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The Church year

What are the seasons in the Church year?

Christians live by the secular or Gregorian calendar just as everyone else does. Anglicans also live by another year, another calendar, known as the Church year.

There are eight basic seasons in the Church Year, as well as a considerable number of saints’ days and other special observances. This array is made somewhat confusing by the fact that some of the days of the Christian year fall on fixed dates of the secular calendar while others are “moveable feasts”, falling on dates which vary from year to year, depending upon the date of Christmas (always fixed) and Easter (fixed by the moon). Unlike the Gregorian calendar, the Church year begins with Advent in late November or early December.


Eight Seasons in the Church Year

The eight seasons of the Christian (Anglican) year are:

  1. Advent
  2. Christmastide
  3. Epiphanytide
  4. Lent
  5. Eastertide
  6. Ascensiontide
  7. Whitsuntide or Pentecost
  8. Trinitytide

The dates of all of these seasons vary from year to year, except for Christmastide, which of course begins on December 25th, and Epiphanytide, which begins on January 6th.


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Holy Days and Feast Days

In addition, there are twenty-three special holy days of observance specified in the Book of Common Prayer, which occur regularly on fixed dates, but are not directly associated with the above-named seasons. Another sixteen observances are listed in the Book of Common Prayer but are “movable feasts”, without fixed dates. Although not specified in the Prayer Book, other special saints’ days may be voluntarily observed by the pious and faithful.  Principal feasts and holy days are also noted in the Book of Alternative Services on pages xiv-xv.

All of this information, and more, may be found in the introductory pages of the Book of Common Prayer numbered in small Roman numerals, and all too seldom consulted by good Anglicans! (beginning on page ix, BCP.)  They are also found in the Book of Alternative Services (BAS), beginning on page 15.


Why use a Church calendar?

It patterns the life of Christ!

The Church calendar is an invaluable guide and aid to the constant repetition and clarification of the Christian story, as it tracks the seasons and special festivals and holy days throughout the Church year. It charts our path past all of the mileposts of the Christian story. In a reasonably orderly manner, the Church year refreshes our memory of Christ’s coming, of His manifestation to the Gentiles (the non-Jewish world), of His temptation, His Passion, His Crucifixion and Resurrection and Ascension, of the Baptism of the Church by the Holy Spirit. Then, during the Trinity Season, it provides an opportunity for study and consideration of the moral teachings of the Bible and the practical duties of the Christian life. Along the way, it allows contemplation of various special occurrences in the Christian story (such as the Annunciation by Gabriel to the Virgin Mary, the Transfiguration of our Lord, etc.) and permits us to recall and be inspired by the lives and examples of the Apostles and other major saints.

Without this arrangement of the Church year, worship can become a disorderly and confused hodge-podge. With it, we review and relive, year by year, the facts and meaning of God’s gift to us of His Blessed Son, that we might know the Truth and be set free forever.


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Liturgical Colours

In the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent, our worship is somewhat muted by the omission of the Gloria and by the use of the liturgical colours of blue in Advent, signifying hope and preparation for the coming of Christ, and violet or purple in Lent, signifying our penitence and self-reflection as we journey with Jesus through the 40 days in the wilderness. Weddings and other festivities and partying are also to be avoided during these seasons, and flowers are not used on the altar.

The color used liturgically for the seasons of Christmas, Epiphany, Easter and Ascension is white, symbolizing purity, joy and hope.

For Pentecost and Martyrs’ days, the colors are changed to red, for fire and blood.

During Trinitytide and most of Epiphanytide, the color of the hanging is green, for hope and peace.

Epiphany itself, and its octave (the following week) are marked by the use of white.

Thus, not only does the Church year serve to remind us of the Christian story by the use of nomenclature (the system of naming things), it reminds us through the ear by the use of appropriate Bible readings, and it reminds us through the eye by the use of color.



Season of preparation and hope!

The English word, “Advent”, stems from the Latin word, “Adventus”, meaning coming or arrival. This word has therefore been applied for centuries to the season of the year when Christians prepare to celebrate the First Coming of our Lord Jesus Christ – His Nativity, His birth at Christmas.


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Traditionally, the Church has taught that Advent is a season of preparation. This preparation means a review of one’s life, achieving a fresh sense of one’s sins and mistakes and shortcomings, and stimulating in one’s self a fresh desire for forgiveness and a new start. 

