Advent, Easter and Ordinary Time: Knowing the Christian Calendar


Since ancient times, Christians have used the Christian calendar (also called the liturgical year) to orient themselves to the two most significant seasons in the yearly Christian cycle of time. Those seasons are Christmas and Easter.

Within such a calendar every day has a vital, and traditionally sacred, place, relative to the life, ministry, death and resurrection of the figure of Jesus Christ.

Because the Christian year is rooted in the liturgical observances of ancient Judaism, it should not surprise us that over the centuries different strains of Christianity have developed different variations on the Christian year.

Typically, though, the Protestant church year goes pretty exactly as follows, starting with the Christian new year:

The Advent-Christmas-Epiphany Cycle

Advent. Rather than on January 1, the Christian new year begins on the Sunday that falls nearest November 30. That Sunday, through the following three Sundays—in other words, the time encompassing the four Sundays before Christmas—is known as the season of Advent (which is Latin for “coming”). During this time the church liturgically, spiritually, and practically prepares for the glory of Christmas day.

Christmas. While Christmas Day is celebrated on December 25, the Christmas season lasts the twelve days from December 25 to the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. (This is where the “Twelve Days of Christmas” comes from.)

Epiphany. Epiphany is Greek for “manifestation,” “show,” “revealed.” During this season Christians focus on God manifesting as Jesus, on his sacrifice and the atonement. It is also a time when churches tend to focus on their missional work: if Jesus gave his all to save believers, then believers must give their all to save others. Epiphany runs from the close of Christmastide (a traditional word for the Christmas season) on January 6 to the beginning of Lent (see below).

Ordinary Time. This does not mean “boring time where nothing interesting happens.” The term derives from the word “ordinal,” as in “numbered”—and, indeed, the Sundays that fall within Ordinary Time are often designated in such ways as The Third Sunday After Pentecost, or The Second Sunday Before Lent. Ordinary Time refers to any period of time that falls outside the major seasons of the liturgical year. Where within the times of Christmas and Easter we focus on specific aspects of Christ’s life and meaning to us, during Ordinary Time we think about what Christ means to the entirety of our lives. It is, after all, during the “ordinary times” of our life that Christ can, and should, mean as much to us as he does at any other.

The Easter Cycle

Lent. A forty-day period (based on the forty days of temptation that Jesus faced in the wilderness: see Matthew 4:1-11) of fasting, prayer, self-examination and repentance, in anticipation of the day Christ sacrificed himself in atonement for the sins of all mankind. The Lenten season lasts from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday.

Holy Week. Sometimes called Passion Week, because of the awesome and terrible events that unfolded between the days of Palm Sunday (when Jesus triumphantly rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey) and Holy Saturday (when Jesus was buried after his passion and crucifixion on Good Friday).

Easter. Yay! Easter is the most important, most ancient festival of the Christian church year. Every Sunday of the Easter season, which lasts fifty days overall, is a celebration of the glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ. He is (as they say) risen indeed.

Pentecost. This day celebrates the occasion of the Holy Spirit first descending upon Christ’s disciples. Pentecost is the last day of the Easter season—meaning it falls on the fiftieth day after Easter. Pentecost Sunday is a traditional day for baptism and the confirmation of new Christians.

Ordinary Time. From the day of Pentecost to the First Sunday of Advent.

Within the Christian liturgical calendar are of course a great many significant days. Ash Wednesday (the first of the forty days of Lent), the Baptism of the Lord (usually celebrated on the first Sunday after the Epiphany), and Trinity Sunday (the first Sunday after Pentecost when we celebrate the Trinity) are but three such days.

Today it’s so easy to discount the Christian life as being essentially shallow, easy, without real substance or discipline. If you trust nothing, though, trust this: it wasn’t always that way.

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About John Shore

John Shore (who, fwiw, is straight) is the author of UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question, and three other great books. He is founder of Unfundamentalist Christians (on Facebook here), and executive editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians group blog.  (In total John's two blogs receive some 250,000 views per month.) John is also co-founder of The NALT Christians Project, which was written about by TIME,  The Washington Post, and others. His website is JohnShore.com. John is a pastor ordained by The Progressive Christian Alliance. You're invited to like John's Facebook page. And don't forget to sign up for his mucho awesome monthly newsletter.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=772784866 Kimberly Ryan

    Methinks that Mr. Shore forgot to mention what is significant about this day besides the fact that it is one day closer to my birthday than yesterday was.

    • Anonymous

      Yeah, my fault: wrong title for piece. I was meaning to convey that EVERY day is, according to the liturgical calendar, important to Christians. Anyway, I changed the title. Thanks for commenting, so I could catch the snafu.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=772784866 Kimberly Ryan

        “This is the day the Lord hath made, I will rejoice and be glad!”

        Much better. Now to get back to cleaning. One week to the anniversary of one of the greatest gifts God ever gave me….Life. And 12 days to a big old shindig complete with food, folks, and 2 cakes. (Hubby and I have a dual party) Have a great day everyone!

