Our Church Year
Current Liturgical Season - Lent and Passiontide
From Ash Wednesday (17 February 2021) until the Great Vigil of Easter (04 April 2021), we are in the season of Lent and Passiontide (otherwise known as Holy Week).
The word "Lent" comes from the Old English word for Spring, specifically from words suggesting "the lengthening of days" characteristic of the season. During this time, early Christians observed a season of penitence and fasting in preparation for the Paschal feast, or Pascha. ("Pasch" is the term for Easter derived from the Latin and Greek “Pascha,” which itself is a transliteration of the Hebrew “Pesach,” meaning "Passover." English is pretty unusual in its use of the word "Easter" in place of “Pascha.”)
Originally, in places where Pascha was celebrated on a Sunday, the Paschal feast followed a fast of up to two days. In the third century, this fast was lengthened to six days. Eventually, the fast became attached to, or overlapped, another fast of forty days, in imitation of Christ's fasting in the wilderness. The forty-day fast was especially important for converts to the faith who were preparing for baptism, and for those guilty of "notorious sins" who were being restored to the Christian assembly. In the western church the forty days of Lent extend from Ash Wednesday through Holy Saturday (at the end of which is the Great Vigil), omitting Sundays. (Sundays are "in Lent" and not "of Lent" -- this allows us to celebrate the Eucharistic Feast during a period otherwise reserved for fasting.) Today Lent has reacquired its significance as the final preparation of adult candidates for baptism. Joining with them, all Christians are invited "to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word.” (These words come from the Ash Wednesday liturgy in our Book of Common Prayer.) It is important to note, however, that the principal purpose of fasting is not to "punish" the body, but to realign oneself to God. The prophets speak of "fasting" from selfishness and greed, and from words and deeds that hurt or oppress others. "Self-denial" doesn't necessarily mean giving up chocolate (for example) - it can, and perhaps should, mean giving up making assumptions about people or re-posting tweets without verifying them (for example).
Lent ends with Passiontide, or Holy Week. From earliest times Christians have observed the week before the Easter celebration as a time of special devotion. By the fourth century, numerous pilgrims came to the holy city of Jerusalem during this week to follow the path they believed Jesus walked in his last days on earth. The formed processions, worshipped where Christ was believed to have suffered and died, and venerated relics. In an attempt to capture some of this experience for those who could not travel, the rites we observe today on Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday began to develop. These services provide a liturgical experience of the last days of Jesus' earthly life, as well as the time and events leading up to his resurrection.
The last three days of Holy Week (and therefore of Lent), Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, are often referred to as the sacred Triduum ("Three Days"). Holy Week ends at sundown on Holy Saturday, and the Great Vigil of Easter is celebrated at that time.
Lent and Holy Week include:
ASH WEDNESDAY: The first of the forty days of Lent, named for the custom of placing blessed ashes on the foreheads of worshipers at Ash Wednesday services. The ashes are a sign of penitence and a reminder of mortality, and are generally imposed with the sign of the cross. Ash Wednesday is observed as a solemn fast.
MAUNDY THURSDAY: The word “Maundy” comes from the Latin mandatum novum, meaning “new commandment,” from John 13:34. Maundy Thursday celebrations commemorate the institution of the eucharist by Jesus “on the night he was betrayed.” Our liturgy not only brings to mind the Last Supper and the sacrament of the eucharist established by Jesus at that time, but also, in the ceremony of the washing of feet, reminds us that Jesus washed the disciples’ feet in exhorting them to lead lives of love and service.
GOOD FRIDAY: This is the day on which the church commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus. It is a day of fasting and special acts of discipline and self-denial. We do not celebrate the eucharist on Good Friday, but rather take a moment to ponder the reality and profundity of Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross.
HOLY SATURDAY: This day recalls the day when the crucified Christ visited among the dead (the Harrowing of Hell) while his body lay in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. We do not celebrate the eucharist on this day. At sundown on this day, Lent is over, and we celebrate the first eucharist of the Easter Season at the Great Vigil of Easter.