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The liturgical year, also known as the Christian year, consists of the cycle of liturgical seasons in Christian churches which determines when feast days, including celebrations of saints, are to be observed, and which portions of Scripture are to be read. Distinct liturgical colours may appear in connection with different seasons of the liturgical year. The dates of the festivals vary somewhat between the different churches, though the sequence and logic is largely the same.
In both East and West, the dates of many feasts vary from year to year, usually in line with the variation in the date of Easter, with which most other moveable feasts are associated. The extent to which feasts and festivals are celebrated also varies between churches; in general, Protestant churches observe far fewer than Catholic and Orthodox, in particular with regard to feasts of the Virgin Mary and the other Saints.
The liturgical cycle divides the year into a series of seasons, each with their own mood, theological emphases, and modes of prayer, which can be signified by different ways of decorating churches, colors of Paraments and Vestments for clergy, scriptural readings, themes for preaching and even different traditions and practices often observed personally or in the home. In churches that follow the liturgical year, the scripture passages for each Sunday (and even each day of the year in some traditions) are specified by a list called a lectionary.
Among non-Catholic Western Christians, Anglicans and Lutherans have traditionally followed the lectionary since the days of the Protestant Reformation. Following the Roman Catholic liturgical reform of the Roman Rite instituted by Pope Paul VI in 1969, the adoption and use of lectionaries in other Protestant churches (Methodist, Reformed, United, etc.) increased. In particular, the growing influence of the Revised Common Lectionary led to a greater awareness of the Christian year among Protestants in the later decades of the 20th century, especially among mainline denominations.
Scholars are not in agreement about whether the calendars used by the Jews before the Babylonian captivity were solar (based on the return of the same relative position between the sun and the earth) or lunisolar (based on months that corresponded to the cycle of the moon, with periodic additioal months to bring the calendar back into agreement with the solar cycle) like the present-day Hebrew calendar. ` The first month of the year was called אביב (Abib), meaning the month of green ears of grain. It thus occurred in the spring.
At about the time of the Babylonian captivity, the Jews adopted as the name for the month the term ניסן (Nisan), based on the Babylonian name Nisanu. Thomas J Talley says that the adoption of the Babylonian term occurred even before the captivity.
In the earlier calendar, most of the months were simply called by a number (such as "the fifth month"). The Babylonian-derived names of the months are:
In Biblical times, the following Jewish religious feasts were celebrated :
Western Christian liturgical calendars are based on the cycle of the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, including Lutheran, Anglican, and other Protestant calendars since this cycle pre-dates the Reformation. Generally, the liturgical seasons in western Christianity are Advent, Christmas, Ordinary Time (Time after Epiphany), Lent, Easter, and Ordinary Time (Time after Pentecost).
The Catholic Church sets aside certain days and seasons of each year to recall and celebrate various events in the life of Christ. In its Roman Rite the liturgical year begins with Advent, the time of preparation for both the celebration of Jesus' birth, and his expected second coming at the end of time. This season lasts until 24 December (Christmas Eve). Christmastide follows, beginning with First Vespers of Christmas on the evening of 24 December and ending with the feast of the Baptism of Jesus. Lent is the period of purification and penance which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Thursday. The Holy Thursday evening Mass of the Lord's Supper marks the beginning of the Easter Triduum, which includes Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. These days recall Jesus' Last Supper with his disciples, death on the cross, burial, and resurrection. The seven-week liturgical season of Easter immediately follows the Triduum, climaxing at Pentecost. This last feast recalls the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus' disciples after the Ascension of Jesus. The rest of the liturgical year is commonly known as Ordinary Time.
There are many forms of liturgy in the Catholic Church. Even putting aside the many Eastern rites in use, the Latin liturgical rites alone include the Ambrosian Rite, the Mozarabic Rite, and the Cistercian Rite, as well as other forms that have been largely abandoned in favour of adopting the Roman Rite. Of this rite, what is now the "ordinary" or, to use a word employed in the Letter of Pope Benedict XVI accompanying the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, the "normal" form is that which developed from the Second Vatican Council to the present day, while the form in force in 1962 is authorized as an extraordinary form of the Roman Rite without restriction in private celebrations and under certain conditions in public celebrations. The liturgical calendar in that form of the Roman Rite (see General Roman Calendar of 1962) differs in some respects from that of the present ordinary form, as will be noted below, and also from the earlier General Roman Calendar of Pope Pius XII, the still earlier General Roman Calendar of 1954 and the original Tridentine Calendar. These articles can be consulted with regard to the Roman-Rite liturgical year before 1962.
