Say the word “Easter” and most people will think of chocolate eggs, which is a pity, because it means so much more than that — in its glorious celebration of our redemption through Christ’s death and resurrection, and in giving meaning to every Sunday throughout the year.
To understand Lent and Easter, we have to understand the greatness of God’s love for us. From the very beginning, He loved us so much that He sent His only Son to be one with us, to share our humanity and to bring every human being into a full and joyful friendship with God. Because of man’s sin, when the Son came to be with us, it meant a sharing in man’s suffering and death — even death on a cross — but in a mysterious sense this only served to reveal the hugeness of that Divine Love, and to draw us even more closely to God. And that is what Lent and Easter are all about.
Lent is 40 days long — echoing the 40 years the Israelites spent in the desert while journeying to the Promised Land and Christ’s 40 days in the desert fasting and praying. Count up the days on a calendar: from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday is 40 days — omitting Sundays because every Sunday is a “little Easter” and doesn’t exactly count as Lent.
The days before Lent are traditionally a time of feasting — carnival — to enjoy all the tasty things that we will deny ourselves during the time of penance. The word “carnival” comes from the Latin carnis, meaning meat, and vale, meaning goodbye: it was “goodbye to meat” once Lent began. The name Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, echoes the same theme of eating lots of rich food! Eastern Catholics typically give up meat all of Lent, not just on Fridays.
A British tradition is pancakes on Shrove Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday), served with brown sugar and wedges of lemon. The word “shrove” derives from the Saxon word for going to confession: we are “shriven” of our sins. Slavic peoples, particularly the Polish, serve paczki — a doughnutlike pastry that was made in order to use up all the lard, sugar and eggs to be given up during Lent.
Part of the carnival tradition is the harlequin clown with the teardrop — a reminder that carnival comes to an end with Lent. Some Catholic groups hold a carnival party with pancakes, wine and plenty of good food — and then stop at the stroke of midnight and do all the cleaning up in silence to recognize Lent has started.
Ashes are an ancient symbol of penance and mourning, since ash is what is left when something is consumed by fire. On Ash Wednesday, we receive ashes on our foreheads and are reminded to repent and believe in the Gospel. The ashes are customarily made from the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday. Some parishes invite everyone to bring along last year’s palms to be burned.
Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are required days of fasting for Catholics between the ages 18 to 59 — meaning one main meal and two other light meals as needed to maintain health. Abstinence from meat is also required on those two days as well as on the Fridays of Lent.
“Giving up something” is a standard form of penance today during the penitential season of Lent. Renouncing chocolate, alcohol, television, coffee or some specific favorite food are all standard penances. Money saved should go to charity as Lenten alms.
At one time it was standard for all Christians to renounce all meat and dairy products during Lent, which included no cheese, eggs or milk. This is still practiced by Eastern-rite Christians. Hence the tradition that eggs were stored and then were in plentiful supply by Easter. Eggs can be kept from going bad by sealing them — so that no air can get in through the shell — with something sticky such as water glass (sodium silicate). In modern life, it is unrealistic to live with the diet of former ages, but penitential sacrifice is still a non-negotiable part of Lent. Some families institute a specific fasting meal each Friday: a simple supper with no trimmings. Parishes often organize bread-and-soup lunches, with funds raised going to a charity.
Part of the Catholic tradition of fasting is that you are not meant to brag about it: no showing off about how pious you are, or how much you are suffering through your self-imposed penances! In fact, the best way to experience Lent is to see it as a time of genuine spiritual renewal — it’s a time for small but specific acts of love. Picking up some litter in the street and putting it in a bin? Making one random act of kindness every day? (It can actually be quite fun working out how to do that: a seat offered to a stranger on the bus, an angry remark left unsaid, a pleasant greeting to a colleague at work, and/or a decision to do something that you have been meaning to do for ages, such as visiting that home for the elderly and getting a group of friends to go and sing there, etc.).
But it does have to be said that Lent’s 40 days can still seem horribly long! Which is why the Church gives us a mid-Lent Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Lent. Its traditional name is Laetare Sunday, from the Latin word for “rejoice.” Look up the Mass prayers for that day and you will find them full of messages about hope and joy. It is sometimes called “let up” Sunday — you let up on your fasting and penance for the day.
And so to the great events of Holy Week. It begins with Palm Sunday, when we carry palms in procession at church, honoring the entry of Christ into Jerusalem. A donkey carried the pregnant Mary on the way to Bethlehem, too. Incidentally, did you know every donkey has a cross on its back? (Next time you visit a zoo or a farm, check and see — you will find that it is so: a clear cross marked down the animal’s spine and across its shoulders. Christians have seen this as a mark of favor, because a donkey carried Christ long ago).
We bring our blessed palms home and are encouraged to put them around the house, up behind the kitchen clock or behind a crucifix on the wall.
In Holy Week, there is a sense of drama: Wednesday is known as Spy Wednesday because of the betrayal of Christ by one of His own followers.
