While we are familiar with Ash Wednesday marking the beginning of Lent, we should also remember “Shrovetide,” the preceding week. Shrovetide is the English equivalent for “carnivale,” which is derived from the Latin words carnem levare, meaning “to take away the flesh” or carne valle, “farewell to meat.” In Germany, this period is called “Fasching,” and in parts of the United States, particularly Louisiana, Mardi gras (in French, “fat Tuesday”). While these days were seen as the last chance for merriment, and unfortunately sometimes taken to the excess, Shrovetide was the time to cast off things of the flesh and to prepare spiritually for Lent.
The English term provides the best meaning for this period. “To shrive” meant to hear confessions. In the Anglo-Saxon “Ecclesiastical Institutes” (c AD 1000), during Shrovetide, the faithful were urged to confess their sins and receive absolution, i.e., be shriven, and then do penances, which would last into Lent. To motivate the people, special plays or masques were performed which portrayed the passion of Our Lord or final judgment.
Shrovetide also condoned the partaking of pleasures from which a person would abstain during Lent. Shrove Tuesday had a special significance in England. Families prepared and ate pancakes so they could deplete their eggs, milk, butter, and fat which were part of the Lenten fast. Also, some areas of the church abstained from all forms of meat and animal products, while others made exceptions for food like fish. For example, Pope St. Gregory (d. 604), writing to St. Augustine of Canterbury, issued the following rule: “We abstain from flesh, meat, and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese, and eggs.”
For this same reason, Easter was celebrated with decorated eggs (particularly ornamented in Eastern European countries) and fresh sweet breads. Another interesting note surrounding the Easter egg, just as an aside, is that it symbolizes the resurrection: just as a little chick pecks its way out of the egg shell to emerge to new life, so Christ emerged from the tomb to new and everlasting life.
Having completed Shrovetide, Ash Wednesday began the holy season of Lent. The word Lent derives from the Anglo-Saxon words “lencten,” meaning “spring,” and “lenctentid,” which literally means not only “springtide” but also was the word for “March,” the month in which the majority of Lent falls. Lent is a special time of prayer, penance, sacrifice and good works in preparation of the celebration of Easter. Like spring, Lent is meant to be a time of renewal and rebirth in the faith. For this reason, making a good confession and receiving absolution were part of the Shrovetide preparation, so that the penances and spiritual exercises during Lent would facilitate a person’s renewal. Moreover, the whole church is mindful of those individuals who are preparing to receive the sacraments of initiation at the Easter Vigil.
Since the earliest times of the church, some kind of Lenten preparation for Easter existed. Lent became more regularized after the legalization of Christianity in 313. The Council of Nicea (325), in its disciplinary canons, noted that two provincial synods should be held each year, “one before the 40 days of Lent.” St. Athanasius (d. 373), St. Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386), St. Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444) and Pope St. Leo (d. 461) all mention the 40-day period Lenten preparation. One can safely conclude that by the end of the fourth century, the 40-day period of Easter preparation known as Lent existed, and that prayer and fasting constituted its primary spiritual exercises.
Of course, the number 40 always has had special spiritual significance regarding preparation. For example, in the Old Testament, “Moses stayed (on Mount Sinai) with the Lord for 40 days and 40 nights, without eating any food or drinking any water” (Ex 34:28). Most importantly, Jesus fasted and prayed for “40 days and 40 nights” in the desert before He began His public ministry (Mt 4:2). Our present 40-day period then begins on Ash Wednesday and ends at the Easter Vigil, excluding Sundays. (Note the new liturgical norms indicate that “Lent” ends at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, but the Lenten period of abstinence and fasting continue until the Easter Vigil.)
The liturgical use of ashes originated in Old Testament times. Ashes symbolized mourning, mortality and penance. For example, prophesying the fall of Jerusalem, Daniel wrote, “I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes” (Dn 9:3). Jesus Himself also made reference to ashes: Referring to towns that refused to repent of sin although they had witnessed the miracles and heard the good news, Our Lord said, “If the miracles worked in you had taken place in Tyre and Sidon, they would have reformed in sackcloth and ashes long ago” (Mt 11:21).
The early church continued the usage of ashes for the same symbolic reasons. For example, the priest sprinkled ashes on the head of the person leaving confession to do his penance. Eventually, the use of ashes was adapted to mark the beginning of Lent. The ritual for the “Day of Ashes” is found in the earliest editions of the Gregorian Sacramentary, which dates at least to the eighth century. In our present liturgy for Ash Wednesday, we use ashes made from the burned palm branches distributed on the Palm Sunday of the previous year. The priest blesses the ashes and imposes them on the foreheads of the faithful, making the sign of the cross and saying, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” or “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” And with that profound sign, we commit ourselves on a 40-day period of renewal.
