If there is anyone week more central to the Christian faith than any other it is Holy Week. This is the period ushered in by Palm Sunday running through Easter Even. Nowhere in the Book of Common Prayer will we find the term “Holy Week”. It is simply a popular and customary name which has long been used in the Western Church and had its origins in the observances which began to appear in the fourth century in the Church in Jerusalem, that fertile seed-bed of so many Christian traditions.
The week runs the gamut of human emotion and experience as found in these last days of our Lord’s earthly life-triumph of Palm Sunday, the sharp encounters with enemies on Monday and Tuesday, the almost feverish ministry of healing, teaching and miracles, the contract of betrayal by a close follower on Wednesday, the intimate and sacramental fellowship of the Last Supper on Thursday, the calm agony of prayer in the Garden later that night, and then the arrest by the retainers of the High Priest, the trials, the humiliations, the suffering and finally the death on the cross on Friday, the limbo of Saturday during which the Lord descended to the place of departed spirits, and finally the glorious and mighty triumph of the Resurrection and the empty Tomb on Easter.
What a kaleidoscope of events that is! No wonder that this week of all weeks in the Christian calendar is called “Holy” and marked by deep introspection, unusual devotion, and daily worship.
The Book of Common Prayer provides for a service of Holy Communion on each of the first four days of the week. The story of Christ’s Passion is read for the Gospels on each day, using in order the accounts from the four Gospels. On Good Friday it has long been customary in most Anglican churches to have only the Ante-Communion or some special and appropriate observance, but the Book of Common Prayer does not forbid a Eucharist on this day, for which, indeed, it provides a Eucharistic Collect, Epistle and Gospel.
Easter Even is also generally observed by using the Ante-Communion, although again, the Book of Common Prayer provides for the possibility of a Holy Eucharist. This day, too, has long been the special occasion for baptisms, in keeping with the new life in the Resurrection signaled by the coming Easter Day. It is worth noting, in passing, that the Book of Common Prayer calls the sixth day of Easter Even, not “Holy Saturday”, a term which has crept into partial usage from the Roman Church. And, again, the name for Easter is “Easter Day”, and not “Easter Sunday”.
There is no other period in the Christian year which contains so much sharp alteration and contrast between joy and sorrow. The sorrow, the tragedy, the pain, are properly to be remembered, and felt by Christians, for our blessed Lord experienced these to the fullest extent in the week’s events leading to the physical and psychological agony of His Crucifixion. But faithful Anglicans are also aware of the joy of the Triumphal Entry as a portent of the eternal rule of God, the joy of the Last Supper as a testimonial of His presence left by the Lord, and the supreme joy of His triumph over death on Easter Day as a further and final sign of Christ’s deity and a promise to all who believe in Him.
No week means more to us. No week demands more of us. No week condenses the entire Christian message into so few days of packed action as Holy Week.
Since the fourth century, when the Church in Jerusalem began to mark the Ascension of our Lord as a special occasion, this Feast has been celebrated in the Christian Church. Just as Ash Wednesday comes forty days before Easter, so Ascension Day is dated forty days after Easter. This reckoning stems, of course, from the assertion in the Epistle that our Lord, after His Passion, was “seen of them (the apostles) forty days” (Acts 1:3).
It has been said that Ascension Day is one of the most neglected occasions in the Christian calendar. Yet surely, it is at last on par in importance with Christmas Day. Just as Christmas marks the coming into the world of God the Son, so Ascension Day marks His leaving the world to return to the Father. Part of the reason for the neglect of this day is, of course, the fact that it never comes on a Sunday, but always on a weekday, Thursday.
What happened that day? The Gospels according to Sts. Mark and Luke record the event briefly. Sts. Paul and Peter refer to it still more briefly in several of their Epistles. The fullest account is found in the Acts of the Apostles. After promising to send the Holy Ghost to empower and inspire them, Jesus is described as having been “taken up” and received into a cloud “out of their sight.” Two angels – two men who “stood by in white apparel” – assured the apostles that Jesus would eventually return in like manner.
Our Lord’s return to the Father was, of course, entirely outside the range of ordinary human life and occurrences. Yet the resurrected body which had returned to the disciples from the Tomb did depart from them in a manner which they saw and understood to be an “ascent” in a return to God the Father and which put the final seal upon their acknowledgment and understanding of Christ as the Son of God. They returned to Jerusalem rejoicing and none of them ever again wavered in his faith.
The Ascension is the period at the end of the earthly story. The story began with the Incarnation of God as Jesus, as a baby born to a Virgin by the Holy Ghost. It began with a miracle and as a mystery, a manifestation of God’s power and love. The Incarnation was announced by an archangel and accompanied by a “multitude of the heavenly host” singing hosannas.
