Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Christian Church Year

In the Lutheran Confessions it is stated,

"Of Usages in the Church they teach that those ought to be observed which may be observed without sin, and which are profitable unto tranquility and good order in the Church, as particular holy days, festivals, and the like. Nevertheless, concerning such things men are admonished that consciences are not to be burdened, as though such observance was necessary to salvation." (Augsburg Confession, Article XV: Of Ecclesiastical Usages)

"Holy days, festivals, and the like" can be seen as representing what we know today as the ancient and historic Christian Church Year. Throughout the Confessions our Lutheran forefathers repeatedly make two excellent and necessary points with regard to things like the Church Year: 1.) That the Lutheran Church has been and shall always be known for its faithful practice of following various human church customs like this; indeed that to continue to observe such is very beneficial for believers and 2.) That such observances are NOT necessary for salvation. Note well: To be continued, not to merit righteousness, but still to be continued. This is one of things that makes us confessional Lutherans.

Below is an outline and explanation of the Christian Church Year. This was shared with my congregation some years ago in a series of bulletin inserts. I've revised and edited it a bit and post it here for your information and edification. This may be "old news" to many of our readers, but I hope it will encourage us all to continue to make use of this salutary tool for our worship and spiritual education. Since Sunday, December 2nd is the First Sunday in Advent and thus begins a new Christian Church Year I thought it good to share this with you, our readers, today. Enjoy!


The Church Year developed slowly, and began and centered around what was regarded, and rightly so, as the highlight of the Christian faith – the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The Christian calendar can first be divided into two main sections. The first runs from Advent, the preparation for Christ's Nativity, through the Festival of Pentecost, that day being the completion of His promise to send the Paraclete to His Church. This part of the Church Year then deals with the Biblical facts surrounding the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior. Beginning with the Feast of the Holy Trinity and running through the rest of the Church Year, the focus falls on the teachings of Christ in the New Testament.

The The Church Year is then divided into six seasons, beginning with Advent. The first Sunday in Advent is always the Sunday closest to St. Andrew the Apostle's Day (November 30th). The early part of this season is devoted to Christ's Second Coming in the lessons and liturgy; while in the latter part, especially the 3rd and 4th Sundays, the Christmas theme is prominent.

In the early Church less stress was laid on the actual birth date of the Lord than on the fact that the Son of God became man (John 1:14). Accordingly there was a festival celebrating this fact as early as end of the First Century. Also by this time, the 6th of January was the accepted date for the Festival of Epiphany, or the Manifestation of the Lord, and commemorated not only the birth of Christ, but also His baptism and, in some places, His first miracle, thus expressing very well the general idea of the revelation and manifestation of the divinity of Christ in His humanity.

Just as Christ's Passion and Resurrection prompted a special season of preparation, so a similar period was set aside before Christmas. The length of the Advent season varied according to the ancient Christian communities where it was observed. For example, in Milan and parts of southern France there were five Sundays in Advent, while in Rome there were only four. Still other places counted as many as seven. Finally the custom of having four Sundays was generally accepted throughout the Western Church.

The nativity of Jesus is observed on the Christmas Festival, December 25 in the western church, and is the first primary festival, with two or three days devoted to its observance. It is followed by the feasts of Saint Stephen (December 26), Saint John the Evangelist and Apostle (December 27), and the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem (December 28). Thus, it is said, the feast of the birth of the King of martyrs is followed by the “heavenly birthdays” of the first martyr in will and in deed, the apostolic martyr in will but not in deed, and the infant martyrs in deed but not in will.

It will be noted that December 25th falls nine months after March 25th, which is the Feast of the Annunciation. In the early Christian calendar March 25th was New Year's Day, as it was considered to be the beginning of the era of grace with the incarnation of the Son of God. It is still considered such in various parts of the church. However, the earliest references to this Feast come from the 5th Century, hundreds of years after the Nativity began to be celebrated in December.There are many other reasons why December 25th is the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord, but that is not the purpose of this article. Perhaps we will have a future piece dedicated to that topic.