The fourth Sunday of Lent marks the midpoint and is called “Laetare Sunday,” from the words of the introit, Laetare Jerusalem, i.e., “Rejoice, Jerusalem” (Is 66:10). On this day, a priest traditionally wears rose-colored vestments to show that, even though we remain in the purple season of Lent with sacrifices and penances, we rejoice because we are halfway to Easter. On this day, the creed traditionally has been given to catechumens preparing to enter the church.
Laetare Sunday also was called “Mothering Sunday.” On this day, the faithful remembered their own baptism and would visit their “mother” church, either the church where they had been baptized or the cathedral church. In the Tridentine Mass, the epistle from Galatians (4:22-31) recounted, “We are not children of a slave girl but of a mother who is free,” and the Gospel passage was the multiplication of the loaves (Jn 6:1-15). For this reason, the custom arose that children would then return home with flowers, particularly roses that had been used to decorate the altars, to present to their mothers. The families also would enjoy sweet simnel cakes (a fruit cake with layers of almond paste or marzipan) topped with a scallop decoration to remind them of the scallop shell used for pouring water at baptism.
Another interesting point: On Laetare Sunday, the pope will bless and send a golden rose, a sign of spiritual joy, as an honor to a person or institution in recognition of a special service. The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington has such a rose.
The fifth Sunday of Lent traditionally had been called Passion Sunday in the Tridentine Mass. The Gospel recounted Our Lord’s confrontation with the Pharisees, which concluded, “They picked up stones to throw at Him, but Jesus hid Himself, and went out of the temple” (Jn 8:59). For this reason, to remind us of Jesus’ hiding, crucifixes and statues are covered with purple cloth beginning this Sunday; the coverings for crosses are removed at the end of the liturgy of the Passion on Good Friday and for statues, on the Easter Vigil.
Palm Sunday, or Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord, begins Holy Week. On this day, Our Lord triumphantly entered Jerusalem. In accord with the Gospel, the people receive blessed palm branches, and the Passion account is read. This day also was called Fig Sunday, whereby people ate figs to commemorate Jesus’ cursing the fig tree after His entry (Mk 11:12-14).
Spy Wednesday is the Wednesday of Holy Week. On this day, Judas went to the chief priests and said, “What are you willing to give me if I hand Him over to you?” They paid Judas 30 pieces of silver, and he kept looking — spying — for the opportunity to do so. (Cf. Mt 26).
On Holy Thursday morning, Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde celebrates the Chrism Mass at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington, traditionally the only Mass celebrated in the diocese that morning. Priests renew their sacred promises. Also, the bishop blesses the holy oils that will be used for the sacraments: oil of catechumens (for baptism), oil of the infirm (for anointing of the sick) and sacred chrism (for baptism, confirmation and holy orders). After the Mass, each pastor (or designate) fills up the parish’s oil stocks with the newly blessed oils for use in the parish during the year.
Holy Thursday evening begins the sacred Triduum with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. Here the faithful remember the Last Supper when Our Lord instituted the holy Eucharist and the holy priesthood. Sometimes this day is called Maundy Thursday, recalling Jesus’ mandate to the apostles: “I give you a new commandment (in Latin, “mandatum”): Love one another” (Jn 13:34). Following the prayer after Communion, omitting the final blessing, the Most Blessed Sacrament is transferred in procession to a repository, preferably outside of the church, where the faithful may adore in silence for three hours. The altar is stripped, and the tabernacle remains empty.
On Good Friday, the church celebrates the Lord’s Passion. No Mass is offered this day.
After processing in silence and prostrating before the altar, the priest offers the prayer but omits the normal sign of the cross and greeting. The people hear again the Passion, offer solemn intercessions, venerate the cross, and receive holy Communion from that which was consecrated at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. After the final prayer and blessing (but omitting the sign of the cross), the priest leaves in silence.
On Holy Saturday, we wait in expectation. An ancient homily for Holy Saturday reads, “Something strange is happening — there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembles and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and He has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.” We believe that Our Lord descended to the land of the dead, Sheol, to reveal Himself to the faithful who had been awaiting a Messiah and Redeemer and then took them into heaven. On Holy Saturday morning, particularly in Eastern European countries, the faithful bring their baskets of food — decorated eggs, breads, meats, wine, etc. — that will be enjoyed on Easter to be blessed by the priest.
Then that evening, the first Mass of Easter, the great Easter Vigil, is celebrated. The faithful gather in darkness. The priest blesses the new fire and the paschal candle, which is then lit. The deacon proclaims, “Christ our light,” and then sings the beautiful Exsultet. During the Liturgy of the Word, five passages and psalms from the Old Testament are read, followed by the Gloria, followed by the epistle, the great alleluia, and the Gospel. After the homily, the sacraments of baptism and confirmation are celebrated, and then the Mass continues with the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The final blessing of the Easter Vigil concludes the sacred Triduum.
May we all make this Lent again a time of real spiritual renewal by celebrating these beautiful traditions of our church.