Lent, Holy Week, and Easter
Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Fight between Carnival and Lent (1559)
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Lent begins forty days before Easter on Ash Wednesday. The season originated in the early Church as a time of intense preparation of new converts—known as catechumens—for baptism at Easter. The season gradually took on a penitential character, modeled on the forty days and forty nights Jesus spent in the wilderness resisting the devil’s temptations following his baptism by John in the River Jordan.
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. At this day’s liturgy, Christians may receive ashes in the form of a cross marked on their foreheads as a token of their intention to repent and return to the Lord by the Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
In some places the previous day, Shrove Tuesday (or Mardi Gras or Carnival), is marked by a last pre-Lenten celebration—in the English tradition a pancake supper. The dried palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday are burned to make the ashes for Ash Wednesday. Shrove Tuesday is also a traditional day for making pre-Lenten Confessions.
Ash Wednesday – March 2
9:30 am & 7 pm – Mass with the Imposition of Ashes
Palm Sunday – April 10
8 am & 10 am – Liturgy of the Palms & Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion
Maundy Thursday – April 14
7 pm – Liturgy of the Lord’s Supper, Foot-washing, Procession to the Altar of Repose, Stripping of the Altars; Watch until Midnight
Good Friday – April 15
12 noon – Stations of the Cross
7 pm – Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion; Solemn Collects, Veneration of the Cross, Mass of the Presanctified
Easter Eve – April 16
5 pm – Great Vigil of Easter: Kindling of the New Fire; Lighting of the Paschal Candle; the Exsultet; the Prophecies; Baptism or Renewal of Baptismal Vows; First Mass of Easter
Easter Day – April 17
10 am – Mass of the Resurrection
Ascension Day – May 26
9:30 am & 7 pm – Mass
Pentecost – June 5
8 am & 10 am – Mass with Baptism or Renewal of Baptismal Vows
The Lenten Season
On the five Sundays of Lent, the liturgy is simplified and trimmed of its more celebratory elements in recognition of the season’s penitential character. The Gloria in excelsis is not sung; Alleluia is omitted.
The liturgical color is violet, except on the Fourth Sunday of Lent (known variously as mid-Lent Sunday, Mothering Sunday, and Refreshment Sunday), when it may be lightened to rose.
The Church encourages its members to take on disciplines of fasting, abstinence, and self-denial in addition to projects of devotion, study, and service. At St. Uriel’s, opportunities for Lenten devotions include Friday Stations of the Cross and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.
PALM SUNDAY AND HOLY WEEK
A week before Easter Day, the services of Palm Sunday comprise the joyful Liturgy of the Palms, commemorating the Lord’s Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, followed by the more somber Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion, during which the Passion Gospel from Matthew, Mark, or Luke is read with members of the clergy and congregation taking the different parts. Palm Sunday begins Holy Week, which culminates in the Sacred Triduum.
Workshop of Franz Franken the Younger (1581-1642)
Entry of Christ into Jerusalem
National Museum in Warsaw, Poland
THE SACRED TRIDUUM
Recapitulating our Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection, the Sacred Triduum (Three Days) of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Eve is the holiest time of the Christian year—the axis on which the rest of the Church calendar turns. Its observances are not so much three distinct liturgies as one extended liturgy in three parts. These powerful and dramatic services more than repay the effort made to attend them.
On the evening of Thursday in Holy Week, the Church gathers to commemorate the Lord’s institution of the Eucharist at his Last Supper with his Apostles. A ceremony of foot-washing may be held, as Jesus washed his disciples’ feet as an example of loving service. The Blessed Sacrament is carried in solemn procession to the Altar of Repose, set up to symbolize the Garden of Gethsemane where our Lord prayed in the hours leading to his arrest. The High Altar and Sanctuary are stripped of furnishings and adornments, symbolizing the desolation of the Lord’s approaching Passion. A Watch of prayer is then kept before the Altar of Repose until Midnight.
