On the first day of Advent (two days ago, 30 November this year), I posted a simple “Happy new (liturgical) year!” on my social media profile. My seminary and ministry friends wished me the same, but other people commented or messaged me to ask, “What’s that mean?” It’s a question I hear a lot, particularly from people who attend or were raised in “non-liturgical” churches (everyone follows some sort of liturgy, though, whether they admit it or not). So today we’ll tackle the Christian calendar, seeking to answer the question “What’s the liturgical year?” or, as it may be more commonly asked, “Why do the colors in my church’s sanctuary change every so often?”
The word “liturgy” comes from two separate Greek words for “people” and “work” and literally means “the work of the people.” As we use it in church parlance, liturgy refers to the program/order of worship used in a corporate church worship service (sing a song, pass the peace, sing again, read the Scripture, hear a sermon, recite a creed, celebrate the Eucharist [or however your church does it]). The more formal or ritualized the service is, the more it has to be prayerfully programmed out, and so we say it’s more “liturgical.” The Roman Catholic Mass is a highly liturgical service, for example, with the parishioners playing a large role in the worship itself (this is also known as “high church”). Southern Baptist churches, on the other hand, while following their own liturgy of sorts, tend to be more free-flowing and sermon-oriented than the Mass and feature less congregational participation, and so we call it less liturgical (or “low church,” if you prefer).
In a broader sense, however, the Christian Church follows the Christian calendar, a.k.a. the liturgical year. Like any other calendar year, the church calendar features distinct seasons of worship. The first is Advent, a time of preparation for the coming Messiah (both in terms of Christmas and his second coming). Next comes Christmas — all twelve days of it, hence the song (which you are now humming). Christmas ends with Epiphany, celebrating the arrival of the magi (for the West) and the baptism of Christ (in the East); either way, Epiphany is a day to celebrate the manifestation of Jesus to the larger world. After Epiphany is a brief period of Ordinary Time (which is exactly as it sounds; nothing major goes on) leading up to Lent. Lent is the forty-day period between Ash Wednesday and Easter, and it is observed through fasting and self-denial, preparation for the crucifixion of Jesus. Next comes Easter itself, a fifty-day observance of the resurrection of Our Lord, ending at Pentecost (literally “fifty”). From Pentecost until Advent, we return to Ordinary Time. Throughout each season, other observances occur, such as feast days of saints, Candlemas, Trinity Sunday, Holy/Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, etc.
Each distinct season is represented by its own color. Churches will change the decorations in the sanctuary, known as paraments, to the color corresponding with each season, and in churches where clergy don vestments, the color of the vestments (such as the stole, chasuble, or dalmatic) will change as well (more on vestments later). Advent is either blue or purple; Christmas and Easter are white; Lent is purple; and Ordinary Time is green. Pentecost, and feast days where observed, are red. The colors can change for other reasons as well (such as for weddings and funerals). So when the colors in the sanctuary have changed, you know you’ve entered a new liturgical season — and if you can recognize the color, you’ll know which one it is! (The liturgical year: color-coded for your convenience!)
The church year helps us cover our bases in worship, if you will. After forty days of Lent full of fasting and totally void of any “hallelujahs,” it’s much easier to both sympathize with the passion of the Christ and be more eager to truly mean it when you shout “Alleluia!” While most people in our contemporary society tend to skip Advent altogether and start singing Christmas carols, the season teaches us about expectation and hope as well as reminding us that Our Lord will return one day. Pentecost, somewhat tritely known as the birthday of the Church, nevertheless recalls to memory our origins as a worshiping community and the awesome blessings of the Holy Spirit.
The liturgical year allows us great joy, great lament, and times of ordinary Christian service. It reminds us of our Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and how the Trinity interacts with us in our worship and in our daily lives. The Christian calendar provides an easy way to orient those daily lives to the Christian message, giving us easy paths to let our faith be seen in how we live each day.
Some churches still say following the liturgical year is “too Catholic,” and so they retain their forms of low church worship. To be fair, the calendar certainly wasn’t in existence in apostolic times, although they celebrated Easter and other observances. But to me, the church year is a great way to be in fellowship with the larger global church, and its value when followed in corporate worship and discipleship shouldn’t be underestimated.
And so, two days later, I’ll say it again: happy new year!