Embrace Annual Cycles of Worship to Provide a Regular Rhythm to Our Faith Journey
Some churches follow a church calendar throughout the year to guide them into seasons of worship. This provides an annual rhythm to their embrace of God. Other churches are less structured in their approach, focusing on two major biblical holidays: Christmas and Easter. Even so, it’s good to be aware of the traditional church calendar.
There is no single agreed upon calendar that all churches follow, with each applying their own unique approach. Yet there are some general concepts that most church calendars follow. Note that church calendars don’t start on the first of the year but instead begin with Jesus’s birth.
Here’s a generic overview of the church calendar.
We call the time leading up to Christmas Advent. It begins on the fourth Sunday prior to Christmas, which yields differing starting dates each year.
Some churches, however, are flexible with the start of Advent. They begin on the first Sunday after Thanksgiving (in the United States) or the first Sunday in December. Often—but not always—this coincides with the fourth Sunday prior to Christmas.
On Christmas Day we celebrate the birth of Jesus who came to earth to save us. This date is one of tradition more so than the Savior’s actual birth. No one knows for sure, but spring is a more likely time.
Epiphany (the day)
Epiphany occurs twelve days after Christmas, traditionally marking the Magi’s arrival to visit baby Jesus.
Some churches call the time between Christmas Day and Epiphany Christmastide. Other practices end Christmastide on New Years Day.
Epiphany (the season)
Confusing our understanding of the church calendar, some churches celebrate the season of Epiphany, instead of just one day. It starts on the day of Epiphany and ends with the beginning of Lent. Other churches, however, have a break in their church calendar celebrations, calling the time between the day of Epiphany and Lent as “Ordinary Time.”
The season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, which is six weeks prior to Good Friday. Though we commonly think of Lent as lasting forty days, the reality is that they don’t count Sundays to make the numbers work.
The ending of Lent varies greatly. It can be on Good Friday, Monday Thursday, the day before Easter, or the beginning of Holy Week. What matters in all this, however, is that Lent moves us toward Jesus’s death for our sins and his resurrection from the grave.
Good Friday and Easter
Good Friday and Easter—more appropriately called Resurrection Sunday—celebrate Jesus and his all-important mission of coming to earth to save us. On Good Friday Jesus died for us and the wrong things we did. He was buried in a tomb. On Resurrection Sunday he rose from the grave, proving his mastery over death.
The season after Jesus rose from the grave on Resurrection Sunday is called Eastertide. For some church calendars, Eastertide lasts forty days and ends on Ascension Day, which occurs on Thursday, even though many churches celebrate it the following Sunday. For other churches Eastertide lasts fifty days and ends on Pentecost.
Forty days after Jesus rose from the dead, he ascended into heaven. We call this Ascension Day. This occurs on Thursday each year, but many churches celebrate it the following Sunday.
Fifty days after Resurrection Sunday (Easter), and ten days after Ascension Day, God sent the Holy Spirit to Jesus’s church to fill them and guide them, just as he promised.
Church calendars label the days between Pentecost and Advent as Ordinary Time. It is, in fact, an ordinary time. It’s the space on church calendars without any religious holidays or celebrations.
Some churches also observe a short season of Ordinary Time between the day of Epiphany and Lent.
Celebrate Jesus Throughout the Year
Whether your church calendar celebrates all these seasons and dates or focuses on Christmas and Easter, we should all celebrate Jesus throughout the year. The first four devotional books in the Holiday Celebration Bible Study Series guide us in doing just that:
- The Advent of Jesus covers the season of Advent, Christmas Day, and ends on Epiphany.
- The Ministry of Jesus focuses on what Jesus did leading up to his death and resurrection, that is, his earthly ministry. It’s an ideal devotional for Ordinary Time, be it between Epiphany and Lent or between Pentecost and Advent.
- The Passion of Jesus covers the season of Lent and concludes on Good Friday (Eastertide).
- The Victory of Jesus begins on Resurrection Sunday (Easter) and goes through to Pentecost.
Reading these four devotionals in this order provide a comprehensive understanding of Jesus’s life and mission as recorded in the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Learn more about the Holiday Celebration Bible Study Series.
Peter DeHaan writes about biblical Christianity to confront status quo religion and live a life that matters. He seeks a fresh approach to following Jesus through the lens of Scripture, without the baggage of made-up traditions and meaningless practices.