Christian Liturgical Year

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CHRISTIAN LITURGICAL YEAR . The Christian liturgical year consists of two cycles, differently defined in Eastern and Western traditions. The Eastern (Byzantine) rite distinguishes between movable and fixed festivals: the former are those whose dates vary each year with the date of Easter but always fall on the same days of the week; the dates of the latter are constant but may fall on any day of the week. Western tradition, on the other hand, includes with the movable festivals certain feasts whose date is fixed (most importantly, Christmas, December 25) and the seasons dependent on those. This whole cycle is known as the temporale, or (as in the present Roman Missal) the Proper of Seasons. The second cycle in Western tradition includes festivals of saints and other anniversaries on fixed dates and is called the sanctorale, the Proper of Saints.

Easter, the Christian Passover

The schematizations of the year refer to and are reflected in the organization of liturgical books. The roots of the distinction, however, reach back to the second century, when Easter (Pascha), which had been kept at Jerusalem on the fixed Jewish Passover date, was adjusted to the structure of the week so as to fall always on Sunday, the day of the resurrection. That adjustment renders Easter's date variable and is, therefore, the basis of the Christian cycle of movable feasts. The precise computation of the date of Easter was fixed at the Council of Nicaea (325 ce) as the Sunday following the full moon after the vernal equinox. Several factors, however, have disturbed that agreement, and the dates set for this major Christian festival differ between East and West in most years, yielding differing dates as well for those seasons and festivals dependent upon the Easter date.

The Paschal Fast

When the observance of Pascha was transferred from the Jewish date to Sunday, the original preceding one-day fast was extended to two days, the Friday on which Jesus was crucified and the Saturday on which he lay in the tomb. By the middle of the third century four more days were added in Syria and Egypt; this six-day total seems universal by the end of that century, yielding the Holy Week still observed by Christians. On Thursday of Holy Week the institution of the Eucharist at the last supper of Jesus with his disciples is celebrated, and the celebration often includes a reenactment of Jesus' washing of the feet of his disciples. In the West an anthem accompanying the ceremony had as its text the verse "A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another as I have loved you" (Jn. 13:34). Its Latin incipit, "Mandatum novum," gave the name Maundy to the foot washing and to the Thursday on which it occurred.

A Western pilgrim named Egeria described the services at Jerusalem in 383. She noted that on Friday morning the wood of the cross (discovered in the course of excavating the tomb of Christ) was exposed for the veneration of the people who, one by one, passed by and kissed it. Such veneration attached as well to a major fragment of that wood at Rome in the sixth century, and this led to a similar veneration of a symbolic cross on Good Friday throughout the Western church, still encountered today. Egeria also described a service at Calvary during the hours from noon to three during which the passion narratives were read from the four Gospels. An extraliturgical service of preaching during these hours was instituted at Lima, Peru, in 1687, and has since achieved wide popularity in both Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, often consisting of seven sermons on Christ's words from the cross, interspersed with hymns.

The Paschal Vigil

Like Passover, the early Christian Pascha was a nocturnal observance, as testified to by the Epistle of the Apostles, a work from Asia Minor of the second half of the second century. The earliest detailed account of that vigil's content, the description coming from liturgical directories of the first half of the fifth century, relates activities in Jerusalem. After an initial lamp lighting, the vigil consisted of a series of twelve Old Testament lessons, each followed by prayer. These lessons recalled themes already traditionally associated with Passover: creation, the sacrifice of Isaac, the Exodus from Egypt, and so on. Similar series of twelve lessons are documented later in Spain and Gaul, retaining many of the Jerusalem readings. Such a series became standard in western Europe and was continued in the Roman Missal following the Council of Trent (15451563). That series of lessons is found today in the North American Lutheran Book of Worship. Similar but shorter series occur in recent revisions of the Roman Missal (1969) and The Book of Common Prayer (1979).

A climactic point in the paschal liturgy since the third century has been the conferral of baptism, that rite of initiation by which, as Paul said, we are buried with Christ and risen in him to new life (Rom. 6:4). Baptism was performed in a separate chamber during the Old Testament lessons in the fourth and following centuries, but today it is more likely to be performed after them in the presence of the congregation. Following the conferral of baptism, the first Eucharist of Easter is celebrated with exuberant rejoicing over the resurrection of Christ and for the sacramental realization of resurrection in the newly baptized.

