Monday, June 23, 2014

Numbering the Seasons of the Church Year

Q:  When I attend church, I often see Sundays numbered with labels, like Epiphany or Pentecost or Advent.  What do these mean, and are they used in all churches? 

From the earliest times, the Christian Church began to mark time in a yearly cycle that guided the Church’s preaching to its members.  This began with the yearly celebration of the Resurrection, which quickly-expanded to an eight week-long event to coincide with the time Jesus spent living on earth following the Resurrection and the arrival of Pentecost, which is the day that the Apostles first preached in Jerusalem after receiving the Holy Spirit. 

Lent was a development that shortly followed, as Christians observed 40 days of fasting to prepare for the Resurrection feast, which mirrored other famous 40s in the Bible, such as the 40 years in the wilderness, the 40 days and nights of rain in the flood, and the 40-day temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, many of which serve as the appointed readings on the Sundays during Lent. 

Since the ancient world observed death dates more frequently than birth dates, the day of Jesus’ birth was not known, but based on an ancient belief that great figures died on the day of their conception, the Church observed the Annunciation (Gabriel’s announcement of Jesus’ conception to Mary) on March 25, and soon after, began to celebrate Christmas – the festival of the Savior’s birth – 9 month later, on December 25. 

Advent, a time of preparation prior to Christmas, centering on themes like the Second Coming of Christ and the events surrounding Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, Elizabeth, and John the Baptizer; arose not long afterward.  Then Epiphany – beginning on January 6 became a season to emphasize the building revelation of Jesus identity and span the time between Christmas and the beginning of Lent. 

So, these seasons, beginning 4 weeks before Christmas and ending 8 weeks after Easter, compose half of the Church Year, and focus somewhat-chronologically on highlights of the life of Jesus.  The other half of the Church Year begins with Pentecost (50 days after Easter) and focusses on the life of the Church and the teachings of Jesus.  Depending on the date of Easter, this season can be as short as 23 Sundays or as many as 28 Sundays before Advent begins again on the Sunday nearest to St. Andrew’s Day, which is November 30. 

These seasons are also marked by changes of color in the church – white for Christmas, Easter, and all festivals of Christ, blue for Advent, purple for Lent, red for Pentecost and other festivals of the Church and commemorations of the Apostles, and green for the “Ordinary Time” Sundays which follow Epiphany and Pentecost.  Other colors, including gold, black, rose, and scarlet are used in some traditions for particular observances. 

Not all denominations and traditions observe these seasons.  Some may only celebrate the Resurrection and Christmas, while others might add a few other significant days, but not the complete calendar.  However, there has been a renaissance of sorts regarding the Church Year in the past decade, in which less liturgical traditions, such as Baptist and non-denominational congregations have begun to discover this treasure of the ancient Church. 

 In the congregations which do follow the full calendar, these seasons and their themes are also accompanied by specified readings called a Lectionary.  Some congregations observe an older one-year schedule of readings, but over the last 50 years or so, most have transitioned to a three-year lectionary which concentrates on one Gospel (Matthew, Mark, or Luke) each year, and includes sections of John spread throughout the three-year cycle. 

In addition to instructing about the life of Christ on a yearly cycle, this also has the benefit of ensuring that the congregation receives a balanced diet of the Scripture each year, since the preacher does not have the potential to focus in only on his favorite subjects.  Furthermore, it has the collateral benefit that, with the exception of a few exceptions particular to a given denomination, congregations across denominational lines are following approximately the same thematic structure on any given Sunday. 

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