The Church Year
Time is a gift of God’s creation. People order time in various ways, often based on the rhythms of nature. The church organises time by the church year. It tells the story of God who is beyond time, acting in history – above all, through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The Anglican Tradition follows the ancient observance of the liturgical year in the keeping of seasons. The church year is built around two fixed feasts: Christmas and Easter.
The church year begins in Advent, which is around the end of November or the beginning of December every year. The word “Advent” means beginning. The first Sunday of Advent is four Sundays before 25 December. As a season, Advent is a time of preparation and penitence. We prepare for the upcoming celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ as we look back to the promises leading up to Jesus’ first coming and prepare for His second coming
On 25 December the twelve day season of Christmas begins and we celebrate the incredible gift and mystery of God in the flesh.
Twelve days later, on 6 January, the season of Epiphany begins. Epiphany remembers the “revealing” of Jesus to the world with the coming of the Wise Men and the baptism of Jesus.
The end of Epiphany is determined by the beginning of Lent, which is determined by the date fixed for Easter. Easter is determined by the Jewish lunar calendar, and is always the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox. After backing up forty days, not including Sundays, the date of Ash Wednesday is determined and hence the end of Epiphany.
With Ash Wednesday, the forty days of Lent begins. Historically, Lent developed as a season of preparation for those who were either coming to the Christian faith (to be baptised on Easter) or needed to be restored in their faith. For the lapsed, it was a season of penitence, of coming clean, of getting right with God. That season of penitence was eventually extended not just to the lapsed, but to everyone.
At the end of Lent, we enter into Holy Week, from Palm Sunday through the first Easter celebrations. Holy Week was originally an all-night observance for new converts that was slowly spread over the course of several days. During Holy Week, we remember the last days of Jesus’ earthly life and the events that surround the death and resurrection of Jesus. With the end of Lent comes the beginning of Easter, a fifty day season of celebration.
Fifty days after Easter, we come to the Feast of Pentecost, remembering the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Church and the mission which spread from the upper room and changed the world! In the Church Year, this is known as ”ordinary time.” The long season of Pentecost finally comes to a close with the celebration of Christ the King, focusing on the revelation of Jesus as the King of the Universe when He comes again. It brings the Church Year to a close as we again move into Advent, looking back to the promise of Jesus’ first coming as we prepare ourselves for His coming again as the King of all.
Principal and Lesser Festivals of the Church Year
The Principal Festivals of the Church Year are the Nativity of our Lord (Christmas) and the Epiphany of Our Lord; Ash Wednesday and the days of Holy Week; the Three days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Resurrection of Our Lord, the Sundays of Easter; the Ascension of Our Lord, and the Day of Pentecost; and the Holy Trinity.
Lesser festivals are additional days when we celebrate the life of Christ, the witness of those who accompanied and testified to him, and the acts of God in the church. Commemorations illuminate various aspects of the church’s life and mission through the lives of women and men who have followed Christ in succeeding generations.
All Sundays of the year are festivals of our Lord Jesus Christ. In a profound sense, Sunday – the first day and the weekly celebration of the day of resurrection – is the primary Christian festival.
The “propers” are scripture readings and other texts that are appointed for seasons of the church year as well as principal and lesser festivals and commemorations. The propers also include the Collect for the day. Many Christian churches unite around a three-year (Year A, B or C) set of Bible readings, the Revised Common Lectionary. From Advent 2009 to Christ the King Sunday in 2010 we are currently in year C. See the Lectionary of The Church in Wales to see how the propers and colours of the seasons are appointed.
The Church in Wales has no officially authorised scheme of liturgical colours. The colours that are shown in the Lectionary reflect the most widespread current practice. Liturgical colours are traditional except that white is commended throughout the Epiphany season, violet before Lent. On Maundy Thursday and at lesser weekday commemorations the suggested colour applies only to the Eucharist.
The use of colours to differentiate liturgical seasons became a common practice in the Western church in about the fourth century. At first, usage varied but by the Twelfth Century Pope Innocent III had systemised the use of five colours; Violet, White, Black, Red and Green.
The Lutheran and Anglican churches that emerged from the Reformation retained
the traditional colours. To these have been added Blue and Gold, colours that
were used in some Western rites before the Twelfth Century.
These are the festival colours of celebration. They are used at Christmas and Easter, on many of the greatest saint’s days (except when red is considered more suitable) and on all occasions of great significance to individual Christian people such as Baptism, Confirmation, Weddings or ordinations.
Red is used in three main ways. First, to denote a saint who has died for the faith (the colour of blood spilt in the name of Christ). Second, red is associated with
the Holy Spirit (i.e. Whitsun), the Disciples’ description of the flames of
Pentecost must undoubtedly be the origin of this. Third, red is used in association with the spilling of Jesus’ own blood for us and is often now the colour used on Good Friday. In some churches, rich and elaborate red vestments are used for Martyrs and the Holy Spirit and plain red for Good Friday and Passiontide.
