By Luke Eggleston/ SUN staff writer
History, legend, piety and theology each play a role in the celebration of the Lenten and Easter seasons. This time of the church liturgical year is rich in meaning for Catholics as well as other Christians and non-Christians.
The establishment of the Easter season began in controversy over the date for the celebration of this most important feast which gives Christians their very identity as people destined to follow Jesus in a personal resurrection.
In the early centuries of the church some believed that Easter should be celebrated on a fixed date, namely 14 Nisan, the date of the Jewish Passover, which Jesus had gathered to celebrate with His Apostles.
The church in the West (Rome), however, preferred to commemorate Easter in relation to the vernal equinox, the first day of spring. The Council of Nicea, which met in 325 AD, ruled in favor of the equinox date. Despite the decision, the Solemnity of Easter was not celebrated uniformly because of the differences in the lunar calendars in use among the Celts, the Romans and the Gauls. In the ninth century during the reign of Charlemagne, the discrepancies were resolved. Beginning at that time, for the Roman church the date of waster was set on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox. Therefore, the range in which Easter may occur is between March 21 and April 25.
The original preparation period for Easter was merely two days prior to the feast, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. For two days Christians fasted, prayed and performed penance to ready themselves. The season underwent several expansions, first to the full length of Holy Week and then to a three-week period. The first Sunday of this new period was called Laetare Sunday because of the first word, “Laetare” (Latin for “rejoice”), of the introit prayer, or entrance song in today’s terminology. The Third Sunday of Lent retains that name. The rose vestments the priest may wear symbolize the tempered joy that the Lenten season has reached its midpoint. The period of fasting and penance began on the next day, Monday, giving Christians a reason for a final rejoicing before the penitential season began.
This season of preparation was then expanded to six weeks. Lent thereby became 36 days long, since Sundays are not included as fast days. To establish a theological significance to the period, Pope St. Gregory the Great (590-604) added four days to Lent. The 40 days recalled the fast of Jesus in the desert in Matthew’s Gospel as well as the fasts of Moses (Ex 34:28) and Elijah (1Kgs 19:8).
The name “Lent” is believed to be derived from a Celtic word meaning “spring” or “springtime.” Prior to the liturgical reforms of the 1960s, the Sundays between the Epiphany season and Lent were named after their distance from Easter: Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima Sundays, referring to the approximately 70, 60 and 50 days until the celebration of Easter. This countdown of days until Easter was, according to the old St. Joseph Missal, the church’s invitation to her children “to practice prayer and charity with greater zeal; to become indeed new men [and women] through God’s grace.”
With the establishment of the 40 days of the Lenten season came the institution of Ash Wednesday, which because of the lunar determination of Easter, may occur as early as Feb. 4 or as late as March 10. On Ash Wednesday, ashes taken from burnt palms, usually of the previous year’s Palm Sunday, are blessed and placed in the form of a cross on the foreheads of Christians. The ceremony is a commemoration of the practice of the early church where public sinners stood outside the church performing public penance in sackcloth and ashes.
A chief characteristic of the Lenten season is fasting. In the Jewish culture of Jesus’ day, the Israelites fasted only one day per year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Jews fasted for the entire day, breaking their fast at sunset, the official end of the day. In the early church, Wednesdays and Fridays (as a remembrance of Christ’s Passion) were designated as fast days when one took little or no food for all or part of the day. Through the centuries the practice became more and more legalistic, losing a great deal of its spiritual dimension. The laws on fast and abstinence were simplified in the mid 1960s by Pope Paul VI. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday were declared days of fast (only one full meal per day) and abstinence (from meat) as well as, in the U.S., the Fridays of Lent. Fridays outside of Lent are not so designated. Another common practice is to pray the Stations of the Cross, 14 scenes from Christ’s Passion. From the patristic period through the Middle Ages, pilgrims commonly visited the Via Dolorosa, the approximately one-mile journey over which Jesus carried His cross from Herod’s palace, the Praetorium, to Calvary, or Golgotha. Tradition says the after the Resurrection, the Virgin Mary often retraced her Son’s steps on His way to crucifixion.
When the Franciscans took over the custody of the shrines in the Holy Land in 1342, they saw as part of their mission the propagation of devotion to the holy places. Shrines commemorating the Passion of Jesus became popular all over Europe, although the number of scenes, or stations, was not set at 14 until the 18th century. The Franciscan priest, St. Leonard of Port Maurice (d. 1751), set up more than 500 sets of stations in Europe, the most famous being at the Roman Colosseum. Modern liturgists, saying that the Passion is incomplete without the Resurrection, have added a 15th station, which is usually omitted on Good Friday. The discipline of Lent was considerably sterner in the early church. Meat and all meat by-products (eggs, milk, cheese, for example) were forbidden during the 40-day fast. That rigorous practice in part gave rise to a pre-Lenten celebration known by various titles in different times and places. Shrovetide, the three days before Lent, derives its name from Shrove Tuesday. To be shriven is to go to confession, be assigned a penance and receive absolution, a sign of joy of being spiritually prepared. Using a shortened form of the word “hallow,” these days were also called Hall Sunday, Hall Monday and Hall Night.
