To continue from the post on the Liturgical Calendar, which covered Advent-Christmas, I would like to move on to Lent-Easter. Lent-Easter seasons is the pivot around which the Church year revolves. Non-Christians and, sadly, even Christians mistakenly assume Christmas to be the most important of all Church feastdays. It is not; Easter is and has been since the days of the Apostles.
There is a lot in the Lent-Easter seasons that is interesting to children (and adults for that matter) and the richness of the history should inform many of the traditional practices that we encounter today. Many of these traditions seems to pass many Catholics by, without being aware of the wealth of the stories of the Church into which we were baptised. I would like to share the roots of these traditions in this post.
Lent comes from an Old English word, which means spring. It has the same Germanic root word as long, which denotes how the days lengthen in spring. There is great significance in this choice of the word. Spring is seen as the season of renewal. Trees that seem dead in winter bud and come back to life in spring. Sheep have lambs in spring so that the little lambs will have the most time to grow before the onset of winter. Spring, and Lent, are therefore the seasons of new life, the new life of Jesus that we will celebrate at Easter.
A season of penitence
Lent is a forty-day season of preparation for the great feast of Easter. During this season, we take time to reflect on the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and walk with him through prayer and penitence. We do this by denying ourselves the luxuries of life and often the savings we arrive at through our sacrifices are contributed to the needy as part of our alms giving.
The number forty of course reflects the number of days Jesus fasted in the desert, the number of days it rained during the Flood, and the number of years the Israelites wandered about in Sinai. It also apparently reflects the forty weeks a baby spends in the womb, with its implications of new life.
Thus we have the three traditions of Lent: prayer (our relationship with God); sacrifices (our relationship with ourselves); alms-giving (our relationship with our neighbour).
For many of us, Lent goes hand-in-hand with sacrifice. Today, what we sacrifice is pretty much a private matter and even Church laws are now comparatively relaxed. In the olden days, people were required to have only one meal a day, without meat, eggs, dairy or oil, during the whole of the season. Imagine going for forty days without MacDonald's!! In fact, until the twentieth century, this rule was applied to all Fridays of the year and in many countries, Wednesdays or Saturdays as well.
Today, Church law in most countries only requires all adults (in US, defined as ages 14 to 60) to have only one full meal and two small snacks on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, with no meat on both days. Fish, amphibians and reptiles, which are not considered as meat, are allowed, as are meat in liquid form (eg., chicken broth). There are no restrictions on drinks, and I was told, including alcohol! We are also to abstain from meat on all Fridays in Lent.
Still, these Church laws, which varies from country to country, are only the minimum we should seek to comply with. We can always do more to follow the spirit of the law rather than the letter of it. Gorging ourselves at our favourite seafood buffet rather missed the point of penitence. Remembering the suffering of Jesus is the aim we seek.
In the past, there used to be a 17-day period of preparation before Ash Wednesday, a period of preparation for the period of preparation, you may say. Today, that period of preparation is no longer religious but the period before Ash Wednesday has become the carnival season. In Brazil, it could last 46 days to mirror the duration of Lent.
The famous carnival is the carnival in Rio de Janiero in Brazil. That is held on a long weekend (Friday to Tuesday), during which everyone parties to their heart's content before they start their fasting and penitence on Ash Wednesday.
The original carnival is the carnevale in Venice, which has just been recently revived. That is where the meaning of the word comes from: carni (which means meat) and levare (which means put away). Carnival, therefore, means goodbye to meat. So, the next time you see the carnival in Rio, do you think those people are partying to say goodbye to meat?
In England, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is known as Pancake Tuesday, when pancakes are eaten all over the country. In the olden days before fridges were available, people take down all the eggs they have in the kitchen cupboards and make pancakes with them. This is because they can't have eggs during Lent and the eggs will not keep until Easter. Pancake Tuesday is also known as Shrove Tuesday, shrove meaning to confess. The day before was known as Blue Monday, as many people drank until they were blue, presumably because they will not be getting drunk during Lent.
Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is celebrated in many formerly French areas (famously in New Orleans, USA). It refers to people gorging themselves on Tuesday before starting their fasts on Ash Wednesday.
