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Feasts, Fasts, and Seasons of the Christian Church Year

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This is "Part 2" of our Church year articles. While Part 1 explained the reasons for the Church year, this article is more specific. It is quite comprehensive, but undoubtedly something will be missing. For more information visit ChurchYear.Net.

Seasons of the Church Year

Advent

The Advent season marks the start of the Church year and has a dual purpose: we remember the hopes and expectations of the people of Israel and the world who waited for a Redeemer as we remember and hope for the future return of Jesus. Thus, this season commemorates the time leading up to Jesus' birth, while simultaneously waiting for his second coming. Advent is an excellent way to avoid pre-Christmas burnout and to focus our attentions to the coming of Christmas and our Lord Jesus Christ. The Advent season is the Church's "New Year," because it is the start of the Church Calendar Year.

Colors- Violet (a regal color, also reflects the semi-penitential mood of Advent), some non-Catholic liturgical churches will use Blue (a color associated with the Blessed Virgin Mary, possibly due to her role as Queen of Heaven (i.e. the Sky, which is blue). This is not an approved color for Catholics.

Time: Varies: Early December to Christmas Day

Christmas

Christmas Day, known as the Day of Nativity in the Eastern Church, begins with the vigil mass on Christmas Eve. However, Christmas is more than just a day; it's also a season, sometimes called Christmastide. The Christmas season lasts from December 25th through the Baptism of our Lord, which comes after the Epiphany. Think about the joys of the birth of a child and imagine the birth of the Son of God! Christmas is a joyous time of celebration in the Church year and it lasts for many days which helps to avoid the post-Christmas letdown. Secular culture pretty much forgets about Christmas after Christmas dinner on December 25th. However, Catholics have many more days in which to celebrate! December 25th until the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God on January 1st is celebrated as the Octave of Christmas. The days from December 25th to January 5th are often reckoned as the 12 days of Christmas. In the United States, Epiphany has been moved to a Sunday between Jan 2nd. and Jan. 8th, which has lessened the festive significance of the 12 days. [Note: Some non-Catholic liturgical Churches (like the Anglicans) speak of an "Epiphany season" which starts on Epiphany and ends at the Presentation on Feb. 2nd]

Color: White

Time: Dec. 25th until Jan. 1 (Octave of Christmas), Dec. 25th until Jan. 5th (12 Days of Christmas, traditional), December 25 until the Baptism of our Lord (Sunday after Epiphany) (Christmastide)

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Lent

Most people think of Lent as a time of giving something up, which is a part of the story. Lent is a preparation for Easter and recalls the 40 days of Christ fasting and resisting temptation in the wilderness. That event itself is an echo of the 40 years that the ancient Hebrews wandered in the wilderness. In a way, this is our "wilderness" period, a time for reflection and penitence. During Lent we do give food up, but it's not "merely a diet" as my friend Steven Clark likes to say. The Catholic Church requires meatless Fridays during Lent and the Orthodox are more stringent with the dietary guidelines. Lent is also about abandoning material excesses that may get in the way of our relationship with God. The ultimate goal is to help resist temptation and to conquer the spiritual forces of darkness with God's help, and become stronger Christians for the rest of our lives. Jesus resisted temptation by fasting in the wilderness, praying, and reading the Scriptures. That, along with almsgiving, is a good model for Christian Lenten devotion (although the literal wilderness is optional).

Colors: Violet (symbolizing royalty and penitence)

Time: Starts with Ash Wednesday; the date varies, usually beginning in late winter and lasting through early spring (Lent means "spring.")

Holy Week

This week commemorates the final days of Jesus' pre-resurrection life. It consists of a large number of services, including what is called the "Paschal Triduum": Holy (Maundy) Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday/Easter Vigil. It is during this very important week that we enter into Christ's final days, from triumph to agony and death. To attend the services takes dedication, which we have written about here. It consists of:

Palm Sunday- Jesus entered into Jerusalem triumphantly, with the people waving palms and shouting, "Hosanna, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" We celebrate this aspect of Jesus' final days on Palm Sunday. Often the service begins with a procession into the Church waving palms. Churches read the passion scriptures, sometimes in dramatic or choral form.

Holy (Maundy) Thursday- literally "mandate Thursday" where we remember the washing of his disciples' feet and the new commandment to love one another as Christ has loved us (John 13). Many Maundy Thursday services include foot washing.

Good Friday- A service devoted to Christ's work upon the Cross. This service includes the veneration of the cross, a custom which brings home the sacrifice made by our Lord. It also includes communion from the reserved Sacrament.

