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The Church Year Dictionary

Church Year and Liturgical Terms and Definitions
We define fancy church terms for you!

A

Abstinence Days
Days when Catholics are not supposed to eat meat. Meat is defined as the "flesh meat of warm-blooded animals." All the Fridays during Lent are Abstinence Days. All Fridays during the whole year used to be abstinence days. Now, the faithful in many regions may substitute a charitable or penitential act in place of abstaining from meat. However, this is the bare minimum, and abstaining from meat is beneficial to one's soul and body. This link has some penitential acts that replace the Friday abstinence requirement in the United States.

All Hallown Summer; All Hallow Summer; All Saints' Summer
In English folklore, All Hallown Summer is a period of unseasonably warm weather (much like an "Indian Summer") that is supposed to occur on the Eve of All Saints Day. The Eve of All Saints is also known as Halloween, and occurs on October 31. See also St. Luke's Summer and St Martin's Summer.

Antiphon
From the Latin word antiphona, meaning "sung response," an antiphon is a short liturgical text chanted or sung responsively preceding or following a psalm, psalm verse, or canticle.

B

Benedictus
1. The song of thanksgiving of Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79), a canticle traditionally used during the Morning Prayer of the Church. 2. Shortened form of Benedictus qui venit..., the "blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord," an early hymn, and currently a part of many Eucharistic worship services. Often following the Sanctus, this hymn implies the Real Presence of Christ in the bread and wine.

Blessed Sacrament
The term for the consecrated bread and wine when they become the Body and Blood of Christ. The blessed Sacrament (the host) is perpetually reserved in a prominent place in the Western Churches, marked by a burning sanctuary lamp.

Breviary
The Latin-Rite book of liturgical rites, containing the public prayers, hymns, Psalms, readings, etc, for everyday use, especially in reciting the Liturgy of the Hours.

C

Canticle
A sacred song or chant with a scriptural text, used in the worship of the Church. Examples include the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis.

Colors, Liturgical; Colors, Church
In the Western Church, certain colors are associated with and prescribed for different feasts and seasons of the Church Year. The colors and their corresponding feasts/seasons are:
Violet: Advent, Lent, often All Souls Day
White: Christmas, Easter, Feasts
Green: Ordinary Time
Red: Pentecost, Palm Sunday, Feasts of Martyrs
Rose: often 3rd Sunday of Advent, 4th Sunday of Lent
Black: often All Souls Day
Blue: Unapproved for Catholics (some Protestants use for Advent)

Compline
The Night Prayer of the Church. The final hour of prayer. Traditionally the Canticle of Simeon, or the Nunc Dimittis, is sung or prayed at this hour.

D

Divine Office
The former name for the official, public, prayer of the Church, now called The Liturgy of the Hours (see below). Although the name has changed officially, many still use the terms "Divine Office" and "Office" to refer to the daily prayer of the Church.

E

Eucharist
Derived from the Greek word for thanksgiving, this ancient term describes the central act of Christian worship, partaking of Christ's Body and Blood under the species of bread and wine. Also known as the Mass, the Lord's Supper, Holy Communion, and the Divine Liturgy, in the Eucharist Christians partake of Christ's body and blood.

F

Fasts, Fast Days
A day or season in which food or some other material good is restricted or eliminated in hopes of improving one's spiritual life. In the Western Catholic Church, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are official Fast Days. Fasting is defined as eating only one full meatless (meat is the flesh of a warm-blooded animal) meal that day. However, one may still eat a breakfast and even a lunch in addition to a full meal if the two additional small meals do not add up to a second full meal. Snacking is not allowed. Drinking coffee, tea, juices, etc, between meals is permitted on fast days. The requirements differ based on age. Fasting is only required of those from ages 18-59, although parents are expected to teach their children the reasons behind their fasting, etc. Those with health conditions are excluded. Note that some Western Bishop Conferences, Eastern Catholic Rites, and Orthodox Christians have different fasting guidelines, so it is wise to check with your local parish about expectations.

Feasts, Feast Days
Technically, the celebrations of the Church below Solemnity in importance, but above Memorial. Generally, and in popular usage, any day or season of celebration in the Church, often following a fast period, where the restrictions from a fast are lifted. Services on feast days are marked by liturgical fullness.

Feria
A weekday on which no feast is observed.

G

Genuflection
The bending of the right knee to the floor and rising up again. In the Western Church, it is an act of reverence before holy objects, especially before the Blessed Sacrament, whether exposed or reserved (formerly, when the host was exposed, one would go onto two knees). Before entering the pew, Catholics will genuflect and cross themselves in reverence for the Blessed Sacrament.

H

High Church, High Worship
Typically "high" worship consists of a tendency toward liturgical formality and the use of externals in worship, such as incense, bells, and vestments. The terms seem to come from past Anglican conflicts. Originally (prior to the Anglican Anglo-Catholic revival of the 19th century) "high church" simply meant a high view of the Church, e.g. defending the importance of the structures of the Church, like bishops, as opposed to the Puritans and others in the Church of England who saw no need for such structures. Today, used in Anglican circles, "high church" usually means a love of a certain type of aesthetics. See also Low Church.

