What is the Church Year?

The church year does not begin on January 1st. It begins with Advent. The church year was not invented by one man or one particular denomination. It was a gradual outcome of the needs of the church through the centuries. One of the valuable features of the church year is that its observance is Christian and not secular in nature. It revolves around the great feast days such as Christmas, Epiphany, Easter and Pentecost rather than secular holidays. So, we will not be celebrating arbor day Sunday, or recycling Sunday, or Mother-in-Law Sunday. The church year’s historical development is an interesting study. If you would like to learn more, I would recommend Luther Reed’s, “Worship, A study of corporate devotion.”

The church year is divided into three cycles which roughly relate to three of the major Jewish feasts. The first cycle is Christmas which relates to the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles. The second cycle is Easter which corresponds to the Jewish feast of Passover. The third cycle is Pentecost which corresponds to the Jewish feast of Pentecost.

The first cycle of Christmas contains the seasons of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. Advent is a four-week preparation for Christmas. It used to be a time of repentance similar to Lent. Today it is celebrated as a time of watchfulness—remembering Christ’s first coming and looking forward to his second coming. Christmas, of course, is a celebration of Christ’s birth celebrated in the Western church on December 25th and in the Eastern church on January 6th. Epiphany, the third season in the cycle of Christmas, is celebrated January 6th. It is one of the most ancient festivals celebrated in Asia minor as early as the second century. Epiphany means “the appearing” and celebrates Jesus’ baptism and the appearance of the star in the East that led the wise men to Jesus. As you read the devotionals in this first cycle of the church year, read with anticipation and watchfulness, knowing that, just as Christ came 2000 years ago, He is coming again.

The church year continues with the pre-Lent celebrations of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima Sundays. The Latin terms mean that the Sundays are approximately 70, 60, and 50 days before Easter.

The second cycle of the church year begins with Ash Wednesday. Ashes were a sign of repentance in the Old Testament. Job 42:6, “Therefore I retract, And I repent in dust and ashes.” Ash Wednesday begins the Easter cycle and the season of Lent. The word “lent” either means “Spring” or “Lengthening of days.” The celebration of lent comes from the earliest church—Tertullian and Irenaeus both mention it. It lasts 40 days and follows the biblical model of 40 days of repentance: Noah and the 40 days of rain; 40 years of wandering in the wilderness by the Israelites; Jesus fasts for 40 days and is tempted by Satan. If you are a “numbers person” and are wondering where the church came up with 40 days of lent from Ash Wednesday to Easter, it should be noted that Sundays are not included in the 40 days since they are feast days. Palm Sunday begins Holy week, followed by the celebration of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Maundy Thursday is a celebration of Christ’s institution of the Lord’s Supper. Maundy comes from the Latin Word Maundatum “I command.” Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you” (John 13:34). Good Friday was probably originally called “God’s Friday” and is a time of repentance and remembrance. The word Easter means “spring” and is a celebration of the resurrection of our Lord. As you read the devotionals in this second cycle of the church year, read with sense of repentance but also with an eager hope and rejoicing that death has been conquered; Jesus is risen!

The third cycle of the church year begins with the Ascension of our Lord, 40 days after Easter and is a time of celebration and rejoicing. This is the day Jesus ascended into heaven. Pentecost, which is sometimes called Whitsunday, historically has equal standing with Christmas and Easter but in modern times is often forgotten. In the early church, Pentecost was a time for baptism. The term Whitsunday refers to the white robes candidates would wear for baptism. The main thought of Pentecost is the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the beginning of the church as read in Acts 2. Trinity season is the major part of the third cycle of the church year, lasting more than 20 Sundays. The Trinity festival sums up the entire teaching of the Old and New Testaments: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are revealed. Their revelation is the substance of the entire church year from Advent to Pentecost. As you read the devotionals in this third cycle of the church year, remember that this is a season of celebration and rejoicing.

In these three cycles, the church year is to remind us that all of Scripture reveals God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, and His redemptive plan for us.

Dr. James Molstre