Note: “Feast” and “festival” are synonymous in this context; both reflect the Latin term dies festus; feasts and festivals indicates only that both words are used in reference to certain special days other than fast days.

The eighth day of Christmas is the Festival of the Circumcision and the Name of Jesus; it concurs with the New Year's Day of the civil year. In the Western Church, the festival of Epiphany (which means "manifest"), January 6, recalls the episode of the Wise Men; but in the Eastern Church, this is counted as the Festival of Christ's Birth. In addition, as mentioned above, from very ancient times January 6th was celebrated as the date upon which Christ was baptized, and the date of His first miracle at Cana. These two events, along with the visit of the Magi to the Christ-child, were certainly occasions when He manifested His divinity. The number of Sundays in the post-Epiphany season varies with the date of the Festival of the Resurrection. (more on that later)

A season of pre-Lent contains the Sundays named "Septuagesima," "Sexagesima," and "Quinquagesima," the three Sundays before Ash Wednesday, which take their names from Latin words indicating that they fall approximately seventy, sixty, and fifty days before the Resurrection. These Sundays often take on some of the characteristics of Lent.

Date of Jewish Passover determines the dates of Ash Wednesday and the Feast of Christ's Resurrection
At first the Good Friday-Pascha event was thought of as being commemorated every Sunday. Indeed, the first festival commemorated annually was the Pascha. An early controversy about this date was settled A.D. 325 by the Council Nicaea which decreed that the anniversary of Christ's Resurrection be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the spring equinox, or one week later if the full moon falls on Sunday.

Note: Personally - and this is just my own opinion, I prefer to try to avoid the use of the pagan term "easter" to designate this event. The modern English term, Easter, developed from the Old English word "eastre" or "eostre." The name refers to Eostur, a month in the pre-Christian calendar, and named for the fertility goddess Eostre in the Anglo-Saxon pagan pantheon. This goddess of spring also corresponds to many other such fertility gods and goddesses around the western world, the two most well known being "Astarte" in the Balkan countries and "Ishtar" in Mesopotamia. The month named for this goddess was the equivalent to our month of April, and so, unfortunately, the name became attached sometime after the Tenth Century to the most prominent spring festival in Christianity.

Following the much more ancient Christian custom, I believe it best to refer to the Resurrection of Christ as the "Pascha," and the weeks surrounding it as the Paschal Season. The Greek word pascha is derived from Hebrew PeSaCH (פֶּסַח) meaning the festival of Passover, as it was during the celebration of the Jewish Passover that Christ the perfect Lamb of God was crucified, died, buried, and rose again. In addition, the Greek the word anastasis (upstanding, up-rising, resurrection) is often used as an alternative.

Ash Wednesday ends the period of Epiphany and begins the period of Lent
From early days Pascha was preceded by a period of preparation called Lent. The custom of fasting during this time was already widespread throughout the Church from a very early date, but the length of the fast varied. Finally the fast was extended to forty days (excluding Sundays), after the analogy of the period of the Lord's temptation (Matthew 4:2). Ash Wednesday (so called from the custom of daubing the foreheads of worshipers on that day with ashes of the previous year's palms, in token of penitence and human mortality) has been the first day of Lent since at least the Sixth Century. The season of preparation for Easter closed with Holy Week. Thursday of Holy Week commemorated the institution of the Lord's Supper. It is called Holy Thursday by some, and its present name, Maundy Thursday, is derived from the Latin translation of the beginning words of Jesus in John 13:34, mandatum novum do vobis, "a new commandment I give you, that you love one another." Good Friday was a day of deep mourning, with a complete fast till 6:00 PM.

Festival of the Ascension and the Feast of Pentecost
Forty days after the Resurrection (Acts 1:3) came the Festival of the Ascension, which was celebrated from the early Fourth Century. Pentecost, which comes from the Greek word "pentekostos," or “fiftieth”, is observed on the fiftieth day after the Pascha, and its celebration can be traced to the Second Century. It is also called Whitsunday, from white garments worn on that day.

