Show/hide picture

The seasons

Seasons mark the rhythm of the Church year.  Each has its own special character and helps us to reflect on the life, mission and ministry of Jesus Christ.

Advent
Christmas
Epiphany
Ordinary Time - before Lent
Lent
(   Holy Week    )
Easter
Ordinary time - after Pentecost

Advent

The season of Advent begins the Church Year, with the four Sundays before Christmas.  It is not part of the Christmas season, though, and its nature is one of penitence and expectation.  The word 'advent' derives from the Latin adventus, which means coming or arrival.  During Advent we not only look forward to the Incarnation, but also to Christ's second coming as well as reflecting on his continuing presence in our hearts.  Gospel readings on the first Sunday of Advent reflect on the end of the age.  In this season, we wait and prepare for Christmas,when we celebrate the birth of Christ, but the real waiting is for His return.  There are many references to waiting in both the Old and New Testaments and it is interesting to note that both wait and hope have the same root in Hebrew.

Advent was the last season to be formalized as part of the Church year, with the first clear references to it in the sixth century.  It has its origins in a period of fasting of Celtic monks in Gaul, but then developed a more festive tone by its association with Christmas.  However, as the second coming took on a more prominent theme of Advent, it developed its more sombre mood of reflection, devotion and anticipation, akin to that of Lent.  For example, the Gloria in Excelsis would normally be omitted during Holy Communion.

Advent lasts from the first Sunday of Advent until Christmas Eve and is symbolized by the colour purple.

Back to top

Christmas

"... and his name shall be called Emmanuel" (Matthew 1:23).  Christmas is not a single day. but a special season that celebrates "God with us" truly became Man and entered into our lives.

The birth of Christ was commemorated in the early church but was not a significant festival.  As Christianity spread, many customs and festivals were appropriated rather than being condemned or abandoned - making it easier to deal with potential converts.  It was also easier then for Christians to join in, avoiding the cultural pressures of the time.  The use of December 25 combines the Roman feast of Saturnalia, the winter solstice and the birth of the Iranian god Mithras, but did not come into use until late in the fourth century.

Christmas is a joyous season and the twelve days of Christmas are a celebration of the incarnation of the Son of God who took on our humanity to dwell amongst us.

The season of Christmas lasts from Christmas Day until the day before Epiphany.  We use the colour white, or gold.

Back to top

Epiphany

Epiphany comes from a Greek word meaning manifestation or appearance.  The festival originally celebrated three key events in the life of Our Lord: the manifestation of Christ to the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12), his baptism (Mark 1:9-11) and the miracle at Cana (John 2:1-11).  All three events emphasized the mission of Christ and His divinity.

The season of Epiphany lasts until the feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple or, depending on the date of Easter, the eve of Septuagesima Sunday, the third Sunday before Lent.  We use the colour white or gold, including the feast of the Presentation.

Back to top

Ordinary Time - between Epiphany and Lent

There is nothing mundane or ordinary about Ordinary Time.  It is simply time that falls outside the two sacred periods of the year - Advent-Christmas-Epiphany and Lent--Holy Week-Easter-Pentecost - when we can reflect on the mystery of Christ in all its apsects. 

The word 'ordinary' derives from the Latin ordo and may refer to the fact that the Sundays are simply numbered.  The old term was tempus per annum - 'time throughout the year. 

The three Sundays before Ash Wednesday are known traditionally as Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima Sundays respectively.   The names mean literally seventy, sixty and fifty days.  There are fifty days from Quinquagesima Sunday  until Easter day (if both Sundays are counted), but the others do not refer to any exact periods as such.  They are so called after the Quadragesima - a period of forty days before Easter, corresponding to Lent.

The first season of Ordinary Time lasts from the day after the feast of the Presentation until the day before Ash Wednesday.  Ordinary Time is characterized by the use of the colour green.

Back to top

Lent

Lent precedes the most sacred part of the Christian year.  It begins on Ash Wednesday and lasts until Holy Saturday, or Easter Eve.  It is a time of penitence, with a theme of fasting and renunciation, during which Christians prepare for the commemoration of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  There is a long and tradtional history associated with Lent of fasting, prayer, almsgiving and Scripture reading.

The period is conventionally forty days.  Although there are actually forty six days, we do not count Sundays as Sundays are always a reminder of Christ's resurrection and victory over sin and death (though they are marked as different by not using flowers in church for example).

Originally described as Quadragesima - forty days - the English word lent came to be used.  It derives from lencte, the word for Spring, from the Germanic root for long - lengthening days being a sign of Spring.  There are many references to the number forty in the Bible, though traditionally they refer to the period Christ spent in the wilderness.

Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, when palm branches from the previous year's Palm Sunday services woul dbe burned and the ashes used to mark the foreheads of the faithful as an echo of the tradition in the near east to throw ashes on one's head as a sign of repentance before God, expressing sorrow for sins and faults (eg Job 42:3-6).

Although Lent continues until Easter Eve, or Holy Saturday, the week preceding Easter Sunday has a special character.  The last Sunday of Lent is the beginning of Passiontide.  During Lent, the colour purple is used, or alternatively, an unbleached cloth know as Lent Array.

