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Religious Observances of Easter

Easter is the center of an entire season of the Christian year. The first and best known
part of the season is Lent, a period of about 40 days before Easter Sunday. Some churches
exclude Sundays, and others exclude Saturdays and Sundays, from this period. During Lent,
Christians prepare for Easter. They consider it a time for penance that is, a time to show
sorrow for sins and to seek forgiveness. One common form of Lenten penance is fasting,
which limits the kinds or amounts of food eaten. Christians patterned Lent after the 40
days Jesus prayed and fasted in the wilderness to prepare for teaching and leading His
people. Easter Sunday is followed by a 50 day period ending on Pentecost, the seventh
Sunday after Easter. Pentecost is a festival in memory of the descent of the Holy Spirit
upon the apostles.

The beginning of Lent. In Western churches, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. Many
churches, especially Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran, hold special services on this
day. This service often includes the blessing of ashes on the foreheads of worshipers, and
words based on Genesis 3: 19, "for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." The
ceremony reminds participants that they should begin their Lenten penance in a humble
spirit.

In the Eastern Orthodox Churches, members attend an evening service on the Sunday
before Ash Wednesday. This Sunday is sometimes called Forgiveness Sunday because at
the end of the service worshipers ask the priest and one another for forgiveness
for their sins. Lent officially begins in the Eastern Orthodox Churches on the next day,
 called Pure Monday.

Holy Week is the final week of Lent. Some churches hold special services every day of the
week. Holy Week recalls the events leading to Jesus' death and Resurrection. For more
information about these events, see JESUS CHRIST (The Passion).

Palm Sunday is the first day of Holy Week. It celebrates the story of Jesus' triumphal
entry into Jerusalem, where people spread palm branches and clothing before Him. During
Palm Sunday services, many churches distribute cut palm leaves, sometimes woven into the
shape of a cross. Greek Orthodox Christians receive branches of fragrant bay leaves. The
leaves are then used in cooking during the year.

Maundy Thursday, also called Holy Thursday, recalls Jesus' last meal and His arrest and
imprisonment. Many Protestant churches hold Communion services on this day.
During Maundy Thursday Mass, Roman Catholic priests often wash the feet
of 12 church members or poor people in remembrance of how Jesus washed the feet
 of His 12 disciples at  the  time of the final meal. A priest takes the Host (the wafer
of bread regarded as Jesus' body)  from the main altar to a shrine on the side. The shrine
symbolizes the place where Jesus was held prisoner after His arrest. All decorations are
 removed from the main altar as a symbol of the stripping of Jesus' garments before the Crucifixion.

Good Friday observes the death of Jesus on the cross. Most churches hold mourning
services. Some services last from noon until 3 p.m. to symbolize the last three hours of
darkness while Jesus suffered on the cross. The Eastern Orthodox Churches follow
services with ceremonies recalling how Jesus was taken from the cross and
placed inside a tomb. In many Spanish speaking countries, Christians hold
processions in which people carry statues of the dying Jesus and His mother, Mary.
Many Christians eat little or no food on Good Friday.

Holy Saturday is chiefly a day of solemn vigil (watch). The major activity of the day comes
at nightfall as observance of the Resurrection approaches. Roman Catholic and Eastern
Orthodox churches hold vigil services that often include the baptism of new members. The
vigil service leads up to a dramatic moment. The lights in each church are put out, leaving
everyone in darkness. Then, the priest lights one tall candle, representing the risen Jesus.
The flame from this candle is used to light other candles held by worshipers, which
symbolizes the spreading of Jesus' light throughout the world. In Eastern Orthodox
Churches, the ceremony is timed so that the priest lights his candle exactly at midnight.
After all the candles have been lit, the service becomes an Easter celebration, with joyous
music and the reading of the Easter story from the Bible. Traditionally, newly converted
Christians were baptized on this day, after having received religious instruction during Lent.

Easter Sunday celebrates the Resurrection of Jesus. Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox
churches hold Saturday evening services, but most Protestant churches wait until Sunday
morning to hold their main Easter services. Many churches and communities, particularly in
the United States, have additional outdoor Easter services at sunrise. At that time, the
light of the rising sun recalls the light that comes back to the world with the newly risen
Jesus. Catholic and Orthodox churches also hold additional services on Easter Sunday,
especially for those who missed the long services of the preceding night. For many
Christians, Easter Sunday is set aside for feasting and celebration.

The end of the Easter season. During the 40 day period beginning with Easter Sunday,
Christians celebrate the time when Jesus reappeared to some of His followers. This period
ends on Ascension Day, or Ascension Thursday. On this day, the story of Jesus' rise to
heaven is read in churches. In Catholic churches, the Easter paschal candle is put out on
Ascension Day. The Easter season concludes 10 days later with the feast of Pentecost,
when the apostles reported that the Holy Spirit had entered into them. Christians believe
that the church began at that time.

-From the World Book Encyclopedia


 

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