In the West today the paschal vigil opens with the lighting of a new fire in the darkness. From this fire the paschal candle, a large candle representing the risen Christ, is lighted and carried into the church in a procession during which a minister proclaims at three points: "The Light of Christ." The same minister then sings over the paschal candle an ancient poem of praise called Exultet. The light ritual just described precedes the vigil readings today in Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran churches. A somewhat simpler light ritual precedes the readings in Orthodox churches now as it did in Jerusalem sixteen centuries earlier. At Jerusalem today, and since the tenth century, the light ceremony has been transferred to a point following the Old Testament readings. There, the Holy Light produced within the tomb of Christ is passed to the ministers and congregation outside the tomb and is carried by them to the other churches of the city in symbolic proclamation of the resurrection.


Already in the second century the paschal feast initiated a fifty-day period of rejoicing (Pentecost) during which fasting and kneeling were forbidden. But by the final two decades of the fourth century the unified celebration of Christ's resurrection and ascension and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit had given way to distinct festivals: the Pascha of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, the Ascension on the fortieth day (a Thursday), and the sending of the Holy Spirit upon the church ten days later on Pentecost Sunday. In Gaul not only was fasting resumed after the ascension, but fasts were ordered on the three days preceding the ascension on which processions with rogations (litanies) were held to ask protection from natural disaster. Prior to twentieth-century liturgical reforms it was common to extinguish the paschal candle, symbol of the risen Christ's presence with the church, at the conclusion of the gospel reading on Ascension Day. Since Vatican Council II, however, in an effort to recover the integrity of the fifty-day period, the candle burns at all services through the day of Pentecost, and fasting is suspended throughout the period.

The conclusion of the paschal rejoicing at the end of Pentecost Sunday has been marked by a ceremonial return to fasting and kneeling for prayer. The resumption of fasting is noted by Egeria, and in the fifth century, notice is given of devotions performed (while kneeling) at the end of that Sunday on the Mount of Olives. Such a penitential service, called Gonuklisia ("the bending of the knee"), is still observed in the Eastern churches on the evening of Pentecost, marking the end of paschal festivity. The week following Pentecost Sunday is the occasion for one of four seasonal fasts at Rome called, in English, Ember Days, from the German term Quatember (Lat., quatuor tempora, "the four seasons"). Other Embertides, largely unobserved in Roman Catholic practice today but maintained in Anglican churches, fall in September, in late December, and in the first week of Lent.

Lent and Palm Sunday

Lent is the major fast season of the Christian year, a period of forty days commemorating the fast of Jesus in the wilderness. It is seen by Christians today as preparation for the celebration of Easter. Considerable variety has characterized this fast, stemming from two factors. First, in the West the last of the six weeks is Holy Week, while in the East Lent is the six weeks preceding Holy Week. Second, from the seventh century on there was a general concern that there be forty days of actual fasting. In the Eastern empire Saturday (Sabbath) was not a fast day, with the single exception of the day before Easter, and Sunday was never a fast day. Therefore, a week of fore-fast was added before the beginning of Lent to yield the desired total. In the West, where Lenten Sabbaths were fast days, the original six weeks yielded thirty-six days, and the beginning of the season was set on Wednesday of the preceding week.

Although the Byzantine Lent took on a penitential quality through monastic influence in the eighth century, that quality has never been so pronounced as in the Western church, where Lent was also the time of formal humiliation for those excluded from the community because of grave sins. Admitted to the order of penitents at the beginning of Lent, these separated sinners were solemnly restored to communion in the latter days of Holy Week. One of the ceremonial dimensions of admission to the order of penitents in Gaul was the sprinkling of ashes on their heads. By the eleventh century that penitential discipline had fallen into disuse, but the old ceremonies continued, now for all the faithful. By the end of the eleventh century the imposition of ashes was virtually universal in the West, giving the name Ash Wednesday to the first day of Lent. That ceremony continues to mark the beginning of the great fast. This general penitential tone is also manifested in the Western church by the suppression of the joyous acclamation "Alleluia" in all Lenten liturgical services, while "Alleluia" continues to be sung in the Byzantine liturgy during Lent.

The association of Lent with the forty-day fast of Jesus has been taken generally by scholars to be a secondary symbolic interpretation, unrelated to the origins of the great fast, since this time before Easter has no connection in Jesus' life to the temptation that followed immediately upon his baptism in the Jordan. Studies suggest, however, that the forty-day duration of the fast that we encounter after Nicaea may have originated in an earlier Alexandrian "Lent" that followed immediately after the celebration of the baptism of Jesus on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany. That six-week period ended with the conferral of baptism in the sixth week and with a "feast of palms" celebrating Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the following Sunday, all separated from the paschal fast by several weeks. A similar six-week pattern is still visible in the Byzantine Lent, now prior to Holy Week rather than following Epiphany, hence making Palm Sunday the day before the Holy Week fast.