  • http://sherrymeneley.com/ Sherry

    I had to google “Nov 8 and Christian” to discover: “On November 8 in the Holy Orthodox Church we celebrate the Synaxis of the Supreme Commanders Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, and of the other bodiless and heavenly orders, the Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominions, Powers, Authorities, Principalities, Archangels and Angels.”

  • Ace

    I’ve always wondered why Easter and Passover don’t line up most years (I think there was one instance a few years back where they DID) since the Christian calender is, sort of, as you said, rooted in Jewish tradition.

    Though isn’t the Jewish calendar lunar, where the Christian is solar (a result of Roman influence)??

    I read all about this phenomenon way back in high school at one point and have forgotten nearly everything. My brain is so flaky…

    • Jennie

      Well, it goes back to Constantine in the fourth century who decided that the church needed to separate themselves from Jewish customs. At the Council of Nicea the decision was made to force Christian churches to celebrate Easter on the chosen Sunday, rather than the biblical/traditional date of Passover. This unfortunately, planted the seeds of anti-Semiticism in the church.

      Thanks for the calendar, John!

    • JAy.

      You are correct that the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar (months based upon the cycle of the moon). I am not sure that I would call the Christian calendar “solar”. The determination of Easter is a combination of solar and lunar (first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox).

      Christmas was chosen for several reasons, but none of them necessarily tied to either solar or lunar calendars.

  • Mimicross22

    And the significance of the use of the Mayan calendar to illustrate the Christian calendar is………

    • Anonymous

      The funny caption. (Man. Rough crowd this morning ….)

      • Diana A.

        Aren’t we always? :-)

  • Anonymous

    ……”Gotcha Journalism”!

    EDIT:
    (why is this HERE? I clicked reply to Mimicross’ post…)

    • Anonymous

      Let’s see, Voicedude. I’ve hist “reply” to your comment; I’ll see if does, in fact, nest beneath it.

      • Anonymous

        That seemed to work right. Maybe you didn’t hit the “reply” button, I hope?

  • Don Rappe

    Why did I used to think that Pentecost (White Sunday) was the highest Christian holy day?

    • Sally Price

      Here’s a Wikipedia article about Whitsunday with a reference to White Sunday, a whole ‘nother day.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whitsun

      • Don Rappe

        As a general rule, whatever misinformation comes into my head first will stick. I thought the giving of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost was the highest holy day of the church this giving formed, closely followed by Easter when Jesus Christ rose, and Epiphany when God was manifest in Jesus. I also thought that on these three days alone, the altar cloths were white. I now know that whenever a church body reorganizes itself some what, the liturgical experts (possibly born eunuchs) will seize the opportunity to reorganize the altar colors and have been doing this forever. The first of the ten minor holy days of Christ mass is more about the activity of the Blessed Mother than anything else and is now second fiddle to the Commercial Day, at least in the U. S.

  • Cathy

    That’s a lot of history right there. Thanks, I learned something new.

    • Cathy

      …and interesting. I knew about Advent but not the whole Lent season. Thanks again, John.

  • Diana A.

    I miss Kingdomtide. That’s what the ordinary time after Pentecost and before advent used to be called (at least in some churches.) Oh well.

    • Diana Avery

      I still miss Kingdomtide. Oh well.

  • Mark

    I spent most of my adult life in church contexts that emphasized contemporary worship. It’s only in the last 7 years that I’ve been part of a faith community that emphasizes the liturgical. Part of that is the recognition and celebration of the Christian calendar with the regular cycle of changing of colors of decor on the communion table, and celebrating the seasons and feasts.

    I find that it creates a kind of rhythm to life and the way I practice my faith. Knowing that there are many throughout the world following the same rhythms and a legacy of many saints who have gone before who did the same helps cement my sense of belonging to the family.

  • Dsg

    This is really interesting.

    Thank you John Shore you have helped me with my life :) :) ::0

    ‘xoxo gossip girl’ tehe heha xxxxxxxxxxx

  • bookaunt

    In many churches the Advent season besides being a preparation time to celebrate Jesus birth, is celebrated to remind us to prepare for his return.

  • Mbrownlee

    sends the blessings of the Christ Child to you, John on this the third day of Christmas.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Robert-Solon-Jr/697081831 Robert Solon Jr via Facebook
    • Paula

      This mentions that repentance isn’t a feature of Advent. I wonder. John the Baptist was all about that, and you can’t get past Advent without him.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ellie-Ellerbee/1386582010 Ellie Ellerbee via Facebook

    Fol-de-rol and fiddle dee dee of courses. But interesting and helpful to the understanding of the “religion” of Christianity.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

      Ellie: Christianity is, unabashedly (and certainly historically) a religion. No need to put it in quotes.

  • David W. Reynolds via Facebook

    Being from a non-denominational background, being a Presbyterian NOW at times can be confusing, and I almost hate to ask exactly what is IS we’re doing! Now I know. Thank you! ( and you as well, Robert, for that great video!)