I always have the image of Ash Wednesday starting in Rio with street cleaners sweeping the streets after the weekend's revelry. Originally adopted in the fourth century to excommunicate sinners, we still retain the day's penitential nature even if we don't expel sinners anymore. It used to be only celebrated by Western Catholics and Anglicans, it has now spread to many Lutheran and Methodist churches.
Other than fasting and abstaining as described earlier, we also go to for mass on Ash Wednesday. It is very much a normal mass, but we also receive ashes on our forehead to remind ourselves of the dust and ashes from which we came and to which we will return. These ashes are available to everyone, including non-Catholics, and comes from burning the palms used in the previous year's Palm Sunday. Often, water or oil is mixed in to help the ashes stick to our forehead.
In Ireland, Ash Wednesday is also No-Smoking Day to help people kick the habit by giving it up during Lent. What will we give up ourselves during Lent that is currently bad for us?
Lent lasts for forty days but if you count the days from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, there are 46 days in all. It is forty if you exclude the Sundays. That is why, technically, we refer to the Sundays as Sundays in Lent and not Sundays of Lent. Forty has that special significance in the Bible: Jesus fasted for forty days; Noah's flood lasted for forty days; the Israelites wandered around the dessert for forty years; Moses spent forty days on Mount Sinai. The Church's official name for Lent is the Period of Forty Days.
This way of counting is only relevant to Western Catholics as Eastern Catholics and those in Milan have different ways of counting, and the variations gets rather complicated.
During the whole of Lent, the church is stripped of all decorations, including flowers, banners, etc. We also do not sing the joyous Alleluia at mass, being replaced by the Glory and Praise for the Gospel Acclamation. The Gloria is also not sung, and only recited if there is a major feast.
The liturgical colour for Lent, like Advent, is purple, being the colour of preparation. The exception is the fourth Sunday in Lent, where churches are allowed to use pink. This Sunday is know as Laetare Sunday (Latin for Joyful Sunday), and it is the Church's way of giving us a breather half-way through a long penitential season - you will remember from the earlier post that this a similar breather in Advent as well.
In UK, the fourth Sunday of Lent is also known as Mothering Sunday or Lady Day, often being the Sunday closest to the Annunciation, the day Our Lady became the mother of Our Lord.
Lent, as a period of penitence, is very much a period for confessions and churches normally have more priests available for confessions, and for longer hours. Penitential services, where the people gets a general absolution and many priests are available to hear confession after that, have also become popular.
During Lent, too, Stations of the Cross are celebrated to meditate on the final journey of Jesus to his burial. You can see the fourteen stations along the walls of the church building. The well known one is the one celebrated on Good Friday in Jerusalem retracing Jesus' own steps to his crucifixion.
Lent is also the final and intense period for catechumens preparing for baptism at Easter. In fourth century Jerusalem, catechumens had to attend classes for three hours every day in Lent! Today, they are presented to the congregation every Sunday in Lent to be scrutinised for their worthiness for baptism. Traditionally, they prepare for the baptism with a six day fast and baptised Catholics join the fasting in solidarity with the cathecumens as well as for their own personal benefit.
One can imagine that the rules regarding what can and what cannot be eaten during Lent gave rise to numerous interesting practices and recipes for Lent, and also Fridays of the year. My non-Catholic college hostel, for instance, always have fish and chips on Friday - which is great if you like fish and chips, which I don't.
Pretzels, made of flour & water and none of the forbidden eggs & dairy, is a Lent food developed by German monks. The shape is that of an angel/Christian at prayer - which is why the logo for Auntie Anne's Pretzels has an angel with a halo on top.
Falafels, vegetarian meatballs popular in Middle Eastern streets, were first made by Egyptian Copts for Lent. I will cover hot cross buns under Good Friday.
The most interesting Lent food, which I just confirmed after a TV food programme yesterday, is - wait for it - Japanese tempura. Apparently, tempura was introduced to the Japanese by 16th century Portuguese Jesuits. The word comes from the Latin word for period (tempura therefore has the same root as temporal), referring to the period of forty days, a technical Church term for Lent. I guess that is why there is no meat tempura. It seems you can still get a form of tempura in Portugal.
