The life of the Church is centered around the Church’s worship. As Christians gather for worship, they do so with a strong sense of time and history. Humans have always been time conscious. Light and darkness regulate our days. Daily life is ordered by the activities of work and rest. Seasons change in a regular way from times of growth to times of death. God established this time consciousness. Genesis 1 shows the centrality of time, which God created when He instituted “evening and . . . morning, the first day” (Genesis 1:5). God set the time markers in the heavens on the fourth day “to separate the day from the night. And [to] let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years” (Genesis 1:14). God rested on the seventh day as a model for us (Exodus 20:8–11).
Christians retain this sense of time. Our seven-day week continues to recall God’s incomparable creation of the world. Early Christians recalled the historic time-related events that were important to their faith, especially events in the life of Jesus. They realized that God entered our world “when the fullness of time had come” (Galatians 4:4). Mark tells us that Jesus’ first sermon was about time: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15). In his Gospel, Luke also reminds us of the timeliness of Christ’s arrival: “In the days of Herod, king of Judea” (Luke 1:5); “This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Luke 2:2). The evangelist John also reports specific historical settings for our Lord’s ministry (John 10:22–23). A Sunday close to Passover is now celebrated as the feast of the Resurrection of Our Lord (Luke 24:1). The Jewish harvest festival of Pentecost is remembered now as the birthday of the Christian Church (Acts 2:1).
Christians also have added their own unique celebrations and adapted others to trinitarian understandings. Easter is the principle feast day of the Church. It is the Son’s Day of Days as the Church celebrates the Resurrection of Our Lord; it is also an event by which Christians identify themselves as distinctly new creations. The Nativity of Our Lord, celebrated on December 25, is the second great Christian feast and is most clearly the Father’s Day. On this day, God gives His most precious gift of life to the world in the person of His Son, Jesus. Finally, Pentecost is celebrated with a specific focus on the Holy Spirit’s presence, power, and purpose. Thus Pentecost is the Spirit’s Day. Celebrations of the Epiphany and the Transfiguration of Our Lord also recall Jesus’ ministry in power and glory. Holy Trinity Sunday reminds us of the great controversies and struggles in the first three centuries of Christianity as the Church sought to clarify and articulate the biblical revelation of God’s unity in three distinct persons. As time passed, notable Church leaders were remembered on their death day, underscoring the fact that death is actually an entrance or birth into the new life with Christ in heaven.
The Christian calendar is retained in Christian Church bodies throughout the world for several reasons. First, a regular calendar is helpful to keep the remembrances before us. Just as God commanded the Jewish people to recall how He had delivered them in the past (e.g., the Passover, Exodus 12:14; Leviticus 23:4–8), so, too, early Christians recalled the historic time-related events that were important to their faith, as Jesus had encouraged His disciples to do (Luke 22:19). Second, following their Jewish predecessors, Christians consider the regularity of the holidays as teaching moments, with the celebration of the events of Christ’s life used to tell and retell the Good News. Finally, Christians recognize that this life is not an end in itself. Christ’s victory over death means that daily life focuses beyond the mundane to eternity. A calendar of Christian events unites present-day believers with those of the past as well as the future.
Martin Luther sought to reform the Church’s liturgical and sanctoral calendar, especially the excesses that had crept into the commemoration of saints, by eliminating the festivals and commemorations that were most distant from Christ’s life and work. Yet Luther said that it is important for Christians to recall the saints because they are excellent models for our faith and life, concrete examples of following Christ. Such commemorations, then, draw together our memories so that we can express our thanks to God for His gracious Spirit, as well as receive encouragement in our own activities. Lutherans have continued to celebrate the faith of some who have joined the Church Triumphant. November 1, All Saints’ Day, is central for Lutherans in this regard. The variety of festivals and commemorations on the present calendar is astounding. This variety and flexibility offers numerous opportunities for local distinctions.
Sundays and Seasons—The Liturgical Calendar
The Time of Christmas
The Savior’s birth is second in importance only to His resurrection on Easter Sunday. During Christmas and its season, Christians take time to reflect on God’s great and gracious gift of Himself.
