A Guide to the Church Calendar
Practiced for over 1,500 years, the Church Calendar serves as a way to order our lives around the Christian story. Inspired by the annual feasts and celebrations of God’s people throughout the Old Testament, the calendar can be traced all the way back to the early Church, when Christians began establishing rhythms and rituals based on the one story of Scripture.
Despite its details and approaches changing over time and looking different across traditions, the Church Calendar has almost always hit the same plot points and themes with the seasons: Advent (the birth of Christ), Epiphany (the manifestation of Christ), Lent (the temptation and death of Christ), Easter (the resurrection of Christ) and Pentecost (the Spirit of Christ).
The Church Calendar can come across to many as legalistic or as empty ritual, given some of the abuses we’ve seen throughout Church history. It can also feel strange and foreign to those who are new to church or who grew up in churches that didn’t follow this calendar. But the seasons of the Church are really just a way to center our lives around the gospel by entering the story of Jesus each year. It’s a practical way to follow the words of Paul in Romans 13:14: “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” While we should always make sure we’re not falling into meaningless routines and simply going through the motions, it’s hard to think of a better way we can spend our time each and every year.
The gatherings, the practices and the traditions of the seasons help us remember the one true story of the Bible—who God is and what He has done in Jesus Christ—and help us to live in that story every day as the people of God.
It begins with a time of waiting and longing and ends with celebrating the birth of our Savior, the Messiah, on Christmas. This season progresses from dark to light.
Of all the seasons, Advent probably feels the most familiar. Many people, regardless of faith, have used an Advent calendar—the ones with little windows to help you count down the days until Christmas. Yet, even though Advent is certainly about anticipating the coming of the Messiah, we don’t seem to be very good at it, and what we generally call “Advent” looks pretty different than what the Church historically has called “Advent.”
Formed from a Latin word meaning “coming” or “arrival,” Advent is the traditional celebration of the first advent of Jesus in humility and the anxious awaiting of His second advent in glory. The season is a time for remembering and rejoicing, watching and waiting. In American Christianity, we’ve got that first part down. As soon as Thanksgiving is over (and sometimes even before), we start putting up the tree and listening to our favorite Christmas songs. There’s nothing wrong with doing these things, of course, but the whole point of Advent is to spend several weeks—four weeks, to be exact—preparing for Christmas instead of celebrating Christmas. It’s about stepping into the shoes of the Israelites, longing and crying out for the Messiah to come. It’s about reflecting on our sin and shortcomings and our need for a Savior. It’s about looking around at our broken world and hoping for the second coming of Jesus. And, once we get to Christmas Day, the celebration of Jesus’ birth becomes that much more spectacular and meaningful.
As we remember and enter this story, the coming of Jesus Christ, we deconstruct and deny the false stories that we find ourselves caught up in, especially those connected to our culture’s concept of Christmas—individualism and consumerism. Instead, we reconstruct and embrace the true story of the gospel in our lives, specifically the focuses and themes of Advent. We recognize the weight of sin personally, corporately and cosmically and why we need Jesus Christ, Immanuel, to dwell among us, restoring and reconciling creation back to the Father by the Spirit. Celebrating the Son of God coming as a gift, not to be served but to serve, we respond out of praise and gratitude, using this season to serve and to give to others.
The season focuses on Christ revealing His divinity and His saving plan for the nations. It establishes a time of renewal for the believer to recommit a life of faithfulness to Christ.
If you’re not very familiar with the Church Calendar, you’ve probably never heard of this particular season. It’s often overlooked, and aspects of it, for better or worse, tend to get lumped into the traditional celebration of Christmas. But, even though it might seem obscure and confusing on the surface, Epiphany proves an essential part of the gospel—the story of Jesus.
Epiphany, which literally means “to show” or “make known,” is about Jesus Christ being revealed as both the divine Son of God and as Savior to the whole world. There are three specific stories within the Scriptures that mark the season of Epiphany. First, though typically connected to the Christmas narrative, the journey of the Magi reminds us that Christ came not just for the Jews but also for the Gentiles, showing God’s heart for the nations and the continued fulfillment of His promise to Abraham. The two other events that mark Epiphany are the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist and the miracle at the wedding feast in Cana. Both events, in their own way, reveal the divinity of Jesus Christ.
