The six weeks before Easter is called the “Lenten Season.” It is a time to focus on the suffering, death and resurrection of our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Because Jesus died, and thus paid for our sins, we have life. Because Jesus rose from the dead, we too will rise and enjoy heaven forever.
LENT is a process of prayer and spiritual renewal. The Lenten season emphasizes one’s need to cultivate the interior life through self-reflection, fasting, alms giving and prayer.
- The word “lent” means “lengthen” and stands for that time in spring when the days grow longer.
- The original period of Lent was 40 hours. It was spent fasting to commemorate the suffering of Christ and the 40 hours He spent in the tomb.
- In the early 3rd century, Lent was lengthened to 6 days. The 6 days grew into 36 days (36 being the tithe or a tenth of the 365 days of the year). About 800 AD it changed to 40 days – the extra days being Ash Wednesday and the three following days running up to the 1st Sunday in Lent.
- Sundays are not included in those 40 days.
Shrove Tuesday (Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras or fetter Dienstag) is the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Since Lent is a time of abstinence, traditionally of meat, fat, eggs and dairy products (one wonders what was left) Shrove Tuesday’s menu was designed to use up all the fat, eggs and dairy products left in the kitchen and storeroom. It is also a ‘feast’ to prepare for the time of ‘famine’ in the desert. In some cultures, it is traditional to eat as much as possible on Shrove Tuesday, sometimes up to 12 times a day.
The English term “shrovetide” (from “to shrive”, or hear confessions) is explained by a sentence in the Anglo-Saxon “Ecclesiastical Institutes” translated from Theodulphus by Abbot Aelfric (q.v.) about A.D. 1000: “In the week immediately before Lent everyone shall go to his confessor and confess his deeds and the confessor shall so shrive him as he then my hear by his deeds what he is to do [in the way of penance]“.
In many traditions, Lent is a time for cleaning, in preparation for Easter and spring. First your soul, then your kitchen, then the rest of the house was cleansed and purified of the past year’s accumulations. Old clothes are mended, and new clothes purchased at this time of year. In the Ukraine, houses were whitewashed inside and out during Lent. In this way, everything was made ready to face the season of Salvation and Rebirth. Traditions of ‘spring cleaning’ stem from this religious observance.
Ash Wednesday is the day Lent begins. It occurs forty days before Good Friday and originated in the A.D. 900s. Ash Wednesday is actually its colloquial name. Its official name is the Day of Ashes. It is called Ash Wednesday because, being forty days before Good Friday, it always falls on a Wednesday and it is called Ash Wednesday because on that day at church the faithful have their foreheads marked with ashes in the shape of a cross.
In the Bible a mark on the forehead is a symbol of a person’s ownership. By having their foreheads marked with the sign of a cross, this symbolizes that the person belongs to Jesus Christ, who died on a Cross. This is in imitation of the spiritual mark or seal that is put on a Christian in baptism, when he is delivered from slavery to sin and the devil and made a slave of righteousness and Christ (Rom. 6:3-18).
Ashes are a biblical symbol of mourning and penance. In Bible times the custom was to fast, wear sackcloth, sit in dust and ashes, and put dust and ashes on one’s head. They also symbolize death and so remind us of our mortality. Thus when the priest uses his thumb to sign one of the faithful with the ashes, he says, “Remember, man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.”
The ashes are made by burning palm fronds which have been saved from the previous year’s Palm Sunday, they are then blessed by a priest — blessed ashes having been used in God’s rituals since the time of Moses (Numbers 19:9-10, 17).
Holy Week comes at the end of Lent and is the final week before Easter, Resurrection Sunday.
Palm Sunday (or the Sunday of the Passion): The palms in church on this day honor Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. Burned later, the ashes of these palms will, on Ash Wednesday of next year, symbolize our mortality and sorrow for our sins.
Maundy Thursday is the traditional English name for Thursday of Holy Week, so named because it is considered the anniversary of the institution of the Eucharist by Jesus at the Last Supper (that is, the mandatum novum or “new commandment”) and His washing of the disciples’ feet.
Washing feet was a job reserved for the lowest servant in the house. Yet our Lord of Lords humbled himself to wash his disciples’ feet. Jesus said to Peter. “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”(John 13:5). In some churches, Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet is symbolically reenacted and the altars are stripped bare until the Easter vigil mass.
As Maundy Thursday recalls Jesus’ last meal by a Eucharist with foot washing, this day is also celebrated in additional ways, i.e. Prayer Vigils, the re-enactment of the Passover Meal with Seder Suppers.
Good Friday commemorates the crucifixion and death of Jesus. Good Friday along with Ash Wednesday are two designated fast days in the Anglican calendar. This marks more than a historical event, it stands for the self-offering of Christ for us, the apex of Christ’s sacrificial life.
Saint Matthews’ observes this day with a variety of acts of devotion including the Procession of the Cross, and the Cyclical Service lasting from noon to 3pm, where we sit with Jesus in his suffering as we hear the story of the Passion from the gospels.
Holy Saturday is the final day of Holy Week, the final day of the traditional 40 day Lenten Fast. The morning brings Resurrection light, and a feast!