In the Fullness of Time

A Primer on the Church Year

This is the first of a two-part series on the church year. Part 1 presents a general context for the use of the church year and a brief introduction to the Christmas Cycle (Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany). Part 2 will discuss the Easter cycle (Lent, Easter, Pentecost)—the most ancient of the church seasons, as well as the twentieth-century developments that have pointed us back toward this useful tool for telling the good news.

Created in Time

Clocks, watches, timers. Early, late, present, rushed, bored, alert. Distracted, preoccupied, attentive, patient. Time is the silent component of much of our human experience. It shapes our days and our sense of our days without our conscious notice. Yet we’ve all had moments when time seems to stand still. Tragedy strikes and suddenly an eternal void seems to open before us. Or we are caught by such a profound delight that a single moment seems to contain the entire universe. We are created in time but our desires point us beyond, toward eternity.

The need to mark certain moments in time is deeply human. Though we may pride ourselves on our modern technological prowess, we still share this need with the most ancient of cultures. Some of our oldest archaeological sites seem to be calendars used to help mark seasons for planting and migration. All cultures, ancient or modern, ritualize important moments in the arc of an individual life: birth, adulthood, marriage, vocation, death.

Scripture teaches us that not only are we creatures of time, but our Creator, who transcends time, reached into our experience and entered time, revealing Christ as the fulfillment of all our deepest hopes and longings and as the atoning healer of all our brokenness—past, present, and future. Our creaturely nature is the basis for our human need to mark time, and in doing so we create opportunities to see God at work in our world and in our lives. From this fundamental truth grows the human invention of the church year.

Right Worship

Historically, Protestant Christians looked to Scripture for directives about biblical worship. Rejecting church tradition as an inadequate source for worship and theology, the Reformers sought to expunge from liturgy and from feature the sanctuary all objects or practices that were not seen as rooted in the Word. The church calendar, crowded as it was around 1517 with hundreds of saints’ days and special observances, was one of the first to go. While Lutherans and Anglicans retained a basic outline of the church year, churches in the Reformed tradition generally rejected everything but weekly Sabbath celebrations, Easter, and Pentecost. Some churches in the Anabaptist tradition rejected everything but Sunday worship.

By rejecting the church year, though, they lost a powerful framework for telling the gospel story. Soon new frameworks were introduced to guide the systematic preaching of the good news. In the Reformed churches, the Heidelberg Catechism (handily divided into 52 Lord’s Days), provided an alternative to the feasts and fasts of the church year. But very few churches today rely entirely on the catechism to shape the telling of the gospel story throughout the year.

Perhaps that explains why many churches—even those that don’t use the church year—already celebrate seasonal festivals: Thanksgiving Day, Mother’s Day, July 4th, Earth Day, Labor Day and the like. Tellingly, we often fail to note the ways in which these cultural festivals have found their way into “unofficial” church calendars, even as some of us might resist the official church year as being “too high church.”

Today, pared down to the essential observances of Christ’s life, one might make the case that the church year is a healthy counterbalance to the round of consumerist cultural holidays that have crept into our worship. Like the Heidelberg Catechism, it knits together Scripture around an organizational framework. While the heart of the Heidelberg is structured by the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer, the church year is structured by the life of Christ and shaped by a cycle of Scripture readings (the common lectionary) that walks a congregation through the entire salvation narrative once a year and through most of the Bible once every three years.

The church year points us in a profoundly biblical way to a God who works in and through time for our salvation and for the consummation of history.

The Christmas Cycle

The four weeks of Advent constitute the first season of the church year. Because the spine of the church year is the life of Christ, it is appropriate that the calendar opens with this time of preparation and waiting for the arrival of the incarnate God. The Christmas cycle as a whole, however (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany), is a relative latecomer in the development of the church year. While Sunday celebrations go back to the apostolic era, and Easter itself to the Jewish feast of Passover, the Christmas cycle came into being gradually. Advent, as a season for preparation and fasting, was probably practiced in the Eastern church fromthe mid-fifth century, and was formally inscribed into theWestern calendar by Pope Gregory the Great by the end of the sixth century.

