A journey through the liturgical year

The liturgical year is an annual cycle of feasts that focus on Christmas and Easter. The New Apostolic Church also follows the liturgical year. What is this exactly?

Imagine fifty-two Sunday services a year without any guiding principles that link them. Is it not better to focus on the biblical events that form the basis of the Christian high feasts such as Christmas, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost and make them central to our sermons on those days? So a church calendar that helps us to find our way in the Bible and provides contents on the relevant events in Scripture is certainly a fine invention! It helps Christians to understand!

In the Catechism of the New Apostolic Church it says: “Church holy days refer to particular events in God’s plan of salvation. These events are commemorated with reverence and gratitude. The New Apostolic Church celebrates the following holy days, the importance of which is emphasised by a special divine service. Regional differences are taken into account” (chapter 12.5). Included are Christmas, Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension Day, Pentecost, Thanksgiving Day. The Catechism continues: “The liturgy of the divine services on the above-mentioned religious holidays corresponds to that of regular divine services that include the celebration of Holy Communion. Beyond that, it may include Bible readings that deal with the respective event in salvation history. The proclamation of the word makes reference to the events of salvation history described in Scripture and to their significance for the present and for the salvation of mankind” (Catechism 12.5.8).

The liturgical year begins with hunger

The liturgical year, also known as church year, does not begin with the first of January. In fact, 1 January is not a Christian holiday day at all. The liturgical year begins with the first Sunday of Advent. In the olden days, Advent was the period associated with fasting. Why fast? Christians are awaiting the Saviour. They fast and occupy themselves spiritually as well as physically with the birth of the Lord. The fast is observed for a period of four weeks. The beginning of the Church year makes us hungry.

Christmas, a time of joy

The fast is followed by joy: the celebration of Christmas and the birth of Jesus Christ. Jesus comes to earth as true Man and true God. Christianity around the world celebrates this joyful feast with exuberance. God has come into the world. The great gulf has been bridged. Christ is here! The first to hear these glad tidings were the shepherds in the field, then the people in Israel, then all people, and today also we. Gone is the sad time of doubt. The hunger has been stilled. The table is set.

According to the liturgical calendar, the Christmas cycle is observed until 6 January. Why? This originates in the biblical accounts recorded in the gospels that report about Jesus Christ: His birth, His incarnation, His manifestation in the world and in the temple. Epiphany—this is the Latin name for the 6th of January—is the celebration of the manifestation of the Lord. The six Sundays after Epiphany are counted: the first Sunday after Epiphany, the second Sunday after Epiphany, the third Sunday after Epiphany, and so on: six times.

Easter gives rise to hunger

Septuagesimae —seventy days before Easter—is the name of the Sunday that marks the end Epiphany. The liturgical calendar prepares the faithful for the coming Passion. Ash Wednesday falls in the middle of the period preceding Easter. It marks the beginning of the observation of Lent, the next great cycle in the church year. Great events require preparation, and so does the Passion of Christ. Forty days before Easter, a time of fasting and penitence is observed and seizes the Christian heart. Reflection, purification, repentance—a period that commemorates the forty days of Jesus in the wilderness.

Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week and celebrates Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, where He was greeted with euphoria as the Messiah. And then the mood changed. The people’s jubilant cries changed to, “Crucify Him!” Good Friday is the blackest day of the church calendar. In divine services of the New Apostolic Church no acts of blessing are performed on that day. Sadness and a feeling of oppression have entered the Church. The Saviour has died!

And then comes the miracle, something incomprehensible: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He rises from the dead. The tomb is empty. These four words sum up the central message of the glad tidings. If the tomb had not remained empty, if Jesus had not resurrected, there would be no Christian life today. Paul says, “But now Christ is risen from the dead.”

Between Easter and Pentecost

This period is followed by the long and joyful season of Easter. Ascension is traditionally celebrated on the fortieth day of Easter. It interrupts Easter, but does not end it. And yet His message gives Christians cause for concern: the Lord leaves them. He leaves His disciples. Their time together seems to have ended. But wait, Jesus promised to send a Helper and Comforter, a force with enormous energy. Their joy returns, as does their waiting. But what are they waiting for?

Pentecost. Pentecoste (the fiftieth day after Easter) concludes the Easter cycle. The waiting is finally over. The promised Helper and Comforter, the Holy Spirit, descends upon the people of God. Pentecost marks the celebration of the church’s birthday. The Holy Spirit keeps the message of Jesus alive and fresh, announces a greater future, promotes faith, and instills hope.

Between Pentecost and Advent

With Trinity Sunday—the first Sunday after Pentecost—a cycle begins that celebrates God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. On the twenty-first Sunday after Trinity Sunday this long period of Ordinary Time, as it is referred to, draws to an end. There are still three Sundays before the observance of Christ the King. The Sunday after marks the beginning of the Advent season and a new liturgical year …

New ruling for the turn of the year

The District Apostle Meeting recently passed a resolution regarding New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day in the congregations in Europe. The final divine service of the year, as well as the opening service of the new year, will from now on be celebrated on a Sunday. Neither New Year’s Eve nor New Year’s Day are liturgical feasts, and the Sunday takes precedence. This new regulation underlines the international character of the Church. In South Africa, in parts of Asia and South America this so-called Sunday rule has long proven its worth and established itself. The closing divine service will take place on the last Sunday of the year, and the opening service of the new year on the first Sunday of the new year.