The season of Lent is a major part of the Church Calendar. It is a period of 40 days, which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Easter Sunday. By observing the period of Lent, Christians symbolically replicate the period of 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, fasting, facing temptation, and preparing for His coming ministry: as for Jesus this was a time of discovering who he was, and where God his Father was leading him, so for Christians today it is a time of testing, discovery and discernment. The last week of Lent, Holy Week, recalls the events leading up to and including Jesus’ death on the cross.
Christians traditionally observe Lent by fasting or abstinence, ie. abstaining from meat and luxury foods, and observing a simple diet. In the western church only a small number of people today fast for the whole period of Lent, but the Church commends the practice on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Nonetheless many regard Lent as a time of spiritual discipline: to read the bible and to pray more regularly; to attend a Lent study group; to give more to charity (Lent boxes/envelopes are available); to give up a luxury – chocolate, alcohol, etc – as a sign of self-control. Lent too is a time of penitence and repentance, when we show sorrow for our sins and the sins of the world, rejoice in and celebrate God's forgiveness, and with God's help make a conscious attempt to turn from sin and walk in the way of holiness.
A number of important Christian celebrations fall within the period of Lent:
Shrove Tuesday is the day before the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday.
The name ‘Shrove’ comes from the traditional Christian ritual of ‘shriving’, being forgiven: on this day Christians would have made their confession before Lent. Shrove Tuesday is also the day when, traditionally, households would eat up all of their luxury foods (and have a last chance to feast) before the period of fasting through Lent. It is from the need to eat up foods such as fats, eggs and milk, that we get the tradition of pancakes !
Ash Wednesday (which is the 7th Wednesday before Easter Day) marks the start of Lent and is a day of fasting and abstinence, to help cleanse and prepare the soul. Along with many Christian Churches, here at Walker Parish Church, we celebrate the Eucharist on Ash Wednesday with the imposition of ‘ashes’ as a sign of penitence and repentance. (Ashes are traditionally made by the burning of palm crosses from the previous Palm Sunday). The ashes are distributed by the Priest, making the sign of the cross on the forehead and saying the prayer “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” (which come from God’s words to Adam in Genesis 3.19), and “turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”.
Mothering Sunday is the fourth Sunday of Lent. It is the origin of the more modern ‘Mother’s Day’ celebration. Traditionally, it marked a relaxation of the Lenten fast: simnel cake was the speciality of the day. Labourers away from home may have had the opportunity to return to visit their mothers and families; there may have been a pilgrimage to the ‘Mother Church’ of the diocese, the Cathedral; there was a celebration of Motherhood, remembering the Blessed Virgin Mary, and our own mothers; this leads to the idea of the Church as Mother, nurturing us in our Christian faith.
The period of Passiontide commences on the fifth Sunday of Lent: the prayers & readings now focus more particularly on the drama and events leading up to the betrayal and crucifixion of Jesus. In this more sombre time of the Church's year, church crosses and ornaments may be veiled. The devotion of the Stations of the Cross is often celebrated at this time, encouraging us to journey with Jesus and his disciples on the Via Dolorosa, the sorrowful way to the cross on Calvary.
The sixth Sunday of Lent is Palm Sunday, which marks the joyful entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, with the people laying palm leaves in his path. Today the Eucharist usually begins with the blessing of palm crosses and a joyful procession into church, our symbolic Jerusalem, singing the ancient hymn 'All glory, laud and honour'; then there is a solemn reading of the story of the Passion from one of the first three Gospels.
On Maundy Thursday, the Thursday of Holy Week, Christians recall the Last Supper, when Jesus washed his disciples' feet, took bread and wine, said 'This is my body, this is my blood', and told us always to do this in remembrance of him. The priest washes the feet of members of the congregation, we share Holy Communion together, and then keep a watch of prayer, as Jesus did with the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Good Friday is the day that marks the crucifixion and death of Jesus. A sad day for Christians, but also one of deep thankfulness for the amazing depth of the love of God which we see in the self-giving of Jesus his Son on the Cross. There are often public processions of witness, and the Stations of the Cross may be re-enacted. In the solemn service of the day, the Passion according to St John is read, people are invited to come forward to touch or kiss the Crucifix in thanksgiving, and there are special prayers for the Church and for the World.
Easter Sunday, the end of the period of Lent, is the day that we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus and his victory over death. A special dawn service proclaims the resurrection to the world: there is the lighting of a new fire, the blessing of the Easter Candle, and the great Easter hymn, the Exultet, calling on the whole world to rejoice in the Easter joy of the resurrection. Christians are encouraged to renew the vows of their baptism, to be faithful disciples of Jesus