Begins the fourth Sunday before December 25, or the Sunday closest to St. Andrew (November 30).
Ends with midday prayer on December 24.
The calendar of the Church begins with Advent (from Latin adventus, which means “coming into”), a four-week period of preparation before Christmas. The story of Jesus in Advent is the story of hope coming into the world. When the time was just right, God sent His Son, Jesus, into the world. The Advent season teaches us to prepare to receive Jesus, the hope of the world.
It has become common to use an Advent wreath to mark the season. An Advent wreath has four candles—one for each week in Advent. As these candles are lit each week, our anticipation mounts as we look forward to Jesus’ coming.
Christmas and Its Season
Begins with evening prayer on Christmas Eve (December 24).
Ends with midday prayer on January 5.
The evening services of Christmas Eve mark the beginning of the Church’s celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord. The season continues after December 25 over a period traditionally known as the twelve days of Christmas. This season includes a number of lesser festivals: The festival of St. Stephen, the first martyr, occurs on December 26. St. John, apostle and evangelist, is remembered on December 27. The death of the babies in Bethlehem (Matthew 2) is observed on December 28 as the Festival of the Holy Innocents. The circumcision and naming of Jesus on the eighth day after His birth (Luke 2:21) is celebrated on January 1.
Epiphany and Its Season
Begins with evening prayer on January 5.
Ends the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.
Epiphany is one of the oldest seasons in the Christian Church Year, second only to the Easter season. This season of lights emphasizes Jesus’ manifestation (or epiphany, from the Greek epiphaneia) as God and man. The earliest Christians called the feast of the Epiphany the Theophany (“revelation of God”). When the Gentile Magi come to worship Jesus, they show that everyone now has access to God. Now all people, Jew and Gentile, can come to God’s temple to worship, because Jesus is the new temple: God in the flesh. The Epiphany of Our Lord (January 6) celebrates the visit of the Magi.
Epiphany may include as many as nine Sundays, depending on the date of Easter. The season is marked at its beginning and at its end by two important feasts of Christ. On the First Sunday after the Epiphany, the Church celebrates the Baptism of Our Lord. The Father had sent Jesus to bear the sins of the world. So Jesus steps down into baptismal waters so that He can soak up the sins of the world: He is baptized into our sins, so that our Baptism might be into His death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins.
The Feast of the Transfiguration, celebrated on the last Sunday in the Epiphany season, is a significant and uniquely Lutheran contribution to the Christian calendar. This festival commemorates the moment on the Mount of Transfiguration when three of Jesus’ disciples glimpsed their Lord in divine splendor, seeing Him as the center of the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah). Jesus proclaimed to His disciples, then and now, that He was the long-awaited one who had come to die for the sins of the world and be raised again in glory.
The Time of Easter
Easter celebrates the chief event in the life of Christ and was the major celebration among early Christians. Given that Easter is both a movable date and a principal celebration of the Church Year, the date of Easter determines much of the rest of the Church Year. Generally speaking, Easter is observed on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox. The date of Easter will influence the date of Ash Wednesday, the fortieth day (not counting Sundays) before Easter; the date of the Transfiguration, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday; and the several Sundays in Epiphany and after Pentecost.
Begins on Ash Wednesday.
Ends with midday prayer on Holy Saturday.
Jesus death and resurrection is our great salvation. To prepare to celebrate the feast of the Resurrection (Easter), the Church sets aside a period of preparation. In AD 325, the Council of Nicaea recorded the first reference to the specific number of days for Lent: forty. This forty-day preparation was first prescribed for baptismal candidates and became known as Lent (from the Old English word for “spring”). During this period, the candidates were examined in preparation for Baptism at the Easter (or Paschal) Vigil. Later, these forty days were associated with Jesus’ forty days in the desert prior to His temptation (Matthew 4) and with the forty years the children of Israel spent in the wilderness (Numbers 14:34) and became a period of preparation for every Christian.
