Lent happens to be one of my favourite seasons of the Liturgical year. Others are Advent and Epiphany. You can tell I am Orthodox already. My appreciation of Lent does not stem from my being born and baptised Anglican. I knew about Ash Wednesday quite all right. The day some of my Roman Catholic classmates in primary School lined up to get that black scary looking thing on their foreheads. That was all I knew about that to be honest. We had begun attending a Pentecostal Church in my conscious years so I knew very little about Church traditions and their meanings.
Fast-forward to the Roman Catholic High School where ashes were imposed on everyone’s foreheads on Ash Wednesday. I wiped that thing off my forehead as soon as I returned to my pew. Not only did it look one kain on light-skinned people, I had read enough from Rebecca Brown to view the Roman Catholic Church as evil. Or so I thought. I was a rebel against everything the Roman Catholic Church stood for. What was I doing in a Roman Catholic School then? The quality of education and the strict moral upbringing. I laugh when I think back to those days. Everyone knew I was a rebel from my Principal down to fellow students and I did get punished occasionally for it. My return to the Anglican Church made a mockery of that rebellion, but I remain grateful for that phase. It moulded my faith.
I think I begun to appreciate the rituals surrounding Lent when we once stayed back in School for Easter during my senior years. All the while, I had been exposed to just Stations of the Cross and I hated it. Walking round in the hot sun and kneeling on stones (when the road was untarred) and later tarred roads. Have you ever knelt on the road in the sun? HOT! What else didn’t I like about Lent? Singing the dreary songs (At the Cross her station keeping, stood the mournful mother weeping ...). The fact that we could not say the word Alleluia nor sing the Gloria. No drums either! Just the Organ. The Roman Catholic Church has the best collection of Hymns as far as I am concerned. Largely because the hymns are an assortment of English and indigenous languages. So you can understand my frustration.
That Easter in School exposed me to Holy Week in particular – which is now my most revered part of Lent. I learnt about washing of the feet, the significance of colour Purple, covering of the Crucifix (including the difference between a Crucifix and the Cross), avoidance of meat and dairy products on Fridays as well as limited funeral or marriage rites during the season of Lent. I was finally able to relate Mothering Sunday and Palm Sunday to Lent. The ashes for Ash Wednesday are from the burnt Palm fronds used during Palm Sunday from the previous year mixed with incense and holy water.
What enthrals me the most is the Easter Triduum (The last three days – Holy (Maundy) Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday). On Holy Thursday, the Church celebrates the washing of the feet after which comes the procession of the Blessed Sacrament to the Altar of Repose. The Altar of Repose is a separate altar where the Communion hosts consecrated during the service are placed for use on Good Friday. Thereafter, the main altar is stripped bare and the lights are extinguished save for the candles around the Altar of Repose. No recessional hymn is sung and everyone walks out solemnly in the darkness. Some people stay back to pray at the Altar of Repose. My first experience of the Altar of Repose was in the Church of England in 2014.
On Good Friday, because the Church does not celebrate Mass, Communion hosts cannot be consecrated. As such, previously consecrated hosts from Maundy Thursday are distributed. The 3-hour service (12 noon – 3pm) usually begins with the clergy walking in solemnly in black to lie prostrate at the altar. No processional hymn is sung. After Maundy Thursday, I usually find this service hard on the soul. The weight of the crucifixion is greatly felt at this time. It is also on Good Friday that people typically eat frejon. I am not sure if I have attended service on Holy Saturday or if the Church holds any.
I also like about Shrove Tuesdays aka Pancake Tuesdays. It is a big celebration known as Mardi Gras in some countries, but the main reason is to use up all the rich foods such as dairy, whose consumption are restricted during Lent. According to Catechism of the Anglican Church, fast days are Ash Wednesdays and Good Fridays. The other days of lent are for self-denial. Most people, however, fast all through Lent, which ends on Holy Thursday. I prefer to fast during Lent as I am never able to figure out what to give up. I have no attachments to anything as such. Dates differ from Church to Church, but lent is typically for 40 days. Sundays are not calculated as they are observed as mini Easters.
Having observed the solemnity and rituals of Lent, you will appreciate the celebration that accompanies Easter Sunday in Orthodox Churches. From the decoration of the altar to the lighting of candles, the ringing of Church bells to the shouts of Alleluia, the playing of drums and other instruments neglected during Lent to the rendering of veils from the Crucifixes. Christ is risen indeed! The Liturgy colour, which was hitherto purple all through Lent changes to white and gold.
I cannot overstate the impact the observance of Lent in the past few years has had on my life. I have kept something of a Lenten Journal since 2011 and when I reviewed it this year, I began to count my blessings. Lent is something I encourage all Christians – Orthodox or otherwise to partake of at least once in their lives. Not just fasting and self-denial, but taking part in the celebrations especially Ash Wednesday and the Easter Triduum. I convinced my family to take part one year and it was an eye-opener to everyone especially my folks who were raised Anglicans. Like I said, it can be hard on the soul, but with that comes a renewal of mind, body and soul.
The 2nd-4th paragraph filled me with nostalgia.
Are you taking part in lent? I've always been curious; is it something you partake of because it's a "dictate" of the church, or there graces you've exjoyed from observing lent which inspires your participation? Please share.