The celebration of Lent occurs 40 days before Easter. It is a period of fasting and repentance for Christians in preparation for the day of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is generally thought to last for forty days in commemoration of Christ’s forty day fast between the period of his baptism and public ministry. However, the Latin word for Lent, Quadragesima, originally meant forty hours, not forty days. This referred to the forty hours of complete fasting which preceded Easter ceremonies in the early church. Later the period was extended to include Good Friday then to a six day period corresponding to a training period for baptismal candidates. Finally, it was fixed to a six week period or 40 days (not including Sundays and rounded from 36 days to 40).
Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent and is signified by the application of an ash cross placed on the forehead by the minister to the penitent. Ashes are preserved from the previous year’s Palm Sunday in which palm leaves are burned.
Maundy Thursday is associated with the Last Supper, the agony in the Garden, and the arrest of Jesus. Maundy arises from the Latin word mandatum meaning commandment. This is the first word in Christ’s statement at the Last Supper, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”
In the days of the early Christian church, only Easter Sunday was celebrated as a holy day. By the fourth century, each day of the week preceding Easter was established as a holy day including Good Friday. To most Christians, Good Friday is really a misnomer in that it was a “bad” Friday-the crucifixion day of Jesus. Some believe the term ”Good” evolved from “God” or God’s Friday. Others believe “good” represents the good gift of salvation brought forth by the martyrdom. Regardless, it is a holy day throughout the Christian world.
In the Christian world, no other Holy Day can match the importance of Easter Sunday. It is the day in which Jesus was resurrected thus reuniting His deceased body with His spirit in eternal union. Furthermore, His resurrection marked a reconciliation between God and man thus opening the doors of resurrection for all mankind.
While the feast of Easter was first celebrated in the second century, it wasn’t until Constantine called The Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. that a date was officially pronounced. One debate of that Council was whether the observance of Easter should follow the Jewish custom of holding Passover on a weekday or should it be held on a Sunday. During this Council, it was decided to hold it on the Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Later the date of March 21 was selected as the vernal equinox.
The word Easter is believed to have originated either after the Anglo-Saxon Goddess of Spring, Eostre, or the rising of the sun in the east. Even today, many churches have early morning sunrise services on Easter.