Palm Sunday is the sixth and the last Sunday in Lent. It commemorates the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on a donkey, welcomed by the people waving palm leaves. Traditionally, Middle Eastern people greet conquerors by waving palm leaves and paving their way with palm leaves. I remember scenes of people waving palm leaves when US troops entered Iraq.
It is customary to recreate Jesus' entry with a procession by the entire congregation. The people would gather outside the church and the priest blesses the palms before they all process around, and sometimes outside, the church and then into it. The palm leaves are taken home and many old
grandmothers still fold the palms into crosses to be kept at home before they
are brought to church to be burnt for ashes the following Ash Wednesday.
The reading is a very long one, being the Passion story from the Last Supper until Jesus was laid in the tomb. This is a very important story that makes us all Christian. I have been telling this story to children every year for over a quarter century (has it been that long?) and the drama of the story has never failed to enthrall every one of us, adults and children alike.
The liturgical colour for Palm Sunday is red for the blood that Jesus will spill later that week.
In Old England, people burn an effigy of Jack-o-Lent on Palm Sunday as a revenge for Judas Iscariot. In Old Russia, the Palm Sunday procession included the Patriarch of Moscow on a donkey (actually a horse draped in white). Today, a statue of Jesus is paraded on a donkey on Palm Sunday in Philippines. In the ancient Church in Kerala, India (which was founded by St Thomas, the Apostle), flowers are also strewn in echo of their pre-Christian practices.
Holy Week runs from Palm Sunday until Holy Saturday, and have been celebrated as a single week since the third century. As the most important week in the Church's calendar, all days of the week are called Holy: Holy Monday, Holy Tuesday, etc. There are no closing hymns at mass on all days of Holy Week as all masses in Holy Week are considered as part of a single celebration.
at a mass known as Chrism Mass, all priests in the diocese will meet up for
mass at the cathedral with their bishop. This denotes the unity of the
diocese. At this mass, the bishop blesses the oils, which will be used
by all priests all over the diocese for the anointing during baptism (Oil of Catechumens), during confirmation (Chrism Oil) and during anointing of the sick.
During Holy Week, all statues (and in England, pictures as well) are veiled with purple cloths to commemorate Jesus being hidden away after his burial until his resurrection. Crosses are unveiled after Good Friday services while other veils are removed later but before the Easter Vigil.
Sometimes, Holy Wednesday is also known as Spying Wednesday, being the day Judas agreed to spy on Jesus before betraying him.
The Easter Triduum (Latin for three days) refers to the three days of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. No, Good Friday is not part of the Easter Triduum masses as it is not a mass. And, yes Easter Sunday mass is a different mass from the midnight mass and we should be attending them both: they are not substitute for each other. So, referring to Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Vigil as the Triduum masses is technically not correct. The Easter celebration ends on Easter Sunday mass with the story of Jesus meeting Mary Magdalene at the tomb (instead of the empty tomb narrative in the Vigil mass that leaves it a little uncomplete) - and it is a Sunday obligation anyway.
Having said that, the final hymn of the Easter Vigil marks the end of the single liturgy that started on Palm Sunday. Therefore, the masses from Palm Sunday until Easter Vigil are all parts of a single liturgy.
Weddings, which used to be prohibited during the whole of Lent are now only prohibited during the Triduum, as are funerals. In Philippines, many businesses close during the Triduum, including malls.
Holy Thursday used to be called Maundy Thursday, and is still called that by Anglicans. The change to drop the term is a sad one for me as the word Maundy has special meaning. It comes from the Latin word mandatum, which means commandment. Maundy Thursday, therefore, is the night of the great commandment of Jesus: to love one another as he has loved us.
commemorates this great commandment, not the Blessed Sacrament from the
Last Supper (this is celebrated at Corpus Christi, not Holy Thursday),
as some Catholics mistakenly assume. This is evident from the readings
as well as the rite of washing of feet by the priest, as part of the
great commandment. And no, there is no requirement in the Church Laws
for the persons to be men of upright character to represent the
Apostles. At his first Holy Thursday as Pope, Pope Francis washed the
feet of prisoners, including two women, one of whom was Muslim.
