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“The last will be first, and the first will be last.” Matt. 20:16

The Christian Year

What are the liturgical seasons?

The PC(USA) Directory for Worship says:

God has provided a rhythm of seasons which orders life and influences the church’s worship. God’s work of redemption in Jesus Christ offers the Church a central pattern for ordering worship in relationship to significant occasions in the life of Jesus and of the people of God. The Church has thus come to observe the following days and seasons:

  1. Advent, a season to recollect the hope of the coming of Christ, and to look forward to the Lord’s coming again;
  2. Christmas, a celebration of the birth of Christ;
  3. Epiphany, a day for commemorating God’s self-manifestation to all people;
  4. Lent, a season of spiritual discipline and preparation, beginning with Ash Wednesday, anticipating the celebration of the death and resurrection of Christ;
  5. Holy Week, a time of remembrance and proclamation of the atoning suffering and death of Jesus Christ;
  6. Easter, the day of the Lord’s resurrection and the season of rejoicing that commemorates his ministry until his Ascension, and continues through
  7. the Day of Pentecost, the celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church.

The church also observes other days such as Baptism of the Lord, Transfiguration of the Lord, Trinity Sunday, All Saints Day and Christ the King.

Human life in community reflects a variety of rhythms that also affect Christian worship. Among these are the annual cycles of civic, agricultural, school and business life; special times of family remembrance and celebration; and the patterns of a variety of cultural expressions, commemorations and events. The church in carrying out its mission also creates a cycle of activities, programs and observances. While such events may be appropriately recognized in Christian worship, care should be taken that they do not obscure the proclamation of the gospel on the Lord’s Day (W-3.2002 – W-3.2003).


Why does the planning calendar call May 25, 2008, the “8th Sunday in Ordinary Time” when there are no references to Ordinary Time in the previous weeks?

The starting point in our search for the missing Sundays in Ordinary Time is that preeminent moveable feast, Easter (or the Resurrection of the Lord). For Western Christians (Catholics and Protestants) the Day of Easter is the first Sunday that comes after the first full moon that occurs on or after March 21 (the Spring Equinox) — occasionally shifted to the following Sunday, when the original date happens to coincide with the Jewish Passover. (There is actually a difference between the “Paschal full moon” and the “astronomical full moon“ that we can’t begin to explain.) This computation means that Easter always occurs sometime between March 22 and April 25, inclusive. The Eastern Churches (Greek and Russian Orthodox, e.g.) use a different set of astronomical tables based on the Julian Calendar (instead of the Gregorian), which means that Orthodox Easter generally follows the Western date by one, four or five weeks (sometimes occurring in early May).

The beginning of Lent with Ash Wednesday is calculated by counting backwards 46 days from Easter Sunday — 46 and not 40 because the forty-day fast of Lent does not include the always festive celebration of the Lord’s Day (i.e., the six Sundays in Lent, including Palm/Passion Sunday).

All this means that, depending on how early the season of Lent begins (which depends on when the Easter season begins), the fourth through eighth Sundays in Ordinary Time may be preempted. Imagine them waiting in the wings (or warming the bench) to find out when Easter is scheduled. For this first period of Ordinary Time, the Baptism of the Lord is always the first Sunday. The Transfiguration of the Lord is always the last of these Sundays after Epiphany. However, it’s better not to think of it as the “Nth Sunday in Ordinary Time,” because the Fourth through Eighth Sundays in Ordinary Time have their own identity, as they are associated with a particular set of lectionary texts. In other words, each numbered Sunday in Ordinary Time is always connected with the same set of texts.

The season of Easter begins with the Day of the Resurrection of the Lord (Easter Sunday) and extends for fifty days (covering eight Sundays). The last of these Sundays is, of course, Pentecost (from the Greek for “fiftieth day”). Following the Easter season begins the second period of Ordinary Time (perhaps better called the Sundays after Pentecost). Depending on the date of Pentecost (which depends on the date of Easter), the Ninth through Twelfth Sundays in Ordinary Time are in a similar state of limbo. Trinity Sunday is always the first Sunday in this period, but it’s better not to think of it as the “Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time” since that name is used to designate a particular set of lectionary texts. Similarly, Christ the King/Reign of Christ Sunday is always the last Sunday in that second period of Ordinary Time.