In a like manner, God withdrew His Son again to Himself in “heaven.” The corporal / spiritual resurrected body simply disappeared “upward” from the sight of the apostles. This end to the earthly story was, again, a miracle and a mystery. And again, like the beginning, it was attested to by angels present at the scene. Just as the birth to a Virgin was a promise from God and a sign of the Babe’s divinity, so the departure from Mount Olivet was a promise from God and confirmation of the Lord’s Divine Nature.
Annunciation, Incarnation, Birth, Ministry, Passion, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension – these are the chief milestones along the Way of our faith. Each one is an essential element in the Testament of our Lord’s life and purpose and union with God the Father and God the Holy Ghost in the Trinity. Ascension Day should be an annual occasion for celebration both solemn and joyful, for all Anglicans as well as other Christians.
The Pentecost (Whitsunday)
Fifty days after Easter, Christians celebrate a day called by several different names. Pentecost is its true name, meaning the fifth day. But it in Anglicanism has more generally been called Whitsunday. This originated from the white garments worn by the newly baptized on this day. Baptisms were popular and frequent on this day, more so than on Easter, because the climate in England and other northern countries made it a more suitable time for baptism than the earlier and colder Easter Day.
Pentecost has long been a Jewish festival, a time of thanksgiving for the wheat harvest. Appropriately enough, it has also commemorated the giving of the Law to Moses, and thus was in effect the birthday of the Jewish Church. This made it easy to transform it into a kind of birthday of the Christian Church.
What happened on Pentecost? The story is simple, powerful and inspiring. Jesus’ followers had all gathered for worship. Suddenly they were aware of a sound described as “of a rushing mighty wind”. Startled, they all looked up and saw a ”cloven tongues” or flames as of fire resting upon each head. The narrator saw this as the very baptism which John the Baptizer had foretold. Filled with the Holy Ghost, those present began to tell the Gospel story in a great diversity of languages, emphasizing the universal character of the Christian gospel.
Thus, in a sense, the Church began. Thus were fulfilled in a dramatic and public way so many promises of Christ that the Holy Ghost would be sent to comfort, to teach, to inspire and to strengthen. Thus was the Church suddenly moved to realize its great objective of carrying the Gospel to all men, to Gentile as well as Jew. It was Milestone One on the long road of the Church’s development and progress.
Whitsunday is one of the oldest and most continuous of Christian celebrations. In a sense, it caps the celebration of Easter. On this day, fifty days after the apocalyptic events of Easter, the Resurrection took on meaning, the Church came alive, the Holy Ghost gave tangible evidence of His deityship with the Father and the Son. It is no wonder then, that this day of Pentecost has become one of the major celebrations of the Christian year, ranking with Easter, Ascension, and Christmas in importance. That is why the Church has long expected every member to receive Holy Communion on this day, and what the Church expects, in this case, is certainly no more than what every faithful follower of Christ should fervently wish to do.
The Transfiguration of Christ
Saint Peter and James and John had the inexpressible and lonely privilege of being the only witnesses to that event which we call the Transfiguration of Christ. They went with the Lord up into a mountain where they first went to sleep and then awoke to what St. Peter calls “eyewitnesses of his majesty.” What they saw was a Jesus utterly transformed in bodily appearance. The overwhelming impression was an unearthly bright whiteness. If we remember nothing else from the Gospel accounts, it is that the word “glistening” – “his raiment was white and glistening.”
A cloud covered the scene and the voice of God was heard saying, “this is my beloved Son; hear him.” At the beginning, the Disciples had seen their master conversing with Moses and Elijah; after the cloud passed they saw that He was alone.
This event was surely one of the major miracles of Christ’s life and ministry, ranking with the raising of Lazarus from the dead, the feeding of the five thousand, the turning of the water into wine at Cana, and only just below the supreme miracle of the Resurrection.
No one can say precisely what happened on that mountain. The three Apostles who were eyewitnesses did not know what to make of it, except that it as a revelatory moment in which God vouchsafed them a glimpse of their Lord’s real nature. They saw nothing which revealed to them the true divine nature of Jesus, nature confirmed audibly to them by the voice of God.
It would seem, if we are to read aright the significance of this great moment, the ineffable transformation, that suddenly the divine light previously hidden in the soul of Jesus was allowed for a brief moment to burst forth in His body, changing its character and appearance beyond all previous or subsequent experience. Jesus’ divine nature suddenly bursts the bonds of His human form and irradiated His body with a force which could have come only from the Creator. It was the same force which was too well up in the tomb and propel Him irresistibly through the folds of the shroud and into His resurrected form.
