A short introduction to Christianity and the liturgical year for someone unfamiliar with it.


I am becoming more and more aware that there are subscribers to the website that are not familiar with Christian religion and thus do not fully understand the structure of the liturgical year, or some of the liturgical holidays that are mentioned. The trigger was a mail from subscriber Jun from Japan, who has taken upon himself to translate my website in Japanese… No need to say that I am so honored that someone wants to do that! Here’s the link to the website.

So for Jun and others who may be helped by this information I’ll explain some of the basic concepts of Christianity and the liturgical calendar to help you understand the cantata calendar a bit better.

First I would like to say that I do not have a religious profession, nor even that I currently actively follow any religion, but I had a Catholic (Christian) upbringing, went to Catholic schools and as such am familiar with the fundamentals of Christian religion, which are important in fully understanding where Bach is coming from.

I am writing this for someone who really has no or close to no knowledge of Christianity, to help them understand and appreciate Bach more. The last thing I want to do is to insult anyone, so please bear with me. But I do invite you to correct me if you find any glaring errors. I do not intend to go into too much detail as I feel it might become all too much (and increases the odds of making mistakes).

Christianity at a Glance

Christianity is a monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, who Christians believe is the Son of God and the savior of humanity. The Bible is the holy scripture of Christians, comprising the Old Testament (shared with Judaism) and the New Testament, which details Jesus' life, teachings, death, and resurrection.

Central to Christianity is the belief in the Holy Trinity: God exists as three persons in one essence—God the Father, God the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit. Christians believe in salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, the importance of love and forgiveness, and the hope of eternal life with God after death.

The terms "Jesus" and "Christ" are often used interchangeably in the context of Christian belief, but they refer to different aspects of the same figure central to Christianity. Understanding the distinction is important for grasping the full scope of Christian theology.

The name "Jesus" refers to the historical figure, Jesus of Nazareth, who lived in the 1st century in the region now known as Israel and Palestine. It emphasizes his humanity, his role as a teacher, healer, and prophet, and his life experiences as described in the New Testament of the Bible. Jesus is believed by Christians to be a fully human individual who was born, lived among people, taught through parables and sermons, performed miracles, suffered, died on a cross, and was resurrected.

"Christ" comes from the Greek word "Christos," meaning "anointed one," which is a translation of the Hebrew word "Messiah." The title "Christ" signifies Jesus' divine role and mission as the anointed savior and redeemer of humanity. It underscores the belief that Jesus was sent by God to save humankind from sin and death, fulfilling Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah. This aspect of Jesus highlights his divinity, his eternal existence, and his role in the cosmic plan of salvation.

When combined as "Jesus Christ" the terms convey the Christian belief in the person who is both fully human (Jesus) and fully divine (Christ). This duality is central to Christian doctrine, such as the concept of the Incarnation, which teaches that God became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. The union of Jesus and Christ in one person is a foundational element of Christian theology, emphasizing that Jesus of Nazareth is the expected Messiah who has a unique and singular role in the spiritual salvation of humanity.

The Holy Bible is the sacred scripture of Christians, composed of the Old Testament (shared with Judaism) and the New Testament. The New Testament describes the life of Jesus, who lived in Roman times in Judea, more or less modern day Israel. He was born to a carpenter (Joseph) and his wife Maria, also referred as the Holy Virgin. At about age 30 he started gathering disciples (called Apostles) and walked the land teaching his faith. But he angered the existing religious institutions (based on Judaism) and accused him of treachery towards the Roman empire. He was betrayed by one of his disciples (Judas), captured and delivered to the Romans who condemned him to death. He was crucified and died, to be resurrected three days later on Easter Sunday.

After his resurrection he stayed with his disciples, and then ascended to Heaven on Ascension day, forty days after Easter. The disciples were in danger to be prosecuted for their beliefs, but on Whit Sunday the Holy Spirit descended into them and gave them the courage to go out and spread the word.

There are several branches of Christianity, which evolved over the 2000 years since its origin, based on differences of interpretation of certain religious principles. Catholicism is the largest one (and the one I was brought up in), next comes Protestantism, which in itself is divided in many different sub-branches such as Anglicanism, Calvinism and most importantly Lutheranism, Bach's religion. It is based on the teachings of Martin Luther, a German monk who sparked the Reformation (the schism between Catholicism and Protestantism).

The Liturgical Year

The Christian liturgical year organizes the annual cycle of seasons and days observed in Christian churches. It is designed to commemorate the major events in Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, as well as to reflect on the teachings and events of the Christian faith. Here's a simplified overview of the liturgical calendar:

Advent: The liturgical year begins with Advent, a time of preparation and anticipation for the coming of Jesus Christ. It lasts for four Sundays leading up to Christmas (December 25th).

Christmas: Celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. The Christmas season extends from December 25th through the following twelve days, ending on January 6th with the feast of the Epiphany (January 6th), which commemorates the visit of the three Magi (wise men) to the baby Jesus.

Epiphany: January 6th - Marks the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles, represented by the Magi. Some traditions also celebrate Jesus' baptism and his first miracle during this season.

Lent: A period of forty days (excluding Sundays) of fasting, prayer, and penance, beginning on Ash Wednesday and leading up to Easter. It commemorates Jesus' 40-day fast in the desert. In Bach’s time in the city of Leipzig, it was forbidden to have religious celebrations during Lent, which meant no marriage feasts (silent marriages were allowed), and also no music in mass such as cantatas. This period is called Tempus Clausum, which was also observed during Advent. That means that there are no Leipzig cantatas during Advent or Lent – the city of Weimar did not observe Tempus Clausum.

Easter: The most significant and joyful celebration in Christianity, marking the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, following his crucifixion on Good Friday. Easter season lasts for fifty days, culminating in Pentecost.

Pentecost or Whit Sunday: Commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles and other followers of Jesus, as described in the New Testament, marking the birth of the Church.

Ordinary Time: The periods between the major seasons, focusing on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ and the growth of the Church. Ordinary Time I runs from Epiphany until the beginning of Lent, and Ordinary Time II runs from Pentecost (Whit Sunday) to the beginning of Advent and thus ends the liturgical year.

If you want to know how to calculate a liturgical year, check out the page I've written on this subject