Most of us are confronted by two kinds of years. The business year, extending from January 1 to December 31, has certain holidays, such as New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day. Then there is the traditional Christian Year which begins four Sundays before Christmas. It has holidays of its own: Christmas Day, Epiphany, Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, Easter Day, Ascension Day, Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday. Where the civil year has its spring, summer, autumn and winter seasons, the Christian Year has its Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lenten, Easter, and Trinity seasons.

Some 34,500,000 people in America observe the complete Christian Year. This Christian Year is almost as old as Christianity itself. Episcopalians, Lutherans and Roman Catholics have governed their church services and their preaching by it for centuries. It is said that these denominations hold so firmly to the Christian Year that during the late war, when a troop ship was torpedoed, a chaplain, remembering that it was January 6, opened his pocket Bible and turned quickly to Isaiah 60:1–6, and to Matthew 2:1–12, and read the appointed lessons for the Epiphany festival as the ship went to the bottom.

Due to the influence of Puritanism, the traditional Christian Year ceased to be observed by many of the major denominations. About the year 1840, the Rev. H. C. Schwan created a city-wide sensation in Cleveland by conducting a Christmas Day service, complete with a Christmas tree and candles. A decade later the people of Butler county, Pennsylvania, were horrified when a Protestant congregation celebrated Easter Day with special music and an appropriate sermon. In each case much was said about “immigrants who insisted upon introducing strange European customs into America.”

Today Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Roman Catholics observe the full Christian Year as they have been doing for centuries. Many other denominations have restored a partial Christian Year. It follows the traditional pattern from Advent to Pentecost. From then on a season known as Kingdomtide is observed instead of the traditional Trinity season.

The purpose of the Christian Year is to keep Christian worship and preaching strictly Christ-centered. Each Sunday and weekday festival has its appointed Scripture lessons. These are called the “standard periscopes,” and they do not vary from year to year. Romans 13:11–14 and St. Matthew 21:1–9 will be read on the first Sunday in Advent in 1958, just as they were on the same day in 1858, 1758, and for centuries on back. The same is true of every Sunday in the year. From Advent to Ascension Day our Saviour’s earthly life is presented in chronological order, and during the second half of the year, his Parables, Miracles, and Teachings are the appointed themes.

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The fixed Scripture lessons are always a selection from one of the four Gospels, together with a lesson from one of the Epistles, and occasionally (as on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday), a portion of one of the Prophecies. Not only that, but each Sunday has a definite theme for the day. This theme is announced at the start of the service by the Introit. This is composed of two or more Scripture verses, and it is read by the clergyman or sung by the choir.

The Epistle for the day is read, and the choir arises and sings the Gradual. This is in anthem form, and in the words of Scripture, and the theme for the day is announced once more by means of it. Books of Graduals, with their proper music, still exist.

After the Gospel for the day is read, a Collect follows. This is a short prayer reiterating the theme of the day. Then three or four hymns appropriate to the day’s theme are sung by choir and congregation.

With the theme for the day reiterated again and again by means of the Introit, Epistle, Gradual, Gospel, Collect, and in the sermon and the hymns, there is a unity of structure that fixes the central thought of the day firmly in the minds of the congregation. It is almost impossible to hear anything but Christ-centered preaching in churches where the Christian Year is followed.

Advent, with its four Sundays, prepares the worshiper for Christmas. It begins with the theme “Behold, thy King cometh.” On the following Sunday the theme is “Behold, He shall come again.” On the third Sunday the theme is John the Baptist’s question, “Art Thou He that should come?” On the fourth Sunday it is “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.”

Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and the Sunday after Christmas are centered upon the Nativity. On this first of the major festivals the church is decorated with Christmas greens, and there is a tree. The choir is at its best, and the old, familiar Christmas hymns echo throughout the church. The story of the watching shepherds is told, and the service reaches a great climax with the words of the angels, “Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

Epiphany (from epiphania), means “to make manifest.” The Festival of the Epiphany falls on January 6. Scripture lessons, prayers, hymns, and sermon are centered upon the visit of the wise men from the East, and the congregation is assured that the Christ Child came not only for the Jews, but for the Gentile nations as well. There are from one to six Sundays after Epiphany, and on each of these some “manifestation” or epiphany of the Saviour is the theme. His wisdom was manifested to the doctors in the temple, his glory at Cana of Galilee, his grace to the Capernaum centurion, his omnipotence was shown in stilling the storm on Galilee, and his heavenly splendor was seen on the Mount of Transfiguration. The Epiphany season is, by tradition, a missionary season, and the people are reminded again of the Christian’s obligation to make known the saving grace of Jesus Christ to all nations.

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There is a Pre-Lenten cycle of three Sundays, called Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima, and on these the nature of our Lord’s kingdom and his ministry is presented.

Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, which is 46 days before Easter. There is a noonday service in city churches and at least an evening service in village churches and in the country.

During the Lenten season it is customary, where the Christian Year is followed, to meet for worship not only on Sunday, but on Wednesday evening as well. At the mid-week service the Passion history is read and expounded. This is nothing more nor less than a harmony of the four Gospels beginning with Gethsemane and ending with Calvary. This Passion history is printed in full in the altar book and in many hymnals. It is divided into seven or eight parts. It requires about 15 minutes to read one part. Lenten hymns of great solemnity are sung, and there is a sermon on one of the parts of the Passion history. Our Lord’s steps are followed to Gethsemane, then to the halls of Annas, Caiaphas, Herod and Pilate, and from thence to Calvary. Churches are, as a rule, filled to capacity at these mid-week services, and on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. The very nature of the theme tells us why. Every service is Christ-centered and Redemption-centered throughout.

On Palm Sunday, of course, the theme is the Triumphal Entry. Somber Lenten hymns and organ music give way for an hour to the joyous hosannas of the multitude. Palms are distributed at the close of the service by churches of all denominations, where such an innovation would have proved scandalous to our fathers.

On Maundy Thursday attention is called to the institution of the Lord’s Supper, and the service usually closes with a celebration of Holy Communion.

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On Good Friday the one solemn theme is our Lord’s death upon the cross. On that day churches are traditionally stripped of all color, bells are not rung, and the playing of the organ is reduced to an absolute minimum. Many churches, during the last few years, have had their Tre-Ore service from noon until 3 p.m. Our Lord became our Substitute in respect to the demands of the Law, keeping it perfectly for us. In like manner did he become our Substitute in respect to the penalty of the Law, which demands death as the wages of sin. This is given utmost stress on Good Friday.

Easter Day is celebrated in every land, and its theme, is, of course, the risen triumphant Saviour. It is the second of the great festivals. There are six Sundays after Easter, then Ascension Day, then the festival of Pentecost, when the theme is the descent of the Holy Ghost. Among Protestants, Trinity Sunday comes on the following Sunday, and the subject is the visit of Nicodemus, with special attention to St. John 3:16–17.

It is well to observe the 22 to 27 Sundays after Trinity in the manner of the traditional Christian Year, thus keeping the life and teachings of the Lord Jesus in the foreground, 52 Sundays a year.

The Christian Year has its disadvantages. Old Testament texts do not lend themselves to it, although it is easy enough to use Old Testament men and incidents as illustrations. Popular modern Sundays often conflict with some important church festival, but not many clergymen would ignore Pentecost in favor of Fire Prevention Sunday or Father’s Day.

The Christian Year has its advantages. Clergymen, organist and choir know just what the theme will be on any Sunday of the year. There is no such thing as wondering what to preach about. Then the reiteration of a single theme throughout the service on a given Sunday gives it structural form, and has a decided pedagogical effect upon the people. They simply cannot miss the theme for the day. More important still is the fact that the centuries-old traditional series of Gospels and Epistles results in Christ-centered preaching throughout the year, especially when the entire traditional series is used. Those who will give the Christian Year a fair trial will wonder why they ever became slaves to a series of unrelated free texts.


F. R. Webber served the Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) for 30 years as Secretary of the Architectural Committee. He has written A History of Preaching in Britain and America.

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