In another entry for the “Why Do We Do That?” category, I thought I would talk about one of those things you likely either a) take for granted that everyone knows, or b) never noticed before: the church year. Many people aren’t even aware that the church follows a different format than the “Puppy of the Month” calendar you have hanging on your wall. In fact, the church year begins just as the calendar year is set to end: with Advent and Christmas in December…The church year dates back hundreds of years, and is the same across all denominations that observe it, including but not limited to the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches. It is divided into three parts, with different seasons and holy days (from where we get the term ‘holidays,’ by the way) falling in each part.
The year begins with the Time of Christmas, which begins with the season of Advent (which means ‘the coming’ of Christ). Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas, and it is dedicated to preparing our hearts for the coming of Christ: in the past at His birth, in the present through God’s Word, and in the future on the Last Day. And then, believe it or not, the “12 Days of Christmas” begin! And yes, they are a real thing, but they do not fall during Advent! Christmas Day* is actually the first day of Christmas, and the eleven days that follow it lead up to Epiphany (January 6th), which celebrates the coming of the Magi to visit a young Jesus. During the season of Epiphany, we celebrate Jesus’ baptism, His first miracles, and His transfiguration, which is the last Sunday before the Time of Easter.
The Time of Easter begins on Ash Wednesday and carries through the time of Lent. Lent lasts for 40 days (excluding Sundays, which are considered ‘mini-Easters’) that are intended to mirror Jesus’ time in the wilderness before He began His public ministry. During this time, we focus on our need for repentance (confessing and turning from our sins back to God) and a Savior. Lent culminates in “Holy Week,” the events of Jesus’ Passion (suffering) on the way to the cross, where He died for the sake of all humanity. On Easter Sunday+ we celebrate Jesus’ rising from the grave to conquer sin, death and the devil once and for all. The time of Easter lasts for 50 days until Pentecost, which begins the Time of the Church.
The Time of the Church carries through the rest of the year, which ends on the Sunday before the first Sunday in Advent, and looks to the end of the world and the coming King of kings, Jesus Christ.
At many churches, there are ‘extra’ midweek services during Advent and Lent, which are an extra opportunity to come and worship and prepare your heart for Christmas and Easter. These two seasons in the church are the “busy season” for the staff, especially the pastor(s) and music director(s), who have twice as many services. And of course, Christmas Eve and Easter Sunday are the two biggest days of the year for church attendance, as even the least active church-goers feel compelled to be in church on these highest of holy days.
During the Church Year, you will see different color patterns throughout the church, representing the time or season we are in. These colors show themselves in the vestments and the paraments. Vestments are the special clothing worn by the priest or pastor in more traditional churches, and paraments are the banners and cloths hanging beside and from the altar and pulpit area at the front of the church.
During Advent, Blue is used to signal both royalty (with regard to Christ’s birth as the King of kings) and the color of the sky (with hope for His coming and return).
White is used on the holy days to symbolize purity, so it is seen at Christmas, on Epiphany, and during Easter. Gold may also be used on Easter Sunday, as it represents Christ’s victory over sin, death and the devil.
Green is symbolic of growth, and so is used during the season of Epiphany before Lent, and during the Time of the Church, the longest part of the year. Thus, green is used more than any other color.
Black is used on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday# and Holy Saturday, because these three days are associated with mourning over our sin and Christ’s death/
Violet or Purple symbolizes repentance. Jesus was clothed in a purple robe while He was mocked and beaten before His crucifixion, so violet is used during Lent. It also symbolizes royalty, and may be used during Advent.
While violet may be used during Holy Week, Scarlet is also often used, as it represents the color of blood.
And finally, Red represents the power of the Holy Spirit and the tongues of fire that appeared as representative of the Holy Spirit on the first Pentecost. Thus, red is used during Pentecost, as well as at special occasions such as ordinations, confirmation or Reformation Sunday. Basically, red is used whenever the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is a particular focus.
So there you have it! In case you ever wondered, that’s what the colors mean, why they change (and why you see green for so long), and what the times of the year mean. So the next time you’re in church, look for the signs of the season, and see if you can tell what time it is!
*Why Christmas Day is celebrated on December 25th is a subject for another post, but here’s a hint: in spite of what you may have heard, it has absolutely nothing to do with Saturnalia or any other pagan festival!
+Why is Easter celebrated in the Spring? Again, a subject for another post – but it has nothing to do with Eostre or any other pagan goddess!
#What makes Good Friday good? Read here.