Holy Day of Obligation, Precept Days
A Day in which attendance at Mass is required. All Sundays are holy days of obligation. In some countries, the Sunday requirement may be fulfilled by attending Mass on Saturday evening. Non-Sunday obligatory days vary by country. Sometimes, if a feast falls on a Saturday or Monday the day is no longer a day of obligation. Some are transferred to Sundays. Check with your local parish for exact information.
The Holy Days of Obligation:
All Sundays
Mary, Mother of God - Jan. 1
Epiphany - Jan. 6 (or nearest Sunday)
St. Joseph - Mar. 19 (not obligatory in US)
Ascension of Christ- (40 Days After Easter Sunday)
Corpus Christi - (Thurs. after Trinity Sunday, or nearest Sunday)
Ss. Peter and Paul - June 29 (not in US)
Assumption of Mary - Aug. 15
All Saints Day - Nov. 1
Immaculate Conception - Dec. 8
Nativity (Christmas) - Dec. 25

I

Indult, Indult Mass
A special permission given by the Vatican whereby the obligations of ecclesiastical law can be waived for a certain group of persons. The Indult Mass refers to the Latin Tridentine Mass, which is permitted by an indult from the Vatican, although subject to approval by the local bishop.

J

K

Kontakion
In the Eastern Churches, it is a troparion containing a summary of the subject of a feast.

L

Latin Mass, Tridentine Mass
Usually, "Latin Mass" is applied to the Roman Rite Mass used in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church for almost 400 years following the reforms of the Council of Trent; versions of this Mass were published from 1570-1962. Often called "Tridentine" from the Latin Tridentinus, an adjective related to the city of Trent. In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI's motu proprio Summorum Pontificum designated the 1962 version of the Tridentine Mass as "an extraordinary form" of the Roman Rite, the "ordinary form" being the "Mass of Paul VI," introduced in 1969-1970 (it too may be celebrated in Latin).

Lectionary
The collection of Scripture readings appointed for use on various days throughout the Church Year, read aloud during worship. Readings appointed for a given day often vary by church or denomination, but often the readings are very similar.

Liturgy, Liturgical, Liturgical Churches
"Liturgy" is derived from the Greek words laos and ergon, and when combined they mean "work of the people." The words "liturgy" and "liturgical" tend to have formal connotations, but any worship done commonly by the people can be said to be "liturgical." Liturgical churches are those that use some type of outlined worship structure, such as Lutheran, Catholic, and Orthodox.

Liturgical Colors
See Colors, Church

Liturgy of the Hours
The official daily prayer of the Church, which consists of a regular cycle of Psalms, Canticles, Prayers, Antiphons, and Scripture readings. Through the Liturgy of the Hours the Church celebrates Holy Time, including seasons such as Lent and Advent, feast days, such as Christmas, and saints days. Also called The Divine Office.

The traditional Hours are:
Lauds (dawn)
Matins (dawn)
Prime (6AM)
Terce (9AM)
Sext (Noon)
None (3PM)
Vespers (6PM or Sunset)
Compline (9 PM or night)

The post-Vatican II Hours:
Office of Readings (Matins)
Morning Prayer (Lauds)
Daytime Prayer (Terce, Sext, None)
Evening Prayer (Vespers)
Night Prayer (Compline)

Low Church, Low Worship
Typically "low" worship consists of few externals or formality. In Anglicanism, this means evangelical churches within the Anglican Communion, who often object to excess ceremony. "Low Church" can be used as a synonym for "low worship" although can also mean those who have a low ecclesiology. In the US, there are few "low church" Anglicans, although in the rest of the Anglican world, they are probably the majority. See also High Church

M

Magnificat
The Song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55), a canticle used traditionally in the Church's Vespers, or Evening Prayer service.

Memorial, Memoria
Celebrations of the Church Year of the lowest importance, below Solemnities and Feasts. There are Obligatory Memorials, which a priest is required to celebrate, and Optional Memorials, which he may celebrate at his own discretion. Examples of Memorials include the Memorial of St. Thomas Aquinas (Jan. 28; obligatory), and the Memorial of St. Hilary of Poitiers (Jan. 13; optional).

Missal
A book of liturgical texts and instructions for celebrating the Mass throughout the year.

N

Novena
A nine-day period of prayer to God, Mary, or a saint, usually for a specific request. The nine-day period symbolizes fervent and hopeful prayer, and the Church advises against giving a superstitious meaning to the number nine. A novena recalls the nine-day period of time between the Ascension of Christ and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Nunc Dimittis
The canticle of Zechariah commonly sung at Compline. The words are from Luke 2:29-32.

