An Introduction to the Church’s Liturgical Calendar

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A diagram of the Church Calendar is included at the end of this article. A PDF version, with an explanation of each day and season on the back side, can be downloaded here. The diagram is also available in landscape (e.g., for use on PowerPoints or screens).

You’re familiar with Christmas and Easter. You’ve likely celebrated Palm Sunday and Pentecost Sunday. And you’ve probably heard a few things about the seasons of Advent and Lent, though perhaps you’ve wondered if we should observe them. These are all days or seasons in the liturgical calendar (i.e., the Calendar of the Church Year, as it is called in the Book of Common Prayer). This article provides a brief introduction to the church calendar. In a future article, I’ll offer some reasons for following the calendar.

The liturgical calendar may seem confusing at first, but it’s simple once you understand the logic. The Church Year is structured around two high holy days: Christmas Day (aka the Feast of our Lord’s Nativity) and Easter Day (aka the Sunday of the Resurrection). Each day is preceded by a season of preparation and followed by a season of celebration.

Preparing for and Celebrating Christmas Day

Christmas Day is preceded by Advent and followed by Christmastide. Advent (literally, “coming”) is the first season of the Church Year and begins four Sundays before Christmas Day. It’s a time of quiet and reflective prayer, lighting candles, and meditating on Scripture. As we join ancient Israel in awaiting the Messiah, we simultaneously look forward to Christ’s second coming/advent.

Christmastide (aka the Christmas Season or Christmastime) is a 12-day celebration that begins on December 25th and goes until the day before Epiphany (think of the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas”). It’s a time of jubilant celebration: the Coming One has come! Christmas is followed by Epiphany (lit., “manifestation”) on January 6, which recalls Christ’s manifestation to the magi and thus to the Gentiles: the Savior of Israel is the Savior of the whole world, the Lord of every nation! In summary,

  1. Advent (begins the fourth Sunday before Christmas)
  2. Christmas Day (December 25)
  3. Christmastide (12 days from Dec. 25 to Jan. 5)
  4. Epiphany (always January 6)

If you appreciate beautiful music, look up Bach’s Christmas Oratorio in six parts. It begins with cantatas for the first, second, and third days of Christmas. The fourth and fifth parts are for New Year’s Day and the First Sunday in the New Year. Finally, Part VI is for the Feast of the Epiphany. Bach captures the spirit of Christmastide.

The season after Epiphany, considered ordinary time, is sometimes called Epiphanytide. “Ordinary” does not mean “unimportant.” Epiphanytide includes various feast days, the most notable of which is the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord on the first Sunday after Epiphany. During this season, consider preaching from the incarnate life and ministry of Christ in the Gospels. 

Preparing for and Celebrating Easter Day

Easter Day, the other high holy day in the Church Year, is preceded by Lent and followed by Eastertide. On a brief personal note, the only thing that I knew about Lent as a teenager was from my nominal Roman Catholic friends who gave up junk food or video games for a few weeks because their parents made them (i.e., it was basically a joke). But years later, as a serious Christian, having forgotten all about Lent, I began anxiously anticipating Easter Day weeks in advance. I thought, “Why don’t we prepare our hearts for this great day?” I didn’t want Easter to sneak up on me and pass me by in a flash, so I decided to establish some spiritual disciplines to prepare myself, like choosing a book to read to help deepen my understanding of the atonement. Then it dawned on me: “This is what Lent is supposed to be about!”

Lent is a 40-day season of prayer and fasting that commemorates Christ’s 40-day fast in the wilderness. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, on which we are called to repentance and reminded that we are dust and will return to dust/ashes. Lent usually ends on Maundy Thursday, which begins the main portion of Holy Week (aka the Easter/Paschal Triduum), running through Good Friday and Holy Saturday to Easter Sunday. The solemn prayer and fasting of Lent break forth into the hope and jubilance of Easter. Just because something has been abused by nominal Christians doesn’t mean that it should be avoided by faithful ones. Abusus non tollit usum.

Easter Day begins the 50-day season of Easter that runs through Ascension Day (40 days later) and ends with Pentecost, the day when the risen and ascended Christ poured out the Spirit on the church. The time after Easter day is also called Eastertide. In summary,

  1. Lent (begins 46 days before Easter Day)
  2. Easter Day (date varies)
  3. Eastertide (50 days from Easter Day to Pentecost)
  4. Ascension Day (40 days after Easter Day)
  5. Pentecost (50th day of Easter)

The season after Pentecost is ordinary time, but again, “ordinary” doesn’t mean “unimportant.” Quite the contrary. The season after Pentecost is the time of the church. We have joined the Old Testament saints in waiting for Christ’s birth (simultaneously waiting for his second advent), celebrated his nativity and incarnation, walked with him through his earthly life and ministry, humbled ourselves to approach his holy cross, and broke into rejoicing over his resurrection. Now that the risen Christ has poured out his Spirit upon us and given us our Great Commission, it’s time to renew our focus on our disciple-making mission until we begin the calendar again with Advent. Consider preaching from Acts or on the church’s life and mission during this time.

The season after Pentecost includes two major days, one near the beginning and one near the end. First, Trinity Sunday is always the Sunday after Pentecost. Having celebrated the gospel of God in the previous seasons, we now focus our attention on the God of the gospel. Having celebrated the incarnation of the Son and the outpouring of the Spirit, both sent by the Father, we now give glory to the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit before all worlds.

Then, near the end of the season after Pentecost (the time of the church, the communion of saints), it is fitting to observe All Saints’ Day. We give thanks for the saints who are living and dead, honoring the faith of everyone from our departed loved ones to the church fathers and apostles.

Finally, the final Sunday of the Church Year has been celebrated in more recent decades as Christ the King Sunday. As the BCP puts it, “The year that begins with the hope of the coming Messiah ends with the proclamation of his universal sovereignty.” In summary,

  1. Pentecost (50 days after Easter Day)
  2. Trinity Sunday (the Sunday after Pentecost Sunday)
  3. All Saints’ Day (always November 1)
  4. Christ the King Sunday (the last Sunday of the Church Year)

We’ve now covered the major seasons of the Church Year and what the Book of Common Prayer calls the seven Principal Feasts:  (1) Christmas Day, (2) the Epiphany, (3) Easter Day, (4) Ascension Day, (5) the Day of Pentecost, (6) Trinity Sunday, and (7) All Saints’ Day. For more information, and for Scripture readings and prayers for these special days and seasons, refer to the Book of Common Prayer or to the Revised Common Lectionary, both available online.

Some churches observe the liturgical calendar in a slavish, barren fashion, but abuse does not take away proper use. For those who find sacred times spiritually helpful, the liturgical calendar can be a deeply meaningful way to redeem the time by claiming the whole calendar year for Christ. As always, “he who observes a day, observes it to the Lord,” and he who does not observe a day, for the Lord he does not observe it (Rom. 14:5–6).

Cover image: iMac Mockup by Free Mockup Zone

Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is a husband, father, and aspiring pastor-theologian, as well as the founder and president of holyjoys.org. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.