Holy Thursday is sometimes known as Maundy Thursday, from the Latin mandatum, which gives us the word “command.” We are meant to remember the command that Christ gave us on the night before He died, the one we all forget — that we should love one another.
Love involves service: Christ washed the feet of His apostles, and on Maundy Thursday, all over the world, priests will re-enact that act of service by washing the feet of 12 of their parishioners.
During Holy Week, all the priests of a diocese gather with their bishop for the Chrism Mass. All walk, donned in white vestments, in procession. The Chrism Mass is often packed as people love to be there to see their own priest and to express their thanks for all that he does. At this Mass, the sacred oils that will be used for baptism, confirmation, anointing of the sick and ordination during the following year are blessed and consecrated by the bishop. The oil is preferably olive oil, and the prayers at the Chrism Mass remind us of the olive branch that the dove brought back after Noah sent it out to seek land as the flood subsided.
On the evening of Maundy Thursday, we celebrate the Mass of the Last Supper: listen carefully to the words of consecration. The priest says, “On the night before he suffered — that is, tonight … ” It is usual to have holy Communion offered under both forms — the Host and the Preciuos Blood — on this night.
We remember the Passover and think of the Jewish people and their allegiance to the one true God. We remember that they remained faithful to the Passover and still do. One day we will all be united, Jews and Christians together, when Christ returns to gather us at the end of time.
Holy Thursday evening through Easter Sunday evening is a liturgical season of its own called the Sacred Triduum — the three holiest of days. Good Friday is a solemn day: fasting, abstinence from meat, a day to think about all that Christ did for us. Hot cross buns are a traditional way of remembering. Originally, people ate dry bread rolls topped with a pastry cross — over the centuries currants and spices got added, and the cross is still there.
We will spend much of the day in church: perhaps the Stations of the Cross in the morning and then, of course, the solemn commemoration of Christ’s passion, traditionally held at 3 p.m. It is always a powerfully moving sight to see the priest prostrated in prayer and mourning at the start, lying full-length on the floor. And we think of our sins and about how often we have failed Christ. It’s the only day the Church does not celebrate the Mass.
Many towns and cities have a Good Friday Way of the Cross with Christians carrying a large cross through the streets. Each year the pope conducts a special celebration of this in the historic Roman Colosseum, a place Christians were once martyred. Praying the Stations of the Cross is a staple Lenten devotion, with roots dating back to the earliest Christians who literally would retrace the steps of Christ’s passion and death — His journey from Pilate’s praetorium to the tomb.
Holy Saturday is a time of preparation for Easter: decorating Easter eggs, organizing the upcoming Easter breakfast and Easter lunch. You can buy special packs with dye and stickers for decorating eggs, and it can be fun to experiment with natural dyes. Eastern Christians dye their eggs red to symbolize the blood of Christ outpoured on Good Friday, and the hard shell signifies His sealed tomb. Some Easter eggs are extraordinarily decorative — consider the beautiful products of the Ukrainian wax-resistant method.
Many in the United States, especially those of Polish descent, bring baskets to church with their Easter foods for the priest to bless. The traditional foods contained in the baskets have meaning: eggs, symbolic of life in the Resurrection; bread, symbolic of Jesus’ body; lamb, symbolic of Jesus’ divinity; salt, representative of purification; horseradish, symbolizing Christ’s passion; and ham, signifying the joy and abundance of the feast.
Holy Saturday night is the Easter Vigil. It begins with a magnificent fire symbolizing Christ, the Light of the World, who dissipates the darkness of sin and death as He passes over from death to life. There are usually seven Old Testament readings during the Easter Vigil Mass, which recall the story of salvation history. New Christians enter the Church that night, too, by receiving the Sacraments of Initiation (baptism, confirmation and Eucharist).
Easter’s association with the Easter bunny comes from a revival of an old pagan fertility symbol — rabbits traditionally have large families. Hiding eggs around the house and garden is rooted in simple truth: free-ranging hens tend to lay eggs in all sorts of places. But hunting for eggs is also linked to Mary Magdalene’s quest for Christ: “They have taken my Lord, and I don’t know where they laid him” (Jn 20:13). And she met him in a garden, and He called her by name.
Easter is a time for feasting and superabundance. All the things we have renounced in Lent can now be enjoyed with relish, including sumptuous foods — chocolate, wine, delicious cakes — and time for gathering family and friends and having long talkative meals. It’s a time for decorating the table with Easter baskets filled with eggs — chocolate eggs, sugar eggs, real eggs dyed and decorated. Traditional dishes include roast lamb or ham.
At Mass we renew our baptismal promises, recalling our own participation in the Paschal Mystery. The tomb in the Easter garden has been open, and we celebrate for the next 50 days.
Christ is risen! Alleluia!
Joanna Bogle is a British Catholic journalist, writer and broadcaster. In 2013, she became a Dame of the Pontifical Equestrian Order of St. Gregory the Great. She has authored several books and blogs at joannabogle.blogspot.com