This article explains how and why the practice of worshipping through the cycles of the Christian year developed.

1.1 What were some problems that the early Christians faced in dealing with the Hebrew year?

The computation of time among the Jews was base primarily upon the lunar month. The year consisted normally of twelve such months, alternately of 29 and 30 days each; such a year, however, contains only 354 days, which by no means agrees with the number of days in the mean solar year. Moreover, the exact length of the mean lunar month is not exactly 29 1/2 days as the above arrangement would suggest. To compensate for the irregularity two corrections were introduced. First, a day was added to one month, or subtracted from another month. In order to keep the months in agreement with the moon, eight years out of every nineteen, an extra month seems to have been introduced when necessary.

On the 14th day of the month of Nisan, (Leviticus 23:5, 10) the firstfruits of grain in the ear had to be brought to the priests and the Passover lamb sacrificed. This made it necessary to delay the Passover until the corn was in ear and the lambs were ready. It was the difficulty created by such a system and by the impossibility of accommodating it to the Julian calendar, which led to those troubles about the determination of Easter (the Paschal controversy) that played so important a part in the history of the early Church.

1.2 How did the Romans organize their year?

In the Roman chronological system of the Augustan age the week as a division of time was practically unknown, though the twelve calendar months existed as we have them now. In the course of the first and second century after Christ, the seven-day period became universally familiar, though not immediately through Jewish or Christian influence. The arrangement seems to have been astrological in origin and to have come to Rome from Egypt.

1.3 When did the concept of the Christian Year take shape?

Some time after the Council of Nicaea, the concept of a Christian Year took shape. The Christian Year began on the first Sunday of Advent and ended on the Saturday before Advent began. Festivals or feast days (in Roman Catholic terminology) were designated holy days with the purpose of focusing people on Christ. Today, these festivals commemorate historical events in the life of Christ or in the experience of the early church. There were fewer “Holy Days” in the early years of the church, than there are today.

1.4 What was an early point of focus for the Christian Year?

The Christian Year moved around the person and work of Jesus Christ. Easter and Pentecost were two of the most important days in the Christian year, but there was a great controversy as to when and how those days were to be celebrated. This practice varied from church to church until the fourth century. The starting-point of the Christian system of feasts was of course the commemoration of the Resurrection of Christ on Easter day. For a long time Jews must have formed the vast majority of the members of the infant Church. It was impossible for them to forget that each returning Passover. They looked at this as the anniversary of their Redeemer's Passion and of His glorious Resurrection from the dead. Moreover, as they had all their lives been accustomed to observe a weekly day of rest and prayer, it must have been almost inevitable that they should wish so to modify this holiday that it might serve as a weekly commemoration of the resurrection of Christ.

1.5 What is the first of the two cycles that form the basis of the Christian Year?

How much the first Christians kept with especial honor the anniversary of the Resurrection itself is more a matter of inference than of positive knowledge. No writer before Justin Martyr seems to mention such a celebration, but in the latter half of the second century the controversy about the time of keeping Easter almost split the Church in two. This may be taken as an indication of the importance attached to the feast. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter became a Christian version of the Jewish Passover (officially termed the Feast of Unleavened Bread). Moreover the paschal fast of preparation was probably not forty days, but the church started to recognize a forty-day time of preparation for Easter. This came to be called Lent.

Closely dependent upon Easter and gradually developing in number as time went on were other observances also belonging to the cycle of what we now call the movable feasts. Whitsunday, the anniversary of the descent of the Holy Ghost upon the Apostles, was probably regarded as next in importance to Easter itself. As Easter was determined by the Jewish Passover, there can be little doubt, seeing that Whitsunday stood in the same close relation to the Jewish feast of Pentecost (Feast of Weeks).

1.6 What is the second of the two cycles that form the basis of the Christian Year?

A second element that fundamentally influences the Christian calendar may be described as the Nativity Cycle. Advent celebrated the coming of Christ in the Nativity and also pointed to the second coming of Christ. However, this was not adopted into the church calendar until after the third century, and only in the West. The Eastern Churches always had some differences in the dates associated with the birth of Christ. The early church did not celebrate the Christmas season, in the same way as we do today. Most of the Christmas traditions, were modified from pagan practices associated with the birth of Mithras or the Winter Solstace. Instead, Advent was the Church’s Christ centered remembrance of Christ’s presence in the earth, as well as upon his first and second comings.

We may take it as certain that the feast of Christ's Nativity was kept in Rome on 25 December before the year 354. St. John Chrysostom introduced it into Constantinople on 6 January (Epiphany), which also in the beginning seems to have commemorated the birth of Jesus Christ. But the feast of the Nativity is of importance in the calendar not only for itself, as one of the greatest celebrations of the year, but also for the other days that depend upon it. We have first the Circumcision on 1 January, the eighth day. Again, forty days after Christmas, following, as in the case of the Circumcision, the data of the Jewish law, we have the Presentation in the Temple.