From the Latin adventus, "arrival" or "coming", the first season of the liturgical year begins four Sundays before Christmas and ends on Christmas Eve. Traditionally observed as a "fast", its purpose focuses on preparation for the coming of Christ. Although often conceived as awaiting the coming of the Christ-child at Christmas, the modern Lectionary points the season more toward eschatological themes—awaiting the final coming of Christ, when "the wolf shall live with the lamb" (Isaiah 11:6) and when God will have "brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly" (The Magnificat, Luke 1:52)—particularly in the earlier half of the season. This period of waiting is often marked by the Advent Wreath, a garland of evergreens with four candles. Although the main symbolism of the advent wreath is simply marking the progression of time, many churches attach themes to each candle, most often 'hope', 'faith', 'joy', and 'love'.
Color: Violet, but on the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, Rose may be used instead.
During this season, the Roman Catholic Church typically omits the "Gloria in Excelsis" during Mass, but retains it for the Mass celebrating a feast. The word "Alleluia" is not banned, as in Lent, but the 1962 form of the Roman Rite a Gradual is used instead of an Alleluia and verse, except on Sunday.
The Christmas season immediately follows Advent. The traditional Twelve Days of Christmas begin with Christmas Eve on the evening of December 24 and continue until the feast of Epiphany. The actual Christmas season continues until the Feast of the Baptism of Christ, which in the present form of the Roman Rite is celebrated on the Sunday after 6 January. In the 1962 form, this feast is celebrated on 13 January, unless 13 January is a Sunday, in which case the feast of the Holy Family is celebrated instead. Until the suppression of the Octave of the Epiphany in the 1960 reforms, 13 January was the Octave day of the Epiphany, providing the date for the end of the season.
Color: White or Gold.
"Ordinary" comes from the same root as our word "ordinal", and in this sense means "the counted weeks". In the Roman Catholic Church and in some Protestant traditions, these are the common weeks which do not belong to a proper season. In Latin, these seasons are called the weeks per annum, or "through the year".
In the current form of the Roman Rite adopted following the Second Vatican Council, Ordinary Time consists of 33 or 34 Sundays and is divided into two sections. The first portion extends from the day following the Feast of the Baptism of Christ until the day before Ash Wednesday (the beginning of Lent). It contains anywhere from three to eight Sundays, depending on how early or late Easter falls. The main focus in the readings of the Mass is Christ's earthly ministry, rather than any one particular event. The counting of the Sundays resumes following Eastertide, however, two Sundays are replaced by Pentecost and Trinity Sunday, and depending on whether the year has 52 or 53 weeks, one may be omitted.
In the 1962 form of the Roman Rite, the Time after Epiphany has anywhere from one to six Sundays. As in the current form of the rite, the season mainly concerns Christ's preaching and ministry, with many of his parables read as the Gospel readings. The season begins on 14 January and ends on the Saturday before Septuagesima Sunday. Omitted Sundays after Epiphany are transferred to Time after Pentecost and celebrated between the Twenty-Third and the Last Sunday after Pentecost according to an order indicated in the Code of Rubrics, 18, with complete omission of any for which there is no Sunday available in the current year. Before the 1960 revisions, the omitted Sunday would be celebrated on the Saturday before Septuagesima Sunday, or, in the case of the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, on the Saturday before the Last Sunday after Pentecost.
Until the 1969 reform of the Roman Missal and General Calendar, the two-and-a-half-week period before Lent formed a pre-Lenten season called Septuagesima, the Latin word for "seventieth". The season of Septuagesima thus remains in the 1962 form of the Roman rite as well as in some Protestant calendars. It is a transition from the first part of the season per annum to the season of Lent, and a preparation for the fasting and penance which begin on Ash Wednesday. Although most of the Divine Office remains the same as during the season per annum, certain customs of Lent are adopted, including the suppression of the "Alleluia", the replacement of the Alleluia at Mass with the Tract and the Gloria is no longer said on Sundays.
In the post-1969 form of the Roman Rite, there is no intermediate season between Ordinary Time and Lent.