Finally, there is another nomenclature (found in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, e.g.) that you may have encountered in the Sundays after Pentecost — that of “Propers.” For instance, Sunday, Sept. 2, 2007, is alternately called Proper 17 and the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time. The system is similar to the numbered Sundays of Ordinary Time. The later the Day of Pentecost falls, the more earlier Propers (Proper 1, 2, etc.) are displaced.

To summarize, there’s something like a buffer zone of Sundays in Ordinary Time that surrounds the Lent/Easter cycle, and some of those Sundays always get absorbed depending on when Easter takes place. Each of the Sundays in Ordinary Time is given a number as a “permanent label,” however, and that number always refers to a specific set of lectionary texts. There have been attempts over the years to standardize the calendar — from the Quartodeciman Controversy of the second century A.D. (which attempted to tie the Easter celebration to Passover), to an initiative at the Second Vatican Council, to a 1977 proposal that Easter always be celebrated on the day after the second Saturday in April. It never seems to stick.

Source: Laurence Hull Stookey, Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church


Why is there a fifty-day season of Easter?

Your home is littered with the separated hemispheres of colorful plastic eggs. Flowery new dresses are rumpled in the laundry hamper. Foil chocolate wrappers are crumpled in the garbage. There's half of a ham and a partially eaten container of potato salad in the refrigerator. But Easter isn't over. Easter has just begun.

One day out of 365 is hardly sufficient to celebrate the great mystery of our faith—that Christ is risen from the dead. Accordingly, the season of Easter lasts seven weeks, spanning the fifty days from the Sunday of the Resurrection to Pentecost Sunday. The notion of Easter as a season of fifty days is patterned after the ancient Jewish festival of seven weeks that extended from the beginning of the barley harvest (on the second day after the beginning of Passover) to the end of the wheat harvest, at the Festival of Weeks (see Deuteronomy 16:9-12). The Festival of Weeks later came to be called Pentecost (“fiftieth day”) by Greek speaking Jews.

In addition to the agricultural calendar, the symbolic value of numbers plays a meaningful role in the duration of this festival. In ancient Israelite culture, the number seven implied wholeness or completion; thus there are seven days in week, the time required for the completion of creation. A period of seven weeks, each consisting of seven days, suggests fullness “squared.” The season of Easter is, therefore, a “week” of weeks. Seven weeks is roughly one seventh of a year (52 weeks); just as the seventh day of the week is holy to God, one seventh of the year is set apart as a holy season. The number fifty also has symbolic significance, since Leviticus 25 designates every fiftieth year as a time of jubilee, when captives are to be released and debts are to be forgiven. Easter, as a season of fifty days, represents the “great jubilee,” in which we are released from captivity to death and the debt of our sin is forgiven by God. Finally, in an eschatological sense, Easter stands just outside, but adjacent to, the “week” of weeks (49 days) as the great fiftieth day, just as Sunday is considered the “eighth day” of creation, since Christ rose from the dead on the first day of the week.

The five Sundays between the Sunday of the Resurrection and Pentecost Sunday, often erroneously called “First Sunday after Easter,” “Second Sunday after Easter,” etc., are properly called “Second Sunday of Easter,” “Third Sunday of Easter,” and so forth. This small change helps to demonstrate that Easter isn't a day, but a season. Sometimes a little preposition makes a big difference.

The season of Easter is intended to be an extended time of joy and celebration in the church. In 325 CE, the Council of Nicaea decreed that fasting and kneeling were to be forbidden during the fifty days of Easter. For some contemporary congregations that do not ordinarily celebrate the Eucharist each Sunday, the seven weeks of Easter provide an opportunity to explore this practice. The liturgical colors throughout the season of Easter are white and gold, except for Pentecost, which is red.

Source: Laurence Hull Stookey, The Calendar: Christ's Time for the Church (Abingdon, 1996) 53-58.

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Comments

  • Do you mean different symbols for different seasons and festivals in the Christian year (Advent, Epiphany, Easter, Pentecost, etc.)? I'm not aware of suggested symbols. Crosses or Christograms, such as IHS (iota, eta, sigma, the first three letters of Jesus in Greek), are common design elements. The Book of Common Worship (Westminster John Knox, 1993) has a nice array of "Section Heading Crosses" from a variety of Christian traditions that might provide some inspiration; see page 1107. by David Gambrell on 09/09/2010 at 1:27 p.m.

  • Are there suggested symbols for the different parament cloths? by Sidney Fisher on 09/09/2010 at 11:42 a.m.

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