Lent and Easter

If you search through the Bible looking up the few references to eggs, you won't find a single text that makes any kind of connection to Jesus' death and resurrection. Yet, if you search your own memory concerning Easter, you will certainly remember baskets of brightly colored eggs, along with Easter egg hunts.

The connection between Easter and eggs is a mysterious and tenuous one. It has been traced in the West to the year 1290, when court records indicate that King Edward I of England distributed 450 eggs -- some covered with gold -- to the royal household at Easter. In some European countries, along with other foods to be served for Easter breakfast, Christians still bring eggs to the church to be blessed by the priest on the day before Easter.

One legend traces the egg all the way back to Mary Magdalene, the woman from whom Jesus expelled seven demons. The last glimpse of her in Scripture takes place on the first Easter when she encounters the Risen Christ at the empty tomb and then informs the disciples (Jn 20:18). 

However, according to a story from the Orthodox tradition, Mary then went to Rome and appeared at Caesar's court. There she protested Pilate's poor administration of justice at Jesus' trial and announced to the court that Jesus had risen from the dead. She picked up an egg from the table and used it as an object lesson to explain resurrection as new life breaking out. Caesar was incredulous, declaring that a person could no more rise from the dead than the egg Mary was holding could turn red; immediately, the egg did turn red. That's why, still today, Orthodox Christians dye eggs red at Easter.

The 40 days leading up to Easter are the most important of the Church year. While many practices and services are familiar to most people, some Easter customs, the language of Lent and even the dating of Easter are confusing to many people. Here are a few explanations.

Shrove Tuesday (or Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras) 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 go to confession during the week immediately before Lent.

Since the Lenten season was one of fasting, Christians usually did much feasting before the season of fasting. This took place on Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. On Tuesday Christians came together to eat and celebrate in ways which would be prohibited during Lent. Many of the foods eaten on Tuesday were rich sweets, thus the term ''Fat'' Tuesday.

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

The week before Easter is called ''Holy Week.'' Holy Week is the last week of the 40-day season of Lent and the week preceding Easter Sunday. During this week, which begins with Palm Sunday, the Church focuses on the last week of Christ's life, remembering especially His suffering, death and resurrection.

Palm Sunday was a high point in Jesus' life and ministry. (See Mt 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 from nearby palm trees. The welcoming crowd described in the New Testament 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.

The cleansing of the Temple at Jerusalem supposedly took place on Holy Monday. It is also the day when Jesus reprimanded the moneychangers.

Holy Tuesday is the day when the famous incident between Jesus and Pharisees supposedly took place where an attempt was made to get Jesus to commit blasphemy by asking Him, ''Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?'' (Mt 22:34-40). The Pharisees, Jesus' harshest critics, claimed that He broke Sabbath laws by healing people and gleaning corn to eat (Lk 13:14; Mt 12:1-2).

Spy Wednesday is a name for the day when Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, told the chief priests where they could find Him. The betrayal of Jesus by Judas is reported in Mt 26:14-16: ''Then one of the Twelve -- the one called Judas Iscariot -- went to the chief priests and asked, 'What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?' So they counted out for him 30 silver coins. From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over.''

Maundy Thursday, the name given to Holy Thursday preceding Good Friday, comes from the Latin word mandatum meaning mandate or commandment. It was on Thursday that Jesus said, ''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 day Jesus was crucified. Originally the day was called ''God's Friday'' but somehow that became lengthened into Good Friday. Some, however, hold to the view that ''Good Friday'' refers to the good gift of salvation brought by the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Some churches still hold a three-hour service on Good Friday to commemorate the three hours Jesus hung on a cross. Such services revolve around Christ's seven statements made from the cross. Reflecting on the events of Good Friday, the Quaker founder of Pennsylvania, William Penn observed: ''No pain, no palm; no thorns, no throne; no gall, no glory; no cross, no crown.''

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.

On Holy Saturday the Orthodox Church commemorates the burial of Christ and His descent into Hades. In both Catholic and Orthodox churches, the glorious Vigil for Easter is held near midnight on Holy Saturday. During the Vigil, those entering the Church as new members are baptized, and those previously baptized in other Christian churches are received into full communion.

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 name of the pagan 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'' (Mt 28:1).

Like the red eggs, another traditional symbol is the Easter lily. At Easter, Christian churches commonly fill their altars and surround their crosses with 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 (2:1): ''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 passage reads: ''I will heal their waywardness and love them freely . . . he (Israel) will blossom like a lily'' (Hos 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 flowers sprang up where drops of Christ's perspiration fell to the ground in his final hours of sorrow and distress.

On the Sunday immediately following Easter, the Church celebrates Divine Mercy Sunday, also called the Feast of the Divine Mercy. As the name implies, it is a day devoted to prayer and reflection of divine mercy as promoted by a Polish nun, St. Faustina Kowalska -- a Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy.

Beginning on Feb. 22, 1931, St. Faustina reported seeing visions of Jesus and hearing Him speak to her soul. According to entries in her diaries, Sister Faustina said that Jesus made the following statements about the Sunday after Easter:

On that day the very depths of my tender mercy are open. I pour out a whole ocean of graces upon those souls who approach the fount of my mercy. The soul that will go to confession and receive holy communion shall obtain complete forgiveness of sins and punishment. On that day all divine floodgates through which grace flows are opened. Let no soul fear to draw near to me, even though its sins be as scarlet. My mercy is so great that no mind, be it of man or of angel, will be able to fathom it throughout all eternity.

As reports of Sister Faustina's vision spread, this devotion was celebrated informally and unofficially in many communities. On April 30, 2000 -- Divine Mercy Sunday of that year -- Pope John Paul II canonized Faustina and designated the Sunday after Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday in the Roman Calendar. The Holy Father also decreed a plenary indulgence associated with this devotion.

Quinquagesima, the final entry in this listing, is especially 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. TP

Rev. Parachin, an ordained minister, is a freelance writer and author of several books, including, Lessons for Living From the 23rd Psalm (Resurrection Press) and Prayers from Around the World and Across the Ages (ACTA).