Lent is a major penitential season of preparation for Easter. It begins on Ash Wednesday and, if the penitential days of Good Friday and Holy Saturday are included, lasts for forty days, since the six Sundays within the season are not counted.
In the Roman Rite the Gloria in Excelsis Deo and the Te Deum are not used in the Mass and Liturgy of the Hours respectively, except on Solemnities and Feasts, and the Alleluia and verse that usually precede the reading of the Gospel is either omitted or replaced with another acclamation.
Lutheran churches make these same omissions.
As in Advent, the deacon and subdeacon of the 1962 form of the Roman Rite do not wear their habitual dalmatic and tunicle (signs of joy) in Masses of the season during Lent; instead they wear "folded chasubles", in accordance with the ancient custom.
In the 1962 form of the Roman Rite, the last two Sundays in the season of Lent are called the First and Second Sundays in Passiontide, and in all Masses of the last two weeks the Gloria Patri is omitted at the Entrance Antiphon. The veiling of crucifixes and images of the saints with violet cloth, which was obligatory in 1962 is left to the decision of the national bishops conference in the later form of the Roman Rite. In all forms, the readings begin to focus even more on the Passion of Christ.
The last week of Lent is called Holy Week.
In the Roman Rite, feasts that fall within that week are simply omitted, unless they have the rank of Solemnity, in which case they are transferred to another date. The only solemnities inscribed in the General Calendar that can fall within that week are those of St. Joseph and the Annunciation.
Color: violet. In some traditions, rose may be used on the 4th Sunday of Lent, called Laetare Sunday in the Roman Rite. Red is used for Palm Sunday in this rite (but only for the blessing of the palms in its 1962 form). In the traditional form of the Palm Sunday liturgy, before the reforms of 1955, violet was used in the Roman rite both for the blessing of palms and procession and for the subsequent Mass.
The Easter Triduum consists of Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday.
It begins on the evening before Good Friday with Mass of the Lord's Supper, celebrated with white vestments, which often includes a ritual of ceremonial footwashing. In other traditions also a footwashing ritual is observed. It is customary on this night for a vigil involving private prayer to take place, beginning after the evening service and continuing until midnight. This vigil is occasionally renewed at dawn, continuing until the Good Friday liturgy.
During the day of Good Friday Mass is not celebrated in the Catholic Church. Instead a Celebration of the Passion of the Lord is held in the afternoon or evening. It consists of three parts: a Liturgy of the Word that includes the reading of the account of the Passion by John the Evangelist and concludes with a solemn Universal Prayer. Other churches also have their Good Friday commemoration of the Passion. The color of vestments varies: no color, red, or black are used in different traditions. Colored hangings may be removed. Lutheran churches often either remove colorful adornments and icons, or veil them with drab cloth. The service is usually plain with somber music, ending with the congregation leaving in silence. In the Roman Catholic, some Lutheran, and High Anglican rites, a crucifix (not necessarily the one which stands on or near the altar on other days of the year) is ceremoniously unveiled. Other crucifixes are unveiled, without ceremony, after the service.
Holy Saturday commemorates the day during which Christ lay in the tomb. In the Roman Catholic Church, there is no Mass on this day; the Easter Vigil Mass, which, though celebrated properly at the following midnight, is often celebrated in the evening, is an Easter Mass. With no liturgical celebration, there is no question of a liturgical color.
The Easter Vigil is held in the night between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday, to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. See also Paschal candle. The liturgical color is white, often together with gold. In the Roman Rite, during the "Gloria in Excelsis Deo" the organ and bells are used in the liturgy for the first time in 2 days, and the statues, which have been veiled during Passiontide (at least in the Roman Rite through the 1962 version), are unveiled. In Lutheran churches, colors and icons are re-displayed as well.
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Easter is the celebration of Jesus' resurrection. The date of Easter varies from year to year, according to a lunar-calendar dating system (see computus for details). In the Roman Rite, the Easter season extends from the Easter Vigil through Pentecost Sunday. In the 1962 form of the rite, this season includes also the Octave of Pentecost, so Eastertide lasts until None of the following Saturday.
In the Roman Rite, the Easter octave allows no other feasts to be celebrated or commemorated during it; a solemnity, such as the Annunciation, falling within it is transferred to the following Monday. If Easter Sunday or Easter Monday falls on 25 April, the Greater Litanies, which in the 1962 form of the Roman Rite are on that day, are transferred to the following Tuesday.
