“Alleluia! Christ is risen!”By the time most of you are reading this article, we will have moved from the meditative, reflective season of Lent into the celebratory season of Easter, in which we spend seven weeks proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus with joy and passion. (Yes, I said “PASSION” - consider it an invitation to grow spiritually this Easter season.) But how do we get there in the church calendar? Why is it so early this year and so late in other years? Today I’m going to take a moment to walk you through the “first half” of the liturgical calendar observed by a substantial majority of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
“Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!”
Churches that observe the liturgical calendar “start” the year with Advent, observed on the four Sundays prior to Christmas Day. “Advent” comes from the Latin adventus, meaning “arrival” - the season focuses on the prophets and others who prepared for Jesus’ birth in his own time as well as our own opportunity to prepare a way for Jesus to come among us all these years later. The color is blue (some churches use purple) and we mark the season with an Advent wreath, on which one candle is lit for each Sunday of the season, in progression. Hymns and scripture readings tend to be laden with language about “preparation” and “awakening” to be ready for Jesus. Advent ends at sundown on December 24th, giving way to the season of Christmas. The popular carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is a direct reference to the season, which begins on Christmas Eve and ends on January 5th - 12 days of celebration, not just one! The color is white/gold and the hymns are meant to be jubilant and filled with celebration. The scriptures focus on the birth narratives of Jesus and, occasionally, the escape to Egypt under threat of massacre from King Herod.
On January 6th the church begins the season of Epiphany with the story of the Magi arriving to present gifts to the infant Jesus. There is no scriptural indication the Magi were in Bethlehem the night Jesus was born - that’s a conflation from years of reading all the infancy stories so close together on Christmas Eve. It is more likely that Jesus was at least several weeks old and possibly not even in Bethlehem when the Magi arrived (and the Bible also fails to note how many Magi there were - they weren’t kings and there may have been more or less than three of them!). Epiphany comes from the Greek epiphanos, meaning “shining through” or “revealed.” Epiphany looks at the childhood and early ministry of Jesus and how he was revealed as God’s anointed one. Scriptures usually include Jesus’ baptism, the calling of the disciples, and early miracles and parables. Epiphany ends with Transfiguration Sunday. The time of Epiphany varies from year to year due to the shifting date of Easter Sunday. The color is green and in some churches Epiphany is one of two seasons known as “Ordinary Time” (the other is Pentecost). This refers to the church neither fasting nor feasting in these seasons - the seasons move “in order” and the focus is on the Christian living her life and faith daily.
The Council of Nicea (325 A.D.) decreed that Easter would be celebrated on the first Sunday following the first full moon following the spring equinox. This year, the equinox is March 20th and the moon is full on Tuesday, March 22nd, so this explains why Easter seems very early in 2016. After Easter Sunday has been established, we count back seven weeks to set Transfiguration Sunday and thus we know how many weeks of Epiphany will be celebrated.
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, four days after Transfiguration Sunday. The color is purple to signify the purple robe Christ wore when he was mocked before Pontius Pilate. Purple was generally only worn by royalty in Jesus’ time because the dye was prohibitively expensive. Lent is the most penitential of all our seasons - the focus on fasting and reflecting on the life of Jesus often includes spiritual disciplines and special worship services. Hymns are also more somber and reflective. One major change in the worship liturgy is the omission of the word Alleluia/Hallelujah. The word literally means “Praise the Lord” and the practice of “burying the Alleluia” dates back to the 5th century in its origins. Some churches literally bury an Alleluia banner in a chest in their sanctuary on Transfiguration Sunday, removing it and displaying it on Easter as a sign of Jesus’ victory over death and hell.
That's enough for this month - in May we’ll look more deeply at Easter, Pentecost, and other aspects of the liturgical calendar. If you’ve got questions before then, please email me or look up the resources available at elca.org/worship. Until then, a blessed Easter to you all!
Yours in Christ,