The Seasons of the Christian Year


Advent marks the commencement of the Church year and opens on Advent Sunday, the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day. Traditionally it is a time of fasting and is a ‘penitential’ season, hence the liturgical colour being purple.

The word is derived from a Latin root which means ‘coming’ or ‘arrival’, and the season was developed in the Western church as a preparation for the festival of the nativity. Councils held in Gaul in the sixth century refer to a penitential period of six weeks before Christmas. There was fasting on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. But the season was already known to Gregory of Tours in the latter part of the preceding century. It may be affirmed that fifth ­century Gaul was the place of origin of the fully organized period of six Sundays, and that the structure of Advent, with regard to its length, was modelled on Lent. Various lectionaries dating from the seventh and eighth centuries, or representing the use of that time, show the six Sunday pattern in Gaul and north-west Italy. At a greater dis­tance from Gaul, that is, in Spain, north­east Italy and south Italy, we find five Sundays, clearly representing a modifi­cation of the original structure. The Würzburg manuscript, con­taining in a table of epistles the oldest Roman lectionary, commences with Christmas and places a five-Sunday Advent at the end. So at Rome the logic of the invention of Advent had not been com­pletely accepted. Eventually at Rome Advent was reduced from five to four Sundays. As the Roman rite gradually tri­umphed over the native uses of the West the four-Sunday Advent became the norm.

Advent has come to mark preparation for the coming of Christ in a double manner, first in his incarnation as the babe of Bethlehem, which is obvious, and in his second coming at the end of time, which is perhaps less so. Also involved is commemoration of the ministry of John the Baptist as Christ’s forerunner and, for Anglicans and other followers of the tradition of the Book of Common Prayer, the place of scripture in worship and life, because of the prayer book collect for the second Sunday.
Modern observance of Advent tends to be overshadowed by the all but universal anticipation of Christmas, necessary in scholastic institutions, unfortunate if perhaps inevitable elsewhere. Likewise it can be questioned whether the Joint Liturgical Group Calendar, with its nine-­Sunday approach to Christmas, can be combined with the traditional Western four-Sunday Advent, as the Alternative Service Book of the Church of England has done. Perhaps a penitential analogue to Lent for the period before Christmas is otiose anyway, a piece of unnecessary Gal­lican elaboration, and something like the Joint Liturgical Group approach should be adopted without further complication.


This is the period lasting from the evening of December 24th, Christmas Eve, through until January 5th, the eve of the Epiphany.

In Egypt in 1996 BC the calendar recorded the winter solstice as being on 6 January, but by the time Alexandria was founded in 331 BC the inaccuracy of the calendar meant that the solstice was on 25 December. The dates of the Christian festivals of Christmas and Epiphany  are both linked with the winter solstice, transmuted celebrations of the pagan world. It is at Rome in the early fourth century that we find firm evidence of the celebration of Christmas. In the year 274, the emperor Aurelian introduced in the imperial capital the festival of the Invincible Sun, Natalis Solis Invicti, on 25 December. At some point before 336 the church must have established on this date the commemoration of the incarna­tion, the birth of the Son of Righteous­ness.

The evidence for this is contained in a martyrology written by Philocalus in 354 giving two lists of anniversaries, the one detailing the burial days of Roman bishops and the other those of martyrs. He based this work on and added to a list whose latest date was 335. Both lists are set out in the order of the months, and it is highly signifi­cant that the opening date in the first is 27 December, and in the second 25 December, where the entry makes reference to the nativity. From this it is possible to conclude that by 336 Christmas was in existence in Rome, and was the beginning of the litur­gical year. Some scholars have argued that the identification of 25 December as the date of the birth of Christ predates this winter festival of the sun, and originates in circum­stances unlikely to be influenced by it. It can be noted that both Hippolytus and Tertullian identify the date of the cruci­fixion as 25 March; if one then adopts that as the date of the conception of Jesus as well, 25 December becomes the date of his birth. Be that as it may, there seems no doubt that the Christianization of the pagan festival of the sun gave the celebration of Christmas on that date an enormous boost even if it was not the original reason for it; the existence of an earlier tradition of celebrating the birth of Christ on this date would have made the transition even easier.

By tradition, the Christmas season is re­garded as consisting of twelve days, and ends with the Epiphany. The liturgies of this period are woven around the infancy nar­ratives from the gospels of Matthew and Luke, together with all those passages that were seen to anticipate the incarnation in the Old Testament and expound its significance in the New. It remains the most widely ob­served of all Christian feasts, perhaps be­cause this festival combines human need for a party to enliven the gloom of midwinter, the natural human response to child­birth, and the message of ‘Immanuel’ – ‘God with us’. It was a stroke of sheer pastoral genius to Christianize the pagan mid­winter festival in this way. The midnight Eucharist of Christmas is probably the most commonly attended of all liturgical observances.



Baptism of JesusThe Epiphany – a Greek word meaning “Manifestation” or “Showing forth” – is an ancient Christian feast day and is significant in a number of ways. In the East, where it originated, the Epiphany celebrates the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. It also celebrates Jesus’ birth. Thus the Eastern Church sees the Epiphany as being revelation of God the Son as a human being in Adoration of the MagiJesus Christ The Western Church began celebrating the Epiphany in the 4th century where it was, and still is, associated with the visit of the magi (wise men) to the infant Jesus when God revealed himself to the Gentile world through the incarnation of Jesus. According to Matthew 2:11 they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. These gifts were symbolic of Jesus’ kingship (gold), priesthood (frankincense) and his death (myrrh). The season of Epiphany extends from 6 January until Ash Wednesday, which begins the season of Lent leading to Easter.