Ascension Thursday, which celebrates the return of Jesus to heaven following his resurrection, is the fortieth day of Easter, but, in places where it is not observed as a Holy Day of Obligation, it is transferred to the following Sunday.
Color: Gold or white, except on Pentecost, on which the color is Red.
Ordinary Time, as it is often called, resumes after the Easter Season, either on Pentecost Monday or, if Pentecost is celebrated with an octave, as in the 1962 form of the Roman Rite, on the following Monday. It ends on the Saturday before the First Sunday of Advent. The Sundays resume their numbering at the point that will make the last of the series the thirty-fourth (present-day form of the Roman Rite) or are numbered as "Sundays after Pentecost" (1962 Roman Rite, Eastern Orthodoxy and some Protestants) or as "Sundays after Trinity" (some Protestants).
Feasts during this season include:
In the final few weeks of Ordinary Time, many churches direct attention to the coming of the Kingdom of God, thus ending the liturgical year with an eschatological theme that is one of the predominant themes of the season of Advent that began the liturgical year. For instance, in the 1962 form of the Roman Rite, the Gospel of the Last Sunday is Matthew 24:15-35 and in the later form of that rite all the last three Sundays have similar themes.
While the Roman Rite adopts no special designation for this final part of Ordinary Time, some denominations do, and may also change the liturgical colour. The Church of England uses the term "Sundays before Advent" for the final four Sundays and permits red vestments as an alternative. Other denominations, including the United Methodist Church and the Christian Church - Synod of Saint Timothy, speak of "Kingdomtide". The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod (LCMS) uses the term "Period of End Times" and assigns red vestments to the first and second Sundays.
Observed by Roman Catholics and some Anglicans on August 15, which is the same as the Eastern and Orthodox feast of the Dormition, the end of the earthly life of the Virgin Mary and, for some, her bodily Assumption into heaven, is celebrated. The Roman Catholic teaching on this feast was defined as dogma on November 1, 1950 by Pope Pius XII in the Papal Bull, Munificentissimus Deus.
In other Anglican and Lutheran traditions, as well as a few others, August 15 is celebrated as St. Mary, Mother of the Lord.
The Church of England uses a liturgical year that is in most respects identical to that of the Roman Church. While this is less true of the calendars contained within the Book of Common Prayer and the Alternative Service Book (1980), it is particularly true since the Anglican Church adopted its new pattern of services and liturgies contained within Common Worship, in 2000. Certainly, the broad division of the year into the Christmas and Easter seasons, interspersed with periods of Ordinary Time, is identical, and the majority of the Festivals and Commemorations are also celebrated, with a few exceptions.
In some Anglican traditions (including the Church of England) the Christmas season is followed by an Epiphany season, which begins on the Eve of the Epiphany (on 6 January or the nearest Sunday) and ends on the Feast of the Presentation (on 2 February or the nearest Sunday). Ordinary Time then begins after this period.
The Book of Common Prayer contains within it the traditional Western Eucharistic lectionary which traces its roots to the Comes of St. Jerome in the 5th century. Its similarity to the ancient lectionary is particularly obvious during Trinity season (Sundays after the Sunday after Pentecost), reflecting that understanding of sanctification.
The Liturgical year in the Eastern Orthodox Church is characterized by alternating fasts and feasts, and is in many ways similar to the Roman Catholic year described above. However, Church New Year (Indiction) traditionally begins on September 1 (Old Style or New Style), rather than the first Sunday of Advent. It includes both feasts on the Fixed Cycle and the Paschal Cycle (or Moveable Cycle). The most important feast day by far is the Feast of Pascha (Easter)—the Feast of Feasts. Then the Twelve Great Feasts, which commemorate various significant events in the lives of Jesus Christ and of the Theotokos (Virgin Mary).
The majority of Orthodox Christians (Russians, in particular) follow the Julian Calendar in calculating their ecclesiastical feasts, but many (including the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Church of Greece), while preserving the Julian calculation for feasts on the Paschal Cycle, have adopted the Revised Julian Calendar (at present coinciding with the Gregorian Calendar) to calculate those feasts which are fixed according to the calendar date. Between 1900 and 2100, there is a thirteen-day difference between the dates of the Julian and the Revised Julian and Gregorian calendars. Thus, for example, where Christmas is celebrated on December 25 O.S. (Old Style), the celebration coincides with January 7 in the Revised Calendar. The computation of the day of Pascha (Easter) is, however, always computed according to a lunar calendar based on the Julian Calendar, even by those churches which observe the Revised Calendar.