The Feast of the Holy Trinity
The Feast of the Holy Trinity, the fourth and final great festival of the Church Year follows on the Sunday after Pentecost. In the second part of the Church Year, the post-Trinity season, there are no festivals of the first rank. The number of Sundays after Trinity varies depending on the date of the Pascha.

Other Festivals of the Church Year
After the Sixth Century, the number of festivals in the Church increased rapidly. In particular, with the increased, though misplaced, veneration of Mary her festivals became more numerous. The Feast of the Annunciation, celebrating the conception of our Lord, was fixed for March 25, and that of the Presentation of Our Lord and the Purification of Mary for February 2; the latter festival is known as Candlemas, from the custom of blessing candles, carrying them in procession, and holding them lighted during the reading of the Gospel. Mary's meeting with Elizabeth is commemorated on the Feast of the Visitation, July 2.

From early in the Church, the feasts of Apostles and Evangelists were soon celebrated, especially those of Peter and Paul. And with the coming of the Middle Ages came the many saints' and martyrs' days. All Saints' Day, November 1, commemorated all the saints together and All Souls' Day, November 2, commemorated all the faithful departed.

Many of the Sundays of the Church Year are known by special names, usually after the first words of their introits, so, for example, the names of the Sundays in Lent are: Invocavit; Reminiscere; Oculi; Laetare; and Judica. The name Palm Sunday, as mentioned, is derived from the traditional use of palms in ceremonies of the day. The first four Sundays after Easter are Quasimodogeniti; Misericordias Domini; Jubilate; Cantate; Rogate precedes the Rogation Days, from which it takes its name; and Exaudi.

Following the lead of Martin Luther, the historic Lutheran Church has retained the ancient festivals in honor of Christ and the Triune God as a matter of course, and also regards most of those surrounded Jesus' mother as being properly Christ-centered festivals.

Festival of the Reformation, and the Sundays of the End-Times, close the Church Year
However, relatively few commemorations of other Biblical saints have survived. The same is true of most saints, martyrs, and events from after Apostolic times. One fairly recent exception is The Festival of the Reformation, October 31, commemorating the posting of Dr. Luther's 95 Theses, which dates back to the end of the Sixteenth Century.

The Church Year ends with the so-called "End-Time Sundays." The first of these is All Saints, followed by a Sunday focusing on the "Last Judgment," the "Church Triumphant," and finally the last Sunday of the Church Year, which, since Vatican II commemorates "Christ the King." Here again, I prefer to make this a Sunday of "Humiliation & Prayer," a fitting end, in my opinion, to the Christian Church-Year.

It is truly a sad commentary on the state of the church today, even in an otherwise conservative church body such as the WELS, that so many congregations, especially newer ones which use so-called "contemporary" (i.e. sectarian) worship styles, make very little, if any, use of the Church Year of the historic Christian church. Following the Church Year brings worshipers into contact with all the great events of Christ's life and ministry, and thus all the necessary and important doctrines of Christian faith and life. This is actually a great time-saving device. There is no need to work to put together a whole long list of various sermon series to try and accomplish the same thing. We hear constantly that it is not good to "re-invent the wheel," and that is why some of our brothers borrow certain styles and content from the sectarian churches. But in trying to replace the historic Church Year with a series of topics of their own, they are truly trying to make a new and different "wheel!"

Deo Vindice!

Pastor Spencer

(I freely admit that very little of the information here is original with me. I made use of the following sources in putting together this material: "The Sermon and The Propers," Fred Lindemann, CPH; "The Early Days of Christianity," Frederic Farrar; "Church History," Professor Kurtz, Funk & Wagnalls; "A History of Christianity," Kenneth Latourette, Harper & Row; "The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church," J.D. Douglas, ed., Zondervan; and of course, Wikipedia and Theopedia.)

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