The washing of feet has been
traditional in the Eastern and Western churches since the earliest days,
and as such, Holy Thursday is very much related to washing.
Scandinavian names for this day mostly have the word wash in them. That is why the liturgical colour changes from purple to white.
The Gloria is sung for the first
time since Ash Wednesday and it is said that liturgically, Lent ends
with the singing of the Gloria, although the Lenten fast continues. The
Gloria is accompanied by the ringing of bells which then remain silent
again until the Easter Vigil. In some European countries, the bells are
said to have flown to Rome, and are replaced by children walking around
with wooden rattles, for which they are given money (to keep them
quiet, perhaps!? ;) ).
Traditionally and until today, as with the commandment theme, the British Monarch gives out Maundy money to poor senior citizens, one man and one woman for each year of her reign. These specially minted coins of 1 to 4
pennies, are distributed in special red and white purses. Apparently,
these coins are legal tender but I doubt if anyone will be spending
them. Until the last Catholic king of England, the Monarch has also
performed the washing of feet in his royal court, as did some of the
other Catholic monarchs of Old Europe until the early twentieth century.
At the end of the Holy Thursday mass, the Blessed Sacrament is removed from the tabernacle for Exposition, normally at a side altar called the Altar of Repose. The red tabernacle light is then extinguished until the Easter Vigil. So, technically, you do not need to bow or genuflect when crossing the church on Good Friday and Holy Saturday. The altar is also stripped bare of any adornments and the altar cloth.
There is a tradition in many places to visit seven churches for the Exposition, and in some places, ending with a last supper at home. I have always considered it a religious version of pub-crawling. In India, the tradition is to visit 14 churches, one for each Station of the Cross.
Friday and Saturday of Holy Week are aliturgical days, which means no mass can be celebrated, with the tabernacle doors left open to show that it is empty. We go to church on Good Friday for a service, not a mass. As aliturgical days, no sacrament can be celebrated except baptism or anointing of the sick (for the urgent cases) or confessions. Also, the water fonts at the church entrance are emptied in anticipation of fresh holy water at Easter.
The Service is different from a mass altogether, although it starts with the Liturgy of the Word and ends with the distribution of Communion. Note that these hosts are blessed earlier: the priest do not consecrate the bread as there is no mass. It is customary to have the Service at 3pm, the time that Jesus died on the cross. The liturgical colour of the day is red, for the blood of Jesus.
The service starts in silence with the priest prostrate on the floor. Like on Palm Sunday, the reading is the Passion Story, but taken from John (the one on Palm Sunday are from the other Gospels, depending on which year of the Reading Cycle). It is followed by a long prayer of petition for the Church and the world. We also venerate the cross of Jesus by holding it aloft or by kissing the wood of the cross, a practice dating to the fourth century.
Often, a final Stations of the Cross is celebrated. In many places, processions with statues of Jesus takes place.
Sometimes, a final prayer service called the Three Hours Agony from noon to 3pm is celebrated to relive the final hours of Jesus on the cross. Most extreme ones are found in Philippines, with re-enactments of the crucifixion of Jesus, down to the actual driving of nails into the hands (In recent years, the bishops have tried to stop the practice but to no success).
In many English-speaking countries, hot cross buns are eaten on Good Friday. These are spiced buns with a cross on top of it. It is said that a cross cut into the bread lets the devil out. There are also a lot of superstitions around the hot cross buns: that it will not spoil; that it help you recover from illness; that it will protect a kitchen from fires (that is why you may see an old bun hanging in a traditional kitchen all year round).
Easter is the great feast of the Church. Initially, there was no Easter but the early Christians celebrated Passover, with a Christian angle on Jesus' resurrection. They did change, though, the Sabbath from Saturday (the sixth day of creation, when God rested) to Sunday (the day Jesus rose from the dead). In that sense, every Sunday was a little Easter. It was for this reason that Rome, conservative as she was and still is, took on the idea of an annual Easter observation rather late, after rest of the Church adopted it.
