Many churches observe a liturgical calendar, meaning that throughout the year the congregation collectively remembers and celebrates the most significant events in biblical history. This is not meant to be a collection of magical or superstitious rituals, nor is it to become little more than empty habit. Instead, observing church traditions and celebrations should focus our attention on the Lord Jesus Christ, reminding us of what He has done for us. The distinctives of historical worship should also encourage non-Christians, new Christians, and children to ask us about our Christian faith. Moses recognized this unique opportunity for subtle “evangelism,” saying, “Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations. Ask your father and he will show you; your elders and they will tell you” (Deut. 32:7; see also Ex. 12:26-27; 13:8, 14; Deut. 6:20-25; Joshua 4:6, 21; Ps. 78:2-4).
The events leading up to and including the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ have been remembered annually in a special, collective way by most of the Christian church throughout its history. These special commemorations include Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the forty days of preparation (Lent) for celebrating the death (Good Friday), burial, and resurrection (Easter) of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Ash Wednesday begins a forty day period during which Christians remember their sinfulness, repent, ask God’s forgiveness, and recognize that God’s forgiveness comes at an infinite price — the death of Christ on the cross on our behalf. It is not meant as a time of false humility or prideful self-sacrifice. It reminds us that our sin separates us from God, who “demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
The day before Ash Wednesday is popularly known as Mardi Gras (or “Fat Tuesday”). It has developed into a time of partying and carousing, exemplified by the extravagant celebration in New Orleans. Most people who celebrate Mardi Gras attach little or no religious significance to it. Although it is better known than the following day, Ash Wednesday, it is virtually irrelevant to the spiritual focus of Christian observances.
On Ash Wednesday, the historic churches mark the beginning of this period with a special service explaining the season, calling the people to repentance, signifying repentance with ashes, by which a cross is marked on the forehead of the penitent Christian.
Ashes (and “sackcloth,” or rough, plain clothing, usually of camel’s hair) traditionally represent mourning (2 Sam. 13:19; Gen. 37:34), repentance (Job 42:6; Matt. 11:21; Dan. 9:3; Joel 1:8, 13), and the judgment of God (Rev. 6:12). When King Ahasuerus ordered all Jews to be killed, Mordecai “tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and . . . cried out with a loud and bitter cry.” The Jews throughout the land prayed “with great mourning. . . with fasting, weeping, and wailing; and many lay in sackcloth and ashes” (Esther 4:1-3). This was for the dual purpose of mourning for their coming death and of demonstrating their repentance to God, pleading with Him to spare them from His judgment. When Jonah preached God’s coming judgment against Nineveh, the pagan king of Nineveh and his subjects understood that if a nation repents from its evil ways, God may withhold His judgment (Jer. 18:7-10), so they repented and prayed that God would spare them:
So the people of Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them. Then word came to the king of Nineveh; and he arose from his throne and laid aside his robe and covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published throughout Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, “Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; do not let them eat, or drink water. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God; yes, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?” Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it (Jonah 3:5-10).
Ash Wednesday should remind Christians that they are sinners in need of a savior, and that their salvation comes at the sacrifice of God’s Son:
But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption (Heb. 9:11-12).
The word Lent has an obscure origin, and is probably a corruption of similar terms in ancient Anglo, Saxon, and Germanic languages, all of which referred to spring, new life, and hope. Although it is generally considered to be a time of mourning and repentance, it is also designated as a time of new life and hope because by means of the death of Christ, we receive new life.
The Lenten period is calculated to extend from Resurrection Sunday back for forty days, not including Sundays. Sundays are not included because they commemorate Christ’s glorious resurrection on “the day after the Sabbath,” “the first day of the week,” “the Lord’s day.”
