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A new season of Lent is approaching. And Easter will be here before we know it. I want to do it well this time around. What should I know?
Yours is an important, though rather broad, question. I will see what I can do in the allotted space.
The paschal cycle (Lent and Eastertide) is the heart of the liturgical year. Together with the incarnation cycle (Advent and Christmastide) it celebrates the two great mysteries of our faith: the incarnation or the mystery of God becoming human and the paschal mystery of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
The paschal cycle comprises a time of preparation (Lent) and a time of celebration (Eastertide). The hinge between these two is the Sacred Triduum.
The word lent comes from the Old English lencten, meaning springtime. In Germanic languages, a derivation of this word is still used to refer to springtime. Its use for the preparation time leading up to Easter is somewhat peculiar. Other languages use much clearer nomenclature such as “The Forty Days” and “The Time of Fasting.” These seem to offer a more apt description of this liturgical season.
Lent is characterized by two major theological movements and three Lenten disciplines. The first and foremost movement is toward baptism. The catechumens, known as the elect after the Rite of Elections celebrated on the First Sunday of Lent, are preparing for the sacraments of initiation. Their movement is toward the baptismal waters. The baptized participate in the second movement, which is toward reconciliation, as we prepare ourselves to celebrate the Easter mysteries worthily. The three great Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving assist us in our journey toward baptism or reconciliation.
Lent culminates in the Sacred Triduum, the sacred three days of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. You will note that there actually are four days and not three. In order to reconcile the four days and the three you simply have to know that we calculate in liturgical time, that is, from sunset to sunset. Thus the Sacred Triduum begins with sunset on Holy Thursday and runs through sunset on Easter Sunday. On Holy Thursday we remember how Jesus commanded us to celebrate the Eucharist and to wash one another’s feet. In other words, he told us to pray and to serve. On Good Friday we remember Jesus’ death and venerate the cross. On Holy Saturday we wait in silence for the arrival of dusk when we engage in the most important liturgy of the entire year: the great Easter Vigil, when we celebrate the mystery of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection and our incorporation into that mystery by virtue of our baptism.
The fifty days of Eastertide are a time of unending joy and continued celebration. This poses a bit of a challenge as we love to prepare for a feast, but we really don’t know how to celebrate, let alone for fifty long days. That’s why Lent is such a great success, and Easter at a great loss. So maybe, if you really want the paschal cycle to be the best ever, you might want to concentrate on celebrating Easter for fifty days rather than one day or maybe two.
Two feasts punctuate Eastertide: Ascension and Pentecost. On Ascension Thursday, which is traditionally celebrated forty days after Easter, we remember the ascent of Christ into heaven. It is also the day when we celebrate that Christ promised the Holy Spirit to all his followers. The novena or nine days of prayer for the gifts of the Holy Spirit begins the next day. In the United States this feast is transferred to the Sunday after Ascension Thursday. Though this move makes it easier for everyone to observe the holy day, it does upset the liturgical order of things.
On Pentecost, which comes from the Greek for fiftieth day and is indeed celebrated fifty days after Easter, we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the apostles. From this day on, the apostles and their missionary successors have spread the message of Jesus to the world. Therefore, this feast also celebrates the birth of the church and its vital and diverse nature.
And here you have it in a nutshell: the paschal cycle described in 670 words. I hope you will find some of these words helpful as you prepare for a fruitful celebration of the paschal mystery.
© 2015 Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota. Excerpted from What’s the Smoke For? And Other Burning Questions about the Liturgy by Johan van Parys © 2014 Order of Saint Benedict, published by Liturgical Press, www.litpress.org. Used by permission.