Ash Wednesday begins the season of lent, while the day of Easter marks the end of lent. During Ash Wednesday service, penitents are marked with ashes on their forehead signifying their sin and mortality. The ashes are collected from the ashes of the burnt Palm branches used during last year’s Palm Sunday. Before the imposition of the ashes on the penitent’s forehead, the priest says “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19); or “Repent and believe the Gospel” (Mark 1:15). The last week of lent which is called the Holy Week begins with the Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday reminiscent Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem (Mark 11:8). Services are held during the Holy Week from Monday to Easter. A special service called Tenebrae, wherein the church experiences darkness through the putting of candles and light gradually (signifying the betrayal of Judas) is held on Wednesday; then Maundy Thursday, Jesus enactment of the command to love (John 13:34) holds on Thursday. Maundy comes from the Latin word mandatum which means commandment. During this service the washing of foot ceremony, blessing of the oils (Chrism) and altar stripping are conducted. On Friday, which is called the Good Friday (painful for Jesus, but good for us), the church observes a 3 hour long service which may include some special features such as: the veneration of the Cross; the Station of the Cross; and 7 Words of Christ on the Cross with Eucharist. Holy Saturday is observed as the day of rest as Jesus was still in the tomb before His resurrection. The last three days of lent are called the Sacred Triduum: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. The liturgical colour for the Sacred Triduum is black (sometimes Red or White on Maundy Thursday and stripped on Good Friday and Holy Saturday).
Easter Sunday is a big and special day of celebration as it is the day Jesus Christ rose up from death. Sometimes the service is preceded by Easter Great Vigil, with the lighting of the Pascal Candle and the reading of the story of salvation, administration of baptism rites, and Eucharist. Note that Easter is an octave (8 days), not a one day celebration; even though the major celebration is undertaken on Easter Sunday. Easter celebration continues with Easter Monday until Easter Saturday before Easter 1. In essence, Easter celebration leads to the beginning of the season of Easter in the liturgical calendar.
In some churches festivities and celebrations such as festivals, carnivals, birthdays, and even weddings are prohibited during lent. During this season religious phrases such as ‘Gloria’, ‘Alleluia’ are deliberately avoided. These are undertaken because the season of lent is the period of exile and eager expectation of the coming of Easter, which is why all these things resume their place in the church at Easter. The colour of the church vestments and altar for the season of Lent is violet which signifies mourning and on the other hand royalty. To conclude this part of the discussion, it is sacrosanct to underscore that lent is a period of preparation of the penitent to meet the risen Lord at Easter.
THE THEOLOGY IN LENT
The Lenten period is the preparatory days to the celebration of Easter. The Collects, which are liturgical prayers for this period contain within their content the theology that the period of lent wrought the world, especially the practising penitent. The Collect for Ash Wednesday, which is the first day of lent reads:
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing that you have made and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that lamenting our sins, and acknowledging our wretchedness, we may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect forgiveness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
In this Collect the character of God as Almighty and everlasting; loving and forgiving was stressed. It further sees God as the one who is able and willing to “create and make new” whatever sin has marred in us, through our being responsible and accepting our sinfulness and wretchedness. Therefore, in lent penitents:
- lament over their sins acknowledge their wretchedness, become penitent at heart, and seek God’s mercy and grace,
- repent and refute all that is sin and of sinful nature,
- discipline themselves to obey the Spirit, become zealous in serving the Lord, and walk in the way of the Cross,
- seek to know the power of God unto salvation, hold fast the unchangeable truth of the Word of God and remain steadfast in faith in the merits of his sacrifice,
- seek out the glory of God, learn to follow the example of Christ patience and humility, reverence the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ,
- seek heavenly strength to suffer with Christ and be changed to his likeness, and to seek to be partakers of Christ’ resurrection through grace living triumphantly in the power of his victory,
- seek out to maintain a purified heart and to die daily to sin in order to live a life of Christ to the world,
- suffer with Christ in the expectation that we might be glorified with Him (Rom. 8:17),
- give alms to the poor and the needy, pray and fast to keep himself pure in readiness to celebrate with his risen Saviour – simply give out (alms), give up (fast), and give in (pray).
- spring and come alive to celebrate their salvation in the risen Lord.
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. 2 “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Matt. 6:1-4).
Almsgiving is an act of mercy unto the poor. No one should boast after giving alms, hence the command “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Matt. 6:3). The act of showing mercy through almsgiving does not suggest that God has become incapacitated to help the poor and the needy. How has God been handling the poor without alms? This, to me, is a necessary question in order that our hearts may be guided. Some further questions to be asked include: Who made the poor? Who has been God’s source or supplier? God is Almighty, and that suggests that He needed no assistance from any person to do what He says He will do. Indeed, from the beginning of beginnings was nothing but God. In theological jargon, His existence and creative activity is called creatio exnihilo. Almsgiving is God’s privilege to man to participate in His act of compassion (Matt. 9:36-38). God is able and willing to aid the poor! He has made you able to aid the poor – He engaged Israel to leave some grains for the poor for their gleaning (Exod. 22:21-27; Lev. 19:9-10; Deut. 24:19-21; Judg. 8:2; Ruth 2:17-23; Job 24:6; Isa. 17:5-6, 24:13; Jer. 6:9, 49:9; Obad. 1:5; Mic. 7:1). He used the contributions of young first-class graduates of Cambridge University to bring the gospel of Christ to us. They were made able and they became willing, so God allowed them to participate in his act of compassion. Interestingly, God has made each one of us here able, but individuals have to choose to be willing or not. The almsgiving of the penitent during lent can be encouraged through the following:
- visiting orphanages, motherless homes, and IDPs,
- helping the poor neighbour with basic necessities of life,
- buying lunch for a hungry person,
- appreciating your spiritual fathers and spiritual disciplers with alms,
- operating a lenten period food barn for the needy,
- donate blood to save a soul,
- give Bibles, hymn books, and other Christian literatures to those who don’t have,
- paying transport fare for someone who cannot afford it.
5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 7 “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9 Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10 Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us this day our daily bread, 12 and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. 14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (Matt. 6:5-15).
This is one of the most cherished as well as misunderstood, misinterpreted discipline in the Christian discipleship. It is cherished because there is hardly any Christian who is against prayer. It is misunderstood in different ways — those who pray and those who believe that prayer is just a matter of pressing the ‘right button.’ It is misinterpreted since despite the way it is cherished, the misunderstanding abounds. But there should be no confusion about prayer if one looks at the continent of prayer Jesus taught His disciples (Matt. 6:9-13). The more one prays, the more one understands prayer. Prayer is best understood in practice not in theory, which agrees with the Benedictine’s order of “Opus Dei” (prayer as the work of God). Prayer and work are not substitute for each other. “It is not a lazy substitute for work and thought: fields are not plowed by praying over them. But let a man remember also that fields become a drudgery, or botched labor, or even a greed and a bitterness, unless the plowing is done in prayer” (Chan, p. 130). The penitent is to pray for the world, the church, the government, the persecuted, the troubled, and all those who are in one form of trouble and need as well as his family and personal need. The prayer f the penitent during lent can be encouraged through the following:
- praying the Lord’s Prayer,
- praying the Scripture – Lectio Divina,
- praying the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”),
- attending corporate prayer meetings daily or weekly,
- undertaking personal prayer time more seriously,
- undertaking personal prayer retreat,
- practicing the presence of God (Brother Lawrence),
- making your place of duty a place of worship and prayer (3 divine services in the kitchen of Ruth Graham),
- short prayer “My God and my all” (St Francis of Assisi).