  • Chris Muse via Facebook

    Thanks John…sharing this with my less than high church friends…

  • http://www.facebook.com/Twiga.Riq Richard W. Fitch via Facebook

    Robert Solon: What a wonderful clip; now shared on my wall!!

  • Marc Bridgham

    Referred to this posting by Christian Left. I grew up in an environment very attuned to the Liturgical Seasons. I miss it.

  • Paula

    I recently read that in the Orthodox Church Christmas is bigger than Easter. Wonder if that’s true. Apparently, the Incarnation– God’s identifying with humanity, is the the big wow for them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kay-Frederick/1162162633 Kay Frederick via Facebook

    I have a friend who once told me that she would love to go to Mardi Gras in NO, and was hoping that some year it would fall in the spring when the weather was better…like during Easter vacation!

  • Jeannie

    Helpful. Growing up in a pentecostal church didn’t give me much opportunity to know about “high church stuff”. Now that I am going to a church that actually observes some these kinds of things – I feel lost a lot. But at the same time I am embarressed to ask…

  • http://elenialexandraki.blogspot.com Eleni

    The Orthodox church is so different. We have 2 two-week fasts during “Ordinary Time” and a total of 12 high holy days, including Pascha (Easter) and Christmas.

  • Larry Petry via Facebook

    NICE! Thanks for writing this one up, John.

  • Adriana Maldonado via Facebook

    Ah yes, it’s time for the high horse riding, self-righteous hypocrites to flood social networks with the stupidity of their made up “war on Christmas” and “keep Christ in Christmas” stuff.
    Oh joy!

    oh yes, HAPPY HOLIDAYS to you ALL…
    Because we know its not about being “pc”. It’s about being inclusive. The intention of wishing well is all that matters anyway.

    <3

  • Adriana Maldonado via Facebook

    (Sorry I counted 3 I such posts already.. and I am a Christian, I’m just slightly annoyed by their self important attitudes)

  • Paula Hepola Anderson via Facebook

    Great last line: “Today it’s so easy to discount the Christian life as being essentially shallow, easy, without real substance or discipline. If you trust nothing, though, trust this: it wasn’t always that way.”

  • Grant

    Great post. And then on top of all those seasons of the Christian year there are colours that correspond to them. (Yes I spelled colours right – the Canadian way).

    There are colours for Advent, Christmas, Ash Wednesday, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Christ the King Sunday etc. In many mainline denominations you might notice colour changes on the pulpit, lectern and communion table.

  • Jill H

    I have never known of such a thing as a liturgical season in my life. Never actually heard of it until, well, now. Dumb question to anyone– how does this tracking of time affect your spiritual lives? I ask because I am very aware of how seasons affect and change me, my mood, my focus. Do these cycles also impact your awareness, and how?

    Do my questions make any sense? Sheesh, I feel like such a tourist.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

      It’s like anything else that’s spiritually significant: it impacts your awareness as much as you let it.

    • David Sinclair

      For me, I like advent and lent for the same reasons I like worship services. There is a ritual and structure to it that is comforting, traditional (in a good way) and helps me focus. The lighting of the advent candles (and the advent calendar for kids), the daily devotions and sacrifices of lent….they prepare me spiritually for Christmas and Easter.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

        yes.

      • Jill H

        Hello there kind sir, where might one find such daily devotions? Because advent starts, what this Sunday? Since this is new, I’d like to give it the old college try.

        • Donald Rappe

          In the event this slips past John, I’d suggest that you attend a service at a liturgically oriented church in the Western (as opposed to Oriental) tradition this Sunday, Dec 2, the first Sunday in Advent. Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Episcopal are good candidates, but with less certitude, I think Presbyterian, Methodist and United Church of Christ should also do the trick. I just had good luck googling Advent daily devotions. There you can pick your own flavor.

          • Jill H

            Thank you Don for this. I am planning to spend this month getting reacquainted with the whole story, start from the beginning. We’ll see how it goes. I’m searching online tonight and have it on good authority also that Bonhoeffer’s God is in the Manger is a good resource.

  • http://unchainedfaith.com Amy

    I love this! Thank you for sharing. We spent many years in a church that avoided as much of this as possible; I’m not convinced the pastoral staff even knew all this. We’re now (happily) at a church that practices the changing of the Christian seasons. We (my husband and I) read the daily Scripture from the Common Lexionary. Our kids, who had never seen hymnals or stained glass before, have been awed by all of it. We hope to convey to them that for us, it’s more than just doing these traditional things for the sake of doing them. John, you’ve now provided something I can print and read to my kids as we go through the Liturgical Year. Thanks!

    • Alexi Trevor Malmgren

      I love all of that . some progressives want all that gone And church to be nothing but a religious rotary club ( a charity service club we have in australia ) . I think we should keep all that and let gays marry and women be priests

  • http://www.facebook.com/kelly.withee.1 Kelly Withee via Facebook

    Very well written and interesting!

  • Alexi Trevor Malmgren

    i have an icon table beside my bed i decorate in colours of the liturgical season .


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