There are four fasting seasons during the year: The most important fast is Great Lent which is an intense time of fasting, almsgiving and prayer, extending for forty days prior to Palm Sunday and Holy Week, as a preparation for Pascha. The Nativity Fast (Winter Lent) is a time of preparation for the Feast of the Nativity of Christ (Christmas), but whereas Advent in the West lasts only four weeks, Nativity Fast lasts a full forty days. The Apostles' Fast is variable in length, lasting anywhere from eight days to six weeks, in preparation for the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul (June 29). The Dormition Fast lasts for two weeks from August 1 to August 14 in preparation for the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos (August 15). The liturgical year is so constructed that during each of these fasting seasons, one of the Great Feasts occurs, so that fasting may be tempered with joy.
In addition to these fasting seasons, Orthodox Christians fast on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year (and some Orthodox monasteries also observe Monday as a fast day). Certain fixed days are always fast days, even if they fall on a Saturday or Sunday (in which case the fast is lessened somewhat, but not abrogated altogether); these are: The Decollation of St. John the Baptist, the Exaltation of the Cross and the day before the Epiphany (January 5). There are several fast-free periods, when it is forbidden to fast, even on Wednesday and Friday. These are: the week following Pascha, the week following Pentecost, the period from the Nativity of Christ until January the 5th and the first week of the Triodion (the week following the 33rd Sunday after the Pentecost).
The greatest feast is Pascha, which for the Orthodox is calculated differently than in the West. Easter for both East and West is calculated as the first Sunday after the full moon that falls on or after March 21 (nominally the day of the vernal equinox). However, whereas Western Christians follow the Gregorian Calendar in their calculations, the Orthodox calculate the fixed date of 21 March according to the Julian Calendar, and observe the additional rule that Easter may not precede or coincide with the first day of the Jewish Passover (see computus for further details).
The date of Pascha is central to the entire ecclesiastical year, determining not only the date for the beginning of Great Lent and Pentecost, but affecting the cycle of moveable feasts, of scriptural readings and the Octoechos (texts chanted according to the eight ecclesiastical modes) throughout the year. There are also a number of lesser feasts throughout the year that are based upon the date of Pascha. The moveable cycle begins on the Zacchaeus Sunday (the first Sunday in preparation for Great Lent or the 33rd Sunday after Pentecost as it is known), though the cycle of the Octoechos continues until Palm Sunday.
The date of Pascha affects the following liturgical seasons:
Some of these feasts follow the Fixed Cycle, and some follow the Moveable (Paschal) Cycle. Most of those on the Fixed Cycle have a period of preparation called a Forefeast, and a period of celebration afterward, similar to the Western Octave, called an Afterfeast. Great Feasts on the Paschal Cycle do not have Forefeasts. The lengths of Forefeasts and Afterfeasts vary, according to the feast.
NOTE: In Eastern practice, should this feast fall during Holy Week or on Pascha itself, the feast of the Annunciation is not transferred to another day. In fact, the conjunction of the feasts of the Annunciation and Pascha, known as "Kyriou-Pascha," is considered an extremely festive event.
Some additional feasts are observed with as though they were Great Feasts:
Every day throughout the year commemorates some saint or some event in the lives of Christ or the Theotokos. When a feast on the moveable cycle occurs, the feast on the fixed cycle that was set for that calendar day is transferred, with the propers of the feast often being chanted at Compline on the nearest convenient day.
In addition to the Fixed and Moveable Cycles, there are a number of other liturgical cycles in the ecclesiastical year that affect the celebration of the divine services. These include, the Daily Cycle, the Weekly Cycle, the Cycle of Matins Gospels, and the Octoechos.
Because of the dominance of Christianity in Europe throughout the Middle Ages, many features of the Christian year became incorporated into the secular calendar. Many of its feasts (i.e., Mardi Gras, Saint Patrick's Day) remain holidays, and are now celebrated by people of all faiths and none — in some cases worldwide. The secular celebrations bear varying degrees of likeness to the religious feasts from which they derived, often also including elements of ritual from pagan festivals of similar date.