The Lutheran Church Year


Liturgical life in the Lutheran Church is life ordered around Christ and his Word. The church year and the Bible readings for it (which come from a book called a lectionary—see below) are designed to illuminate Christ’s life and work for us as a present reality day by day and week by week. They are primarily for the corporate worship of the church but they also serve well as a way to organize one’s own Bible reading and personal or family devotions.

This first liturgical calendar includes all three kinds of observances found in the church year of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod: the Sundays and seasons, the feasts and festivals, and the commemorations. The structure of the calendar is determined by the seasons of the church year, each of which sets forth an aspect of the Gospel—that is, of the obedience, sufferings, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ by which he has saved us from sin, death, and the devil, and has given us eternal life. The dates these seasons are observed in the church year vary because the date of Easter, around which the church year turns, varies from year to year due to its relationship to the Jewish festival of Passover, which is based on an ancient lunar calendar that does not line up with our modern solar calendar without an adjustment that varies year to year. (For a more detailed explanation of why the date of Easter varies each year, and how it is computed, see this article: Calculating the Easter Date).

This shows only the seasons of the church year as they are celebrated in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. The seasons are the same ones observed in all other churches that use the historic liturgy, but not all church traditions and denominations use the dates for them that are given here. Most notably, the Eastern Orthodox base their church year on the Julian calendar, so their Christmas falls on January 7, their Day of Epiphany on January 19, and their Easter is often later than the date on which the Western churches celebrate their Easter.

The Feasts and Festivals are days in the church year set aside to remember people (or events in the lives of people) in the Bible that are very closely tied to the proclamation of the Gospel, such as the twelve apostles, and the visitation of Mary, the mother of Jesus, by the angel Gabriel. They have fixed dates that aren’t related to the dates of the seasonal observances, but they do have lectionary readings that can be used for the day of their observance.

Many of these are known as “Saints’ days” but a note about them here: the Lutheran Church does not worship past “saints” (a word we apply to all Christians—those made holy only by Christ’s blood shed for them) nor pray to them, but we do remember many of them as worthy examples of faith. At the time of the Reformation Luther drastically reduced the number of Saints’ days in the calendar from hundreds to only a dozen or so, and limited them to people named in the Bible.

The Lutheran Service Book says “...the purpose of our remembrance is not that we honor these saints for their own sake, but as examples of those in whom the saving work of Jesus Christ has been made manifest to the glory of His holy name and to the praise of His grace and mercy.” (p. xii, Lutheran Service Book, Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, 2006)

These dates honor other people and events in church history, Biblical as well as post-Biblical, that are not as closely tied to the Gospel as are the feasts and festivals but which we remember nevertheless as examples of faithfulness to Christ. Like the feasts and festivals they have fixed dates which aren’t related to the dates of the seasonal observances but, unlike the feasts and festivals, they don’t have lectionary readings associated with them.

A lectionary is a list of Scripture readings for the days and weeks of the church year. The Lutheran Church, along with most other Protestant churches that use the historic liturgy today, use what is called the Revised Common Lectionary, a 3-year series of readings produced in 1983, which is a revised version of the 3-year Roman Catholic lectionary produced in 1969 in order to implement a decision made at Vatican II to replace the historic one-year series of readings that had been in use since the early fifth century when Jerome put it together. (There are many in both Catholic and Protestant churches who prefer the older, historic one-year lectionary. A good article giving the reasons for that preference from a Lutheran point of view is this one: “Mark’s thoughts: Confessions of a one year lectionary convert.”)

Series A of the three-year lectionary is being used for the current church year (2019/2020). Series B will be used for the 2020/2021 year and Series C for the 2021/20222 year. All three series are given here for reference. The one-year lectionary is not included here but I plan to add it soon.