the Resurrection, even in Lent.) The traditional color is Purple, although some parishes have special “Lenten arrays,” that is vestments with emblems of the crucifixion embroidered on them, and may be constructed from unbleached linen or other fabric dyed the color of ashes.
The last week of Lent is Holy Week, when the observance of Lent takes on a great intensity. During this week, we particularly remember the events of Jesus’ last days leading up to his death. It begins with Palm Sunday, when we recreate the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem with waving palms and singing. The liturgy takes on a somber tone with the first reading of the Passion, that is, the portion of the Gospel that tells of the arrest, trial, and execution of Jesus.
There are special gospel readings for the following weekdays, until we reach Maundy Thursday. On this day we recreate the Last Supper, when Jesus ate a sacramental meal with his disciples and taught them what has become for us the Eucharist. “Maundy” comes from the Latin “mandatum,” “commandment,” for at this meal Jesus told his disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”
The next day is Good Friday, when we remember the crucifixion of Jesus. This is a day of great solemnity; special commemorative liturgies take place, as we walk with Jesus on the way to the cross and reflect on his suffering and death. By tradition no celebration of the Eucharist may occur. However, Communion from the Reserved Sacrament, extra bread and wine that was consecrated at the Maundy Thursday liturgy, is customary. In some churches, there is a commemoration of the burial of Jesus on Holy Saturday. No celebration of the Eucharist is permitted before the sun goes down.
Easter Sunday, sometimes called the Queen of Feasts, is the holiest day of the Christian year, when the resurrection of Jesus is celebrated. We begin with the Great Vigil on the night before. The Vigil is a service of lights, of readings, of baptism, and Eucharist, all with great joy. The penitential colors are put away, and festal White or Gold reappear. So important is Easter that it does not last only on Easter Sunday: the feast lasts 50 days, until Pentecost. (Easter is not a set date because we follow a tradition to keep it on a Sunday near the Jewish feast of Passover. Because the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, the holidays shift in relation to our solar-based calendar). Forty days after Easter, which is always a Thursday, we celebrate Ascension Day, when Jesus concluded his Easter appearances to his disciples and rose into heaven. As St. Augustine of Hippo wrote (ca. 420), that does not mean that heaven is up in the sky: only that Jesus needed to indicate that he was returning to the Father and leaving mortal realms, and “up” was the most suitable direction to go. But before he left, Jesus told his disciples to stay in Jerusalem to wait for the Holy Spirit.
Pentecost (from the Greek for “50”) is the Jewish festival of Shavuoth, 50 days after Passover, when Moses received the Law on Sinai. On this festival the 11 disciples (Judas had died and not yet been replaced) were gathered together in one place, and the Holy Spirit came upon them as fire with a noise of wind, as God delivered the Tablets to Moses in fire and storm. This day is regarded as the “birthday of the Church,” for after this the disciples went out that very day, and began to make disciples, eventually sending evangelists to every corner of the world. It is the conclusion of the Easter Season. We wear Red on this day, to commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit as flames of fire. This is another traditional day for baptisms.
Occurring in late May or June, on this day we celebrate God’s self-revelation as One in Three and Three in One. This also begins the another season of “ordinary time,” or “the Sundays after Trinity,” or “the propers,” for this is the plain, work-a-day time. We return to every day Green, and settle down for living lives in and with the Trinity. The ordinary time lasts through the fall into December, when we begin again with Advent.
All Saints Day:
On November 1, we keep the feast of All Saints. Many Christians deserve to be remembered as saints, and to have a festival day. But they may be unknown to us. They may have lived lives of quiet retirement, unnoticed by the larger community. They might not have looked particularly holy at the time, or pursued a prophetic ministry unwelcome to their society, or lacked a “press campaign” to get into the calendar. To honor those whose names are lost to us, we keep a day to celebrate all the Saints, and particularly the ordinary, obscure, everyday people. This is also the fourth traditional day of public baptisms in the church.
Other Days of Commemoration:
Throughout the year there are other days of commemoration: we remember the first Book of Common Prayer, the first American Bishop, and many saints, some ancient and obscure, some modern and even photographed. Space does not permit detail on even a fraction of these other days of commemoration.