On the Shape of the Calendar (Anatomy, Part 2)

Leading from the previous post on the anatomy of the Church Calendar, this bit gets to the big picture view that the prayer book never fully lays out. Here I only get through general principles and Advent—the rest are still under construction…


The Shape of the Calendar

Competing Calendar Schemes

The Calendar as we currently have it stands in the midst of three different schemes. First, we have the historical Western calendar which has been in use since it solidified around the seventh century. This is the structure that informs liturgical and spiritual writing up through the middle of the 20th century. Second, we have the revision and simplification of that calendar influenced by the scholarship of the Liturgical Renewal Movement and enshrined in the Roman Catholic reform of the Calendar at Vatican II in 1969. While most of the historical pattern was retained, it was reoriented; they superimposed on it an idealized view of fourth-century practice focusing on Easter, Sunday, and Baptism, simplifying and sometimes suppressing features that didn’t seem to work well with these emphases. Third, the calendar of the Revised Common Lectionary that has now superseded the lectionary printed in the prayer book reinforces the process of simplification and the application of modern principles to an ancient system.

Now—since our purpose is to uncover potential spiritual meaning in the prayer book system, my preference will be to foreground complexity and nuance rather than simplification. As a result, the reading of the big picture that I present here will cut against the trend to simplify. That’s not because I believe the Revised Common Lectionary is a bad thing—its common ecumenical use is a real gift highlighting similarities between mainline Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic church and enabling us to share lectionary resources. Rather, attention to detail and an awareness of historical precedents will help us find richer meaning in the year’s round.

Some General Principles

Broadly speaking, the emphasis on Easter, Sundays, and Baptism has certain practical effects on the Church Year. There are two major meta-classes of Feasts: feasts of our Lord Jesus Christ and feasts of the saints. As a general principle, feasts of our Lord take precedence over feasts of the saints. The occasions of the Temporal cycle are feasts of our Lord, as are the fixed Holy Days that celebrate events in the life of Jesus and his mother. Likewise, all Sundays are also feasts of our Lord.

So far, so good. As a set of general principles this works pretty well. However, there’s a twist in here that never gets fully explained… In the section devoted to Sundays, three feasts of our Lord get special treatment and get to take precedence over a Sunday. Why these three? Well, this is the complicated part that the book doesn’t explain.

Certain seasons are more protective of their Sundays than others. Basically, the Sundays within seasons that have a distinctive theological character are higher ranking feasts of our Lord than the fixed Holy Days that fall within them. Here’s a chart that may help:

  1. Easter Week/Holy Week
  2. Sundays of Easter
  3. Sundays of Lent
  4. Sundays of Advent
  5. Holy Days: Feasts of the person of our Lord Jesus Christ
  6. Sundays of Christmas

7a. Sundays of Epiphany
7b.  Sundays of Season after Pentecost
7c.  Holy Days: Feasts relating to our Lord Jesus Christ
7d.  Holy Days: Feasts of the Saints

You can see what’s tricky here—there’s a distinction between two different sorts of feasts of our Lord that get treated differently in different seasons. Basically, nothing will ever replace a Sunday in Easter, Lent, or Advent. When it comes to Christmas, Epiphany, and the Season after Pentecost, it depends. The more important feasts (the Presentation and Transfiguration) do trump the Sundays; other feasts offer you an option. If a Holy Day of either sort falls in Epiphany or the Season after Pentecost, it is left up to discretion as to whether the Holy Day is transferred a day or two or whether it is celebrated on the Sunday in place of the Sunday (which just gets skipped over until next year).

Which is better to do when a feast falls on a Sunday in a green season, celebrate the season or the Holy Day? That depends—I would think it better to celebrate the specific feast of our Lord (the fixed Holy Day) over the general feast of our Lord (the Sunday) and to give way to the most important of the sanctoral festivals: the dual feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, the feast of Saint Mary the Virgin (concerning which liturgists can debate whether it should properly be classed as a sanctoral feast or a feast of our Lord), and the feast of Saint Michael and All Angels.

