Colors & Seasons of the Church
In many of our churches today, we decorate the sanctuary with banners and linens in specific colors for a time. The pastor may also wear a chasuble or stole in the same color. Where do they come from and what do they mean? Why do some colors get longer periods than others? Welcome to the seasons of the church! For almost the entire bi-millennial history of Christianity, pastors and theologians have kept this time-honored tradition alive for us to this day. This is the liturgical calendar, the yearly planner of sorts for Christian worship.
The word liturgy means "work of the people," with the connotation of public service or ministry (leitourgia; G3009). Paul of Tarsus used the word twice in his letter to the Philippians (2:17, 30). In other words, worship is a service in which God expects all of us to participate. In addition to the colors and symbols, church leaders arrange their lessons, music, sermons, etc. by the lectionary—a cycle of public reading based on a three-year rotation. This coincides with Paul's instructions to Timothy: "Until I arrive, give attention to the public reading of scripture, to exhorting, to teaching"
(1 Tim. 4:13). Both the liturgical calendar and the lectionary derive from Jewish synagogue worship. For example, when Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah in Nazareth, he was reading from a text the synagogue leader had chosen ahead of time (Luke 4:16-21). Jews today still read their Torah portions on a triennial cycle.
Dramatizing the Life of Jesus
The liturgical calendar helps us to not only remember the life and ministry of Jesus, but also to live it out in our everyday lives! It is a resurrection timeline, knowing that Christ did not stay in the tomb, but he is risen! The church year begins with Advent, from the Latin word adventus, or "coming." This same word translates the Greek parousia (G3952), which Paul used to describe the "coming" of Jesus at the world's end (1 Thess. 4:15). Therefore, Advent is not just a time when we notionally wait for Christ's birth, but also one in which we wait to join him in God's kingdom! Of course, the nativity of Jesus is when we recall the phenomenon of God coming to us in human flesh and blood—the incarnation. The Highest of all heaven and earth came to live among the lowest of people; that he would save all who would repent and know him. We observe in our celebration of the Nativity, or Christmas (literally, "Christ's mass"). The other primary Christian festival is the Pascha (G3957)—the Greek rendering of the Hebrew word for Passover, Pesach (H6453)—or what many still call "Easter." Together, the Nativity and the Pascha dominate the liturgical calendar, as they rightly should. In the forty days leading up to Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection, we observe a time of fasting, sacrifice, and prayer known as Lent (from an archaic English word for "springtime"). This is to remember when the ancient Israelites wandered through the desert for forty years before entering the Promised Land (Exod. 16:35). It is also to recall how Jesus succeeded in the same three temptations in which they failed God. He spent forty days in the wilderness before entering his public ministry to Israel (Matt. 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13). After the Pascha, we celebrate Pentecost, originally a Jewish festival counting "fifty days" (Greek: Pentēkostē; G4005) after Passover. For Christians, the fifty-day season of Pentecost is the "birthday of the church." This was the day when Simon Peter stood before the entire nation of Israel and proclaimed Jesus to be their national Messiah—and to call them to repentance and baptism (Acts 2:38 ff.).
Ordinary Time is exactly what it sounds like: a time without any major observances. However, this is the time we need most to practice the Christian faith—a time of peace. We are not Christians because we can praise God when things are going well, and when we feel the most loved by our friends and family. We are Christians because we endure with the Lord through hardship, things ordinary, circumstance, and—yes—boredom. However, this is a time to slow down and appreciate the beauty of nature, the attributes of God, the needs of others, and many other things that escape our notice. Therefore, the church calendar helps us to express the full range of our emotions and confessions of faith, that God presents himself in all circumstances: joy, peace, strife, war, fear, and lamentation. It also gives the church the ability to teach children and properly catechize adults about the context of traditions and observances, which was the reason God gave the Israelites their calendar in the first place (Deut. 6:20-25).