The forty days commemorate the significant “forty” periods in Scripture (although forty is not always significant), including the forty years the Jews wandered in the desert after they had been rescued by God from Egypt, and which did not end until they repented. Jonah preached to Nineveh that God’s judgment would come on them in forty days. During that time the people repented and thus were spared God’s judgment. Jesus was tested by the Devil in the desert for forty days before He began His public ministry, announcing salvation to the repentant and judgment to those who continued to rebel against God. Jesus prophesied that God’s judgment would come against Israel for rejecting Him as Messiah within the time of His own generation (Matt. 24; Luke 21; Mark 13). Within forty years of His death, burial, and resurrection, Jerusalem was destroyed and the temple was so ravaged that “not one stone [was] left here upon another” (Matt. 24:2). The Jewish Christians, however, escaped this judgment of God by fleeing to Pella before the final Roman siege, just as Jesus had warned them to do (Matt. 24:16-21).
During Lent Christians are to contemplate their sinfulness, repent, ask God’s forgiveness, and realize the infinite sacrifice God made on their behalf. It is to be a time of quiet contemplation, but not a time of despair, since it culminates in the commemoration of the resurrection. Traditionally, those who are joining the church spend this period in special instruction regarding Christian doctrine, practice, and responsibility. Historically, prospective members (“catechumens”) did not participate in the Lord’s Supper portion of the Sunday services until they were received into full membership on the Sunday of the Resurrection of Our Lord. For them, this first experience of Ash Wednesday and Lent has special significance as God’s eternal plan of salvation is applied to them personally.
Some Christians abstain from a normal part of their daily routine during Lent to remind them of the sacrifice of Christ. Some might refrain from eating certain favorite foods, or from frivolous entertainment, etc. Some churches encourage members to commit to a sacrifice that can benefit the less fortunate, such as not eating out during Lent and then donating those unused dining funds to a local soup kitchen or food bank. Some churches dedicate the Saturdays of Lent to a congregational volunteer community project, such as refurbishing senior members’ houses, or cleaning up a local park, or serving meals to the needy. Many churches have mid-week Lenten services, sometimes preceded by a simple fellowship meal. Services focus on the events leading up to the Last Supper, Christ’s betrayal, arrest, crucifixion, burial, and finally, His triumphant resurrection.
The final week of Lent is called Holy Week. It begins the day after Palm Sunday, which memorializes Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matt. 21:1-11). Holy Week commemorates the events immediately preceding the crucifixion. This is the most solemn time during the church year. Many churches conduct services nightly.
Maundy Thursday honors the memory of the final Passover Jesus celebrated as His Last Supper with His disciples. Maundy Thursday gets its name from a Latin church anthem, the first line of which reads, “Mandatum novum do vobis,” or “a new commandment I give to you” (John 13:34). The Latin “Mandatum” is corrupted to the English “Maundy.” Holy Thursday is called “Green Thursday” in Germany, after the green branch given by pastors to penitents on this day to signify that God has heard their prayers and will give them new life. It is called “Sheer Thursday” in some countries to signify that it is by the body and blood of Christ that we are made “clean” or “sheer” from our sins. This is the traditional day for a thorough cleaning of the church altar and everything associated with it. Most churches celebrate communion on Maundy Thursday. Some re-enact Jesus’ washing the feet of the disciples.
Good Friday commemorates the crucifixion and death of Christ. Many churches conduct quiet services from noon until three (called Tre Ore, or “Three Hours”), focusing on the events of the crucifixion and the words of Christ from the cross. In some churches (most notably the Eastern Orthodox), the altar itself and the encased representation of Christ’s burial, called the epitaphion, are covered in black cloth. (Often the Eastern Orthodox churches do this on Holy Thursday instead.) Many Good Friday services conclude with draping the altar cross with black cloth, extinguishing all sanctuary lights (except the eternal flame signifying the Holy Spirit), ceasing all music, and having the congregation exit without speaking to symbolize the imminent (commemoration of the) death of Christ. Some churches refrain from communion until Resurrection Sunday, others don’t. As early as the second century A.D., Christians commonly celebrated each Friday in commemoration of the crucifixion, with fasting or other penance as its most notable feature.