From Advent’s earliest observances, the comforting theme of Christ’s coming as a baby was interwoven with the warnings to heed Christ’s second Advent as Judge of the world. The gospel passages used for the first Sunday in Advent (Luke 21; Mark 13; Matthew 24) all draw our attention to the second coming. The second and third weeks of the season focus on John the Baptist’s call for repentance in preparation for the Messiah’s arrival. The readings for the fourth week focus on the Annunciation and on Mary’s radical hymn of praise, the Magnificat. Advent, then, is characterized by both promise and warning.

In the Western church, Christmas, or “Christ’s Mass” became the central festival for the incarnation. This was celebrated in Rome by the early fourth century. In the Eastern church, Epiphany emerged as the central festival of the incarnation, a celebration of the ways in which Christ is “God in flesh made manifest.” As the church liturgy and hierarchy were systematized between East and West, the two festivals—“Christ’s Mass” and Epiphany—were joined, resulting in a Christmas season that encompasses the twelve days between December 25 to January 6 (hence the “Twelve Days of Christmas”). This became the season for celebrating the central mystery of the incarnation.

Epiphany readings highlight Christ’s manifestation to us: the revelation of Christ to the magi, Simeon and Anna acknowledging Christ as the long-awaited Messiah, Christ’s temptation in the wilderness, his baptism in the Jordan, the opening of his public ministry at Cana, and the calling of the disciples. Christ’s transfiguration is generally celebrated on the last Sunday of the season: the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. The season as a whole calls us to see Christ as our model for mission and witness.

Taken together, Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany are a deep testament to our profound longing to see “Christ with us.” Taking these seasons seriously can give us fresh eyes to see the Word revealed in Scriptureand see Christ manifest in the work of the church.


Tradition and Invention

A healthy, balanced view of tradition is essential for every church—and that holds for our use of the church year as well. Whether the church year is new to your congregation or you’ve been using it for decades, remember to hold it lightly. The church year serves the gospel, not the other way around!

Liturgical Colors for the Church Year

The use of colors in the seasons of the church year is at once powerfully symbolic and locally varied. White was used to celebrate the Eucharist as early as the fourth century, but it wasn’t until the late twelfth century that we find the first attempt to systematize liturgical colors. After that, other systems grew up at different times and places.

The palette of colors used in Christian churches today reflects the growing ecumenical sensibilities after Vatican II and after the liturgical reform movements within Protestant communions.

Though there is never a “wrong” color for any church season, for the sake of continuity among Christian churches and continuity within a specific congregation, you may want to follow the pattern illustrated in the table below.

Generally speaking, there are five colors at the heart of the cycle: purple, red, green, black, and white.

Christmas Cycle Easter Cycle
Advent: Purple (blue) Lent: Purple (gray)
Palm Sunday:
Red (purple)
Good Friday, Holy
Saturday: Black
Christmas: White
Epiphany Sunday: White
Easter, Easter
Season: White
Pentecost: Red
EpiphanySeason: Green Ordinary Time: Green

Seasons of Penitence and Preparation

Churches use both blue and purple to mark Advent. Purple is the older color—emphasizing the humility and passion of Christ throughout his entire time on earth. More recently many churches have begun to use blue, representing Christ’s royalty. Purple has traditionally been used for Lent as well, though some churchesuse gray to symbolize the ashes of repentance.

Festivals of Consummation

White, or white and gold, have long been used for Christmas Day, the Christmas season, and for the celebration of Epiphany on January 6. In a few traditions, red is used for Palm Sunday, which initiates Christ’s passion. Protestants tend to continue to use the purple of Lent. Black, if used, is used on Good Friday and Holy Saturday. The color returns to white for Easter Sunday and the Easter season.

Seasons of Fulfillment

Green—symbolizing growth in faith and witness—is used for the remainder of the Epiphany season and for the weeks of “Ordinary Time” following Pentecost; though some churches extend the red, often used for Pentecost, into the following weeks.

Reformed Worship 85 © September 2007, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.