Focused on the coming of Jesus as the Son of God and the hope of the nations, Epiphany marks a time of celebration, rededication and declaration. It is a season for us to affirm the truth that Jesus Christ is the second person of the Trinity, the Word who became flesh to dwell among us, who was sent from the Father by the Spirit to reconcile people of all tribes, tongues and nations back to the Father by the Spirit. And, as we affirm the manifestation of Jesus Christ, we are called to renew our faith in Him and to proclaim the good news that Jesus came to save sinners—both Jews and Gentiles. Some even say Epiphany serves as a sort of break between the coming of Christ and the passion of Christ, a season to rest in the promises of God fulfilled.
At the beginning of every year, our culture becomes obsessed with New Year’s resolutions and aspirations for the future—if we only looked a certain way or did a certain thing. And as Christians, we often find ourselves caught up in this false story—a story of narcissism, materialism and romanticism—that says we can be better and feel better if we just try harder. But Epiphany offers a counter-story, a different way of starting the new year: By entering the story of Jesus, remembering and rejoicing in the manifestation of Christ as Lord and Savior of the world, we are then compelled to renew our union with Christ and to manifest Christ through the way we live our lives.
Originally, Epiphany served a different purpose in the Church Calendar—it was the celebration of Jesus’ birth. But when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, December 25 was chosen as the official date to remember the birth of Christ, replacing the pagan feast of the birth of the sun. At this point, the season of Epiphany took on a new role: In the East, it became a specific time to celebrate the baptism of Jesus, and in the West, it became a broader time to celebrate the manifestation of Jesus through three major events: 1) the Magi’s visit to Jesus as a child, 2) Jesus’ baptism and 3) the miracle at the marriage feast in Cana.
Closely following the season of Advent and the Christmas holiday, the season of Epiphany begins with the Day or Feast of Epiphany and lasts until the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday. While Epiphany is centered around these three big events, the last week focuses on the Transfiguration, an event that dramatically affirms the divinity of Christ as the Son of God.
When it comes to historic practices around Epiphany, the major symbol is usually related to the Magi. This often looks like a crown, three crowns, three gifts, a star and sometimes a globe to show how Christ came for the nations. In some traditions, Christians will mark the lintels of their doorways with an Epiphany prayer or blessing to establish their home as a holy place, where God has manifested His presence.
The season begins with 40 days of prayer and fasting and ends with Holy Week, which includes Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and His death on the cross on Good Friday. It is a time of examining and repenting of sin.
The word “Lent” can invoke a number of thoughts, questions and feelings, depending on your background with the Church. If you grew up in an evangelical church, you probably think of it as some strange Catholic tradition, where folks put ashes on their foreheads and give up different kinds of foods every year. If you grew up in a liturgical tradition, you may have had a good experience or, perhaps, you file it away in the junk drawer of legalism given some bad experiences. Whatever the case, Lent doesn’t have to be seen as either rote or mystifying. Like the rest of the seasons, it can be seen rightly and faithfully when understood through the lens of Jesus—the one true story of the Bible.
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, which kicks off 40 days of prayer and fasting— representing Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. The last week of Lent is called Holy Week, during which we remember Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), the Last Supper with His disciples (Maundy Thursday) and His death on the cross (Good Friday). The season officially ends on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter.
A season to prepare for the joy and hope of Easter, Lent reminds us that the resurrection only occurred after the crucifixion. It is a time for the Church to symbolically follow Christ into the wilderness. It is a time for fasting and self-denial, though not for denial itself. It is a period to empty ourselves of lesser things so that we might be filled with the greater things of the gospel.
In a culture inundated by individualism and hedonism, with rhythms and practices that turn our desires toward the things we think we need, Lent turns our desires toward Jesus, the only thing we truly need, helping us trade lesser loves for His greater love. When we enter into the story of Jesus, symbolically walking with Him through the desert and to the cross, we move from self-gratification to self-denial. As we embrace the pain and sorrow of Jesus, we turn away from our sin and toward the Savior.
