The seasons of the church year
When the Apostle Peter wrote his second epistle, he said to his readers that he was helping them to remember what they already knew: "So I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have" (2 Peter 1:12, NIV). And the reason Peter wanted his readers to remember was so they would be motivated, or "stirred up," to follow Christ (2 Peter 1:13, KJV).
That's exactly how the church year works. It teaches us not to look for a flashy new secret to the Christian life. Instead, it gives us a course of remembering, of patience, of perseverance. With this annual course, we are reminded year after year of the great truths of the gospel, in order to motivate our Christian life.
In Advent, we anticipate Jesus's second coming "to judge both the quick and the dead" (as the Apostles' Creed puts it) while we also remember his first coming to save us from our sins.
At Christmas, we remember his incarnation and that he was, in the words of the Creed, "conceived by the Holy Ghost" and "born of the Virgin Mary."
In Epiphany we remember the revelation of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God. Here the emphasis is on Jesus's signs and wonders, such as giving sight to the blind, and on his disclosure of the nature of his kingdom.
In the Gesimas, we prepare our hearts for Lent. We ponder the three theological virtues that should be strengthened in Lent—faith, hope, and charity—and remember that the greatest of these is charity.
In Lent, we remember that if we turn to God with true penitence, he is rich in mercy, forgiving us, renewing our hearts, and training us to do good works.
On Good Friday, we remember that Jesus died for our redemption, offering himself to be what the prayer book calls "a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world."
On Easter—–not just Easter Sunday, but the whole season of Eastertide—we remember that Jesus rose again from the dead, giving us the sure hope of unending life.
On Ascension Day, we remember that Jesus ascended to heaven and is seated on the right hand of the Father, reigning and interceding, having accomplished our salvation.
On Whitsunday, we remember that the Holy Spirit came to fill the church with power, equipping the apostles and all Christians to proclaim the gospel.
On Trinity Sunday we confess our faith in One God in Three Persons. This day sums up the work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the redemption of mankind, which has been the focus of the first half of the church year.
The second half of the church year is called Trinitytide. The Sundays in this season call us to remember Christ's teaching and assurances about the life of faith. As two of the epistles in this season tell us: "Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another" (1 John 4:11, Trinity 1), "giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light" (Colossians 1:12, Trinity 24). In this season, we seek to grow in grace and in the knowledge of God, bringing forth the fruit of the Spirit.
These seasons in the church year are central to our liturgical life at Christ Church Anglican. Each Sunday in our worship we read the short prayer for that day in the church year (the "collect of the day"), and we usually also read the epistle and the gospel for that day. You can find the collects, epistles, and gospels that we use in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer: International Edition (starting on page 49).
The saints' days
In addition, we celebrate—sometimes at church, and sometimes in our own homes—the red-letter days in the church year. These are listed in the tables and calendar at the very beginning of the Book of Common Prayer. The red-letter days are feast days devoted to the memory of certain saints: Mary, John the Baptist, the apostles, the evangelists, the first martyrs, Michael and all angels, and also a day to remember "All Saints" (November 1). The saints are examples to us of a godly life; they are "so great a cloud of witnesses" (Hebrews 12:1, KJV). As one of the reformers put it:
"The virtues of the saints are so many testimonies to confirm us, that we, relying on them as our guides and associates, ought to go onward to God with more alacrity." (John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews)
But although we consider and take comfort from the saints who have already run their race, they stir us up not to look at them, but at Christ. An Anglican bishop, one of the lead translators of the King James Version, put it this way in a sermon on Hebrews 12:1-2:
"Two sights he sets before us to comfort us and keep us from fainting. One, a cloud of witnesses, in the first verse, that is the saints in heaven—witnesses [that] this race may be run, and this prize may be won, for they have run the one, and won the other long ago. These look on us now, how well we carry ourselves; and we look to them, that we may carry ourselves well in the course we have undertaken. On which cloud when we have stayed our eyes a while, and made them fit for a clearer object, he scattereth the cloud quite, and sets up a second, even our blessed Saviour his ownself. And here he willeth us ‘to turn our eyes from them,’ and to turn them hither, and to fasten them here on Jesus Christ, ‘the Author and Finisher of our faith.’ As if he should say: If you will indeed see a sight once for all, look to him. The saints, though they be guides to us, yet are they but followers to him. He [is] ‘the Arch-guide,’ the Leader of them and us all—look on him. They [are encouragers] to our faith, but neither authors nor finishers of it; he, both. Both Author to call us to it, and set us in it; and Finisher to help us through it, and reward us for it—look to him." (Lancelot Andrewes, A Sermon Preached Before the King’s Majesty, at Greenwich, on the Twenty-Ninth of March, A.D. 1605, Being Good-Friday)