Simon Ushakov, The Last Supper (1685)
Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, Sergei Posad, Russia
Diego Velásquez, Christ Crucified (1632)
Museo del Prado, Madrid
The Great Vigil of Easter
The congregation regathers in darkness. New fire is kindled and the Paschal Candle, symbolizing the light of Christ rising from the dead, is lit. The ancient hymn known as the Exsultet is sung. There follows a candlelit service of Old Testament readings known as the Prophecies. Holy Baptism is administered, and the congregation renews its own baptismal vows. Finally, the Easter proclamation is made—“Alleluia, Christ is risen!”—the lights come on, bells are rung to an organ fanfare, the Gloria in excelsis is sung, and the First Mass of Easter begins. No moment in the entire Christian year is more joyful and dramatic.
On the day of the Lord’s Passion and Death, the Church regathers in mourning and prayer. The Passion according to Saint John is read in parts. A series of ancient prayers known as the Solemn Collects is chanted, asking God to apply the benefits of his Son’s death to the Church and the world. A wooden cross is brought into the congregation for veneration by the faithful. As no Eucharist is celebrated on this day, the Blessed Sacrament is brought from the Altar of Repose for the Communion of the Faithful. The congregation departs in silence.
Descent into Hell (16th Century Icon)
Museum of the Institute for Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Studies, Venice
Christ is shown raising Adam and Eve from their tombs, having trampled the gates of hell with the devil bound underfoot. The kings of Israel stand to the left and the Old Testament Patriarchs and Prophets to the right.
The Mass of the Lord’s Resurrection on Easter Day has a slightly different focus than the Easter Vigil. Where the Easter Vigil is pre-eminently a baptismal liturgy concentrating on the mystery of the Lord’s actual Resurrection during the night hours, the Mass of Easter Day emphasizes what happens in the daylight hours: the finding of the empty tomb and the Risen Lord’s appearances to chosen witnesses. Easter is one of the few occasions when the Church has given explicit permission to receive Communion more than once on the same day. It is well worthwhile attending both the Easter Vigil and the Mass of Easter Day if we can do so.
Fra Angelico, Noli me Tangere (1442)
(The Risen Christ and Saint Mary Magdalene)
Basilica di San Marco, Florence, Italy
THE EASTER SEASON
In the contemporary calendar of the Western Church, the Easter Season lasts fifty days, until Pentecost. Eastertide is a joyful celebration lasting for weeks, not just a single day.
The Mass readings appointed for the Sundays and weekdays of Eastertide always include a selection from the Acts of the Apostles, chronicling the beginnings of the early Church’s mission of bearing witness to the Lord’s Resurrection to all times and places.
Key moments in Eastertide include the Second Sunday of Easter, known as “Low Sunday,” when the Gospel reading features the Risen Lord’s appearance to “Doubting Thomas,” and Ascension Day, kept on Thursday following the Sixth Sunday of Easter, commemorating the Lord’s Ascension into heaven forty days after his Resurrection.
John Singleton Copley, Ascension (1775)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Duccio di Buoninsegna, Pentecost (1308-1311)
Detail of the Maestà Altarpiece
Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena, Italy
Falling seven weeks after Easter, Pentecost, commonly known as the Church’s birthday, commemorates the Holy’s Spirit’s descent upon the Apostles in the Upper Room. Since we have received the Holy Spirit at Baptism, it is highly appropriate to include either Baptisms or the Renewal of Baptismal Vows on this joyous feast. The liturgical color is red, signifying the tongues of fire that descended on the Apostles; many Christians mark the occasion by wearing items of red clothing to Church.
Subsequent feasts dependent on the date of Easter include:
Trinity Sunday, one week after Pentecost, celebrating the Christian worship of one God in three co-equal and co-eternal Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit
Corpus Christi, kept on the Thursday following Trinity Sunday (but often transferred to the following Sunday), celebrating Christ’s gift of himself to us in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood; solemn processions of the Blessed Sacrament are often held on this day
The Sacred Heart of Jesus, kept on the Friday following the octave of Corpus Christi (but in some places also moved to the Sunday following), celebrating Christ’s burning love for humanity