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Ash Sunday &
Other Church Year Changes

As part of the plans to observe seventeen centuries since the first ecumenical council met in the Bithynian city of Nicaea (now Iznik, Turkey), Ash Wednesday looks likely to be moved, in many countries, to a Sunday. Other significant Christian festivals are also envisaged as moving to Sunday. Most controversial is the debate about always celebrating Christmas on a Sunday. This all comes with ecumenical deliberations to fix Easter Day (rather than have it move to any Sunday in the 35 days between March 22 to April 25 – let alone having a different Eastern Orthodox dating). The Council of Nicaea, in 325, was instrumental in shaping the Christian Calendar for the first two millennia. 2025 will be a watershed to rework the tradition to have the Church Calendar fit for purpose for this next millennium. While in most Western nations, Sunday congregations are ageing and shrinking, weekday congregations are often close to unsustainable. Ash Wednesday, a central day of repentance, is now missed by a large majority of Western Christians. Moving this to Sunday will bring the centrality of repentance back to the majority of Christians.

Pope Francis said, “The ashes placed on our heads invite us to rediscover the secret of life. They tell us that as long as we continue to shield our hearts, to hide ourselves behind a mask, to appear invincible, we will be empty and arid within.” Similarly, the Archbishop of Canterbury explained, “By receiving the cross of ash, we acknowledge our human frailty – and our dependence upon God’s healing grace.” That only a minority of Christians are coming to be part of this central reality is concerning, it is skewing the understanding of Christian faith to an unhealthy triumphalism.

Recent attempts by clergy to stand on the street in cities and provide Ash on Ash Wednesday to those not going to a service (“Ashes to Go”) highlight the problem more than offering a robust, sustainable solution. Anglicans, Roman Catholics in prevailing European-type cultures, and other similar mainline denominations will use the now-majority synodal processes in their churches to trial radical missional adaptations of the Church Year. The recent Vatican synthesis report from the Roman Catholic synodal process underscored, “The celebration of the Eucharist, especially on Sunday, is the first and fundamental form by which the Holy People of God gather and meet.” (3e). The revision of the Church Year is the responsibility of “Group 10: The reception of the fruits of the ecumenical journey in ecclesial practices”.

Imagining a future for Christianity is part of this exercise. This might involve simplifying the lectionary (currently a very complex 3-year set of three readings and a psalm for every Sunday and significant weekday celebration). There might be a return to a simpler, one year lectionary with a reading from either the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament clearly connected to a Gospel reading (with a linking psalm between them) and in such a way that someone coming occasionally will benefit (“regularly going to church” is now, statistically, often once every 3 or 4 weeks). This would cover the foundational Christian teachings (analysis shows a dearth of understanding of the Christian faith).

Lent would start with Ash Sunday having moved to three days earlier than it currently is. It would come 7 Sundays before Easter Day – giving a stronger biblical feel to the season. The length of Lent exactly now mirrors the length of the Easter Season. It falls on what was previously called Quinquagesima, and the revision can pick up some of those threads. Several weekday celebrations have already been moved to Sunday without causing any controversy (e.g. Epiphany, Ascension, Corpus Christi, All Saints); lack of turmoil around these moves have encouraged the proposal to move other weekday celebrations such as Ash Wednesday and Christmas.

Fixing the date of Easter has also been a passion for many and will be part of the revision. The Second Vatican Council (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium Appendix) agreed to accept a fixed Sunday as long as other Christian churches agreed on it as well. The two most widespread proposals for fixing the date of Easter are the second Sunday in April (8 to 14), or the Sunday after the second Saturday in April (9 to 15). An alternative, appropriately being discussed now in the bigger context of this post, is to have Easter as the Sunday immediately following April First. Shifting Good Friday to the previous Sunday is already made possible by the reading of the Passion Gospel in the majority of churches on that Sunday. Good Friday (when celebrated on a Friday) is already struggling with attendance, with many people saying they heard that story on the preceding Sunday (it is anticipated that, as weekday services will continue, there will continue the weekday celebrations as well – we see this approach already, say, in celebrating All Saints on Sunday and on the weekday of 1 November).

Ordinary Time (between Epiphany and Lent, and between Easter and Advent) will become much simpler. Christmas will be the Sunday between 24-30 December. New Years Eve will be unaffected. With the synodal process gathering momentum in Roman Catholicism, that largest body of the world’s Christians is now joining other denominations in the way it gives voice to all. Anglican general synods meeting this year are asked to put it on their agenda. Established churches (e.g. the Church of England) can have it as a question part of the voting in the state elections (which, in UK, must happen before 28 January 2025). You can have your say in the feedback form linked below. Special AI has been developed to collate the masses of anticipated discussion.

Other countries that do not have Sunday as part of their weekend could benefit. In the Islamic world, for example, the two-day “weekend” usually means Friday and Saturday. The proposals would mean that, for Christian Churches that meet, say, on a Friday or Saturday, there is no longer wondering if Ash Wednesday moves to a Tuesday – it simply is a service on the regular weekly meeting day just like every other main service. Finally, in countries where the current Calendar works fruitfully, it will continue. Decisions, country by country, will be made requiring accord by the local bishops conference, general synod, ecumenical bodies, and agreement of the state parliament. It is anticipated that just as it took time to bed in the Nicene decisions of 325, there will be a Period of Reception following these revisions for 2025.

Link for feedback: if, having read about these proposals here, you are keen to share your perspective, you can do so here.

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1 thought on “Ash Sunday &<br>Other Church Year Changes”

  1. I think this, makes sense. Ash Wednesday is often missed mid week so moving it to the Sunday before is sensible. Similarly moving Easter to a fixed date would be helpful in so many ways. A moveable date for an historical event is confusing. I won’t have to explain lunar cycles. I just hope it coincides with the school holidays or it will just antagonise the secularists who already wrestle with the likes of Easter trading laws. I would though leave Christmas where it is. Increasingly Christmas day is a poorly attended service and seen by many as an unnecessary inconvenience to the day when we have already celebrated the birth the night before. The evening timing of Christmas eve makes it a fitting and convenient way to close off a busy period and acknowledge Christ. Move it to Sunday and the world won’t follow and we will further marginalise ourselves.

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