Church Feasts, Festivals, and Commemorations

I’ve spent the last year sharing writings for each Feast, Festival, and Commemoration observed by the Lutheran church. So, you may be asking yourself, what is the difference between a Principal Feast of Christ, a Festival Day, and a Commemoration? I think I’ve finally got it figured out (although, I’m certainly open to correction if I screwed something up!):

  • Feast–These are the chief days of celebration, outside of the church year days such as Easter, and generally focus on events in the life of Christ, such as His Presentation in the Temple and the Annunciation to Mary, as well as days such as St. Michael and All Angels and All Saints’ Day.
  • Festival–These are days to recognize people who associated directly with Jesus, such as his disciples and his family. All of the people recognized on Festival Days are found in the New Testament. Holy Cross Day and Reformation Day are also Festivals.
  • Commemoration–These days recognize other notable Saints, including people from the Old Testament, such as Abraham, (and his wife, Sarah), Isaac, and Jacob, people from the New Testament epistles, including Aquila, Priscilla, and Apollos, early church fathers like Augustine of Hippo and Ambrose of Milan, and famous Lutherans, like Martin Luther and his wife, Katharina von Bora, Frederick the Wise, Philipp Melanchthon, and  C.F.W. Walther. Other pastors, missionaries, rulers, musicians, martyrs, and even artists are also recognized. These are all people who didn’t work directly with Christ, as His apostles did, but still worked to spread the Gospel in some way. The 325 Council of Nicaea is also included as a Commemoration Day, as is the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession.

Most of these dates are observed on the best known date of death for the individual, as that is the date they went to their eternal glory with Christ in Heaven. Men and women are both represented, as are many different countries from around the world. Principal Feasts of Christ can replace the regularly scheduled pericopes for worship when they occur on a Sunday, while festivals and commemorations do not.

November 1–All Saints’ Day

From the Treasury of Daily Prayer:

This feast is the most comprehensive of the days of commemoration, encompassing the entire scope of the great cloud of witnesses with which we are surrounded. It holds before the eyes of faith that great multitude which no man can number: all the saints of God in Christ–from every nation, race, culture, and language–who have come “out of the great tribulation…who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” As such, it sets before us the full height and depth and breadth and length of our dear Lord’s gracious salvation. It shares with Easter a celebration of the resurrection, since all those who have died with Christ Jesus have also been raised with Him. It shares with Pentecost a celebration of the ingathering of the entire Church catholic–in heaven and on earth, in all times and places–in the one Body of Christ, in the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Just as well have all been called to the one hope that belongs to our call, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” And the Feast of All Saints shared with the final Sundays of the Church Year an eschatological focus on the life everlasting and a confession that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” In all of these emphases, the purpose of this feast is to fix our eyes upon Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, that we might not grow weary or fainthearted.

September 29–St. Michael and All Angels

From the Treasury of Daily Prayer:

The name of the archangel St. Michael means “Who is like God?” Michael is mentioned in the Book of Daniel (12:), as well as in Jude (v. 9) and Revelation (12:7). Daniel portrays Michael as the angelic helper of Israel who leads the battle against the forces of evil. In Revelation, Michael and his angels fight against and defeat Satan and the evil angels, driving them from heaven. Their victory is made possible by Christ’s own victory over Satan in His death and resurrection, a victory announced by the voice in heaven: “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come” (Revelation 12:10). Michael is often associated with Gabriel and Raphael, the other chief angels or archangels who surround the throne of God. Tradition names Michael as the patron and protector of the Church, especially as the protector of Christians at the hour of death.

June 24–The Nativity of St. John the Baptist

Today, we take a break from Pentecost, and even get a little taste of Advent in the summer!

From the Treasury of Daily Prayer:

St. John the Baptizer, the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, was born into a priestly family. His birth was miraculously announced to his father by an angel of the Lord (Luke 1:5-23), and on the occasion of his birth, his aged father proclaimed a hymn of praise (Luke 1:67-79). This hymn is entitled the Benedictus and serves as the traditional Gospel Canticle in the Church’s Service of Morning Prayer. Events of John’s life and his teaching are known from accounts in all four of the Gospels. In the wilderness of Judea, near the Jordan River, John began to preach a call to repentance and a baptismal washing, and he told the crowds, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). John denounced the immoral life of the Herodian rulers, with the result that Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee, had him arrested and imprisoned in the huge fortress of Machaerus near the Dead Sea. There Herod had him beheaded (Mark 6:17-29). John is remembered and honored as the one who with his preaching pointed to “the Lamb of God” and “prepared the way” for the coming of the Messiah.

May 31–The Visitation

From the Treasury of Daily Prayer:

John the Baptist and Jesus, the two great figures of salvation history, now come together in the visit to Elizabeth by the Virgin Mary (Luke 1:39-45), both of whom conceived their children under miraculous circumstances. Thus John is brought into the presence of Jesus while they are still in their mothers’ wombs. This presence of the Lord causes a response by the child John as he leaps in Elizabeth’s womb. John’s response to the presence of Jesus, the Messiah, foreshadows John’s own role as forerunner. Already now, a new creation is beginning, and a baby still in the womb hails the new creation’s inception. Foreshadowed in John’s leap are the miracles of Jesus, who will cause all creation to leap at His presence: “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them” (Luke 7:22). The incarnate presence of the Messiah also evokes a response from Elizabeth, who proclaims Mary’s blessedness. Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) provides the theological significance of this meeting as Mary sums up her place in salvation history. Mary’s song is a hymn to God for His gracious gifts to the least in this world, whom He has lifted up out of lowliness solely because of His grace and mercy.

March 25–The Annunciation of Our Lord

From the Treasury of Daily Prayer:

The angel Gabriel appears to Mary and announces that God has shown her favor and will use her as the means for the Messiah’s birth. So Mary conceives Jesus when the angel says: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35). This same Spirit who hovered over the waters and brought forth creation (Genesis 1:2) will now “hover over” the waters of Mary’s womb to conceive the creation’s Redeemer. As the Holy Spirit comes upon Mary, she conceives Jesus “through her ear” (as Martin Luther says). The one who is conceived is called Holy, the Son of God. This is the moment of the incarnation of our Lord. The date of the Annunciation falls on March 25, because the Ancient Church believed the crucifixion occurred on that date. In antiquity, people linked the day of a person’s conception with the day of his or her death. Thus, in the Annunciation, the Church joined together both the incarnation of Jesus and the atonement He accomplished.

February 2–Purification of Mary and The Presentation of Our Lord

From the Treasury of Daily Prayer:

Thirty-two days after Jesus’ circumcision and seventy weeks after the announcement of John’s birth to Zechariah by the angel Gabriel, the Lord comes to His temple to fulfill the Torah (Luke 2:22-38). The days are indeed fulfilled with the presentation. Jesus’ parents keep the Torah and fulfill it by brining Jesus to His true home. Also, Jesus’ parents offer the alternative sacrifice of two turtledoves or two pigeons. Leviticus 12:8 allows this instead of a lamb (showing the poverty and humility of Joseph and Mary). Yet no lamb was necessary because already here at forty days old, Jesus is the Lamb brought to His temple for sacrifice. Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis is a beautiful example of the immediate response to this inauguration of God’s consolation and redemption in the Christ Child. Speaking to Mary, Simeon also prophesies about the destiny of the child.