Back to top

Holy week

Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday, celebrating Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem, as described all four canonical Gospels.  The custom of procession and blessing of palm branches dates at least to the late fourth century when it was described by Egeria, a Gallic woman who made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land sometime around 381-384.

The end of Holy Week is known historically as the Triduum - lasting from the evening of Maundy Thursday until evening prayers on Easter Day.  

The traditions of foot washing, with its origins in near eastern hospitality, were followed in very early Church services on the Thursday before Easter and the distribution of royal Maundy money goes back, in England, to the time of Edward I.  The term, maundy, may well derive from the verb maund to beg and the name given to a small basket held out by beggars.  Alternatively, it may come from the statement by Jesus (John 13:34) in which he commands us to love one another, which in Latin began with "mandatum novum" - a new commandment. 

Maundy Thursday is also the day on which clergy renew their commitment to the ministry.

Although Maundy Thursday is in the Lenten period, white or gold vestments are used as we commemorate the Last Supper.

Good Friday is a solemn commemoration of the crucifixion and death of Our Lord.  Holy Communion is not celebrated, but consecrated bread and wine from the Maundy Thursday Eucharist are distributed.

Churches are bare, having been stripped of all decoration after the Maundy Thursday service.  Red vestments (historically black) are worn to recall the passion of Christ.

The silence and desolation of the Good Friday observances date back to the very earliest times of the Christian Church and were attested to by the pilgrim Egeria in the late fourth century.  The practice of venerating a wooden cross probably originated in Jerusalem in the seventh or eighth century.

Holy Week ends on Easter Eve, just before the Easter Vigil.  No liturgy takes place on the Saturday and churches remain stripped of hangings.

Back to top

Easter

The feast of Christ's resurrection is the pinnacle of the Christian year.  The celebration of Easter developed from the original Christian Pascha, an adaptation of the Jewish passover.  By the fourth century, it had become a clear celebration of the resurrection.

Easter begins with the Vigil in which the Easter Candle is lit, symbolizing the return of light of Christ.  The Easter Vigil developed from a practice of preparation of converts who were to be baptized on Easter Day itself.

In the Church year, Easter is a celebration that lasts all the way from Easter Day until Pentecost.

Forty days after Easter is Ascension Day, which is one of the principal feasts in the Church calendar and commemorates a fundamental belief of Christianity, Christ ascending into Heaven.

This important feast was preceded by three days of fasting to prepare for the Ascension.  In the late fifth century, a practice was introduced by Mamertus, Bishop of Vienne, of petition for God's protection of crops after a series of earthquakes and other disasters.  These three days were called Rogation Days from the original Gospel reading of the previous Sunday (John 16:24) "Ask and you shall receive" - in Latin rogare is to ask.

Around this time - on Ascension Day or one of the Rogation Days - a curious ceremony called 'beating the bounds' takes place in many parishes.  In the days before maps, the clergy and churchwardens, together with many parishioners, would take boys - possibly as witnesses likely to survive longer - who would 'beat' the boundary markers of the parish with green boughs.

Fifty days after Easter Day is the day of Pentecost (from the Greek for fifty days), sometimes called Whit Sunday or Whitsun.  Whitsun is a contraction of White Sunday, named from the white clothes worn by those about to be baptized that day.   The day commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles (Acts 2:1-14), when what appeared to be fiery tongues settled on each.  The colour red is used as a symbol of the Holy Spirit.

Eastertide ends on the day of Pentecost .

Back to top

Ordinary Time - after Pentecost

The season from the Monday after Pentecost, until the first Sunday of Advent, is known as Ordinary Time (see also Ordinary Time - between Epiphany and Lent above). 

The first Sunday is celebrated as Trinity Sunday, honouring the doctrine of the Trinity: God in three Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  This doctrine is remembered every time we say the Gloria in Excelsis and the specific celebration was not instituted until the early fourteenth century as the Sunday after Pentecost.  For this Sunday, white is used.

The Thursday after Trinity Sunday, also marked by the use of white, is celebrated as the Day of Thanksgiving for the Institution of Holy Communion (Corpus Christi).  Although we commemorate the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday, that is also a celebration of Christ's new commandment - that we love one another.  In the late thirteenth century, a new feast was formally instituted, focused solely on the Eucharist.

November 1 is celebrated as All Saints Day, in memory of all the saints, known and unknown who have attained the beatific vision in Heaven.  It is an ancient feast, traced back to the seventh and eighth centuries and its celebration is considered obligatory.  As a commemoration of all the saints, white is used.

The last Sunday after Trinity, the final Sunday in the liturgical year is celebrated as the festival of Christ the King.  This observance has only been in place for eighty years or so, since being instituted by Pope Pius XI.  It is an opportunity to contemplate
the glory, the grandeur, the majesty of God in Jesus Christ who, as we are reminded in the collect for the day, “ascended to the throne of heaven that he might rule over all things as Lord and King”.    White vestments (sometimes red) are used.

Other than these important feasts and festivals, the colour green - the colour of hope and life eternal - is used throughout Ordinary Time, except for the many other festivals and lesser festivals that are celebrated with reverence and remembrance.

Back to top