Originally a preparation period for those desiring to be baptized, Lent lasts 46 days, including Sundays, between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. The 40 days (excluding Sundays) have obvious biblical parallels in the flood narrative (Gen. 6-8), the giving of the Law to Moses on Sinai (Exod. 24:12-18) and Elijah’s journey to Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:1-12). But the most relevant parallel is the account of Jesus’ fasting and temptation in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1-11; Mark 1:9-12; Luke 4:1-13).
Lent starts with Ash Wednesday, a day to remember our mortality and the idea that we are but dust and to dust we shall return. In many churches, individuals celebrate Ash Wednesday by placing ash on their foreheads in the shape of a cross, representing entrance into a time of denial, repentance and humility.
Unlike the Advent wreath, there is no universal symbol for the season, but many choose to use candles to create a Lent cross. This cross is typically formed by seven small tealights. Each evening, all seven candles are lit, and one is extinguished for each week of Lent that passes. During the Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday in week seven, no lights are lit as participants reflect upon the darkness of Gethsemane, Golgotha and the grave.
Whereas Advent is a season of ever-increasing light anticipating the incarnation of Christ, Lent is a season of ever-decreasing light approaching His crucifixion. Light is gradually extinguished to symbolize the journey through the wilderness and toward the cross and tomb.
As the culmination of the Christian story, this season marks a time of ongoing celebration and consideration of the future hope we have in Christ.
Easter has been and always will be significant in the life of the Church, regardless of tradition or denomination. Most who grew up in the faith probably hold memories of buying a new outfit, hunting eggs and eating a home-cooked meal with families and friends. It’s always been a big deal, as it should be. Easter is the climax of the Christian story, the assurance of eternal life with God. Yet for many of us, all the joy and celebrations come to an end on Sunday, and by the time Monday rolls around, life goes back to how we left it.
But Easter is more than just a Sunday. While it centers around one specific event—Christ being raised from the dead—the Church has historically practiced Easter not as a day but as a season. It is a time to celebrate the glorious Resurrection and to consider the implications of that Resurrection, both for how we understand God and our faith and how we live our lives.
Beginning with Easter Sunday, this season lasts seven weeks. It is marked by two main events: first and foremost the resurrection of Christ and then the ascension of Christ. A season of joy and hope, it is a time to celebrate these events and their implications for the Christian life, from being dead in our sin and raised with Jesus to our future hope of resurrected bodies and a new heaven and a new earth. As we remember and rejoice in the Resurrection, our eternal hope in Jesus is made anew.
Easter, a story of hope and victory, runs contrary to the false stories of our world that would make us believe that there is no hope, that there is nothing more than this life. The stories of secularism and cynicism that run rampant in our culture shape us and jade us, robbing us of joy and belief in the miraculous. Easter, though, weaves back into our lives the one true story of the Bible—that Jesus was crucified, dead and buried but, on the third day, rose again. As we enter this story, remembering our future hope in Christ and our miracle-filled, supernatural faith, we are reshaped and reformed to be the hopeful, joyful, spiritual people that God has called us to be as His sons and daughters.
The history of Easter goes back to the very beginning of the Early Church. We see that in the book of Acts, Christians were gathering together the first day of the week, in honor of Easter Sunday (Acts 20:7). In AD 321, after Rome became a Christian nation, Sunday was officially named the day of Christian worship. Easter was originally a part of Passover, but as the Church began putting a greater emphasis on Holy Week, early Christians started celebrating Easter as a separate, annual feast sometime in the fourth century, and it’s remained an annual celebration since that time.
Easter is a moveable season, not set on a particular date but based around a system established by the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. In this system, Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox, which means the date of Easter can range between March 22 and April 25, depending on the lunar cycle.
Christians have celebrated Easter in a number of ways over the centuries, but the most notable is the Easter Vigil, a service between sundown on Saturday and Easter Sunday. Historically an event to baptize new converts, this service features a progression of light, starting with complete darkness, to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus and the victory of light over darkness. When practiced indoors, churches will often time the service to take place as the sun rises and begins to shine through the windows of the building, or the lights will be turned completely up at the climax of the service.
While the Easter Vigil tends to be practiced in more traditional, liturgical churches, many other churches make music a focal point of Easter, specifically on Easter Sunday. In these settings, there will be special musical arrangements and songs focused on the resurrection of Christ. Some churches also display an empty tomb or flowering cross in the entrances of their buildings as prominent symbols.