Egeria describes a procession down the Mount of Olives with palms on the afternoon of this Sunday at Jerusalem in 383, and such a procession was later adopted by other churches, which already called that day the Sunday of the Passion. Palm Sunday is now generally understood to be the beginning of Holy Week. Its focus is a procession with palms or other branches celebrating Christ's entrance into Jerusalem, followed by the Eucharist whose theme is the passion of Christ. In the Byzantine rite, the sixth week of Lent leading into Palm Sunday is called Palm Week, the individual days being similarly characterized, reinforcing the Coptic suggestion that Palm Sunday was originally the conclusion of Lent, rather than the beginning of Holy Week (as it is generally understood in the West today).

Christmas and Epiphany

The principal festivals of fixed date are those associated with the nativity of Jesus. In Rome by 336 such a festival on December 25 marked the beginning of the year. Earlier (perhaps from the beginning of the second century) in the Eastern churches the festival of the nativity known as Epiphania or Theophania, terms associated in classical Greek with the human manifestation of a deity, was set on January 6. In some churches the themes of Christ's baptism in the Jordan and his first miracle at Cana were celebrated on or near that same day.

The coincidence of the Roman date for the Feast of the Nativity, December 25, with the date of Natalis Solis Invicti, a winter solstice festival established by the emperor Aurelian in 274 ce, has encouraged the hypothesis that Christmas represents a Christian appropriation of the solstice festival, and similar pagan backgrounds have been proposed for the Epiphany festival on January 6. Contrary to this prevailing view, Louis Duchesne in his Christian Worship (London, 1903) suggests that those dates were computed as nativity dates from the inclusion of the Incarnation (i.e., the conception of Christ) in the themes celebrated at Pascha on known fixed dates, March 25 in Africa and Rome, April 6 in Asia Minor and elsewhere in the East. In modern times, March 25 is celebrated as the Feast of the Annunciation (the conception of Christ) nine months before Christmas, except among the Armenians, who continue to follow the tradition of Jerusalem by observing the Nativity on January 6 and the Annunciation nine months earlier. In the course of the later fourth and fifth centuries other Eastern churches adopted the Roman festival of December 25, thenceforward devoting January 6 only to the celebration of Christ's baptism. In that same period the January festival was adopted at Rome, and its nativity theme was narrowed to the visit of the Magi, from which it came to be considered the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.

In most Latin cultures, the Epiphany festival remains the occasion for the exchange of gifts, after the example of the Magi, while in northern Europe and English-speaking countries that custom, continued from pre-Christian year-end festivities, attaches rather to Christmas. In the Byzantine and other Eastern churches where Epiphany celebrates Christ's sanctification of water by his baptism, a major feature of the celebration is a blessing of water that is drawn by the faithful and carried to their homes, a custom for which pre-Christian roots are also claimed in modern scholarship.


Analogous to the period of preparation for Easter, a fast before the nativity developed in the West into a preparatory season. In addition to the Roman December Embertide, churches in Gaul observed fasts of six weeks or more; a common form was called Saint Martin's Lent, from its beginning on November 11, the Feast of Saint Martin of Tours. That season, known as Advent, developed themes associated both with the advent of Christ at his nativity and the second advent at the end of this world's history, the two advents having been expressed by the same term (parousia ) since the Greek theologians of the second century. A forty-day fast is also kept before Christmas in the Eastern churches, but this never received the liturgical articulation of Advent in the West, where Advent today comprises the four weeks (or, in Milan, six weeks) before Christmas.

The Sanctoral Cycle

From the death of Stephen (Acts 7), Christianity has honored those whose faith in Christ has brought them to martyrdom. The liturgical expression of this honor is documented as early as the second century, in the case of the martyrdom of Polycarp at Smyrna, and in the following centuries this veneration achieved a high level of local organization as the anniversaries of martyrs' deaths came to be observed by the celebration of the Eucharist at their tombs. A Roman martyrology of 354 includes a few North African martyrs, probably revealing the presence of an African community at Rome. That same document reveals memorial observances of bishops of Rome who were not martyrs. Both the bishops' list (first prepared in 336) and the list of martyrs present the dates of their memorial celebrations in calendrical order (beginning from December 25) and designate in each case the cemetery where the observance was held. A Syriac martyrology of the following century reveals an increasing unification of these local lists, conflating the martyrs' observances of a great many cities. This tendency to veneration over a wider area and the addition of revered Christians other than martyrs to liturgical calendars led in the Middle Ages to central control over the liturgical veneration of saints; this became in time a complex procedure for beatification and canonization. However, a uniform liturgical calendar of saints was never produced, for local interests continued to be selective. Revision of the Roman calendar in 1969 has given a much larger place to optional observances.