The Transfiguration is thus, in very fact, a preview, a portent, of the Resurrection. Saints Peter, James, and John could not understand it until the Resurrection was a fact and the Ascension and Pentecost had opened their eyes. We, too, cannot understand this event except in the most limited way. But we know it as a confirmation, in His lifetime, of the fact that Jesus is very God of very God, and it gives vivid meaning to the creedal description of Him as “Light of Light.”
Anglicanism, along with other branches of the Western Church, observes the Feast of the Transfiguration on August 6th of each year. The Eastern Church makes more of it than do we in the West. Nevertheless, there are surely few events in the Christian story, few days in the Christian year, more glorious, more worthy of remembrance. It is a day of reassurance that Christ is indeed Lord, that He is God’s very Son, “Being of one substance with the Father.” It is a day of all days in which to give thanks to God in the Holy Eucharist.
(It may be noted as of interest that early Christian tradition identified the place of the Transfiguration at Mount Tabor. This is an 1800 foot high mountain standing in Galilee in the northern part of Israel, between the cities of Nazareth and Tiberias. There is, of course, no certain proof that this legend is correct.)
(The First and Second Coming of Christ)
The church year begins for us with this Season of the Advent of Our Lord, the four weeks of getting ready for the coming birth of Jesus in Bethlehem on Christmas Day. Advent is a time of joyful preparation for the wonderful time when the Son of God came to earth to live as a person among regular people. The color of Advent is historically a royal blue-purple.
The English word, “Advent”, stems of course from the Latin word, “Adventus”, meaning coming or arrival. This word has therefore been applied for centuries to the season of the year when Christians prepare to celebrate the First Coming of our Lord Jesus Christ – His Nativity, His birth at Christmas.
Traditionally, the Church has taught that Advent is a season of preparation. This preparation means a review of one’s life, achieving a fresh sense of one’s sins and mistakes and shortcomings, and stimulating in one’s self a fresh desire for forgiveness and a new start. Therefore, traditionally, the Church has used violet (penitential purple) as the Advent color and has viewed the advent season as one for muted activity, without parties and other merrymaking, including weddings.
At the same time, paradoxically, Advent is a time of joy in looking to the approaching celebration of Christ’s birth. Through Christ, God came among us in human form. This great sign of God’s love and grace should make us joyful and thankful.
Advent is also a time to review the promises God has made to man for our salvation and eternal life. The First Coming was part of these promises – Christ’s birth, His life and teachings, His death, His resurrection, His ascension into heaven to rejoin the Father. All that has happened as foretold by the great prophets. But God has also promised a Second Coming, a New Advent, when evil will be vanquished, the dead will arise, judgment will be rendered and life eternal be granted to those who love God.
Advent, then, is a time for reflection, for penitence, for rejoicing in God’s love as shown in the First Coming and as promised in the Second Coming.
Of all the celebrations and commemorations in the Christian calendar, there is probably none more familiar to Christians than Christmas. It is also one of the oldest of our feast days, having apparently begun in Rome in the early years of the fourth century of the Christian era. That it falls on December
25this of no historical significance because no one knows the exact date of our Lord’s birth. There was, in the fourth century, a celebration of the birthday of the sun god on this December date, and it is probably that the Church fixed on the same date to celebrate the Nativity of Our Lord in an effort to create a Christian celebration at the time
that would rival or even supplant, as it did, the pagan festival.
The Collect for Christmas Day is noteworthy because it is the most comprehensive Collect in the Book of Common Prayer for its theological content. It includes the whole of the doctrines of the Trinity and of the Incarnation, our adoption as children of God by His grace, and the daily renewal of Christ’s birth in us through the Holy Ghost. The Collect is a composition of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer.
The term “Christmas” came into use in England in the twelfth century. It means simply, “Christ’s Mass” and is thus a reminder of the central importance to us of celebrating the Mass, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, on this festal day. No Christian should ever miss the Christmas Eucharist save for grave cause. Indeed, the Church has often required such attendance as part of the requirement for communicant status in good standing.
Christmas is a time for joy, marking as it does, the coming among us of God, in the person of His Son in human form. We celebrate it with special decorations. Some of these, such as trees, holly, wreaths, etc. may be of pagan origin or modern secular origin. But some, such as candles in the windows, while deprived of religious significance by widespread adoption in the commercial and secular world, have a fundamentally religious meaning. Thus, we place a candle or candles in our windows to light the way for the Christ-child to come into the world and for this reason ought to light them first on Christmas Eve. In these days of over-commercialization and secularization of Christmas, the Christian must fight hard to replace and retain the deep spiritual and religious meaning of the commemoration. A religion begins to die when its sacred observances become merely popular customs. Thus, the Christian should
avoid “drowning” his family and friends with material gifts, gifts which we give in remembrance of God’s gift to us of His Son and His forgiveness and His grace.
