Marking time is something we all do. Whether it’s watching the clock tick ever-so-slowly towards the end of class or eagerly counting down the days until vacation, each one of us measures the passage of time on a daily basis. And as we watch seconds turn into minutes, then hours, and days turn into weeks and months, another year passes — and we get to do it all over again. As the author of Ecclesiastes put it: A generation goes and a generation comes but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises.
Without something significant to measure time against, marking it can become an unremarkable, meaningless exercise. Early in its history, the Christian Church began marking time in light of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christians made use of existing calendars and methods of time-keeping and transformed an endless rhythm into a way of keeping the centre of their faith in the forefront of their minds. What has emerged from centuries of keeping “Jesus time” is what we call the Church (or Liturgical) Year.
The Church Year begins by identifying one day each week — Sunday — as a time to focus on the gospel of Jesus Christ in community. Time is set aside to hear readings from the Bible and a sermon about what was read. Prayers for the world, the Church and for individual people follow. In addition, we might gather around the Lord’s Table for the Eucharist, which is a kind of re-enactment of the Last Supper Jesus had with his disciples before his death and resurrection.
From this weekly pattern comes the division of the calendar year into seven seasons, each one emphasizing a different part of the life of Jesus Christ. Different colours are assigned to each season to aid in recalling the main theme of each one. In chronological order, the seasons are structured in this way:
- The season of Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day. It is a season of anticipation, preparing for the coming of Christ, which first occurred when he was born in Bethlehem. Blue is the colour used for Advent and you will see this colour displayed in various places throughout the church building.
- The season of Christmas is twelve days long, ending on Epiphany (January 6). Christmas is about enjoying the knowledge that the Saviour of the world has come into the world and that he brings new life, even in the midst of the cold winter; the season’s colour is white.
- Epiphany runs to the beginning of Lent. The word epiphany means “manifestation” or “appearance” and it points to the Magi (“three wise men”) who visited the child Jesus, acknowledging him as a king. The theme of this season is considering how Jesus lived his life and what he taught through his time on earth. With green as its colour, this season reminds us that the new life just begun will lead to growth.
- Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and takes in the five Sundays and forty weekdays before Easter Sunday. Lent’ colour is purple and its purpose is to prepare us for the climax of Jesus’s life: his death, which dealt with our sin and brought salvation to the world. During Lent, we take time to soberly reflect on our lives and what Jesus came to do on our behalf. Its length is reminiscent of the forty years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness contemplating their sin before God and the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness being tempted by the devil to sin against God. As this season goes on, the anticipation of the joy of Easter increases.
- Holy Week is the centrepiece of the Church Year. Beginning with Palm Sunday and ending with Easter Sunday, this eight-day period highlights what is known as the Passion of Christ, and extra services are held throughout this time. Two of these are Maundy Thursday, when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, and Good Friday, when Jesus was crucified. His death and the salvation it brought is why the cross is the key symbol of Christianity. Holy Week’s colour is generally red, with Maundy Thursday’s being white and Good Friday’s, black.
- Easter is the most joyous season in the calendar and continues for fifty days, until Pentecost. This length of time acknowledges the forty days Jesus remained on earth before ascending to heaven, followed by the ten days the disciples waited in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit was given to them. White in colour, this season is lived with the knowledge that Jesus is risen from the dead and that we can live our lives in the freedom that he has made available to us.
- The season of Pentecost is the longest season, running through the summer and fall until Advent returns. Green reappears for this period of time, again as a reminder that life in Christ is to be marked by growth. During this “ordinary” time, we consider the many instructions given to us in the Bible about what life in Christ is to look like. The last Sunday of this season is called Christ the King and represents his promised return to bring all things to completion. This is the hope to which we all look forward.