Quick facts about Easter

By Victor Parachin

The 40 days leading up to Easter are the most important ones of the church year. While many practices and services are familiar to most people, some Easter customs, the language of Lent (such as Maundy Thursday), and even the dating of Easter are confusing to many people. Here is an Easter and Lenten fact sheet.

Easter Lily.  At Easter, Christian churches commonly fill their altars and surround their crosses with masses of Easter lilies to commemorate the Resurrection of Jesus and the hope of life everlasting. The lily is associated with Christ because of two Old Testament passages. One is in the Song of Songs (2:): “I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys.” (New International Version) Christians have interpreted this verse as a reference to Christ who is their “lily of the valley.” The other reference is found in Hosea through whom God promises a resurrection to Israel if the nation repents. The word reads: “I will heal their waywardness and love them freely . . . he (Israel) will blossom like a lily.” (Hosea 14:4-5) Lilies are said to have been found growing in the garden of Gethsemane after Christ’s night of agony. Tradition indicates that the beautiful white lilies sprang up where drops of Christ’s perspiration fell to the ground in his final hours of sorrow and distress.

Shrove Tuesday (or Fat Tuesday) is simply the day before Lent begins No one is certain of the origin of the term “shrove,” but some linguists believe it is derived from the old English word “shrive,” meaning to confess. During the early middle ages, Christians were required to attend confession in the week immediately before Lent. Since the Lenten season was one of fasting, Christians came to do much feasting right before fasting. This took place on Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. On Tuesday Christians came together to eat and celebrate in ways that were prohibited during Lent. Many of the foods eaten on Tuesday were sweets, thus the term “Fat Tuesday.” Even today, many churches have an annual pancake dinner on Shrove Tuesday.

Lent officially begins 40 days before Easter. Traditionally, it is a period of fasting, cutting back on the amount of food eaten and reducing consumption of meat. It is also a time when Christians reflect on the life of Christ as well as their own spiritual lives. Lent is a time to correct some personal faults and shortcomings by confessing those in prayer, asking God’s forgiveness and seeking God’s help to live a more authentic Christian life.

Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. The earliest observation dates back to the sixth century. In Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches a special service is held. At that service the priest or minister applies an ash cross on the forehead of worshippers. The ashes are made from the previous year’s Palm Sunday, and the palm leaves are burned and crushed into ashes.

Palm Sunday was a high point in Jesus’s life and ministry. (See Matthew 21:8-9 for the biblical account.) Just as an American president is greeted by crowds waving American flags, Jesus was greeted by enormous crowds waving palms cut down from nearby palm trees. The New Testament welcoming crowd was our equivalent of a ticker-tape parade for a returning hero. On Palm Sunday, Jesus was treated as a great dignitary. However, fame is fleeting. In less than a week, Jesus was abandoned by everyone, including his own disciples.

Maundy Thursday comes from the Latin word ‘mandatum’ meaning mandate or commandment. It was on Thursday that Jesus gave us a new commandment: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all will know you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Good Friday is a misnomer because it was really a “bad” Friday–the crucifixion day of Jesus. Originally the day was called “God’s Friday” but somehow became lengthened into Good Friday. Some, however, hold to the view that “Good Friday” refers to the good gift of salvation brought out by the death and resurrection of Jesus. Many churches still hold a three-hour service on Friday representing the three hours Jesus hung on a cross. Such services revolve around Christ’s seven statements made from the cross.

Holy Saturday evolved in the church after the fourth century. Prior to that time, only Easter was recognized as a holy or special day. However, during the fourth century all the days of the week prior to Easter were established as holy days. Some churches reserve Holy Saturday as a traditional time for baptisms.

Easter Sunday, the day of Christ’s resurrection, is the most important day of the church year. The date varies from year to year because the Council of Nicaea (325) determined that Easter would be celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox. (There are two times during the year when the length of day and night are equal: the vernal equinox and the autumnal equinox). The word ‘Easter’ is probably derived from the Goddess of Spring, Eostre. Many congregations hold an annual Easter sunrise service. This comes from the fact that “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” first learned of Christ’s resurrection “at dawn on the first day of the week.” (Matthew 28:1)

Quinquagesima. This final entry is for those of you who really like obscure details. Quinquagesima is the first Sunday before Lent. It refers to the 50 days before Easter, which in the early church, marked the beginning of preparations for the entire Lenten season. In some churches the term is applied to the period of 50 days from Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday.

Victor M. Parachin, M. Div., is a bereavement educator and grief counselor.
He is the author of numerous books about grief, including
The Lord Is My Shepherd: A Psalm For The Grieving and Healing Grief.

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