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Ash Wednesday is the first day of the season of Lent (see below).
The first day of Lent is one of the principal Holy Days of the Church's year and a communion service is held in most churches. It is known as Ash Wednesday because of the tradition of marking those who attend communion on that day with ash, usually as a cross on their foreheads, as a sign of penitence.
Lent always starts on a Wednesday, though the actual date varies from early February to mid March, depending on the date of Easter Sunday (see below).
Lent is the season leading up to Easter Sunday.
Lent is a time for reflection and penitence as a preparation for commemorating Jesus' crucifixion and celebrating his resurrection. Lent is 40 days long, although the 40 days exclude all the Sundays, so the whole period is 46 days long altogether.
The 40 days - 4 days from Ash Wednesday to the following Saturday and then 6 weeks of 6 days (Monday-Saturday) - commemorate the time Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness in preparation for his ministry (Luke 4:1-2). Traditionally, therefore, Lent is a time of fasting - of 'giving up something for Lent' as a self-imposed discipline. However, this has the danger of missing the point - Lent should be a time of discipline, but it is at least as important, if not more so, to exercise that discipline by, for example, spending extra time in prayer or study, leading in turn to reflection and penitence. Rather than just giving up chocolate, take up regular reading of the Bible or join a house group!
Mothering Sunday is the 4th Sunday of Lent.
The 4th Sunday of Lent originally had nothing to do with remembering our mothers. Like all the Sundays during Lent, it was a time when any special discipline adopted for Lent could be relaxed a little and the 4th Sunday was a particular opportunity, known also as "Laetare Sunday" ("Be joyful Sunday"). In the 16th century, the practice was to make a pilgrimage to the "mother church" of the diocese, the cathedral, for a special service - hence the term "mothering". This was often a family occasion, and in later years the tradition grew up of allowing servants this day off to visit their mothers and other members of their families. In this way the idea that this was a day to remember our mothers grew up - an idea enthusiastically embraced in more recent times by secular and commercial interests!
Passiontide is the last two weeks of Lent, starting on the 5th Sunday of Lent
In Passiontide our thoughts turn particularly towards Jesus' passion - his suffering on the cross. Passiontide includes Holy week (see below). The 5th Sunday of Lent is sometimes called Passion Sunday.
In Holy Week we reflect particularly on the last week of Jesus' life and the events leading up to the crucifixion. Holy Week includes Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and ends on the Saturday before Easter Sunday, often called Holy Saturday. It is the most solemn week of the Christian Year and there are services each day in most churches.
On Palm Sunday we commemorate Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We also reflect on the events that took place later in the week - the crucifixion and all that led up to it.
Traditionally, Palm Sunday is marked by giving some or all members of the congregation palms or palm leaves, usually tied into the form of a cross. These are then carried in procession into or round the church as a commemoration of Jesus' arrival in Jerusalem, when he was greeted by crowds waving palm branches (hence the name) and calling out, "Hosanna to the Son of David" (in other words, calling Jesus 'Messiah' and 'King') - see Matthew 21:1-11. The Messiah came to Jerusalem, however, not to rule in traditional style but to die on a cross so, as the service proceeds, the mood becomes more solemn. We turn our attention to the events later in the week and usually the "passion narrative", the story of Jesus' crucifixion and the events leading up to it, is read from one of the Gospels.
Those who receive palms or palm crosses are invited to take them home and keep them throughout the year as a reminder of Jesus' suffering and death and a sign of the redemption it achieved for us. It is customary to produce the ash used on Ash Wednesday (see above) by burning a few of the palms from the previous year.
Maundy Thursday is the Thursday of Holy Week and the day before Good Friday.
Maundy Thursday is the day we commemorate the Last Supper, the last meal Jesus had with his disciples before he died, at which he instituted the Eucharist or Communion Service (Matthew 26:17-29). We also commemorate Jesus' washing of the disciples feet, which took place during the meal (John 13:1-11), and his agony and betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane, which took place afterwards (Matthew 26:36-56).
A Communion Service is held in most churches to commemorate the institution of Communion, and it is the only time in Holy Week that verges on celebration rather than solemn remembrance of the passion. The service often includes a re-enactment of the foot-washing. It may be followed by a more solemn vigil or similar quiet service as we remember Jesus' agony, betrayal and arrest in the garden and follow him to his his trial.
The name "Maundy" comes from the Latin word mandatum, or commandment, and arises from the "new commandment" to love one another that Jesus gave to his disciples after he had washed their feet (John 13:34).
Good Friday, the Friday of Holy Week, is the day we commemorate the death of Jesus on the cross.
Good Friday is the most solemn day of the Christian year. As well as the crucifixion of Jesus and his death, the events we remember on Good Friday include Jesus' trials before the Jewish leaders and then before Pilate, the Roman Governor (and, according to Luke's account, also before Herod), his condemnation, his being flogged and then mocked by the soldiers, his being led out to the place of crucifixion, his various utterances as he hung on the cross, the rending of the Temple veil as he died and his burial. All four Gospels describe the events in detail (although none of them records all the events) - see Matthew 26:57 - 27:66; Mark 14:53 - 15:47, Luke 22:54 - 23:56 and John 18:12 - 19:42.
Services on Good Friday are designed to help us think about these events and their significance; they take a variety of forms but most churches do not have a Communion service as Communion, despite being a memorial of Jesus' body being broken and his blood shed, is generally seen as a celebration (not of Jesus' death but of the redemption it secured) - and therefore inappropriate.