Traditionally, the Church has used violet (penitential purple) as the Advent color and has viewed the Advent season as one for muted activity, without parties and other merrymaking, including weddings. However, more recently the colour blue is used, depicting hope and preparation, since Advent is also a time of joy in looking to the approaching celebration of Christ’s birth. Through Christ, God came among us in human form. This great sign of God’s love and grace should make us joyful and thankful.

Advent is also a time to review the promises God has made to humankind for our salvation and eternal life. The First Coming was part of these promises – Christ’s birth, His life and teachings, His death, His resurrection, His ascension into heaven to rejoin the Father. All that has happened as foretold by the great prophets. But God has also promised a Second Coming, a New Advent, when evil will be vanquished, the dead will arise, judgment will be rendered and life eternal be granted to those who love God.

Advent, then, is a time for reflection, for penitence, for rejoicing in God’s love as shown in the First Coming and as promised in the Second Coming.

We also believe that Christ comes to us every day, through the power of his Holy Spirit, for He has promised to never leave us nor forsake us!


Of all the celebrations and commemorations in the Christian calendar, there is probably none more familiar to Christians than Christmas, celebrating the birth of Christ. It is also one of the oldest of our feast days, having apparently begun in Rome in the early years of the fourth century of the Christian era. That it falls on December 25th is of no historical significance because no one knows the exact date of our Lord’s birth. There was, in the fourth century, a celebration of the birthday of the sun god on this December date, and it is probably that the Church fixed on the same date to celebrate the Nativity of Our Lord in an effort to create a Christian celebration at the time that would rival or even supplant, as it did, the pagan festival.

Christmas Collect

The Collect for Christmas Day is noteworthy because it is the most comprehensive Collect in the Book of Common Prayer for its theological content. It includes the whole of the doctrines of the Trinity and of the Incarnation, our adoption as children of God by His grace, and the daily renewal of Christ’s birth in us through the Holy Ghost. The Collect is a composition of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer.  See page 104 of the 1962 BCP.

See also the Book of Alternative Services pages 273 to 275, for the three Christmas Collects.

The Term 'Christmas'

The term “Christmas” came into use in England in the twelfth century. It means simply, “Christ’s Mass” and is thus a reminder of the central importance to us of celebrating the Mass, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, on this festal day. No Christian should ever miss the Christmas Eucharist save for grave cause. Indeed, the Church has often required such attendance as part of the requirement for communicant status in good standing.

Symbols of Christmas

Christmas is a time for joy, marking as it does, the coming among us of God, in the person of His Son in human form. We celebrate it with special decorations. Some of these, such as trees, holly, wreaths, etc. may be of pagan origin or modern secular origin. But some, such as candles in the windows, while deprived of religious significance by widespread adoption in the commercial and secular world, have a fundamentally religious meaning. Thus, we place a candle or candles in our windows to light the way for the Christ-child to come into the world and for this reason ought to light them first on Christmas Eve. In these days of over-commercialization and secularization of Christmas, the Christian must fight hard to replace and retain the deep spiritual and religious meaning of the commemoration. A religion begins to die when its sacred observances become merely popular customs. Thus, the Christian should avoid “drowning” ones family and friends with material gifts, gifts which we give in remembrance of God’s gift to us of His Son and His forgiveness and His grace.

Christmas begins at earliest on Christmas Eve – not at Thanksgiving time! It ends on January 5th, the Eve of Epiphany – and not the day after Christmas or even New Year’s Day!

Christmas has a place of primacy in the Christian story, for the story begins with the birth of Jesus Christ, and thereafter unfolds steadily to Good Friday, Easter and Ascension Day. Every Christian should observe Christmas with spiritual rejoicing and should strive to maintain its spiritual primacy.


As in so many other cases, we have here a word which comes to us from the Greek, and it means an appearance, a showing forth. This feast day is fixed on January 6thand is known as “The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.”

The beginnings of this celebration tend to be lost in the mists of time, although in one form or another it can be traced back to the end of the second century. As it started and developed, the celebration commemorated Christ’s manifestation in various ways – His baptism in Jordan by John the Baptizer or His birth at Bethlehem.

Gradually, however, as the Western Churches took up the observance of January 6th, they focused on its significance on the coming of the Magi to worship the young child. Under the influence of such Psalms as Psalm 72, v. 10-11, the Church viewed the Magi as kings representing all nations, and thus the visit of the wise men came to be regarded as a manifestation of Christ to all nations, to non-Jews, or ”the Gentiles”, as well as Jews.