1.6 What role did the honoring of martyrs play in the development of our Christian Year?

Another element in the formation of the calendar is the record of the birthdays of the saints. It must be remembered that this word birthday has come to mean commemoration. The Church has officially recognized both calendars and the commemoration of martyrs. A calendar in its ecclesiastical sense is simply a list of the feasts kept in any particular church, diocese, or country, arranged in order under their proper dates. A martyrologium was originally, as its name implies, a record of martyrs, but it soon assumed a more general character, extending to all classes of saints and embracing all parts of the world. Both of these have been combined in modern church calendars. Most of these elements of Christian Year were combined together during the 4th and 5th centuries into basically the form that we recognize today.

1.8 What is the modern Christian Year like?

Today, the Christian Year begins on the first Sunday of Advent and ends on the Saturday before Advent begins. Festivals or feast days (in Catholic terminology) are designated holy days with the purpose of focusing people on Christ. These festivals commemorate historical events of the life of Christ or in the experience of the early church. There are a few festivals dedicated to Christian doctrines such as Holy Trinity, Christ the King. The Christian Year moves around the person and work of Jesus Christ. Advent celebrates the coming of Christ in the Nativity and also points to His 2nd Coming. The Christmas season rejoices over the birth of Christ. Epiphany remembers the showing forth of God's glory in Christ. Lent leads people to consider their need of salvation and the sacrifice of Christ for human sin. Easter celebrates Jesus' victory over death. Pentecost and its lengthy season recalls the coming of the Holy Spirit and goes on to impart the activities of the early church and the teachings and actions of Jesus in the Gospels.

 

THE SEASONS, MAJOR FEASTS, AND COLORS

ASSOCIATED WITH THE CHRISTIAN YEAR

 

1. Advent Season– A season of preparation

Color: Sarum Blue (or Purple) – Represents the royalty of Christ as King.

Significance: Begins the Christian Year

Theme: The coming of Christ

Duration: It starts four Sundays prior to Christmas Day, on the Sunday nearest to November 30 and ends on Christmas Eve.

Major Feasts: None

 

2. Christmas Season – A celebration of the Birth of Christ

Color: White (or Gold) – Represents the purity, holiness, and perfection of Christ.

Significance: Honors the birth of Jesus Christ

Theme: The lowly birth of Christ in Bethlehem

Duration: It starts at the first Eucharist on Christmas Eve and ends on Epiphany, January 6. It lasts 12 days (the 12 days of Christmas).

Major Feasts: The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ (Dec. 25)

The Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ – (Circumcision of Christ Jan. 1)

* An important Minor Feast is the Day of the Holy Innocents (Dec. 28)

 

3. Epiphany Season – A commemoration of showing forth Christ to the Gentile World

Color: Green – Represents the Christian life and the renewal that comes from Christ. (The Major Feast Days are White during this season).

Significance: The revelation of Christ to the world is remembered.

Theme: God became flesh and dwelt among us

Duration: It lasts from January 6th to Shrove Tuesday

Major Feasts: Feast of Epiphany (White; Jan. 6)

Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ (White; 1st Sunday after Epiphany)

 

4. Lenten Season—A penitential Season to repent; being in right relationship with God and man and a confession of sin to maintain a right relationship with God.

Color: Purple – Represents a time of penance, death, and Christ’s forgiveness

On Holy Week the color is Ox Blood Red denoting the shedding of Christ’s blood.

Significance: This is a season of introspection so that God can remove sin from our lives and so that we can deal with hurts and sins that keep us from being who God created us to be.

Theme: Repentance, forgiveness, and restoration

Duration: It lasts from Ash Wednesday through Holy Week. This is a period of 40 days (excluding Sundays).

Major Feasts: Ash Wednesday

The following Holy Week Services (Ox Blood Red)

Palm Sunday

Maundy Thursday

Good Friday

Holy Saturday

 

5. Easter Season– A celebration of Christ’s resurrection

Color: White (or Gold) – Represents the purity, holiness, and perfection of Christ.

Significance: Remembering the importance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ

Theme: Joy and renewal through the resurrection power of Christ

Duration: It starts at Easter Vigil (Easter Eve) and last 50 days until Pentecost.

Major Feasts: Resurrection Sunday (Easter)

The Feast of Ascension

The Feast of Pentecost (Red)

 

6. Season After Pentecost – A celebration of the power of the Holy Spirit in the Church

Color: Red – A reminder that there is “life” in the blood of Christ and a representation of the power of the Holy Spirit made available because of the sacrifice of the Blood of Christ.

Significance: We are to be “filled” with the power of the Holy Spirit

Theme: The gifts and fruit of the Spirit and our Charismatic nature of worship

Duration: It starts on the first Sunday after Pentecost and lasts until the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ in August.

Major Feasts: Trinity Sunday (White)

 

7. Kingdomtide Season – Ordinary Time – Living the Christian Life

Color: Green – Represents the Christian life and the renewal that comes from Christ. (Remember that Major Feast Days are White and other Feast Days are Red during this season).

Significance: The Kingdom of God is a reality in our lives.

Theme: We live daily as a part of the Kingdom of God.

Duration: It lasts from the first Sunday after the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ until the beginning of Advent

Major Feasts: All Saints Day (White; Nov. 1)

Christ The King (White; Last Sunday before Advent)