While we’re speaking about general principles, I’ll note that the fourth section discussed in the Calendar section identifies a different kind of day from the others. Sections one through three and five (Principal Feasts, Sundays, Holy Days, Days of Optional Observance) are about precedence: what feast gets celebrated when should a conflict arise. Section four is fussing with a completely different issue. Rather than being concerned about what to observe, it focuses on how to observe. This section gives us ascetical directions. And they’re fairly simple—fasting (eating less food than usual) or abstinence (refraining from a kind of food, usually four-footed flesh meat) are proper on Fridays that aren’t celebrations.

You might ask what this is doing here if it doesn’t seem to relate to the topic at hand… It does, however: it balances the insistence on the importance of Sundays and calls us to the balance which is the fullness of the faith. If we celebrate every Sunday as a festival of the resurrection—as we should—we also in an equal way need to keep Fridays as a reminder of the crucifixion. While Sunday should always receive the higher acclaim and the greater focus, we risk falling into danger if we celebrate a resurrection disconnected from a crucifixion, a liturgical theology of glory without a corresponding theology of the cross.

[Added] There’s one more point to notice in terms of general principles and that’s the idea of Eves. Nothing is said in the Calendar section but in the general preface to collects is the note that the collect for Sundays and Holy Days may be used on the evening before. This reflects an old principle that reckons days a little differently than normal. An average day goes from midnight to midnight. However, in reckon the length of feast days, the Church has always shown a preference for the Jewish model, reckoning it from sundown to sundown. As far as liturgical cycles go, that means that feast days—and thus our calendar categories one through three—begin at Evening Prayer on the day before and end at Evening Prayer on the day itself. Thus, the collect should be used at this prior Evening Prayer, and the Daily Office Lectionary makes provisions for eves—proper lessons for the more important days and commons for the others.


Advent focuses upon one chief affection, watchful expectation, but—as the monastic reformer St. Bernard captured it in one of his sermons for the season—we explore it in three different directions:

We know that there are three comings [advents] of the Lord. The third lies between the other two. It is invisible, while the other two are visible. In the first coming he was seen on earth, dwelling among men… In the final coming all flesh will see the salvation of our God, and they will look on him whom they pierced. The intermediate coming is a hidden one; in it only the elect see the Lord within themselves, and they are saved. In the first coming our Lord came in our flesh and in our weakness; in this middle coming he comes in spirit and power; in the final coming he will be seen in glory and majesty.  (Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermo 5, In Adventu Domini)

The multiple senses of Advent allows it to be the perfect season to both begin and end the Church Year. Taking the first sense, seeing it as the time in which God’s people waited for the birth of the long-promised Messiah, it serves as the perfect time of preparation for Christmas. Taking it in the third sense, seeing it as the culmination of the year and—indeed—of this present age itself with the coming of Christ as Lord and Judge at the last trumpet, it serves as the perfect conclusion to the Church’s year. And, this third sense was the dominant sense of the season for a long time. Gregory the Great, reforming pope and highly influential author at the end of the sixth century, particularly connected Advent with the second coming; many of the classic hymns of Advent reflect this perspective: Wesley’s “Lo! He comes, with clouds descending,” the old Latin “Hark! A thrilling voice is sounding,” Nicolai’s “Sleepers, wake!” the old Latin “O heavenly Word, eternal light,” and Laurenti’s “Rejoice! Rejoice, believers” to name but a few in our hymnal. Music lovers who are familiar with the “Dies Irae” (O Day of Wrath) from requiems may be surprised to learn that this text was originally composed as a sequence for Advent! While Gregory’s homilies for the season focus on the dread appearance of the Judge, some of these hymn texts remind us to balance this perspective with a hearty dose of Christian hope. Both Laurenti and Nicolai use with good effect the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids to remind us that the coming of the Lord is our summoning to the marriage feast of the Lamb, not just to judgment.

Some modern authors have attempted to downplay the idea of Advent as a penitential season and have seized upon the element of rejoicing at the coming of the Bridegroom as a more fitting attitude. Too, they would like us to see Advent as a pre-baptismal period, another forty-day stretch of catechesis leading up to initiation at the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord on the Sunday after Epiphany. While the elements of rejoicing shouldn’t be suppressed, Advent does ask us if we stand ready for the coming of the full presence of God. For myself, I find this question to be the most fruitful. When I consider the Baptismal Covenant in light of the Advent proclamation that a holy God comes to dwell with a holy people, I inevitably find myself falling short and turn to penitence, less because the season is an inherently penitential one and more because of the realities that the season lays bare. If you’re fine with the Four Last Things: Heaven, Hell, Death, and Judgment—the traditional themes for preaching during the season—then, no, it doesn’t have to be a penitential season at all; as for me, I’m not quite there yet!