This season ends the official Church Calendar by reflecting on the sending of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Church. It reminds us of our unity with Christ and our call to share Christ by the power of the Spirit.
Even more than Epiphany, which tends to get mixed into Advent and Christmas, Pentecost is the most neglected of the seasons. Given the association with various charismatic and Pentecostal movements and traditions, there may be a certain hesitancy and fearfulness when it comes to this celebration, depending on your theology and background. Yet, to miss Pentecost is to miss the for-now conclusion of the one true story of the Bible—the story of Jesus.
The season of Pentecost represents a time to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, marking not only the presence of God dwelling in and empowering His people, but also the birth of the Church and the establishment of God’s kingdom over all creation. As we remember and rejoice in the reality of the Spirit, Pentecost creates an extraordinary excitement among the people of God. The season reminds us that the same Spirit who raised Christ from the dead fills us, empowers us and sends us. It is a time to remember our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ and that, as we go, God is with us. It is a season to look forward to the mission of Christ completed through His Church, as God makes all things new again and lives with His people for eternity. Pentecost gives us a renewed sense of peace and power as we proclaim the gospel to a lost and dying world.
As our culture builds into us stories of individualism and nihilism, leading us to believe that life is meaningless and only terminates on ourselves, Pentecost gives us a better story, the one true story of the Bible—the story of Jesus. It reminds us that we are not our own, but we are caught up in a body of believers from past, present and future and a mission that transcends the here and now of this life. When we participate in the rhythms and practices of this story, specifically the reality that Christ sent His Spirit to live in us and that same Spirit sends us to live on mission for Christ, our lives take on new meaning and purpose. We become inspired and invigorated as the people of God living out the mission of God.
Celebrated on the seventh Sunday after Easter, Pentecost comes from an Old Testament feast called the Feast of Weeks. God’s people celebrated this agricultural feast for thousands of years as a way to give thanks to God for the “firstfruits” of the early spring harvest, but by the New Testament period, the meaning of this feast shifted to be less about crops and more about the history of God’s people. So when God’s people gathered from all over the world to celebrate this feast and the Spirit of God fell on them in Acts 2, Pentecost took on a new meaning. It was now about a different firstfruit, Christ, who died and rose again with a new, resurrected body, as we will one day be raised up with new, resurrected bodies because the same Spirit who lived in Christ now lives in us. And, at Pentecost, a new people was formed—men, women and children from every tribe, tongue and nation, continuing the history of God’s people and God’s promise to Abraham fulfilled.
Pentecost is unique because it wraps up the season of Easter—some traditions even consider it to be a part of Easter—and kicks off the beginning of “Ordinary Time,” the period of time on the Church Calendar that lasts until Advent. Sometimes called “After Pentecost,” Ordinary Time consists of the “ordinary” days, weeks and months of the Christian life, where the people of God live out the mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ.
As a part of Pentecost, many traditions historically celebrate Trinity Sunday, which focuses on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity—God the Father, God the Son and God the Spirit. In the West, Trinity Sunday is observed on the first Sunday after Pentecost, and in the East, it is celebrated on Pentecost, though sometimes Eastern traditions dismiss Trinity Sunday altogether, claiming that they celebrate the Trinity every day. This day stands out among other celebrations within the seasons because it centers not around an event but a doctrine.
Pentecost both concludes the season of Easter and ushers in what the Church has historically called “Ordinary Time.” While the name can be confusing, Ordinary Time is anything but a break from entering the story of Christ. Whereas Advent is about the coming of Christ, Epiphany the manifestation of Christ, Lent the temptation and death of Christ, Easter the resurrection of Christ and Pentecost the Spirit of Christ, Ordinary Time is about the mission of Christ. You could even say that all the seasons lead up to this point between Pentecost and Advent.
During Ordinary Time, the Church is empowered by the Holy Spirit and sent on mission to make disciples. It’s “Ordinary Time” because it’s the time and space where we seek to be the people of God living out the mission of God in ordinary, everyday life—in our homes, neighborhoods, communities, workplaces and to the ends of the earth.
This article is compiled of excerpts from Enter the Story of Jesus, a resource from The Village Church. If you would like further resources for information as well as daily readings as you practice the Church Calendar, you may download the book for free by clicking the button below.