Seasons and Festivals
Major Festivals
Picture, Floral Decorations
The church divides the year into eight main Seasons, each with one or more Major Festivals, that remind us of the important times in the life and work of God and Jesus, and consequently have major significance for his followers, and so are usually observed by most Christians. (Return to top)

As well as the seasons and major festivals, the church celebrates several 'Special Days' throughout the year to remember, honour or support our work in God's world. Celebration of the "Special Days" is usually optional, Christians chose which they want to remember. (Return to top)
The Main Eight
Picture, Wilderness
The word Lent is short for 'Lenten', which is old English for 'Lengthen', and just refers to the days getting longer in the Spring. The season of Lent comes between Epiphany and Easter and is the main season of penance and preparation - penance for one's sins and preparation for the Festival of Easter. (Return to Top)

Lent reminds us of the fasting of Jesus in the wilderness (desert) before he began his ministry. At that time, Jesus spent 40 days and 40 nights in personal reflection and prayer with God, working out who he was, what he had to do, and how he was going to do it. The season of Lent begins 46 days before Easter, copying Jesus' 40 days of fasting, but as that includes 6 Sundays - and Sundays are always 'feast' days - so Lent has to begin 46 days before Easter to provide 40 days of fasting. (Return to Top)

During his time in the wilderness, Jesus had little to eat and was tempted to do spectacular things, such as turning stones into bread to eat, and throwing himself off the top of a tall building and floating gently down, which would have drawn attention to himself. His objective in coming to earth in human form was to draw attention to God, to explain God's purposes, and especially to make amends for human sin by obeying God perfectly. He realised that if he did the things he was tempted to do then he would be playing into the hands of the devil who tempts all humans and would not be obeying God, so he wouldn't be perfect, which would prevent him from achieving his objective
(Matthew, chapter 4). (Return to Top)
Shrouded Cross
Picture, Shrouded Cross
Advent and Lent are both season of expectant waiting. During Lent, Christians copy his time of austere preparation through self reflection, fasting, and study. Study may be done on one's own, eg: reading a suitable book, or is better done together by attending a course with others, either on a single occasion, or every week throughout the season of Lent. (Return to Top)

Austerity: It's usual to take out of the church all flowers and adornments. High churches (those that copy parts of Roman Catholic practice), also wrap any crosses and statues depicting Jesus with a purple shroud, in deference to a passage in John's Gospel, in which Jesus hid himself from the authorities (John, chapter 8, verse 59).
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Self-reflection and fasting: This is similar to the self-reflection during Advent and is a time for bringing to mind one's failure to keep God's Laws and being sorry for it. Lent especially has an emphasis on being sorry (penance); that is, on bringing to mind and being sorry for the things we do wrong (sin).
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Study: Many Christians attend a 'Lent Course' arranged locally or follow one of the many national courses that are published for that purpose, both as a penance (giving up time to study) and in order to learn more about God, about themselves, and about their faith, thereby copying Jesus' time of learning about himself and what God wanted for him.
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Fasting: This refers to abstaining from both food and festivities. Years ago it was common to abstain from food in more rigorous ways than we do today. People would go without food all day and not eat various foods at all during Lent, such as meat, eggs and alcohol - a vegetarian diet during Lent was not uncommon. Today most people in the west have relaxed those rules, but many still give up something as a sign of penance, such as chocolate, smoking, or alcohol. Many also refrain from going to parties or meetings in order to be symbolically alone, as Jesus was in the wilderness.
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Ash Wednesday
Picture, Ash Cross on Forehead
Ash Wednesday: is the name given to the first day of Lent. The name comes from the ancient practice of covering oneself with dust and ash when fasting as a sign of repentance for one's sin, although Jesus told his followers not to make visible signs but to pray in private (Matthew, chapter 6). (Return to Top)

Many churches hold a special service on this day in which the foreheads of attendees are marked with ash in the shape of a cross as a sign of penance. The ash is usually made before the service by burning the palm crosses from the previous year (see Palm Sunday) and mixing them with a little of the oil usually used in baptism, in order to make a black paste. (Return to Top)
'Holy Week' - Palm Sunday
Picture, Procession with Donkey
This is the Sunday next before Easter and the start of 'Holy Week'. On this Sunday Jesus entered into the city of Jerusalem to complete the climax of his work here on earth. He rode into the city on a young donkey accompanied by his twelve Apostles and was greeted by crowds of people who shouted Hosanna (Hebrew = 'save, we pray'). They laid their coats on the ground in front of him (a custom reserved for people seen as deserving of the highest honour), and tore down branches from the surrounding palm trees to wave (a sign of victory), hence the name 'Palm Sunday'. Scholars tell us that the people thought that he was the long awaited Messiah (Hebrew = 'chosen or anointed one') who would free them from the Roman occupation and restore an independent Jewish kingdom. (Return to Top)