O

Octave
The celebration of a feast day on the day itself, and for seven days following it. Because the days are counted inclusively, the eighth day always falls on the same day of the week as the feast day itself. The eighth day is often called "the octave day." In the West, many feasts have octaves, including The Feast of the Ascension.

Orans, Orans Position, Orans Posture, Orantes
A prayer position with palms facing upward and elbows slightly bent. This posture conveys an attitude of adoration and praise, showing that the heart and mind are lifted up to God. The palms are open to show a sign of thanks, but also to keep the sacred at a distant, lest the one praying get too close and profane the presence of the holy. This posture is depicted in Christian catacomb art, namely in the fresco painting of the three praying men in the Catacombs of Priscilla, Rome. The position is used in some dioceses during the Lord's Prayer.
Image: Catacomb Depiction of Orans Posture

P

Paschal Candle
A tall candle that is lighted from the new fire at the Great Easter Vigil, and carried about the Church, while the congregation sings "Light of Christ." The celebrant marks the candle with the sign of the cross, the alpha and the omega, and the date. In current practice, the candle remains lit until Pentecost.

Procession
An orderly and often solemn progress of persons. Processions occur in a variety of liturgical contexts, including entering a church, going from the altar to congregation for the gospel reading, etc.

Psalter
A book or books of Psalms and other materials, used in worship, including the Liturgy of the Hours.

Q

Quarter Days
These are days which fall around the equinoxes or solstices, and mark the beginnings of the natural seasons: spring, summer, autumn, and winter. These Quarter Days were Christian feast days used in medieval times to mark "quarters" for legal purposes.

The Quarter Days are:
The Annunciation (Spring, March 25)
The Nativity of St. John the Baptist (Summer, June 24)
Michaelmas / Feast of Michael and All Angels (Fall, September 29)
Christmas (Winter, December 25)

R

Requiem, Requiem Mass
A Mass offered for the repose of the soul for one who has died. Currently named "The Mass of Christian Burial," but this former name is often used. The name comes from the first word of the Latin of the Mass: Requiem aeternam dona eis, domine, meaning, "eternal rest grant them, O Lord."

S

Saint Luke's Summer
In English folklore, St. Luke's Summer is a period of fine, mild, and calm weather in October, similar to what is known as "Indian Summer." St. Luke's feast day is October 18. See also St. Martin's Summer and All Hallown Summer.

Saint Martin's Summer
In English folklore, St. Martin's Summer is a period of fine, mild, and calm weather in November, similar to what is known as "Indian Summer." St. Martin of Tours' feast day is November 11. See also St. Luke's Summer and All Hallown Summer.

Sign of the Cross, Crossing Oneself
In the Latin Church, the sign is made by cupping the hand, touching the forehead, then touching just below the sternum, and finally touching the left shoulder and moving across to touch right shoulder. In the Eastern Churches, the process is the same, except the index and middle finger are placed on the thumb to symbolize the Trinity, and the shoulder motion goes from right to left. The Sign of the Cross has multiple purposes: as a confession of faith; a renewal of baptism; a mark of discipleship; an acceptance of suffering; a defense against evil and the devil; and a victory over self-indulgence. The sign is made often during Mass, and many make the sign of the cross whenever they sense/encounter evil. Also, many make the sign when they pass a Catholic Church, in respect for the Blessed Sacrament contained therein.

Solemnity, Solemnities
Also called solemnitas. In current usage, the term refers to Catholic Church feasts of the greatest importance. Even if these Masses fall on a weekday, the Gloria and Creed are used. The solemnities are: Mary, Mother of God (Jan. 1), The Epiphany (Jan. 6), St. Joseph (March 25), The Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary (March 25), Easter Sunday, Every day within the octave of Easter, The Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, Corpus Christi, The Sacred Heart of Jesus, The Nativity of Saint John the Baptist (June 24), SS. Peter and Paul (June 29), The Assumption of Mary (Aug. 15), All Saints Day (Nov. 1), Christ the King, The Immaculate Conception (Dec. 8th), and Christmas (Dec. 25th).

T

Trisagion
From the Greek words meaning "three-holy," this is a Byzantine hymn that goes "Holy God, Holy and Mighty One, Holy and Immortal One, Have mercy upon us."

Troparion
In the Byzantine Liturgy, a commemoration for a saint day or feast day. It can vary and is generally sung.

U

V

Vespers
The traditional name given to the Church's Office of Evening Prayer. The Song of Mary, the Magnificat, is traditionally recited.

Vestments
The garments worn by clergy at liturgical and various other Church functions. The colors of the vestments change with the seasons of the Church Year in the Western Churches. The clothes worn are dependent upon the office one holds in the Church.

W

Worship
To show worth, i.e. to render reverance and honor to God, in the form of prayer, ritual, holy living, etc.

X

Y

Z

Coming soon: More Church Year Terms and Definitions, including terms relating to Easter, Lent, Advent, Christmas, liturgy, Church History, and more! Check back often.


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