Many of us are familiar with the idea of seasons, whether we live through the cycle each year of Spring, summer, autumn, winter or we learn about them through films, television, literature, science. Seasons are familiar in human lives too. There are times of joy and times of sadness, times of learning, times of working, resting, loving, losing.
The Christian church also marks seasons that help to anticipate and celebrate, to be sad and to learn and to live. This pattern is sometimes called the Church year or the Christian calendar. It has two main purposes:
- To retell and explore the story of God’s love revealed through Jesus and known through the church.
- To connect that story to daily life for those who follow Jesus.
These seasons are not the same as the natural seasons, though there might be strong cultural links depending on location.
Some churches, such as Roman Catholics and Anglicans mark these seasons in very particular ways. In the West much of the secular and cultural calendar is linked to the church cycle through the year – so Christmas and Easter are widely used to mark time by everyone, not just Christians. In other churches the focus might be more about the bible text and stories rather than the calendar. The calendar – dates and seasons- are different in the orthodox traditions.
The Christian church also marks seasons that help to anticipate and celebrate, to be sad and to learn and to live.
The Christan year begins with the season of Advent, which starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day – which always falls on the 25th December. There are always four Sundays in Advent – and it might begin in late November some years. The year ends with a special day towards the end of November. This day is sometimes known as Christ the King, when Christians remember that Jesus is now at the head of the Kingdom of God, which will one day be known on earth.
There are three main kinds of seasons: preparing, celebrating and growing. Each is marked with a different focus as part of Jesus' story is told.
There are two preparing seasons: Advent and Lent.
Advent: this starts on Advent Sunday, and ends on Christmas Eve. This is the time to get ready for the coming of Jesus into the world, not just as a baby, but returning again in the future. Many people are familiar with counting down these days by buying an Advent calendar. Churches may do this with an Advent wreath, which features four candles in a ring, and one in the centre. The four candles are lit on the four Sundays of Advent, and the central calendar is lit as Christmas begins. Churches who use special fabrics and clothes will have the colour purple – as purple is the colour of the coming king.
Lent: this is the six week period which leads up to Easter. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, which is always 46 days before Easter Sunday: there are 40 fasting days that echo Jesus' time of fasting, and the Sundays, which are always feast days. Many people, even if not Christian, are familiar with the idea of giving up or taking up something as a way of being disciplined in Lent. For Christians, this might involve more time in prayer, study and generosity as well as going without food. Some churches might avoid flowers and decoration during Lent, and the words of prayers might focus more on the ways people fail to live up to God’s ways. In Churches who have special fabrics and cloths, the colour might be purple, although some churches might have plain hessian.
The season of Lent ends with a week called Holy Week. This begins with Palm Sunday, when churches remember Jesus entering into Jerusalem on a donkey. There might even be a procession at a local church. During the week that follows there will be readings and reflections on all the events that led up to Jesus’ death. There are particularly special services on Thursday, known in English as Maundy Thursday, when many churches remember Jesus' last supper and foot washing. Good Friday is also a very special day for Christians, when churches may be stripped bare, and there will be silent, reflective services as they remember the death of Jesus on the cross.
There are three big celebrating seasons in the church year: Christmas, Epiphany and Easter. Churches will be decorated, joyful hymns will be sung and the colour of fabrics will be white or gold. Often in churches with this tradition the very best and most beautiful things will be put out.
Christmas begins at midnight on Christmas Eve and lasts until 6th January which is Epiphany. During these 12 days readings and prayers will remember all the well -known stories of the first Christmas, but also tell some of the things that happened afterwards. There are many special services, and some churches will have a crib scene, showing the first nativity with shepherds, animals, and the baby in a manger. The baby may be placed in the manger during a special service at Midnight on Christmas eve. There might also be a special service for families called a Crib service when the story is acted out – and children take on different parts. It can be very confusing as many of these services actually take place in Advent!
There are three big celebrating seasons in the church year: Christmas, Epiphany and Easter. Churches will be decorated, joyful hymns will be sung and the colour of fabrics will be white or gold.
Epiphany begins on January 6th when churches remember the visit of the wise men, also known as the three kings or magi. There are four Sundays in Epiphany and each week a different story is told that helps reveal something about the identity and mission of Jesus. Epiphany ends with a special day on February 2nd. This is sometimes called Candlemas, and is the day when the story of Jesus being presented in the temple as a baby is told.
Easter is the longest season. It begins on Easter Sunday when Christians celebrate that after his death on the cross, Jesus rose from the dead. There will be joyful services, bell ringing, music and even easter egg hunts. Sometimes services are held on Easter Eve, and sometimes at dawn on Easter Day. In the Northern hemisphere, many symbols at Easter are linked to spring – daffodils, lambs, blossom. Some churches will create an Easter garden and on Easter Sunday, will roll away the stone from the tomb. The season of Easter lasts for seven weeks, ending with Pentecost. During these weeks, churches may read stories from the Bible about how Jesus appeared to many after his resurrection, and how the church came into being.
There are two big blocks of time, usually called Ordinary Time.
The first of these comes between the end of Epiphany and the beginning of Lent – and some years is quite short.
The second starts with Trinity Sunday. This is always the first Sunday after Pentecost, which itself is the seventh Sunday from Easter Sunday. Then begins a long season in which the stories of Jesus' life are told and explored, as Christians think about what it means to follow Jesus. In churches where there are special fabrics or cloths, the colour will be green. This long season is also marked by various special days, and as it draws towards the end of the church year, some churches will also mark a ‘Kingdom season from the fourth Sunday before Advent, and will change the colours of fabrics to red. This is not in all churches.
Throughout the year the church marks special days. Some are more well-known, such as Pentecost or Whit Sunday, when the coming of the Holy Spirit and the beginning of the church is celebrated. Another more familiar day is that of All Saints on the 1st November, followed by All Souls on the 2nd. Many churches will invite people to special services at this time to remember those they know and loved but see no longer.
Other special dates might be for particular saints, especially if a church is named after that saint.