Ash Wednesday begins the Lent season. The placing of ashes on the forehead is a sign of penitence and a reminder of human mortality. The Sundays during this season are not “of Lent” but “in Lent.” Thus the Sundays retain an Easter tone and may be less solemn than the midweek services that congregations typically offer. The observances of Lent are concrete reminders of the greater solemnity of this season, yet Lutherans emphasize the Gospel of Christ as central even to this penitential season.
The week before Easter is called Holy Week and culminates the preparation time of Lent. This week begins on Palm Sunday and ends on Holy Saturday. During these days, we focus on the events of Jesus’ life from His entrance into Jerusalem until His glorious resurrection from the dead. Palm Sunday, the first day of Holy Week, commemorates the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:9). Because the complete account of the Lord’s Passion from Matthew, Mark, or Luke is often read, this Sunday is also called the Sunday of the Passion.
On Maundy Thursday, the Church gives thanks to Jesus for instituting the Lord’s Supper. The Maundy Thursday service closes with the stripping of the altar while Psalm 22—a prophecy of the crucifixion—is read or sung. This reminds us of how our Lord stripped to the waist to wash His disciples’ feet—and how He was stripped and beaten before His crucifixion.
Good Friday is the most solemn of all days in the Christian Church, yet a note of joy remains, as the title of the day indicates. On Good Friday, as we remember that on account of our sin the Lord was crucified and died, we give joyful thanks to God that all sin and God’s wrath over sin falls on Jesus and not on us, and that by His grace we receive the benefit of this most sacrificial act.
Easter and Its Season
Begins with evening prayer on Holy Saturday.
Ends with midday prayer on Pentecost.
Easter is a victory celebration, a time for all Christians to proclaim boldly their faith in a risen and victorious Savior. For the early Christians, Easter was not merely one day, it was (and is) a whole season that also includes the celebration of Jesus’ ascension. The fifty days between Easter and Pentecost, known as the Great Fifty Days, was the first liturgical season observed in the first three centuries of the Church. This fifty-day celebration is a week of weeks, renewed in the last decades by emphasizing the Sundays as being “of Easter.” The season’s length is fitting because we are dedicating one seventh of the year to celebrating the Lord’s resurrection.
The first celebration of Easter is the Easter Vigil, the evening of Holy Saturday. The Vigil includes a service of light, where fire symbolizes Jesus as the light of the world. The service is designed to take the Christian from the solemnity of Good Friday to the predawn joy of Easter.
Easter is the richest and most lavishly celebrated festival of the Church Year. Congregations may hold a sunrise service, commemorating the surprise of the women visiting the empty tomb of Christ, as well as services that celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. While not as lavish, this joyous and celebratory tone echoes down through the Sundays of the Easter season.
Forty days after Easter (Acts 1:3), the Church celebrates the Ascension of Our Lord, who ascended into heaven not only as God but also as man. The last Sunday of the Easter season, celebrated as Pentecost, was adopted by early Christians to commemorate the first great harvest of believers for Christ (Acts 2:1–41). Thus, Pentecost is the birthday of the Christian Church as the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples and they gave their compelling witness about the resurrected Lord. Pentecost is a day of joy in the gifts of the Spirit as He still reaches into our lives just as He did to the crowds on that first Pentecost: through the apostolic preaching of God’s Word and Holy Baptism.
The Time of the Church
Jesus told His disciples, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in Me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). We are each grafted into Jesus and made a branch of the Vine by the power of the Spirit in Holy Baptism. We stay connected to Jesus, our Vine, by hearing the preaching of God’s Word and receiving Absolution and the Lord’s Supper. This is how our life in Christ grows: by the power of the Spirit working in our hearts through Word and Sacrament. The Sundays after Pentecost make up the longest part of the Church Year. This is the Time of the Church—the time we focus on growing together in the life of the Holy Trinity.
The Holy Trinity
The first Sunday after Pentecost.