Epistle or New Testament Reading for Epiphany
Ephesians 3:1-12

It is particularly fitting that the Epistle for the day should be taken from St. Paul’s writings, because St. Paul was the one man of the apostolic age who more than any other emphasized the universal meaning and mission of Christ as the Savior of all men, of all nations, of “the Gentiles”. How appropriate then, that the Feast of St. Paul’s conversion (January 25th) is observed in the Epiphany season.

Ephesians 3:1-12
Christ is for the Gentiles - all peoples!
The good news of Epiphany!

Most Christians are “Gentiles” (non-Jews) and so the celebration of the Epiphany should be an occasion of special rejoicing for us, because it symbolizes our inclusion among those for whom our Lord lived and died and rose again. Epiphany symbolizes and emphasizes the universality of God’s love, the universality of Christ’s saving mission, the universality of His in-dwelling. He is not just for the chosen few, He is not just for the good, the faithful, the believers. He is for all people, for the sinners, the wicked, the unbelievers – “all sorts and conditions of men”. It is not without reason that we say in the General Thanksgiving at Morning Prayer that “we do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving-kindness to us, and to all men.” (BCP page 14)


Shrove Tuesday
Preparing for Lent

Shrove Tuesday, or Pancake Day, is the day before Ash Wednesday.

Human nature is very weak, as every reader of these words well knows. Most people can only take so much of solemnity, of serious introspection. They have to have relief in some kind of relaxation of the body and mind, in humor, in carefree moments. Thus the many of the forms of popular celebration of Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday have taken hold. Originally, this was a day for confession and for being “shriven” or absolved from one’s sins. But before facing confession, people wanted to have a last “fling”, to be merry one last time. And so in Canada, they eat pancakes and in New Orleans they dance and parade in the streets, and in many places throughout Christendom they celebrate in an especially light-hearted way, sometimes to excess.

Why did all the merrymaking develop? And why did one makes his confession on Shrove Tuesday? Simply because the next day, Ash Wednesday, is the beginning of a season called Lent. Lent is a penitential and preparatory season for the Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection of our Lord. It lasts forty days in commemoration of the forty days in which our Lord prepared Himself for His ministry by withdrawing into “the desert” to fast and pray and to reflect – and to be tempted by Satan.

Also, since Lent is a season of fasting, in order to use up the fats and sugars kept in the house, pancakes and other sweets were made and consumed on Shrove Tuesday, so that the fasting could truly begin on Ash Wesneday.

40 Days leading to Holy Week

Lent is a penitential and preparatory season for the Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection of our Lord. It lasts forty days in commemoration of the forty days in which our Lord prepared Himself for His ministry by withdrawing into “the desert” to fast and pray and to reflect – and to be tempted by Satan.

The word “Lent” comes from an old English word meaning in the season of spring. The Church’s Lent always occurs in the spring, of course, but since its beginning, Ash Wednesday, is determined by the date of Easter, and Easter is a moveable observance reckoned by lunar calculation and can occur as early as March 22nd or as late as April 25th, Lent itself begins at variable dates in the spring. The Lenten season actually extends over a period of 46 days, but the Sundays occurring during the period are not part of Lent but are feast days.

A Good Lent

The observance of Lent in the Christian Church is very ancient. It began in the second century, although it was much shorter in the beginning; it did not extend for forty days until the fourth century and was also not associated with the forty days of Jesus in the wilderness until some time later. It has always, however, had a penitential character as a time of preparation for the Crucifixion and the joy of the Resurrection. During this period, Anglicans fast, as a means of suppressing the flesh and exalting the spirit, as a means, too, of sharpening the spiritual awareness and mental contemplation of the approaching great sacrifice of Christ for humankind. It is a period of increased prayer and self-examination so that we may bring ourselves closer to God and become more obedient to His will for us. It is one of those several periods appointed by the Church (Advent is another) to help intensify our religious belief, to remind us how far we may have fallen away, and to recall us to God.

A good Lent leads to a good Easter and the satisfaction of a deepening spiritual awareness and dedication developed through Lent allows us to open ourselves fully to the glorious joy of the Resurrection.

It may be added that during Lent, the liturgical color is violet or purple, and weddings and festive merrymaking are to be avoided.