At one time the term “carnival” (Latin for “farewell to meat”) referred to a period of time that could last from Epiphany Season until Ash Wednesday. The merriment was the last hurrah before the time of discipline. The final day is more popularly called “Mardi Gras,” meaning Fat Tuesday in French; fat in the sense of greasy rather than obese. People feasted on the rich foods that were denied them during Lent.
The Fifth Sunday of Lent was once called Passion Sunday or Judica Sunday from the introit of the Mass which began “Judge me, O Lord.” Beginning on this day, crucifixes, statues and pictures were covered with purple cloth. The source of the practice came from the Gospel of that day: “They picked up stones to throw at Him, but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple” (Jn 8:59). The veils also reflected the church’s sorrow during this season. The images remained hidden until the Easter vigil. The high holy days of the church are called Holy Week, the days of which have often had meaningful names.
Palm Sunday is also known as Fig Sunday because figs are eaten that day recalling the fig tree which Jesus cursed at his entry into Jerusalem (Mk 11:12-14). Wednesday is sometimes called Spy Wednesday alluding to Judas’ agreement with the Sanhedrin to betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. (Mt 26:3-5, 12-14). Holy Thursday has several names. It is called Maundy Thursday because of the commandment Jesus gave the Apostles after washing their feet: “I give you a new commandment (Mandatum novum da vobis).” In some cultures it is called Shear Thursday because of an ancient practice of trimming the hair and beard as a sign that one has prepared spiritually for Easter. The liturgy of Good Friday was once called the Mass of the Pre-Sanctified, although it was not really a Mass. The name refers to the fact that the Holy Communion to be distributed was consecrated (pre-sanctified) on Holy Thursday since Mass is not celebrated on Good Friday.
On Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, Lauds (evening prayer) was prayed in the presence of a triangular candlestand with 15 candles. One by one the candles are extinguished until the final prayer is offered in darkness. One candle is re-lit for the dismissal of the assembly. The service is called “Tenebrae,” Latin for “darkness.” On Good Friday and Holy Saturday Syrian and Chaldean Christians do not greet each other with the traditional “Peace be with you” because they are the words Judas used to betray Jesus. Rather, they say, “The Light of God be with your departed ones.”
The Great Three Days, the Triduum of Thursday, Friday and Saturday, are the high point of Christian liturgy. Early on Holy Thursday (or earlier in the week), the bishop celebrates the Chrism Mass with the priests of the diocese. The sacramental oils to be used throughout the year are blessed and distributed at this Mass. The priests also renew their commitment to service and celibacy. With the celebration of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper the Triduum begins and Lent ends. This Christian Passover begins at sunset and ends at sunset on Friday. Good Friday also lasts from sunset to sunset. The liturgy of that day is called the Celebration of the Lord’s Passion. The culmination of the Triduum is the Easter Vigil Mass which begins after sunset on Holy Saturday. The celebration for this holiest night of the year is often called the queen of the royal liturgical family.
Unlike Christmas where the first Mass of the day is called the Mass at Dawn, the Roman Missal does not call for a sunrise service, which is a relatively modern innovation. Like Christmas, however, Easter is an octave, an eight-day celebration once called Bright Week. The Second Sunday of the octave, once called Low Sunday to distinguish it from Easter itself, is now called Divine Mercy Sunday. The Easter season surpasses the Lenten season with its 50-day period. The feast of the Ascension is celebrated 40 days after Easter, or in some places on the Seventh Sunday of Easter. The nine-day period between the Ascension and Pentecost was once called Expectation Week, the time Mary and the Apostles prayed in the Upper Room in expectation of the coming of the Paraclete. The novena prayer form popular in the church today is said to have originated in imitation of these nine days. The Easter Season concludes with Pentecost, once called Whitsunday, recalling the white robes worn by the newest church members since their reception into the church at the Easter Vigil. This custom often inspired other church members to celebrate the day of grace by wearing new clothes at Easter. The custom of Easter bonnets and outfits is not the only secular practice which has religious roots. The custom of an Easter egg roll, popularized in the U.S. in 1873 by President and Mrs. Hayes for their eight children, is actually an imitation of the rolling away of the stone from Jesus’ tomb. To insure that its members were properly disposed to receive the graces of these special times and as a safeguard against the neglect of the sacraments, the church instituted the Eucharistic Precept, more commonly called Easter Duty.
While various councils as early as the sixth century mandated the reception of Communion at Eastertime, the practice became the law of the Latin church at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215). The assigned time to make one’s Easter duty in the U.S. is from the First Sunday of Lent until Trinity Sunday. Confession is not required by the precept unless, of course, one is aware of serious sin.
The beauty and meaning of the Lenten and Easter seasons did not come from the authority of the church. They derived equally from the church community which looked for festive ways to express the unseen mysteries of faith. They challenged themselves to see God’s presence and to hear God’s voice in their everyday lives.