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Lent, Passiontide, and Easter

Article for April 2017 Newsletter

“Lent, Passiontide and Easter”

If we were to hop like a lively rabbit from one commercialized festival to another, it would be from Christmas to Valentine’s Day to St. Patrick’s Day to Easter. Lent and Passiontide, including Holy Week, are skipped, seeing that they have no commercial value, and in fact, work against the idea of hedonistic consumerism. What indeed do Lent and Passiontide have to do with chocolate Easter eggs and chocolate Easter bunnies? The latter probably derive from a more ancient pagan festival associated with Eostre, an ancient fertility goddess whose animal symbol was a rabbit. The Easter bunny and Easter egg tradition may have begun in America in the 1700s when German immigrants settled in Pennsylvania and celebrated their tradition of an egg-laying hare called “Osterhase,” which laid colored eggs in nests on Easter morning. As the tradition spread, the nests became baskets, and the Easter bunny’s Easter morning gifts included chocolate and candy. Yet both the Easter egg and the Easter bunny can be seen as symbols of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Though there are some Christians who do not feel that the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ ought to be associated in any way with any of the symbols of pagan fertility deities, the mainstream tradition of Western Christianity is content to re-interpret these ancient symbols in the light of the resurrection and life of the Lord Jesus Christ. But no matter how familiar we may have become with these symbols, we cannot simply imitate the commercial world’s calendar of continuous festivals, if we are to understand truly either the meaning of Easter or the necessity of Lent and Passiontide.

Now some Protestant (especially Pentecostal) ecclesiastical traditions also de-emphasize Lent and Passiontide, but then they tend not to celebrate the Festivals of Saints either. But what of Anglicans? Should we follow their example, or the trend of commercial culture? By doing so, we would concede that our observance of Lent is outdated and irrelevant. Year by year we observe the liturgical calendar of Feasts and Fasts and days of abstinence which we have received ultimately from the late medieval Catholic Church as reformed in the Church of England, and from the traditions and Prayer Books of the latter. In this calendar of liturgical seasons, we seek to follow the steps of Christ’s most holy life.

Our goal is to identify ourselves fully with the Lord Jesus Christ, as St. Paul teaches:

That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead.

(Philippians 3:10, KJV)

Anglicans observe Lent so as to feel more keenly their sense both of fellowship in Christ’s sufferings in a spiritual sense, and of the benefits brought to mankind by the Cross. They also try to embrace (not sado-masochistically) the spiritual discipline which the Church provides to them through Lent, believing that it can improve their self-control, strengthen their individual and corporate prayer life, and fill them more both with the love of Christ and with love for all people. Furthermore, Lent strengthens a Christian’s faith in the resurrection and his hope for his own resurrection.

The last two weeks of Lent are called Passiontide and begin with the Fifth Sunday in Lent, or Passion Sunday. In our liturgical tradition, the liturgical color remains red for these two weeks, and the crosses and crucifixes are veiled in red. One explanation of this tradition is that the veiling of the cross represents the humiliation of Christ in having to hide from the Jews (see John 7:1-7; 8:59) to avoid being arrested or killed before the proper time. Another theory maintains this tradition reflects the humiliation of Christ in suffering mockery, blows, whippings and finally crucifixion, a humiliation which degraded his humanity, and left him so wounded and disfigured as to be almost unrecognizable, as these prophetic words of Isaiah make plain:

As many were astonied at thee; his visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men.

(Isaiah 52:14, KJV)

Again, in Psalm 22, a psalm which prophesies Christ’s crucifixion, and from which he quoted while hanging on the cross, we read these words:

But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people.

(Psalm 22:6, KJV)

The veiling of crosses in churches represents this complete humiliation and wounding of our Lord Jesus Christ, and ultimately his death. The cross is both a symbol of Christ’s victory over sin and death and a symbol of humiliation and rejection. The veiling of the cross represents the latter symbolism.

There is a further sense in which Christians can benefit richly from meditating on the events of Passiontide and Holy Week. They can learn more fully what it means to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow the Lord Jesus Christ (Mark 8:34). All the trials which we suffer as Christians, even those which do not appear to result specifically from persecution, or opposition to our Christian witness, we shall be able to accept more readily, as we perceive more and more the meaning of our union with Christ in his passion and death. To ignore Christ’s sufferings by skipping happily from Christmas to Easter, as the secular world does, and even some churches do, may well be an attempt to hide from those very facets of Christ’s most holy life which would benefit our Christian character the most.

Having explained all this, I proceed to a discussion of Easter. The Lord Jesus Christ is at the center of Easter, and not the Easter bunny. We celebrate the glorious resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead! This is a Great Festival of the Church, on which all Anglicans should make their Communion. The resurrection of the Lord guarantees the efficacy of His atoning death, and on its basis He is declared to be the Son of God (Romans 1:4). His resurrection provides both the example and the hope for the resurrection of all Christians. This doctrine St. Paul expounds most clearly in 1 Corinthians 15. The resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ demonstrates the victory over sin and death that He secured for all His people once for all on the cross, a victory that is now Christians’ inspiration throughout their life.

The resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ brings about a whole new orientation of life for Christians, as St. Paul indicates in this exhortation:

If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.

(Colossians 3:1-3, KJV)

The moral and spiritual orientation of our lives is towards Christ and the values of the kingdom of God, so that we are no longer caught in the flux of events on earth, nor are material things our highest priorities. Through the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, our hope is fixed on Him and our own resurrection in Him. This means that even in the midst of sorrows and trials, our spirit is rejoicing in the Lord.

What our involvement in the seasons of Lent, Passion and Eastertide does for us, is to ground us more firmly both in our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and our union with Him in the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.