All churches celebrate this occasion with a special Service and Bible readings that recall the event. Some begin with a procession to the church, waving palms or branches such as pampas grass, with or without a real donkey.
Palm Cross - many churches also give all attendees a cross made from palm leaves as a reminder of the event. The cross is usually kept at home until replaced the next year and can be burnt to create the ash for Ash Wednesday. (Return to Top)
Maundy Thursday - A New Commandment
Picture, The Last Supper
The word Maundy comes from the Latin 'mandatum' meaning 'Commandment' and arises from the new commandment Jesus give us on this day, that we should love one another. In the evening, Jesus and his twelve Apostles were gathered together in an upper room to celebrate the important Jewish feast of 'Passover' which commemorates the exodus of the early Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. At the meal, Jesus did two important things which have been observed by Christians since: (Return to Top)

1. He gave thanks to God and then passed the bread and wine around all the Apostles, part of the traditional Passover celebration. But he then introduced a new concept, by saying they represented his body and his blood and henceforth should be shared by all in remembrance of him - this is the origin of the most important Christian service or worship called Holy Communion, which most Christians celebrate regularly to this day. (Luke, chapter 22). (Return to Top)

2. During the meal, he took a towel and bowl of water and washed his Apostles' dusty feet, a task normally done by a slave or servant, to demonstrate that even the greatest among us must serve others and said, "A New Commandment I give you: love one other as I have loved you" (John, chapter 13). This is a good summary of the Laws given by God (The Ten Commandments) and remains the basis of the way Christians are required to live and behave towards each other and the rest of the world. On this day, many churches have a celebration of Holy Communion and a ceremonial washing of feet, copying these two important events. (Return to Top)
Maundy Thursday - Stripping the Altar
Picture, A Stripped Altar
Stripping of the Altar and Vigil: After the meal described above, Jesus and his Apostles had gone out to the nearby Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus asked his Apostles to watch with him whilst he prayed to God in anticipation of his arrest, trial and execution. But the disciples were tired and fell asleep. Jesus turned and woke them asking, "Could you not watch for an hour". Jesus' presence was betrayed to the authorities, who wanted to do away with him, by one of his own Apostles, Judas Iscariot. Jesus was arrested and taken before the authorities, falsely accused, stripped and flogged. (Mark chapter 14). (Return to Top)

When the Maundy Thursday Communion Service has ended, some churches continue by removing all the candle sticks, crosses, vases and cloths from the altar and sanctuary area of the church, leaving a bare altar table, although some leave a cross and unlit candles on the otherwise bare altar. After stripping the altar and sanctuary, in allusion to Jesus being stripped, people take it in turns to watch, pray or meditate by the altar for a period (eg: one hour) or even all night, in allusion to Jesus' request to "watch for an hour". (Return to Top)
Good Friday
Picture, Jesus on the Cross
On Friday, the day after he was arrested, Jesus was executed by the slow and painful method of crucifixion, which was used by the Romans for executing common criminals, so it was not a good day for him. But because of what Jesus did for us on the cross, our failure to keep God's commandments is forgiven and we have reconciliation with God and the chance of eternal life with Him after our death, so it's a very good day for us - hence the name Good Friday. (Return to Top)

The customs associated with Good Friday are varied. Some churches hold a 'procession of witness' through the streets with someone carrying a full-size cross at the front, because Jesus carried his own cross to the place of execution. Others perform a play depicting the events of this day, often in the open air and attracting large crowds. Still others have a quiet and reflective Service in church with little or no music and not including Communion, and yet others have a choral event of sombre music written about the day. (Return to Top)
Holy Saturday
Picture, Lighting Easter Candle
This is the last day of Holy Week and the day immediately before Easter Sunday. On this day, Christians commemorate the time Jesus lay in the tomb after his death on the cross, and his descent into hell. The sanctuary and altar remain stripped and there is no Service of Holy Communion, but many churches hold a 'Service of the Word' - that is, a Service in the style traditionally used by that church for worship when Holy Communion is not being celebrated. Holy Week ends at dusk on this day, when the season and feast of Easter officially begin (In the western tradition, all feasts start at sunset the day before). (Return to Top)

Some churches hold a Service this evening with a bonfire lit outside the church from which a candle is lit and carried in to the building as 'The Light of Christ' - For a fuller description, see Easter. (Return to Top)
Customs Associated with Lent Include:
Picture, Pancakes
Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras): This is not part of Lent but comes the day before, so is not part of the festival. In the UK, the last day before Lent is called 'Shrove Tuesday'. Shrove is an old English word, the past tense of 'shrive', and is associated with making confession to a priest, which was done in Lent as part of doing penance for one's sins. Traditionally, as part of the fasting, eggs were not eaten during Lent so they had to be used up before Lent began. Pancakes use a lot of eggs, so the traditional food on Shrove Tuesday includes pancakes - hence it's sometimes called 'pancake day'. It's the custom in some places to have a great celebration on this day before beginning the austerity of Lent, so in some places the day is known as Mardi Gras (literally 'Fat Tuesday') with feasting and a joyful carnival before starting the austerities of Lent. (Return to Top)