Easter (Paschal) Vigil- The first Service of Easter! It is a joyous time as we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. There is a scripture reading detailing much of salvation history while the parishioners listen by candlelight. The priest exclaims: Alleluia Christ is Risen! The people reply "The Lord is Risen Indeed" and people ring bells and sing the Gloria in Excelsis. Then we celebrate the first Eucharist of Easter. It's a truly joyous time, made more joyful by going through Lent and Holy Week. In the early Church the Vigil service went from Holy Saturday evening until dawn on Easter Sunday. Most services today start about 8:00 PM and go until about 12:30 AM.

[Stations of the Cross- designed to give the Christian a deep awareness of Christ's sufferings and agony, which he endured for humanity. These are done devotionally during Lent and/or Holy Week]

Colors: Red (blood) and sometimes black (death); White for the Easter Vigil

Time- Palm Sunday until Easter Sunday

Easter

Called Pascha in Eastern Churches, Easter, the resurrection of Christ from the dead, is the heart of the Christian faith and Easter Sunday and the Easter season celebrate this fact. Yes, like Christmas, Easter isn't merely a day, but a whole season. Throughout this time you will hear a lot of "alleluias" during the worship service to express the joy we should feel at Christ's resurrection. This is a time to reflect on, celebrate, and most importantly live the new life in Christ and his triumph over death.

Colors: White

Time: Begins with the first Eucharist of Easter and lasts through Pentecost. In the natural cycle, it falls during mid-late spring.

Pentecost

Jesus promised he would not leave us abandoned, but said he would send the Holy Spirit. This occurred at Pentecost (see the Book of Acts), and that is the day every year we celebrate the outpouring of God's Spirit and the beginning of the Church. In this way, Pentecost is the Church's birthday. Along with Christmas Day and Easter Sunday, it is a major holiday in the Church year.

Colors: Red (symbolizing the tongues of fire associated with the Spirit)

Time: Usually mid-late spring, the Sunday after 7 Easter

Ordinary Time

We possess no record of the vast majority of Jesus' life. His life, like all of ours, was no doubt ordinary most of the time: sleeping, eating, working, relaxing with friends, etc. In the Incarnation, God redeemed our time: not just the time spent doing Church activities or the time spent doing exciting things, but the ordinary time. Ordinary time begins after the Epiphany and runs until Ash Wednesday. And then it begins again after Pentecost Sunday. The last Sunday of Ordinary Time is Christ the King, the Sunday of recognizing Christ's rule over all. After this Sunday, the Church year begins again with Advent. The Sundays of Ordinary Time focus on various themes about the life of Christ and his Church.

Color: Green (the most "ordinary" color in a temperate climate, symbolizing life, nature, and God's creation)

Time: The day after the Baptism of our Lord (Sunday after the Epiphany) to the day before Ash Wednesday (usually mid-late winter); after Pentecost Sunday until the Saturday before the first Sunday in Advent (usually through summer until late autumn)

Major Holy Days

These are important celebrations throughout the year. Most have fixed dates, i.e. they're always found on a certain date (unlike Easter and many "seasons."), but some vary. These are divided into solemnities, feasts, and memorials. This division ranks the importance of the Holy Day. The number and dates of these celebrations may change with different countries. This list represents the Catholic calendar in the United States. Entries with an asterisk (*) are Holy Days of Obligation in the United States of America.

Solemnities

All Sundays* (varies, varies)- Sunday worship is always a feast of the Resurrection and thus a solemnity.

Mary, Mother of God* (White, January 1)- celebrates the divine and virginal Motherhood of the Blessed Virgin Mary and her pre-eminent role in God's salvation history.

The Epiphany (White, January 6)- celebrates the manifestation of Christ to the world [note: In the USA, Epiphany falls on a Sunday between Jan. 2nd and Jan. 8th in the Roman Catholic Church]

Joseph, Husband of Mary (White, March 25)- Celebrates St. Joseph, the foster father of Jesus and protector of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary (White, March 25)- Celebrates the angel Gabriel's announcement to Mary that she, though a virgin, would bear become the Mother of God.

Easter Sunday* (White, date varies)- The solemnity of solemnities, celebrating the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

Easter Octave (White, date varies)- The days from Easter until the 2nd Sunday in Easter are considered a solemnity.

The Ascension* (White, date varies)- After Jesus' resurrection the Church believes that he ascended into heaven where he is alive and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit. On Ascension Day we celebrate and remember this event. Ascension Day is a part of the Easter Season and is celebrated 40 days after Easter

Pentecost* (Red, date varies)- 9 days after the Ascension the Church remembers the Descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles.

Trinity Sunday* (White, date varies)- On this day, we remember and celebrate God's self-revelation as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Trinity Sunday is always the first Sunday after Pentecost and occurs during ordinary time.