Easter is a movable holy day, meaning that the date is not fixed. The rules for calculating the date of Easter can be rather complicated. A simplified way of determining Easter in the Western Church: it falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon in spring (spring in the northern hemisphere is on 21 March). This is why the night sky on Easter will have a nearly full moon, just starting to wane. Based on this formula, Easter can be as early as 22 March or as late as 25 April. Lent, Ash Wednesday, Pentecost and Corpus Christi feasts are calculated with reference to the date of Easter.
Easter in the Eastern Churches are calculated using the Julian calendar and sometimes slightly different rules. It often lags the Western Easter by one week (as in 2012) or up to five weeks (as in 2013). Sometimes, both East and West will celebrate Easter on the same day, as in 2014.
Easter is also close to Passover, the day of Jesus' sacrifice according to the Jewish calendar. Passover is also a movable feast, normally within one week before or after the Western Easter. Until recently, it is not uncommon for some Catholic churches to have a Passover meal in Lent to remember the Jewish roots of our religion.
The Easter Vigil is the most important mass of the year. It is the customary mass for the baptism of catechumens. As such, the liturgical colour of the mass, and indeed the entire Easter season, is white. The church is decorated once again after the austerity of Lent.
The Easter Vigil mass is like no other mass. Even a brief celebration will be 2-3 hours long, depending partly on the number of people getting baptised. I know of Western Catholic churches which have a six-hour mass, but this is rare. Long Easter masses are much more common in the Eastern Churches, starting well before midnight and ending at 3-4am.
While it is traditional in the West to have the Vigil mass at midnight, it is acceptable to have it at sunset. A new liturgical day starts at sunset and I do find it evocative to start off the mass with a fire at sunset outside the church (if you can ignore the sounds of traffic).
Our Easter Vigil starts in darkness, with a fire being lit. This is the Easter fire from which the Paschal candle is lit (Paschal is the word non-English speaking people use for Easter). We get a new Paschal candle every year (refer to the post for this subject), from which our candles are lit when the Gospel is read. If your church gets the parishioners to pass the light down the pews, watch the ceiling - it is beautiful to see the glow slowly moving down the church ceiling. The Paschal candle is also lowered into a tub of water (not fully of course) to bless it and we then get Holy Water.
There are up to nine readings, including up to seven (originally twelve) long ones from the Old Testament. They are stories of our salvation history and starts off with the story of the Creation, the sacrifice of Issac, and the crossing of the Red Sea.
After the readings is the Rite of Baptism, when adult catechumens are baptised and confirmed. The already-baptised also renew their baptismal vows with their candles lit again and we all get sprinkled with the newly-blessed Holy Water in remembrance of our own baptism. The rest of the mass follow the normal Sunday mass.
The mass on Easter Sunday is not the same mass as the Easter Vigil we just discussed. While Gospel reading for the Vigil is that of the empty tomb, the Gospel reading for Easter morning is that of Mary Magdalene's encounter with the risen Jesus. It does not follow, therefore, that you can miss Midnight Mass as long as you attend the Easter morning mass or vice versa.
structure of the Easter Sunday mass is the same as a normal Sunday
mass. On Easter Sunday, the Pope gives his blessing Urbi et Orbi (Latin
for to the City and the World) from his balcony in the Vatican.
In Philippines, statues of Jesus and Mary are brought together on Easter morning to recreate Jesus meeting his mother again after his resurrection. In Old Greece, a man will run down the streets shouting that Jesus is risen - a bit like a Christian Paul Revere but on foot and shouting good news instead of alerts.
Masses in the Easter season has the sung Gloria and the Alleluia. The bells, silent in Lent except for Holy Thursday, resound once again and are not silenced anymore. The Alleluia is also intoned by the priest and the congregation at the final dismissal, only in Easter.
Gospel readings in Easter are from Jesus final discourse in John, making liturgies of
the word for children especially challenging during this season. There
is a brief respite with Good Shepherd Sunday, which falls on the Fourth
Sunday of Easter every year - it is a much easier reading to talk to children about.
Jesus ascended into heaven forty days after the resurrection, and forty days after Easter is a Thursday. We celebrate this day as Ascension Thursday, in between the sixth and seventh Sunday of Easter. It is a Holy Day of Obligation, though in some countries, it is moved to the following Sunday.
