Posted by: AJtheIrishLass | June 18, 2007

What is the Liturgical Year?

burning candle near metal bowl and carafe in church

Photo by Maria Orlova on

The liturgical, or Church year, is a practice held by Anglican/Episcopal, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and many other churches. The year is divided into several seasons, all based on events found in Scripture.

The first season is Advent, which begins four Sundays before Christmas. Advent symbolizes how we await the celebration of Christ’s birth at Christmas, as well as His second coming. Advent is considered to be a season of preparation for Christmas. The Bible readings and hymns focus on the prophecies concerning Christ’s birth, as well as His second coming. Violet or deep blue is the color used on the vestments worn by the clergy and the altar hangings.

The next season is Christmas, which begins on Christmas Day and lasts for twelve days. (This is where the 12 Days of Christmas come from). Christmas symbolizes Christ’s coming among us in human form. Many of the readings have to do with the stories of Jesus’ birth found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The colors used on the vestments and altar hangings are typically white or gold, symbolizing purity.

Epiphany begins on January 6, and symbolizes Christ’s manifestation to the Gentiles (non-Jews). Epiphany is the day that gifts are exchanged in some countries instead of Christmas Day, symbolizing the gifts given to the baby Jesus by the magi. The season of Epiphany ends the day before Ash Wednesday. The liturgical color is green.

Lent begins 40 days before Easter. The Sundays in Lent are not counted as part of the 40 days because Sundays are always a celebration of the Resurrection and are joyful. Lent is a penitential season. In the early Church, baptismal candidates were given a preparation period of three years, which was later shortened to 40 days. It was also a time when those who had been excommunicated were reconciled. Lent reminds us of the need all Christians have to repent of their sins and receive forgiveness, as well as commemorating Jesus’ 40 days fasting in the wilderness. The liturgical color is violet, although some churches use unbleached linen.

Holy Week
The very last week in Lent is Holy Week, where the events from Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem to the crucifixion and burial are commemorated. Palm Sunday often includes a procession of church members carrying palm branches and a special Gospel reading by members of the congregation called the Passion Gospel. Maundy Thursday commemorates Jesus’ institution of the Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper. Some churches have a foot-washing at this service. The Maundy Thursday service may be followed by a vigil. Good Friday commemorates the crucifixion, and the service is very solemn. There may also be a brief service on the Saturday before Easter. The liturgical color for Holy Week is a deep red, and black is usually used on Good Friday.

On the Saturday night before Easter, many churches have a vigil which is considered the first Easter service. Adult candidates for baptism are often baptized at this service. On the next day, the Easter season begins. Easter commemorates Jesus’ resurrection and His appearances to the disciples before ascending into heaven 40 days later. Ascension Day, 40 days after Easter, commemorates this event. The liturgical colors are typically the same as those used at Christmas.

Ten days after Ascension Day is Pentecost, which signifies the gift of the Holy Spirit given to the apostles. This is often called the Church’s birthday. Pentecost Sunday services in large congregations often include readings in the languages of the ethnic groups who make up the congregation, symbolizing the universalism of the Gospel message. The liturgical color is red, symbolizing the Holy Spirit and the tongues of fire that rested on the apostles. Trinity Sunday, honoring the Holy Trinity, follows one week after Pentecost. The season after Pentecost lasts from the first Sunday after Trinity Sunday and ends before Advent. This is called the season after Pentecost, although in some churches it is known as Ordinary Time.

©2001. Written on February 27, 2001*. May not be reproduced without the author’s consent.

*Some minor revisions were made on July 8, 2001.


  1. i would beg to differ than Advent is penitential? waiting, sure, and that CAN feel penitential–i was thinking of waiting to get to San Francisco, sitting on the Bay Bridge for over an hour…. thanks for your site

    The Inclusive Celtic Church, once an Episco myself

    • That does sound like a good analogy 🙂 I guess the penitential “feel” kinda varies by parish. At mine, we use Rite I, as well as the Great Litany on the first Sunday, during both Advent and Lent.

      Your church sounds interesting, please feel free to share a little bit about it if you like.


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