What is a lesser festival and when and how do we celebrate them?
The basic Christian festival is Sunday. In addition to this weekly festival of the resurrection of Jesus, which is celebrated with Word and Sacrament, the church also observes other great festivals associated with the life of Jesus and the mystery of our redemption. These principal festivals include: the Nativity of Our Lord (Christmas) and the Epiphany of Our Lord; Ash Wednesday and the days of Holy Week; the Three Days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Resurrection of Our Lord (Easter); the Sundays of Easter, the Ascension of Our Lord, and the Day of Pentecost; and The Holy Trinity. These days always have precedence over any other day or observance.
In addition, Evangelical Lutheran Worship identifies days called lesser festivals.
The Name of Jesus, January 1
The Presentation of Our Lord, February 2
The Annunciation of Our Lord, March 25
The Visitation, May 31
The Nativity of St. John the Baptist, June 24
St. Mary Magdalene, July 22
Mary, Mother of Our Lord, August 15
Holy Cross Day, September 14
St. Michael and All Angels, September 29
Reformation Day, October 31
All Saints Day, November 1
St. Stephen, December 26
The Holy Innocents, December 28
The Confession of St. Peter, January 18
The Conversion of St. Paul, January 25
Apostles and evangelists’ days
St. Matthias, February 24
St. Mark, April 25
St. Philip and St. James, May 1
St. Barnabas, June 11
St. Peter and St. Paul, June 29
St. James the Elder, July 25
St. Bartholomew, August 24
St. Matthew, September 21
St. Luke, October 18
St. Simon and St. Jude, October 28
St. Andrew, November 30
St. Thomas, December 21
Lesser festivals are a kind of festival of Jesus Christ. These occasions mark and celebrate events in the life of Christ, Christ’s presence in the lives of the saints, and prominent festivals of the church. Observing these lesser festivals is a way of recovering and upholding the sense of the communion of saints that is so important to our understanding of the church: "I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints. . ." (Apostles’ Creed, Third Article).
ELW does provide for some lesser festivals to replace the Sunday lectionary propers regardless of the day of the week on which they fall (Name of Jesus, the Presentation of Our Lord, Reformation Day, and All Saints Day). Other lesser festivals may be observed on a Sunday when their date follows on a Sunday (John the Baptist, Peter and Paul, Mary, Mother of Our Lord, Holy Cross Day, and Michael and All Angels.) Still other lesser festivals would rarely or never replace Sunday propers because they fall within the primary seasons of the church (Advent, Lent or Easter) and the seasonal texts are favored (Andrew, Annunciation of Our Lord, Mark, Philip and James, and Matthias.) The remainder of the lesser festivals, when their date falls on a Sunday are usually transferred to the first available weekday. Local congregations may consider whether observing a lesser festival other than those named outweighs the value of observing the Sunday propers. (See Evangelical Lutheran Worship: Leaders' Edition page 12 and 13 for more information.)
With the exception of All Saints' Day, lesser festivals have only one set of readings, not three, as Sundays do. This means that a day such as Reformation Day (when it is celebrated on Sunday) will use the same set of readings every year. Worship planners should be aware that the carefully chosen lessons of the Revised Common Lectionary for Sundays is disrupted when one set of them is replaced on any given Sunday by those appropriate for a lesser festival.
Help is available for making these decisions in the resources supporting Evangelical Lutheran Worship and in Sundays and Seasons.
Consider these possibilities:
- To uphold the centrality of Sunday and its resurrection emphasis it is possible to observe lesser festivals on other days of the week, even when their date falls on a Sunday.
- To maintain the emphasis on Sunday and also observe lesser festivals, worship planners and preachers can use the Sunday readings but announce the designation for the Sunday it is and also note the festival of __________.
- We can use the prayer of the day for the lesser festival following the prayer of the day for the Sunday. Connect the lesser festival to the Sunday celebration by integrating its central concerns in the sermon on Sunday’s texts.
- Integrate the lesser festival into the intercessions prepared for the Sunday celebration, particularly in the concluding commendation of the faithful departed when the lesser festival celebrates a saint’s day.
- Use the relationship between Sunday and a lesser festival as an occasion to preach and teach about their places in our understanding of redemption.
The Consultation on Common Texts. The Revised Common Lectionary. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992.
Evangelical Lutheran Worship: Leaders’ Edition. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006.
Sundays and Seasons. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress. Published annually.