We are baptized into only one name, the name of God. But that name is “of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” There is only one name, only one God—but there are three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Each person is God, and each is not the others, but there is only one God. This is the great mystery of the Holy Trinity. On the first Sunday after Pentecost, the Church celebrates Holy Trinity Sunday and teaches us to confess the mystery of God’s being.
The Season after Pentecost
Begins the day after Pentecost.
Ends with midday prayer on the Saturday before the First Sunday in Advent.
The Sundays of this time of the Church Year are known as Sundays after Pentecost. Picking up on Pentecost as the season of growth, the Sundays after Pentecost are often called the Green Sundays. It is during this season that the Readings focus on the teachings of the Lord for the Church. We hear Jesus teaching His disciples and healing the faithful.
Because the Pentecost season is “ordinary,” as the Roman Catholic Church identifies it, congregations may choose to observe some of the lesser festivals of the season. When significant saint days or commemorations fall on Sundays, worship leaders could highlight these to offer teaching moments about the breadth of the Church’s life and work. These noteworthy days enable the Christian to reflect on how we worship “with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven” (LSB Altar Book, p. 161).
Last Sunday of the Church Year
The Church Year began with Advent and the joyful hope and expectation of Jesus’ coming to save the world through His incarnation. On the Last Sunday after Pentecost, the Church gives voice to the joyful hope of the second coming of Jesus for the resurrection of the dead and the last judgment. The end-times focus of the Last Sunday of the Church Year bears themes of hope and preparation that are similar to those of Advent, which soon follows.
This liturgical calendar was essentially complete by the end of the sixth century, though it continues to be transmuted through additions and emphases.
Feasts, Festivals, and Commemorations–The Sanctoral Calendar
The long tradition of the Church seen in the Church Year calendar provides an additional resource for worship, prayer, and piety in the form of saint days and other holy days. In addition to the three festival seasons of Easter, Pentecost, and Epiphany, a tradition began among early Christians of recalling the anniversaries of local martyrs. Congregations would each have a roll of those who had suffered and died for the faith. These would be honored, with their names read at commemorative services on the days of their martyrdom. These dates were often called the martyr’s birthday into eternity.
A better term for recognizing the contributions of these faithful early Christian believers is the commemoration of the saints. A calendar of commemorations is valuable to the Christian as a way of encouraging people to look at the personal stories of certain women and men to learn of the richness and the potential of human life lived by the grace of God in Jesus Christ—people whose common denominator is simply that the grace of God worked mightily within them.
The “Lutheran” Sanctoral calendar established with the advent of Lutheran Service Book in 2006.
- 1 Circumcision and Name of Jesus W
- 2 J. K. Wilhelm Loehe, Pastor
- 10 Basil the Great of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa, Pastors and Confessors
- 18 The Confession of St. Peter W
- 20 Sarah
- 24 St. Timothy, Pastor and Confessor W
- 25 The Conversion of St. Paul W
- 26 St. Titus, Pastor and Confessor W
- 27 John Chrysostom, Preacher