Many feasts represent anniversaries of the dedication of churches, and such a dedication festival at fourth-century Jerusalem is continued in modern calendars as the Feast of the Holy Cross. The dedications of churches also lie behind many other feasts (e.g., of various New Testament figures or angels) where there is no question of a known place of burial. Since the later Middle Ages, still other festivals have been instituted simply as an aid to the promulgation of particular theological or devotional concerns, but this approach to festival is less evident since the Second Vatican Council.

The Liturgical Year since the Reformation

At the Reformation, churches of the reformed tradition placed a renewed emphasis on the weekly observance of Sunday as the primary liturgical articulation of time, while Lutheran and Anglican traditions continued to observe most of the traditional liturgical year but severely restricted the number of feasts of saints, limiting them to New Testament figures for the most part. Since the Second Vatican Council the reform of the Roman calendar has been widely adopted in the United States and Canada, with the general shape of its temporal cycle and accompanying lectionary followed by Roman Catholics, Episcopalians (Anglicans), Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, and other participants in the Consultation on Church Union. Of these, the Episcopal and Lutheran churches have developed their own calendars of saints, following traditional principles.

Liturgical Colors

In earlier times clergy were garbed in a frequently washed tunic of white linen and an over-garment (worn for warmth) that was usually of a dark colored wool. As these garments became more ceremonial in function, a wider range of colors and materials came to be used. All through the Middle Ages in the West color systems varied from place to place, while reflecting some general principles. The first attempt at standardization of liturgical colors is assigned to Pope Innocent III (d. 1216). He presented a system in which white was assigned to festivals of Christ, the Blessed Virgin, and saints who were not martyrs. Red was for feasts of apostles and martyrs, for feasts of the Cross, and for Pentecost. Black was to be used during Advent and Lent and at masses for the departed, with the option of violet as a substitute for black. For all other occasions, green was the assigned color. While other medieval color systems continue to be followed in some places, the Roman system outlined by Innocent is surely the predominant system in Western churches, except that violet now generally replaces black. The 1969 reform of the Roman Missal, however, assigns red for Palm Sunday and Good Friday, and urges the general principle of the Eastern traditions that on the most festive occasions one should use the richest materials available, without regard to color. While Eastern traditions have never sought to associate feasts and seasons with particular colors, there, too, the natural psychological tendency is to match colors to emotions, to associate, for example, dark with sorrow, bright with joy.

See Also

Christmas; Easter; Epiphany.


A useful but now somewhat dated general historical survey can be had in Allan MacArthur's The Evolution of the Christian Year (London, 1953). A more recent presentation of historical development is Adolf Adam's The Liturgical Year: Its History and Its Meaning after the Reform of the Liturgy (New York, 1981). Another work arranged not historically but as a commentary through the Christian year is Adrian Nocent's The Liturgical Year, 4 vols. (Collegeville, Minn., 1977). For still more current scholarship, see the collection of papers of the 1981 Congress of Societas Liturgica published in Liturgical Time, edited by Wiebe Vos and Geoffrey Wainwright (Rotterdam, 1982). For more particular studies of individual festivals, see Patrick Cowley's Advent: Its Liturgical Significance (New York, 1960); John Gunstone's Christmas and Epiphany (London, 1967); Roger Greenacre's The Sacrament of Easter (New York, 1965); and John Gunstone's The Feast of Pentecost (London, 1967).

New Sources

Baggley, John. Festival Icons of the Christian Year. Crestwood, N.Y., 2000.

Beckwith, Roger T. Calendar and Chronology, Jewish and Christian. Leiden and New York, 1996.

Bellenir, Karen, ed. Religious Holidays and Calendars: An Encyclopedic Handbook. Detroit, 1998.

Bradshaw, Paul, and Lawrence A. Hoffman, eds. Passover and Easter: Origin and History to Modern Times. Notre Dame, Ind., 1999.

Bradshaw, Paul, and Lawrence A. Hoffman, eds. Passover and Easter: The Symbolic Structuring of Sacred Seasons. Notre Dame, Ind., 1999.

Roll, Susan K. Toward the Origin of Christmas. Kampen, Netherlands, 1995.

Talley, Thomas J. The Origins of the Christian Liturgical Year. 2d ed. Collegeville, Minn., 1991.

Thomas J. Talley (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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