Even as we consider the third aspect of the season, though, it is also tempered by the second aspect that Bernard mentions. During this season we focus on our own watchful expectation for Christ to be born within us. The coming of the Lord does not have to be as dramatic as the entrance on the clouds in the words of Wesley’s hymn; the affection of the season seeks to cultivate in us an inward watchfulness, spurring us to get our house in order for the coming King. Doddridge’s “Hark! The glad sound!” neatly captures this second, focusing on the inward experience of Advent.

Cranmer’s collect for the First Sunday of Advent strikes a good balance between the three aspects, beginning with the second, making reference to the first, and concluding with the third:

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (BCP, 211)

In every prayer book up the current one, this collect was read as a seasonal collect throughout the season, making it a classic Anglican lens for Advent.

On the balance the third aspect flavors the first part of Advent, while the first predominates towards the end of Advent. The final weeks of the Season after Pentecost begin ramping up the theme of the Last Judgment eliding with the first few weeks of Advent. The shift to the Nativity is heightened by the beginning of the “O” antiphons on December 17; while they don’t appear in the prayer book per se, they are explicitly broken out in Hymn 56, indicating which verse should be used at Evening Prayer with the Song of Mary on which day.

6 thoughts on “On the Shape of the Calendar (Anatomy, Part 2)

  1. Fr. Michael S.

    The coming within is also the focus of the *old* collect of advent two: After “Stirring up” his power on Advent 1, God is asked to stir up “our hearts” to prepare the way. A similar sentiment to the current collect for Advent 4, the old Memory of All Saints for Advent.
    I love that about the liturgy. I’m sure you’ll get to it shortly, but my favorite collect of the whole year is the Ascension, and I’m always disappointed the ’79 gives an alternative – that is frequently used in my experience.

  2. Barbara (bls)

    Nice point, there, about “turning to penitence” via the Four Last Things! This is why, to me, the Great Church Year is so worth living out; it’s full of information and help of this kind. This is how we are able to rehearse and explore the many and various spiritual/emotional attitudes and states of mind and soul – all via the Year’s feasts and fasts and highs and lows (and thrills ‘n’ chills!). It’s the whole package – the complete experience of human life in all its mystery and complexity, and all oriented towards God. The Year evokes in us every kind of idea and emotion – and all kinds of combinations of ideas and emotions, too, as in Advent.

    Would we ever think of these things on our own, and consider them? Perhaps – but it seems unlikely, to me. The Great Church Year is a wondrous stretching of consciousness – it forces us to expand in ways we would probably never come to on our own. It’s all metanoia, all the time.

    And that Advent 1 collect is my personal favorite of the year…..

  3. Stephen Shaver

    I love your use of Bernard’s three “comings.” I did a study last year of how the theological emphases of Episcopal resources for Advent have changed since 1928 (prayer book texts, lectionary selections, and hymnody). There’s been a moderate but clearly discernible shift away from future eschatology and toward a realized eschatology that orients Advent toward preparing to celebrate the nativity and/or Jesus present in our hearts. All three very necessary and mutually illuminating; but I’d be sorry to see us lose sight of the penitential, eschatological-preparatory dimension as a core element of what Advent is all about.

  4. Kevin Montgomery

    Just one little thing: You’ve got Season of Epiphany while the Prayer Book (and RCL) both have Sundays after the Epiphany.

  5. Derek Olsen

    Looks like I need to clarify this point… The Sundays are named “Sundays after”, but the larger question is what that name of the season is. In the BCP, the name of the season is given as “Epiphany Season” (p. 31) as opposed to “The Season after Pentecost” (p. 32). Likewise the RCL gives “Season of Epiphany (Ordinary Time)” as opposed to “Season After Pentecost (Ordinary Time)” and includes an explanatory note to clarify: “The underlying issue here is whether or not the Sundays after Epiphany are regarded as a season with an Epiphany theme (the manifestation or revelation of God), or simply, as in the Roman calendar, the beginning of the Sundays in Ordinary Time, which will resume their sequence after Pentecost” (RCL 28, p. 14).

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