Easter is an English corruption from the proto-Germanic root word meaning “to rise.” (We see this in the contemporary German cognate “öst-” and the English cognate “east,” the direction from which the sun rises in the morning.) It refers not only to Christ rising from the dead, but also to his ascension to heaven and to our future rising with him at his Second Coming for final judgment. It is not true that it derives from the pagan Germanic goddess Oestar or from the Babylonian goddess Ishtar — both fertility symbols signifying the coming of spring images of fertility, new life, and renewal. A corruption of Ishtar is found in the Bible as the name of the heroic Jewish woman, Esther, who risked her own life to save the lives of her people. Many Christians prefer to use the designation “the Resurrection of our Lord,” “Sunday of the Resurrection,” or even Pasch or Paschal Sunday (“the Sunday of our Passover Lamb Sacrifice”).
The first Easter occurred on the first day of the week after the Passover Sabbath. The first day of the week became the Christian’s “sabbath rest” (Heb. 4:1-11), the time of weekly Christian celebration of the resurrection. Annually, the Lord’s Day immediately subsequent to the Jewish Passover was a day of special resurrection celebration. Today Easter is celebrated at different times depending on whether one is a Western Christian (Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Anglican) or an Eastern Christian (Eastern Orthodoxy) because the West uses the revised Gregorian calendar and the East uses the older Julian calendar.
Early Christians consulted local rabbis to determine the date of Passover each year, which would correspond to Holy Week. Passover was determined by the lunar configurations of the latitude in which the Jewish community resided. There was no Jewish authority at Jerusalem to determine a uniform date after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in A.D. 70. In communities with no Jewish presence, Christians found it even more difficult to determine the date. Once the churches became unified in the fourth century, the date was more consistent until the West’s adoption of the revised Gregorian calendar in the sixteenth century.
Most of the popular associations with Easter come from pagan traditions rather than Christian. However, traditionally the church has taken these pagan elements and “converted” them to convey Christian principles. For example, the egg is a common pagan sign of fertility and good luck. In Christian tradition, the egg is often used as an analogy to the trinity, and to signify the resurrection life promised us by Christ’s resurrection (1 Cor. 15:37-38). Butterflies are indicators of spring, and therefore new life, but Christians often used the butterfly as a symbol of the resurrection. Just as the caterpillar “dies,” is “buried” in his cocoon, and then emerges in a “new body” somehow made from the old body and with “new life,” so Jesus died, was buried, and was resurrected and we who belong to Him will be also (Rom. 8:11). Hiding Easter eggs once symbolized the mysteries of the world of the gods and goddesses, who had to be coaxed into returning life to the earth in spring. Christians used hiding-and-finding as a teaching tool to children that we have been “hidden” from God’s loving presence by our sin, but we are “found” by Christ, who forgives us, loves us, and treasures us (Luke 15:4-7). It can also signify the diligence with which we are to seek the kingdom of God and our joy in finding it (Matt. 13:44-46). Lambs are fertility symbols and indicators of spring in paganism, but in Christianity we remember that we are His sheep (Ps. 23:1-2; John 10:1-16; Matt. 26:31-34; Acts 20:28) and He is our Shepherd (Is. 40:10-11; John 10:11-14; 2 Pet. 5:4; Heb. 13:20; Matt. 25:31-46). Additionally, Christ is the Passover Lamb (Ex. 12:5), the One sacrifice Who cleanses all from sin by His blood (Is. 53:7; John 1:29; Acts 8:32-25; 1 Pet. 1:19; Rev. 5:6-13; 7:13-14; 15:3).
Historically, the celebration of Our Lord’s Resurrection is a time of joy, hymns, celebration, and light. Many churches use bright colors to decorate the sanctuary and the altar, traditionally white and gold. White represents purity and the resurrection, gold symbolizes triumph. Many churches add trumpets to their instrumental music on this day to signify the trumpet of victory after battle and the trumpet “calling” people out of death. Many people use flowers to signify resurrection life, the lily being the most popular because of its long association with spring and the white of salvation. (Confidence in the resurrection is also the historical significance of flowers, especially lilies, at funerals.) Some churches conclude their Easter services with a congregational feast, commemorating the marriage feast of God with His people made possible through Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Most churches repeat the proclamation taken from the gospels and standard from the early second century of the church:
He is Risen!
He is Risen indeed!
— Gretchen Passantino