Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka
In many non-liturgical churches, a typical Sunday service includes songs, prayers, reading the Bible, and a sermon. The liturgical churches follow a worship service varying only slightly throughout the year. The order of service for these liturgical churches is contained in prayer books. The service has two parts: the first part, often referred to as the liturgy of the word, includes hymns, prayers, scripture readings, a sermon, and a recitation of a creed; in the second part, called the liturgy of the Eucharist, the minister blesses bread and wine and shares them with the congregation. The service concludes when the minister blesses the people, instructing them to go out into the world in peace to serve Christ.
A cycle of recurring festivals and holy days marks the progress of the Christian calendar year. While Christians in the West use the Gregorian calendar, developed in the late 16th century, Eastern or Orthodox Christians often follow the old Julian calendar of the early Roman empire and set their celebrations later than those of their Catholic or Protestant counterparts, sometimes up to several weeks later.
Christmas, or Christ-Mass, the celebration of the birth of Jesus, is observed in the West on December 25, although no one knows the exact date of Jesus' birth. It is a time of great joy and celebration accompanied by songs, plays, nativity scenes, and other rituals that celebrate God's incarnation. It is a special time for children, who are given roles to play in the reenactment of the story of the coming of the baby Jesus. Other traditions include exchanging cards and gifts to symbolize God's great gift, and decorating evergreen trees with lights to symbolize Christ's light shining in a dark world. The festival of Christmas has tremendous resonance in the non-Christian world, and is celebrated across the globe. Many Christmas traditions resemble traditions found in the pre-Christian midwinter celebrations of Europe and ancient Rome.
The festivals of Advent and Epiphany surround the Christmas celebration. Advent, which means "coming," is a penitential time of preparation, during which Christians read the words of the Old Testament prophets and prepare their hearts for the coming of Jesus. It begins four Sundays before Christmas. Many Christians place an Advent wreath in their homes, or mark the days until Christmas with an Advent calendar. The Feast of the Epiphany falls on January 6th. In the eastern Church, Epiphany, which means "manifestation," is a commemoration of Jesus' baptism, and the churches hold a ritual blessing of the baptismal waters. In the West, Epiphany commemorates the coming of the wise men to bring gifts to the infant Jesus.