Today we begin Holy Week. This is the final part of a longer period leading up to Easter, called Lent.
The term Lent is taken from a Teutonic word, originally meaning “the spring season”, and signalling the lengthening of days in the (northern hemisphere) spring season. Lent has been celebrated for at least 1500 years. It is typically seen as a time of self-examination and repentance, although more often now it is presented as a time of “preparation” for Easter.
Lent started on Ash Wednesday. On this day, many churches have an “ashing service” where ash made from the previous year’s palms are sprinkled with holy water and fumigated with incense and symbolically placed on the forehead in the sign of a cross, signifying penance. It is also a reminder of our own mortality: ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and of a time when people repented with ashes and wearing sackcloth.
Lent is an ancient practice. It lasts for 40 days (excluding the six Sundays that occur during this period). A more recent development has been the recognition of the week leading up to Easter as Holy Week. This probably comes from the narration of chapters 11 and 12 of Mark’s Gospel, which portrays Jesus as being in Jerusalem from a Sunday until his last meal on a Thursday. The week starts with Palm Sunday when Christians remember Jesus entering Jerusalem and the crowds waving palm leaves as he enters the city. Jesus stays near to the city for the remainder of the week.
On Maundy Thursday Christians remember Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. His words are recorded in John 13:34, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” This gives rise to the name for the day. The Latin for “commandment” is mandatum—hence Maundy. In England, on Maundy Thursday, the Queen will follow a very traditional role of giving Maundy coins, in order to demonstrate the love of the new commandment. A complete set of Maundy money consists of a groat (4p), a threepence (3p), a half-groat (2p) and a penny (1p)—totalling 10p.
Some people believe that Lent officially ends at sundown on Thursday and celebrate with Holy Communion and, often, a meal known as an agapé or a “love feast”. Others maintain that Lent continues through into Easter Saturday. After Maundy Thursday comes Good Friday, when Jesus was crucified. Why Good? This comes from the theological evaluation that, on this Friday, Jesus died on the cross “for our sins”, the basis for the “good news” which the Church has proclaimed for centuries.
The Stations of the Cross are focused around the events of Good Friday, recalling the various events which took place as Jesus made his way from his trial to his death on the cross. These Stations have been appropriated, in art or through personal creative responses, as ways of moving attention from the story as a singular ‘history’, to the significance of the story and the resonance of the events with universal human experiences.
Next comes Holy Saturday or Easter Eve—a day of vigil, when believers watch, wait and pray. This is an in-between time, a day when time can be spent reflecting back on the traumatic events that have just taken place, and looking forward with hope to the new possibilities that might emerge from those events.
The Christian festival reaches its climax on Easter Day with celebration marking Jesus conquering death. Counting inclusively, as was done at the time, beginning from Friday, means that Sunday is the third day. So the traditional affirmation is that Jesus rose “on the third day”.