- 2 The Purification of Mary and the Presentation of Our Lord W
- 10 Silas, Fellow Worker of St. Peter and St. Paul
- 13 Aquila, Priscilla, Apollos
- 14 Valentine, Martyr
- 15 Philemon and Onesimus
- 16 Philipp Melanchthon (birth), Confessor
- 18 Martin Luther, Doctor and Confessor
- 23 Polycarp of Smyrna, Pastor and Martyr
- 24 St. Matthias, Apostle R
- 7 Perpetua and Felicitas, Martyrs
- 17 Patrick, Missionary to Ireland
- 19 St. Joseph, Guardian of Jesus W
- 25 The Annunciation of Our Lord W
- 31 Joseph, Patriarch
- 6 Lucas Cranach and Albrecht Duerer, Artists
- 20 Johannes Bugenhagen, Pastor
- 21 Anselm of Canterbury, Theologian
- 24 Johann Walter, Kantor
- 25 St. Mark, Evangelist R
- 1 St. Philip and St. James, Apostles R
- 2 Athanasius of Alexandria, Pastor and Confessor
- 4 Friedrich Wyneken, Pastor and Missionary
- 5 Frederick the Wise, Christian Ruler
- 7 C. F. W. Walther, Theologian
- 9 Job
- 11 Cyril and Methodius, Missionaries to the Slavs
- 21 Emperor Constantine, Christian Ruler, and Helena, Mother of Constantine
- 24 Esther
- 25 Bede the Venerable, Theologian
- 31 The Visitation (3-Year Lectionary) W
- 1 Justin, Martyr
- 5 Boniface of Mainz, Missionary to the Germans
- 11 St. Barnabas, Apostle R
- 12 The Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, AD 325
- 14 Elisha
- 25 Presentation of the Augsburg Confession
- 26 Jeremiah
- 27 Cyril of Alexandria, Pastor and Confessor
- 28 Irenaeus of Lyons, Pastor
- 24 The Nativity of St. John the Baptist W
- 29 St. Peter and St. Paul, Apostles R
- 2 The Visitation (1-Year Lectionary) W
- 6 Isaiah
- 16 Ruth
- 20 Elijah
- 21 Ezekiel
- 22 St. Mary Magdalene W
- 25 St. James the Elder, Apostle R
- 28 Johann Sebastian Bach, Kantor
- 29 Mary, Martha, and Lazarus of Bethany
- 30 Robert Barnes, Confessor and Martyr
- 31 Joseph of Arimathea
- 3 Joanna, Mary, and Salome, Myrrhbearers
- 10 Lawrence, Deacon and Martyr
- 15 St. Mary, Mother of Our Lord W
- 16 Isaac
- 17 Johann Gerhard, Theologian
- 19 Bernard of Clairvaux, Hymnwriter and Theologian
- 20 Samuel
- 24 St. Bartholomew, Apostle R
- 27 Monica, Mother of Augustine
- 28 Augustine of Hippo, Pastor and Theologian
- 29 The Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist R
- 1 Joshua
- 2 Hannah
- 3 Gregory the Great, Pastor
- 4 Moses
- 5 Zacharias and Elizabeth
- 14 Holy Cross Day R
- 16 Cyprian of Carthage, Pastor and Martyr
- 21 St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist R
- 22 Jonah
- 29 St. Michael and All Angels W
- 30 Jerome, Translator of Holy Scripture
- 7 Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, Pastor
- 9 Abraham
- 11 Philip the Deacon
- 17 Ignatius of Antioch, Pastor and Martyr
- 18 St. Luke, Evangelist R
- 23 St. James of Jerusalem, Brother of Jesus and Martyr R
- 25 Dorcas (Tabitha), Lydia, and Phoebe, Faithful Women
- 26 Philipp Nicolai, Johann Heermann, and Paul Gerhardt, Hymnwriters
- 28 St. Simon and St. Jude, Apostles R
- 31 Reformation Day R
- 1 All Saints’ Day W
- 8 Johannes von Staupitz, Luther’s Father Confessor
- 9 Martin Chemnitz (birth), Pastor and Confessor
- 11 Martin of Tours, Pastor
- 14 Emperor Justinian, Christian Ruler and Confessor of Christ
- 19 Elizabeth of Hungary
- 23 Clement of Rome, Pastor
- 29 Noah
- 30 St. Andrew, Apostle R
- 4 John of Damascus, Theologian and Hymnwriter
- 6 Nicholas of Myra, Pastor
- 7 Ambrose of Milan, Pastor and Hymnwriter
- 13 Lucia, Martyr
- 17 Daniel the Prophet and the Three Young Men
- 19 Adam and Eve
- 20 Katharina von Bora Luther
- 21 St. Thomas, Apostle R
- 26 St. Stephen, Martyr R
- 27 St. John, Apostle and Evangelist W
- 28 The Holy Innocents, Martyrs R
- 29 David
- 31 Eve of the Circumcision and Name of Jesus W
New Year’s Eve