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Candlemas, Lent, Holy Week and Easter

Monday 11th February, 2013 @ 12:23 pm

by Reverend Stephen Morris | tags: , , , , , ,

Stephen Morris explores the meaning of the period from Candlemas to Easter

My dear friends, This edition of Nottingham in Faith for February and March coincides almost exactly with the busiest part of the Church’s liturgical calendar. 2nd February has several names including Candlemas but it is known in the Prayer Book as The Presentation of Christ in the Temple. It will be celebrated in St Mary’s Church on the evening of Sunday 3rd as Patronal Festival because it is also known as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. That last title refers to the Old Testament rite of purification commanded for all mothers of boys on the 40th day after childbirth (Exodus 12 and Leviticus 12). It concludes the group of seasons known as Advent, Christmas and Epiphany which are all about the mission of God the Father sending His Son.

Now there comes a short period known as Common season ending with Shrove Tuesday in anticipation of Ash Wednesday and the 40 days of Lent. Shrove Tuesday, or ‘Pancake Day’, began with households using up and clearing out of their pantries any rich winter foods prior to the fasting, purifying season of Lent. People would bring their palm crosses from the previous year’s Palm Sunday to the service on Ash Wednesday for burning. Then, as a sign of penitence for sins, the ashes of their burnt crosses are smeared on their foreheads. The 40 days which begin on Ash Wednesday remind us of Jesus’ 40 days of prayer, fasting and being tempted by the Devil in the wilderness. During this time, Jesus turned His back on wealth, power and fame and remained true to His vocation. This reminds us that the freedom to be who God has meant us to be involves refusing to let those same things be our gods.

In the middle of Lent lies what is sometimes called ‘Refreshment Sunday’ – a sort of “day off” from Lent’s rigours. We call it Mothering Sunday and remember the gift of good mothers and give thanks. But there was also a tradition that the whole family of God in a city or community would gather together to celebrate and party in the ‘mother church’ of that community i.e. the oldest church out of which other parishes were planted. Many of these were named after St Mary. Having completed Lent, we all get fresh palms again. This recalls Jesus coming into Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt where he was greeted with a great crowd who wanted to make him King, laying a carpet of palm leaves along his path (Matthew 21).

But this rather joyful day leads us immediately into the most solemn week of the year, Holy Week. That very progression of high to low via His teaching reflects how quickly those who greeted Him turned against Him and roared for his crucifixion. Their fickleness is just like ours: it’s so easy to want things from God – or any leader – as long as we don’t have to change ourselves. It goes without saying that there is no renewal if everybody only wants other people to change. Towards the end of the week we have Maundy Thursday from the Latin Mandatum Novum meaning ‘a new commandment’. On the night before He died, Jesus had supper with His friends and, having washed their feet as an example of servanthood, gave them ‘A new commandment, that you love one another’ (John 14). As St Paul said later, ‘If I have not love I am nothing’ (1 Corinthians 13). Immediately after commemorating Jesus’ instituting of the Last Supper (or Holy Communion) on that first ‘Maundy Thursday’ evening, many Christians keep a vigil, or night watch, and most churches strip bare their altars. They are metaphorically doing what the first disciples were unable to do by staying awake with Jesus during His testing time at Gethsemane and then through His trial before Pilate.

Love being everything is the essence of Good Friday. The three long hours during which Jesus hung on the cross are replicated between midday and three o’clock with quiet meditations allowing Christians to contemplate the quality and extent of Christ’s love for the world and the implications for our lives here and hereafter. This was the passion and mission of God the Son that everyone, everywhere could be drawn up into Him regardless of anything that we may have said or done, regardless of our station in society, race or gender.

There is little to say on Holy Saturday. We imagine the bleakness of that day for the disciples and all those who had loved and followed Jesus - dumbstruck and desolate that God should allow His innocent Messiah to perish. Yet, in the sight of God, perfect love must triumph over the greatest evil.

On Easter Sunday, this year the 31st March, churches around the world will greet the new dawn around bonfires symbolising the transition from gloom to joy; confusion to confidence; pain to healing; darkness into the Light; from death to resurrection. And so to the first Eucharist, remembering and participating in Christ’s death and resurrection; the firstborn of a new creation of which we are all inheritors because of His love and His mercy and His grace.

When the pilgrimage through Lent seems irrelevant or fruitless, let us do what Jesus did and keep our eyes fixed on the joy that is set before us. (Hebrews 12). Amen.

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