Ash Wednesday, 6th March 2019, marks the beginning of the penitential season of Lent.
The three Sundays preceding Ash Wednesday have historical names related to the number of days until Easter: Septuagesima (within 70 days of Easter); Sexagesima (within 60 days …) and Quinquagesima (50). In some church traditions the first Sunday of Lent is known as Quadragesima (40).
Ash Wednesday, as the first day of Lent in Western Christian Churches, is often marked as a special day of fasting with Lent a period of self-denial. It occurs 40 days before Easter. [Sunday’s are technically not counted in Lent itself, since every Sunday was seen as a commemoration of the Sunday of Christ’s resurrection, and so as a feast day on which fasting was inappropriate – fasting and self-denial traditionally took place on six days per week.]
Ashing – covering one-self in dust and ashes (and the wearing of rough ‘sack-cloth’ clothing) was a traditional symbol of penitence and repentance of wrong doing – hence “Sackcloth and Ashes” as a description of someone who is seeking to express deep regret and seeks forgiveness. Ash Wednesday specifically derives its name from the manifestation of ‘Ashing’ through the use of ashes made from the palm branches blessed on the previous year’s Palm Sunday. Mixed with olive oil, the crushed ashes of the palms (these days Palm Crosses) are marked as the sign of the Cross on the foreheads of participants to the accompaniment of the words “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”.
At St. Francis’ we celebrate Ash Wednesday with a said Service of Holy Communion and Imposition of Ashes – this year on Wednesday 26th February at 7.00 p.m.
The word Lent itself derives from “Lengthen” – reflecting the growing period of daylight in spring during which Lent occurs.
The forty days of penitence, self denial (fasting) and self examination, commemorate the period of forty days which, the Gospels relate, Jesus spent in the Judean wilderness following His baptism in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. The bible recounts that Jesus was tempted by Satan on three separate occasions to subvert his Messianic mission and ministry. Hence theologians recognise that Jesus’ period of fasting and reflection was a form of testing of His spirit and resolve – in human terms ‘character forming’ – in preparation for His ministry and eventual crucifixion and resurrection.
Many Christians, and others, symbolically abstain from some luxury (often Chocolate) during Lent, and Lent is also a time of Bible Study and Courses of Christian reflection for many. At St Francis we will be continuing our Shrove-tide (pre-Lenten and Lenten Study of Prayer using The Lord’s Prayer as our template. This will form the underpinning themes of our Worship and of our Study in small groups.
While it is common not to have flowers decorating the Church during Lent, there is one ‘lighter and brighter’ Sunday. The fourth Sunday in Lent is traditionally Mothering Sunday (not Mother’s Day which is an American commercial invention, and occurs in the US on the second Sunday in May).
Mothering Sunday takes its name from the mediaeval habit of attending the Mother Church – the local Cathedral or Minster, on the fourth Sunday in Lent. In later years, young ladies “in Service” were allowed to return to their homes (and mothers) on this Sunday to join in the ‘pilgrimage’. Picking spring flowers by the wayside on their journey home provided these young girls with a gift for their Mother, and established the tradition of giving flowers to ladies, and particularly our mothers, on this Sunday. At St. Francis we distribute symbolic posies of spring flowers to the ladies present at our Services, as a reminder of this custom.
In 2020 we celebrate Mothering Sunday on Sunday 22nd March.
The fifth and last Sunday in Lent – the Sunday next before Palm Sunday (14th April in 2019), is traditionally known as “Passion Sunday”.
In 2020 Passion Sunday is 29th March. It is when our thoughts turn to the whole story of Jesus’s “Passion” and we reflect on it as a complete narrative, rather than the closer focus on the day to day events as we enter Palm Sunday and then Holy Week. The Passion story starts with Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem riding on a Donkey – the traditional cultural symbol of the time of a King coming in Peace to his people. We then recall the growing tensions of ‘Holy Week’ as Jesus challenges the religious elite by driving the money-changers and traders out of the Temple Courtyards. We then remember His poignant Last ‘Passover’ Supper with His closest friends – His Disciples; and His betrayal by Judas Iscariot and His fervent prayer in in the Garden of Gethsemane – praying that if possible He need not die, but that God’s will be done. Finally we reflect on His subsequent arrest, and denial by Simon Peter, His trial and crucifixion, and His glorious Resurrection on the first Easter morning, and subsequent meetings with various of His followers.