During the weeks leading up to Easter Christians prepare for it by taking their spirituality particularly seriously. This period is called Lent. It lasts just over six weeks.
Christians mark Lent by praying, confessing their failings and making decisions about how to live in a more godly way. Traditionally this has been made special by fasting. Today it can still involve giving up foods or activities that are in some way luxuries. This discipline makes prayer seem to have a sharper focus.
For some years after the resurrection of Jesus his followers observed a complete fast from Good Friday until dawn on Easter Sunday. They went without any food and drink to mark out as special the time between Jesus’ death and the moment that it was first discovered that his tomb was empty. However, the rigour with which Christians observed holy days declined. In the 5th century church leaders were keen to mark the lead-up to Easter with a focussed period of devotion. In different countries, churches made that part of the year distinctive in different ways.
It was not until about nine hundred years after Jesus that there was international agreement that there should be a season of serious prayer and repentance for forty days (plus Sundays) leading up to Easter Sunday. Forty days was the length of time that Jesus spent in the desert at the age of about thirty, dwelling on what the future shape of his life would be. In English it is called Lent, because that is the time of year during which daylight is lengthening in the northern hemisphere.
Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. Many Christians attend church on that Wednesday, particularly to reflect on what it means to be human, and to seek forgiveness for the wrong they have done. In some churches a priest puts ash on the forehead of each worshipper in the shape of a cross as a mark of being penitent. He or she uses the words, ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.’
Tradition has it that on the day before Lent begins all the luxury foods that will be forsaken until Easter should be eaten up. The custom is kept alive today by eating pancakes. In the UK the day is known as Shrove Tuesday. ‘Shrove’ means to forgive. In much of the world the day is known as Mardi Gras (‘fat Tuesday’) and is marked by a carnival.
Mothering Sunday is the fourth Sunday during Lent. In England during the sixteenth century it was an occasion to appreciate the motherly nature of the church. In recent centuries it has become a time to honour all mothers. Elsewhere in the world a secular ‘Mother’s Day’ is marked later in the year.
What the Bible says about it
An extract from the Bible:
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
Where to find it:
About these words:
From an anonymous letter written to Jewish Christians about thirty years after the resurrection of Jesus.
And they said…
Samuel Johnson, writer, 1709-1784:
Since the communion of last Easter I have led a life so dissipated and useless, and my terrors and perplexities have so much increased, that I am under great depression and discouragement. Yet I purpose to present myself before God tomorrow, with humble hope that he will not break the bruised reed.
Monica Furlong, writer, 1930-2003:
To fast is to learn to love and appreciate food, and one’s own good fortune in having it.
Ambrose, bishop of Milan, 340-397
Do not limit the benefit of fasting merely to abstinence from food, for a true fast means abstaining from evil. You do not eat meat, but you gobble up your brother. Loose every unjust bond, put away resentment against your neighbours, forgive them their offences.
John Paul, German novelist, 1763-1825:
Humanity is never so beautiful as when praying for forgiveness, or else forgiving another.