The Christian Liturgical Calendar:
Until the 4th century CE, Easter and Pentecost
were the only two holy days that Christians observed. Easter Sunday was the main
day of celebration, formally recognized by the
Council of Nicea in 325 CE. Pentecost Sunday was also observed as a less
important holy day, 7 weeks/49 days after Easter. Other occasions related to
Jesus' execution were gradually added to the church calendar:
- Lent: This was a period
of spiritual preparation for Easter which typically involves fasting,
penance and prayer. It was originally established by various Christian
groups as an interval ranging from a few days to several weeks. It was
eventually fixed in the 8th century CE at 40 days. (The number 40 is one of
many magical numbers with religious significance in the Bible. 40 days
recalls the interval that Jesus, Moses and Elias spent in the desert. Other
magical numbers were 3, 7, 12, and 70). Among Roman Catholics, Lent lasts
for six and a half weeks before Easter, excluding Sundays. Among the Eastern
Orthodox churches, it is a full eight weeks, because Saturdays and Sundays
are not included.
- Ash Wednesday: This is
held on the first day of Lent, a Wednesday.
- Holy Week: the week
before Easter Sunday:
- Palm Sunday: This is
held on the Sunday before Easter Sunday. It recalls Jesus' triumphant
entry into Jerusalem one week before his execution.
- Holy Monday
commemorates Jesus' cleansing of the temple, when he committed
aggravated assaulted against money changers and other commercial
interests who had tables within the Temple. Some believe that this
triggered his arrest and crucifixion. It certainly would have been
considered an act of insurrection by the occupying Roman Army,
particularly because it occurred so close to a Passover when
nationalistic feelings among Jews were at an all-time high.
- Holy Tuesday recalls
Jesus' description to his disciples on the Mount of Olives of the
destruction of Jerusalem.
- Holy Wednesday (once
called Spy Wednesday) recalls Judas' decision to betray Jesus in
exchange for 30 pieces of silver.
- Maundy Thursday
commemorates the Last Supper, Jesus agony in the garden and his arrest.
"Maundy" is derived from the Latin "mandatum" (commandment of God in
John 13:34-35 For centuries, people in authority have washed the feet of
their followers on this day.
- Good Friday recalls
Jesus' death on the cross. The origin of the word "good" has been lost.
Some claim that it is a corruption of "God" and that the early
Christians called this day "God's Friday."
"God" morphed in to "good" just as "God be with you" has become
"goodbye." Others claim that "good" refers to the blessings of humanity
that Christians believe arose as a result of Jesus' execution.
"A fourth-century church manual, the Apostolic
Constitutions, called Good Friday a 'day of mourning, not a day
of festive Joy.' Ambrose, the fourth-century archbishop who befriended
the notorious sinner Augustine of Hippo before his conversion, called it
the 'day of bitterness on which we fast'." 10
- Holy Saturday (a.k.a.
Easter Eve) is the final day of Holy Week and of Lent.
- Easter Sunday commemorates
Jesus' resurrection. In the early church, converts were baptized into
church membership on this day after a lengthy period of instruction.
This tradition continues today in some churches.
- Feast of the Ascension
(a.k.a Ascension Day) is a celebration of Jesus' ascension up to heaven.
This is described in Acts 1:9 as happening 40 days after his resurrection.
The church celebrates the feast on a Thursday, 40 days after Easter Sunday.
Although tradition states that it was first celebrated in 68 CE, it did not
become formally recognized by the church until the late 3rd century.
- Pentecost (a.k.a. Whit
Sunday) is now celebrated 7 weeks/49 days after Easter
Sunday. It recalls the visitation of the Holy Spirit to 120 Christians, both
apostles and followers. They spoke in tongues (in foreign languages that
they had not previously personally known) to the assembled crowd. Three
thousand were baptized. The day was originally a Jewish festival which was
called "Pentecost," because it was
observed 50 days after Passover. (The Greek word for 50'th day is "pentecoste.")
This is usually regarded as the date of the birth of the Christian church.
The feast was mentioned in a 2nd century book, and was formally recognized
in the 3rd century CE.