Eggs are a potent symbol for Easter. An egg sitting by itself looks dead but let a mother hen sit on it for 21 days, and a chick will emerge. Easter eggs therefore remind us of the dead Jesus rising to new life.
Easter eggs originated in Iraq, first painted red to symbolise Jesus' crucifixion. There is also a tradition that Mary Magalene was bringing cooked eggs to the tomb to share with the women when she encountered the risen Christ.
Many traditions abound, many involving painted eggs. In Poland, the priest blesses baskets of decorated eggs and other symbolic foods. In Germany, painted eggs are hung to make Easter egg trees. In Bulgaria, Greece, Cyprus and Lebanon, they have egg fights. In Scotland, they roll decorated eggs down steep hills. The use of chocolate eggs at high prices, however, are not traditional.
Easter bunnies is a tradition in much of the world because spring/Easter is the time rabbits have babies to give them as much time as possible before the cold of winter arrives. Rabbits also breed rapidly and is thus a symbol of fertility, associated with the abundance of new life.
In Bermuda, they fly Easter kites to symbolise the rising of Jesus. In Florence, Italy, a fire is lit during the Gloria on Easter morning mass and used to set off a rocket in the form of a dove. In Holland and Sweden, bonfires known as Easter Fires are lit at Easter Sunday sunset.
The Easter season lasts for fifty days, a straight fifty days from Easter Sunday(no excluding days like in Lent). The last day of Easter season is on Sunday, making eight Sundays in the Easter season altogether. That last Sunday is known as Pentecost, which means fiftieth day (Pent means five, as in pentagon). It is sometimes also known as White Sunday, or in England, Whitsunday. It is also a day of baptism, like Easter.
Pentecost commemorates the coming of the Holy Spirit, giving courage to the Apostles to go out and preach the good news to the world. That first Pentecost saw 3000 people baptised in one day (No RCIA because presumably as Jews, they already know the scriptures) and is considered the birthday of the Church.
The liturgical colour of Pentecost is red, to symbolise the flames of the Holy Spirit descending on the disciples. In Italy, rose petals are strewn from the ceiling to recreate that effect. In some countries, red handkerchiefs are waved. In France, they blow trumpets to recall the sound of the mighty wind when the Holy Spirit blew into the upper room where the disciples were.
Some of the great
cathedrals built in the Middle Ages have a hole in the roof called the
Holy Spirit hole. This hole is decorated on Pentecost day with flowers
and sometimes, a dove figurine is lowered through it when the reading of
Pentecost is read to symbolise the descend of the Holy Spirit.
The period of nine days between the Ascension and Pentecost is considered the first Novena (coming from the Latin word novem, meaning nine). These are the nine days the disciples spent in prayer, having been bereft of Jesus but not yet receiving the Holy Spirit.
Although the period after Easter is the Ordinary Time in the church calendar, and are no longer part of the Easter season, the following Sunday is not celebrated as a Sunday in Ordinary Time. The Sunday after Pentecost is celebrated as Trinity Sunday, a feast to celebrate the Trinity.
The Thursday after Trinity Sunday is Corpus Christi, which celebrates the Body and Blood of Jesus, Thursday being the day of the Last Supper. After Corpus Christi mass, there is often a procession around the neighbourhood with the Blessed Sacrament displayed in a monstrance, followed by the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Corpus Christi is one of the few feasts started by a woman in the Middle Ages - people in those days feel unworthy to receive communion and appreciated the opportunity to gaze on the Blessed Sacrament.
In many countries, Corpus Christi is moved to the following Sunday after Trinity. As such, the Ordinary Sundays may not resume until the third Sunday after Pentecost.
The rest of the year is the Ordinary Time in the church calendar, which has two periods: the 4-9 weeks between Epiphany & Ash Wednesday and between Pentecost & Advent. The liturgical colour during these periods is green unless there is a feastday with its own colour. All Sundays are Days of Obligation and will follow its own readings unless superseded by a Solemnity or a Feast of the Lord (see feastdays in the post on Advent-Christmas).
The final Sunday in Ordinary Time, the one before the first Sunday of Advent, is the Feast of Christ the King, which rounds off the Liturgical year.