Traditionally a period of forty days fasting lasting from Ash Wednesday until the Saturday before Easter. The actual period of just over six weeks is more than the forty days – but the anomally comes about through the fact that Sundays are not included in the days of fasting!

The English word ‘Lent’ means ‘Spring’, but this does not express the significance of the six-week period of spiritual discipline before Easter as conveyed by the 40 days of the Greek tessaracoste or the Latin quadragesima (the latter has given its name to the first Sunday in Lent). Its origin probably lies in the formal and final period of preparation of candidates for baptism at Easter, with which those undergoing penance rapidly became associated. With the atrophy of both of these it became transformed into a period of general de­votional preparation for Easter for all.

Originally it was somewhat variable in length, but six weeks seems to have been the norm in many places from the fourth century onwards, with Quadragesima (Lat ‘forty days’) marking its commencement. When the desire arose to keep the Lenten fast as a strict 40 days, and equally to ex­clude the Sundays from this total on the traditional grounds that Sunday was never a fast day, it was apparent that the week­days of the six weeks before Easter only provided 36 days, so Lent became extended for four days prior to Quadragesima to make up the total and therefore now started on Ash Wednesday.

Various liturgical observances grew up associated with Lent. One of the first of these was the scrutinies, services concerned with the examination of and praying for the candidates preparing for baptism. When Lent was no longer associated with bap­tismal preparation, these no longer took place, being specific to the needs of the baptismal candidates rather than to the season itself, though the modern Roman rite for the Christian Initiation of Adults attempts to revive them.

Within the city of Rome the custom of the stational masses was emphasized in Lent, that is, the principal mass on a par­ticular day, often presided over by the Pope as Bishop of Rome, was celebrated in a particular church, and always the same one on the same day; on certain days the Pope would ride to the stational church in solemn procession. The listing of these stations survived into the 1570 missal. The custom of stational masses was observed in other cities as well, the bishop going round to the various churches in turn. The modern Roman missal merely commends the custom of stational liturgy in Lent in general and very vague terms, as though wanting to preserve a tradition about the possible observance of which in the modern world it was by no means sure.

But the main liturgical provision for Lent consists of the ordinary liturgy provided with appropriate lessons and propers , and with furnishings, vestments and music suitable for the penitential nature of the season. Many churches and congregations will supplement this with a variety of provisions, special services, series of addresses, study groups and so forth. In recent years support for special observance of Lent has probably been in something of a decline.

The traditional lenten mass lections in the Latin rite reflect the needs of the catechumenate, to which material suited to the reconciliation of penitents and the more generally penitential nature of the season was added later, and the modern Roman mass lectionary has preserved a lot of this arrangement.


The Easter season last for the forty day period between Easter Sunday and the eve of the Ascension.

Easter itself commemorates the resurrection of Jesus Christ and is the most important of the Christian festivals. It vies with Christmas as being the one celebrated with the greatest joy.

The date of Easter changes each year, and the dates of several other festivals are fixed by reference to it.

On Easter Sunday churches are filled with flowers, and there are special hymns and songs. But not all Easter customs are Christian; some, such as the Easter Bunny, are Pagan in origin.
The Easter story is at the heart of Christianity
On Good Friday, Jesus Christ was executed by crucifixion. His body was taken down from the cross, and buried in a cave.
The tomb was guarded and an enormous stone was put over the entrance, so that no-one could steal the body.
On the following Sunday, some women visited the grave and found that the stone had been moved, and that the tomb was empty.
Jesus himself was seen that day, and for days afterwards by many people. His followers realised that God had raised Jesus from the dead.
The Easter Vigil Service
The Easter Vigil service is the first Easter service, and takes place on the night of Holy Saturday. Holy Saturday is the Saturday after Good Friday which is often, but wrongly, called Easter Saturday.
The idea behind the service is for faithful Christians to wait and watch, hopeful and confident that Christ will return at midnight.
The Easter, or Paschal, candle is lit during this service. The service traditionally begins outside the church, where minister and some worshippers gather around a fire – a charcoal brazier is common.
The service begins with words like these:
Brothers and sisters in Christ, on this most holy night, in which our Lord Jesus Christ passed over from death to life, the Church invites her members, dispersed throughout the world, to gather in vigil and prayer.
For this is the Passover of the Lord, in which through word and sacrament we share in his victory over death.
After readings and prayers, the Paschal candle is lit from the fire using a taper, while a prayer like the one below is said…
May the light of Christ, rising in glory,
banish all darkness from our hearts and minds.
The lit candle is now a symbol of Christ, risen as the light of the world, and come into the midst of the people.
After being lit outside, the candle is carried into the church, where most of the worshippers are waiting in darkness, which symbolises the darkness of Christ’s tomb.
After more prayers and readings the candles held by the congregation are lit from the Paschal candle.
The symbolism of the candle is made very clear by words such as…
Grant that this Easter candle make our darkness light; for Christ the morning star has risen, never again to set, and is alive and reigns for ever and ever.
The readings at the service tell of the creation of humanity, how humanity fell from grace, and was repeatedly rescued by God. The readings remind people of God’s promise to be with them always.
The Paschal candle
The Paschal candle is made of pure white wax and is marked with a cross, an Alpha, and an Omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. The 4 numbers of the year are marked between the arms. This symbolises that Christ has, and always will be with humanity, and is with humanity now.
Paschal candles are usually large, and can cost over £100. For much of the year many churches stand the paschal candle near the font used for baptisms. Here it provides a reminder that baptism is a symbolic death and rebirth with Christ; just like Christ’s death and Resurrection.