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Advent, Easter and Ordinary Time: Knowing the Christian Calendar

Since ancient times Christians have used the Christian calendar, or liturgical year (also sometimes referred to as the church’s feasts and fasts, or "seasons of the church") to every day orient themselves relative to the two most significant segments or seasons in the yearly Christian cycle of time: the period of Christmas (Christ’s incarnation!) and the period of Easter (Christ’s resurrection!).

Want more God in your calendar than you get with only the individual days of Christmas and Easter?  Then awaken yourself to the Christian calendar, when virtually every day of the year has a vital and traditionally sacred place relative to the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Christ.

Because the Christian year is rooted in the liturgical observances of ancient Judaism, it should not surprise us that over time different strains of Christianity developed different variations on the Christian year. Typically, though, the Protestant church year runs as follows.

The Advent-Christmas-Epiphany Cycle

Advent  Rather than on January 1, the Christian new year begins on the Sunday that falls nearest November 30. That Sunday through the next three Sundays---in other words, the time  encompassing the four Sundays before Christmas---is known as the season of Advent (which is Latin for “coming”). During this time the church liturgically, spiritually, and practically prepares for the glory of Christmas day. 

Christmas  While Christmas Day is celebrated on December 25, the Christmas season lasts the twelve days from December 25 to the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. (Hence the “Twelve Days of Christmas.”) 

Epiphany  Epiphany is Greek for "manifestation,” “show,” “revealed,” and it is during this season that we focus upon what it means to us that God assumed human form and died for our sins so that we might have everlasting life. It is also a time when churches tend to focus on their missional work: If Jesus gave his all to save us, then we must strive to in our turn save others. Epiphany runs from the close of Christmastide (a traditional word for the Christmas season) on January 6 to the beginning of Lent. 

Ordinary Time  This does not mean “boring time where nothing interesting happens.” The term derives from the word “ordinal,” as in “numbered”---and, indeed, the Sundays that fall within Ordinary Time are often designated in such ways as The Third Sunday After Pentecost, or The Second Sunday Before Lent. Ordinary Time refers to any period of time that falls outside the major seasons of the liturgical year. Where within the times of Christmas and Easter we focus on specific aspects of Christ’s life and meaning to us, during Ordinary Time we think about what Christ means to the entirety of our lives. It is, after all, during the “ordinary times” of our life that Christ can, and should, mean as much to us as he does at any other.

The Easter Cycle

Lent  A forty day period (based on the forty days of temptation Jesus faced in the wilderness) of fasting, prayer, self-examination and repentance in anticipation of the day Christ sacrificed himself in atonement for our sins.

Holy Week  Sometimes called Passion Week, because of the awesome and terrible events that unfolded between the days of Palm Sunday (when Jesus triumphantly rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey) and Holy Saturday (when Jesus was buried after his passion and crucifixion on Good Friday).

Easter  Yay! The reason for our joy and hope! Easter is the most important, most ancient festival of the Christian church year. Every Sunday of the Easter season, which lasts fifty days overall, is a celebration of the glorious resurrection of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.

Pentecost  This day celebrates the occasion of the Holy Spirit first descending upon Christ’s disciples. Pentecost is the last day of the Easter season--meaning it falls on the fiftieth day after Easter. Pentecost Sunday is a traditional day for baptism and the confirmation of new Christians. 

Ordinary Time  From the day of Pentecost to the First Sunday of Advent.

And that’s the church calendar! Within it, of course, also lie a great many very significant days in the liturgical calendar, of which Ash Wednesday (the first of the forty days of Lent), the Baptism of the Lord (usually celebrated on the first Sunday after the Epiphany), and Trinity Sunday (the first Sunday after Pentecost when we celebrate the Trinity) are but three.

If you’re not familiar with the Christian year, consider becoming so. Sharing the seasonal cycle with so many Christians who have always used the church calendar to daily put their lives in sync with the life of Christ can’t help but deepen your appreciation and understanding of Him.  

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(This post is based on a section of  Being Christian, the book just out from Bethany House that I co-authored with Stephen Arterburn.)

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