The colors of the church year
Keeping Time with Israel
Today, our brethren in the Messianic Jewish synagogues observe the biblical calendar, but also with commemorations of Jesus added to it. Our liturgical holy days—from which we derive the word holiday—loosely correspond with the Jewish calendar. This is because the Christian gentiles of the late first century and early second century wanted to continue the Judaic tradition without the legalism of pharisaic rules. Their answer was to infuse the Hebrew festivals with messianic symbolism. For starters, our winter celebration of the Nativity corresponds with Chanukah, the eight-day festival of lights which marks the dedication of the temple following Antiochus IV Epiphanes' desolating sacrilege in 165 BC (1 Macc. 4:36-59; 2 Macc. 10:1-8).
However, the earliest Christians—who were still Torah-observant Jews—most likely observed Jesus' birth during the biblical Feast of Tabernacles (Hebrew: Sukkot; H5521). This corresponds nicely with John's testimony: "The Word became flesh and lived [i.e., tabernacled] among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth" (1:14). Luke provided historical clues to help us calculate when the virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus, which more than likely took place near the Hebrew date of 15 Tishri (approximately September 24 on our Gregorian calendar). For example, his mention of "Zechariah, who belonged to the [eighth] priestly order of Abijah." (1:5a; 1 Chron. 24:10). We are used to reading past this verse, but it provides an important timeline. We know this mainly because the Jews have kept the record of the temple's priestly courses to this day! Thus, Jesus came to live with us on earth by accepting the "tabernacle" of flesh and blood, taking Israel's exodus and salvation as his sacrifice. Likewise, we Christians observe this solemnity during Advent, as we figuratively await Jesus' birth and truly his return on the last day.
Christians know the relationship between the Passover and the Pascha very well. Just as the ancient Israelites ate unleavened bread when the Lord "passed over" their homes and saved them from perishing (Exod. 12:27), Jesus took unleavened bread to mark his death as our atonement (Mark 14:21-25). This is why the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Hebrew: Chag haMatzot; H2282, H4682) is now linked to Passover, whereas it was a separate feast in scripture. Three days after the Passover, Jesus rose from the dead on the day of Firstfruits (Hebrew: Bikkurim; H1061). Paul connected the resurrection to his Jewish feast when he wrote, "In fact, Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died . . . But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ." (1 Cor. 15:20, 23). The day of Pentecost followed Jesus' resurrection fifty days later when the Holy Spirit came to the apostles in the upstairs room of the temple and anointed them for worldwide evangelism (Acts 2:1-6).
The two Jewish feasts at the beginning of the year do not have any correlation to the Christian liturgical calendar. These are Yom Kippur (i.e., the Day of Atonement) and Rosh haShanah (i.e., the Jewish Near Year; literally, the "head of the year"). This is because Jesus the Messiah became the atonement for our sins, which also makes repentance available to us throughout the year instead of ten days. The season of Lent may parallel the concept of Yom Kippur, but the calendar dates and the intent do not necessarily match. Likewise, with Rosh haShanah, we often make New Year's resolutions to do something better or to let go of a bad habit. The Revised Common Lectionary, which is used by most of the historically traditional churches (e.g., Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian), always features a New Year's Day reading of Ecclesiastes 3, which begins by saying:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven (Eccl. 3:1).
Jesus tells us to keep watch (e.g., Matt. 25:1-13). The Christian liturgical calendar, adapted from the Jewish festival times, helps us to do just that! The Hebrew word mikra (H4744) which the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translates as "convocation" in the Old Testament (e.g., Exod. 12:16; Lev. 23:2, 4) means something more like "recital" or "rehearsal!" Think of not only the liturgical seasons as preparations for the soul, but also consider the sacraments of baptism and communion as dress rehearsals for the imminent banquet in God's kingdom!
Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, kindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus the Messiah our Lord, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
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Violet: represents royalty, repentance, and preparation.
Blue: represents the Levitical priesthood of Israel and the Law of Moses. It is still the sacred color of Judaism, used for prayer shawls and fringes. Blue symbolizes Jesus' priesthood and God's call to righteousness.
White & gold: symbolizes joy, purity, and celebration.