Purple is used as a sombre colour at times of reflection and preparation. Advent (before Christmas) and Lent (before Easter) are two such times. Purple is also the colour associated most with funerals and prayer for the departed. It is used in preference to black. Black (choir dress) is also worn at services where the Eucharist is not celebrated.
Green reminds us of our mission to spread the Gospel and grow the Church. Green is suitable for occasions like Harvest Thanksgiving but it is used on other occasions in the year when one of the other colours is inappropriate.
Blue has come to be associated with Mary. Whenever she is depicted in stained
glass, in statues or paintings, she usually is shown in a blue dress. This use of colour is part of the Catholic principle of using all our faculties in our worship. What we see about us can speak just as loudly to our hearts and minds as the words we use. Some churches use blue during Advent.
More information about seasons and colours
Advent is a season of spiritual preparation for the celebration of the birth and reign
of Christ. Expectation rather than personal penitence is the central theme of the season. Advent is a preparation for, rather than a celebration of, Christmas. Royal Purple symbolising the sovereignty of Christ is normally the liturgical colour but Blue is also occasionally used to distinguish the season from Lent. As the colour of the
sky, Blue symbolises Christ the source of day. As the colour honouring Mary, Blue
also reminds us that during Advent the church waits with Mary for the birth of Jesus.
The readings for Christmas and the following twelve days, culminating in Epiphany, invite the church to reflect on the Incarnation of God as a human being. God enters human history and identifies fully with the human condition. The traditional colours of the season are White or Gold, symbolizing joy in the light of day and celebration.
The traditions of Lent are derived from the time when the church prepared candidates, or “catechumens,” for their baptism into the Body of Christ. It eventually became a
season of preparation for the whole congregation. Self-examination, study, fasting,
prayer and works of love are disciplines historically associated with Lent.
Conversion – literally, the “turning around” – is the theme of Lent. The forty days
of Lent correspond to the forty-day temptation of Jesus in the wilderness and the
forty-year journey of Israel from slavery to a new community.
On Ash Wednesday, ashes are placed on the foreheads of the congregation as a
symbol that we have come from dust and one day will return to dust. With this reminder of life’s fragility begins a spiritual quest that continues until the Easter Vigil, when the entire congregation joins in a reaffirmation of their baptismal vows. Most of this time of preparation is symbolized by the colour Violet, though the season is
bracketed by the mourning Black of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. As an alternative to Violet, some churches have begun to use brown, beige or grey
a reminder of “sackcloth” to reflect the season’s mood of penitence and simplicity.
During Holy Week, the congregation follows the footsteps of Jesus from his entry
into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, through the Last Supper of Maundy Thursday
to his death on the Cross on Good Friday. Red, the colour of blood and therefore
of martyrs, is the traditional colour for Palm or Passion Sunday and the next
three days of Holy Week. On Maundy Thursday, White or Gold symbolizes the church’s rejoicing in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. But at the end of the Maundy Thursday celebration, the mood changes abruptly. All decorations are removed and the Holy Table is stripped bare. The church becomes as empty as a tomb. On Good Friday, either Black or Red is customary, although the use of no colour at all is also appropriate. The Red of Holy Week is sometimes a deeper red than the brighter scarlet colour
associated with Pentecost.
Easter and Pentecost
Jesus has been raised from the dead. The heavenly messenger invites the mourners to
see the empty tomb and then go and tell the disciples that the Crucified One is
alive! The season from Easter to Pentecost is also called the Great Fifty Days, a tradition inspired by the Jewish season of fifty days between Passover and Shavuot – the feast celebrating the giving of the Torah to Moses. The liturgical colour for this season is celebratory White or Gold. When the season ends, on Whit Sunday, White is
replaced with Red. This colour reminds the congregation of fire – the symbol of the
The first Sunday after Pentecost celebrates the Trinity, and the colour
again is White or Gold.
The Season after Pentecost
This longest season of the liturgical year is called ” OrdinaryTime” and the tradition is use the colour green. It reminds us of our mission to spread the Gospel and to grow the Church.
Other Holy Days and observances
White or Gold is the colour for All Saints Day on November 1st and is also an alternative to Green on the last Sunday after Pentecost. During other observances, the tradition is to use Red on commemorations of martyrs
and other saints. As the colour of the Holy Spirit, it is appropriate for ordinations.
The colours of Christmas, White or Gold, are also customary on other feast days
that celebrate the Incarnation or Resurrection of Christ (Holy Name, Baptism,
Presentation, Annunciation, Visitation, Ascension and Transfiguration).
Black was the traditional colour for funerals for centuries, but in the past fifty
years many liturgical churches have preferred to use White or Gold—the colours
of Easter and therefore of the hope of the Resurrection.