Corpus Christi* (White, date varies)- This day commemorates the institution of the Eucharist where we receive the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. This solemnity falls on the Sunday after Trinity Sunday

The Sacred Heart of Jesus (White, date varies)- A day dedicated, as Pope John Paul stated, to the mystery of the love of God for all people at all times. Occurs on the Friday after the second Sunday of Pentecost

The Nativity of Saint John the Baptist (White, June 24)- Remembers the birthday of St. John the Baptist, Christ's forerunner.

SS. Peter and Paul (Red, June 29)- Celebrates the life, work, and death of these two pre-eminent Saints of the Church.

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary* (White, August 15)- Remembers the Assumption of Mary, body and soul, into heaven. [Note: Some non-Catholic liturgical churches will set aside this day for the Blessed Virgin Mary apart from a connection to the Assumption]

All Saints Day* (White, November 1)- This day is reserved for all those unsung Christian heroes who are worthy of remembrance, but don't get a universally recognized feast day. All Saints is kind of like President's Day or Veteran's Day in the USA in that regard. All Hallows Eve, or Halloween, is the eve of All Saints day.

Christ the King* (White, date varies)- Celebrates the kingship and dominion of Christ over all the world. Always the last Sunday before Advent.

The Immaculate Conception* (White, December 8th)- This day commemorates the all holy birth and sinless life of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Christmas* (White, December 25th)- A day of feasting that celebrates the Incarnation.

Major Fast Days

These are days on which Catholics are required to abstain from food (if health permits). Only one full meal is allowed. One may eat small meals in addition to the one full meal, so long as the two small meals do not add up to an additional full meal. No meat is permitted on these days. Eating between meals is not permitted, but liquids, like coffee and juices, are allowed.

Ash Wednesday (Purple, date varies)- This is a day to remember that we are but dust and ashes. This observance comes from the Old Testament (and occasionally early Christian) practice of repenting in sackcloth and ashes. At the service, the priest will give the sign of the Cross with ashes and oil on the believer's forehead to symbolize repentance. Generally the ashes are made from palms from last year's Palm Sunday. Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. It is not practiced in the Eastern Church.

Good Friday (Red and/or Black, date varies)- Occurring on Friday in Holy Week, fasting is customary on this day to help us to bodily recall the sufferings of our Lord.

Some Major Feast Days

Less important than solemnities, these days are nevertheless very important in the life of the Church. This list does not have all of the feasts, but includes many well-known and popular ones.

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple (White, February 2)- Also called the Purification, or Candlemas (due to the abundance of candles in the pre-service procession), this day remembers when Mary took Jesus to the temple and "presented" him. It is here where Simeon held Christ in his arms (Luke 2:22-40).

The Visitation (White, May 31)- This feast recalls Mary's visit to Elizabeth, her cousin, and the mother of St. John the Baptist.

The Transfiguration of Christ (White, August 6)- The Bible speaks of Christ showing his true glory to 3 of his apostles. This day celebrates that marvelous event.

Triumph of the Holy Cross (Red, September 14)- A feast day to commemorate and glory in the Cross of Christ. A shameful instrument of death became a means of eternal life; this day reminds us of that.

All the feasts of the Apostles- Each Apostle has a day and/or a day commemorating an event in their lives. Colors are White, or Red if martyred.

All feasts of Evangelists- These honor the four Gospel Writers. Colors are White, or Red if martyred.

St. Stephen (Red, December 26)- Stephen was one of the first martyrs for Christ in the early Church.

Holy Innocents- (Red, December 28)- This commemorates the mass killings of children by King Herod in an effort to exterminate the Christ Child.

Holy Family (White, varies)- Celebrates the Holy Family in the midst of the breakdown of the family in Western culture. Occurs on the Sunday within the octave of Christmas.

St. Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and archangels (White, September 29)- Commemorates St. Michael and the archangels; has also been called Michaelmas.

Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary (white, September 8th)- festival of the birth of Our Lady.

All Souls (black or white, November 2nd)- Commemorates all the faithful departed

Memorials

These days commemorate the Saints whose contributions to the faith were special, yet not on the level of those with feasts of solemnities. Some memorials are optional.

Examples

Agnes- January 21, child martyr

Polycarp- February 23, Bishop and martyr

Patrick- March 17, Bishop and missionary to Ireland

Catherine of Siena- April 29, virgin and doctor

Athanasius- May 2- bishop and doctor

Justin- June 1, Apologist for Christianity and martyr

Benedict- July 11, Abbot and founder of a monastic order

Maximilian Kolbe- August 14, priest and martyr

Vincent DePaul- September 27, priest

Francis of Assisi- October 4, friar, reformer, and model of the Christian life

Leo the Great- November 10, Pope and Doctor

Nicholas of Myra- December 6, Bishop and model for Santa Claus