Although the Church of England has a special liturgy for Good Friday neither it nor any other particular form of service is obligatory. At Immanuel we have had Communion Services on Good Friday in the past, but more recently have devised a variety of other services to help us think about the day's events and their significance. One that has been valued is the Veneration of the Cross, when each member of the congregation has the opportunity to come up individually to our large wooden cross and silently make their own prayer or other devotion.
Easter Sunday is the day when we celebrate Jesus' resurrection - his being raised from the dead.
In contrast with Good Friday, Easter Sunday is the most joyful day of the Christian year. We celebrate and remember the empty tomb and the many appearances to the disciples - see Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24 and John 20 and 21. Without the resurrection the events of Good Friday would have been just another tragic death; in the light of the resurrection they become the means by which we are justified by grace (Romans 3:23-25).
The principal service on Easter Sunday is a Communion Service, but the Communion is usually the final part of an Easter Liturgy, which includes the "Service of Light", at which the Easter Candle, or Paschal Candle, symbolising the presence of the Risen Christ, is lit, and which often also includes a Vigil - a service of readings from Scripture telling of God's saving love. If there are candidates it will also include Baptism or Confirmation; if not, it is common for the congregation to be invited to renew their baptismal vows.
There are many different ways the parts of the Easter celebration may be arranged, for example, the Vigil and the Service of Light may take place on the previous Saturday evening (or even in the early hours of Sunday morning), with the Communion later on the Sunday. At Immanuel the Service of Light is usually held at the start of the Communion Service on the Sunday; a Vigil may be held the previous evening.
Easter is fixed by a complex rule which is basically that it is the Sunday following the full moon following the vernal equinox. In practice it can be any day from March 22nd to April 25th. The dates of all the seasons and "special days" from Ash Wednesday (see above) to Pentecost (below) are fixed only in relation to Easter. In 2008 Easter is almost as early as it can be, on 23rd March, and all the other days and seasons are correspondingly early.
The Easter Season is a time to continue the rejoicing and celebration of Easter and reflect on its meaning and message. The Paschal candle is lit at every service during the season, and thereafter at Baptism and Confirmation services.
The 50 days are Easter Sunday (also known as the first Sunday of Easter) plus the 7 weeks (49 days) up to and including Pentecost (Whit Sunday).
Ascension Day is the day we celebrate Jesus ascending into heaven after his resurrection.
The Ascension was the final appearance Jesus made to his disciples after the resurrection and at the end of it "he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight" (see Acts 1:1-11). The importance of the cloud was not that Jesus went to some place physically above the clouds, but that he went to be in the presence of God - the cloud being a symbol of God's presence going back to the Exodus from Egypt (see Exodus 13:21). The message of Ascension Day is that Jesus now reigns in heaven with God the Father; he is sovereign over all creation. We also remember Jesus' charge to his disciples as he parted from them to "be my witnesses".
Ascension Day is within the Easter Season, 40 days after Easter Sunday and 10 before Pentecost. It is always a Thursday. On Ascension Day, a Communion Service is held in most churches. For the basis of the 40 days see Acts 1:3.
Pentecost, or Whit Sunday, is the day we celebrate the sending of the Holy Spirit on to the believers.
Jesus promised to his disciples that they would receive the Holy Spirit - "power from on high" - in order to be his witnesses as he commanded - see Luke 24:48-49, John 14:16 and Acts 1:8.
In Acts 2:1-13 we read how, on the day of Pentecost, the Spirit came in spectacular fashion, with wind and fire, not just on the apostles - the 12 disciples of Jesus - but on the whole group of believers. They received power to do all kinds of things, including speaking in other languages - but in particular they were empowered to proclaim the Gospel message of Jesus, as witnessed by the sermon Peter gave almost immediately afterwards, which moved 3000 people to join the believers. The mission of the church was under way! (See Acts 2:14-41)
At Pentecost we celebrate this great event and the fact that the Holy Spirit was not only sent to the original disciples but is with every Christian even today.
Pentecost is a Jewish festival, similar to a harvest festival, and was therefore an occasion when the group of believers were all together and there were also many others in Jerusalem - all ready for Peter to give his sermon! According to Acts 1:15 the original group of believers numbered about 120. It wasn't just the 11 original disciples plus Matthias who was elected to replace Judas Iscariot.
The alternative name for Pentecost, Whit Sunday, or Whitsun, arose from the white robes that were traditionally worn on that day - a tradition obviously now changed, at least within the Church of England, as the colour for Pentecost is now red! (See the Colours for different seasons page.)
Although the name is used, Pentecost is not a celebration of the Jewish festival. However, there are strong links; as a harvest festival Pentecost recalls Jesus' words in Matthew 9:37 and John 4:35-38 likening the disciples' mission, which began at Pentecost, to a harvest. Pentecost (which we celebrate 50 days after Easter) was also the traditional day that the Law was given to Moses on Mount Sinai (50 days after Passover) and so, like the giving of the Law, paralleled a new era in the development of God's relationship with humankind - a "writing of the Law on their hearts" (see Jeremiah 31:33).
The giving of the ability to speak other languages ("other tongues") is also a reversal of the division and confusion recorded in the story of the Tower of Babel (see Genesis 11:1-9). The special gifts the disciples received are not unknown today, especially in charismatic and pentecostal groups within the church.
Author's note. The material above and on the associated pages has been written with the prime purpose of helping members of Immanuel and St Andrew's to understand church teaching and practice. However, the information given is entirely the responsibility of the the author, David Gray, and does not necessarily reflect the view of all members of the Ministry Team or PCC (Parochial Church Council). Corrections and comments are, of course, welcome!
© Copyright David Gray 2007
Page last updated 17 October 2007.
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