Christmas begins at earliest on Christmas Eve – not at Thanksgiving time! It ends on January 5th, the Eve of Epiphany – and not the day after Christmas or even New Year’s Day!
Christmas has a place of primacy in the Christian story, for the story begins with the birth of Jesus Christ, and thereafter unfolds steadily to Good Friday, Easter and Ascension Day. Every Christian should observe Christmas with spiritual rejoicing and should strive to maintain its spiritual primacy.
begins twelve days after Christmas, on January 6, and continues until the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. The length of the season varies according to the date of Easter. The gospel stories of this season describe various events that manifest the divinity of Jesus. The coming of the Magi is celebrated on the Epiphany. The Baptism of our Lord is observed on the Sunday after Epiphany. The gospels for the other Sundays of the Epiphany season describe the wedding at Cana, the calling of the disciples, and various miracles and teachings of Jesus. The Last Sunday after the Epiphany is always devoted to the Transfiguration. Jesus’ identity as the Son of God is dramatically revealed in the Transfiguration gospel, as well as the gospel of the baptism of Christ. We are called to respond to Christ in faith through the showings of his divinity recorded in the gospels of the Epiphany season.
Symbols of Epiphany: The colors of Epiphany are usually the colors of Christmas, white and gold, the colors of celebration, newness, and hope that mark the most sacred days of the church year. In traditions that only observe a single day for Epiphany, the colors are often changed after Epiphany to the colors of Ordinary Time, The color for the Season after the Epiphany is green to symbolize growth and life. the green or thematic sanctuary colors, until Transfiguration Sunday, the last Sunday before the beginning of Lent. The colors for Transfiguration Sunday are usually the colors of Holy Days, white and gold.
The traditional liturgical symbols of Epiphany are usually associated with the Magi. The symbols include either three crowns or a single crown, various portrayals of the Magi or Wise Men, three gifts, a five-pointed star, or a combination of a star and crown. A more modern symbol of Epiphany is a globe or a stylized portrayal of the world.
Around January 6, the symbol +C+M+B+ with two numbers before and two numbers after (for example, 20+C+M+B+17) is sometimes seen written in chalk above the doorway of Christian homes. The letters are the initials of the traditional names of the Three Magi: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. These letters also abbreviate the Latin phrase Christus mansionem benedicat, “May Christ bless the house.” The beginning and ending numbers are the year, 2017 in the example above. The crosses represent Christ.
Marking the lintels of doorways is an old European practice that originally had overtones of magic (protection of the house). However, the symbols are now used throughout the world and usually represent a traditional Epiphany prayer and blessing.
Human nature is very weak, as every reader of these words well knows. People, most people, can only take so much of solemnity, of serious introspection. They have to have relief in some kind of relaxation of the body and mind, in humor, in carefree moments. Thus it is that the many of the forms of popular celebration of Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday have taken hold among us. Originally, this was a day for confession and for being “shriven” or absolved from one’s sins. But before facing confession, people wanted to have a last “fling”, to be merry one last time. And so in England, they eat pancakes and in New Orleans, they dance and parade in the streets, and in many places throughout Christendom they celebrate in an especially light-hearted way (sometimes to excess).
Why did all the merrymaking develop? And why did one makes his confession on Shrove Tuesday? Simply because the next day, Ash Wednesday, is the beginning of a season called Lent. Lent is a penitential and preparatory season for the Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of our Lord. It lasts forty days in commemoration of the forty days in which our Lord prepared Himself for His ministry by withdrawing into “the desert” too fast and pray and to reflect – and to be tempted by Satan.
The word “Lent” comes from an old English word meaning in the season of spring. The Church’s Lent always occurs in the spring, of course, but since its beginning, Ash Wednesday, is determined by the date of Easter, and Easter is a moveable observance reckoned by lunar calculation and can occur as early as March 22nd or as late as April 25th, Lent itself begins at variable dates in the spring. The Lenten season actually extends over a period of 46 days, but the Sundays occurring during the period is not part of Lent but are feast days.
The observance of Lent in the Christian Church is very ancient. It began in the second century, although it was much shorter in the beginning; it did not extend for forty days until the fourth century and was also not associated with the forty days of Jesus in the wilderness until some time later. It has always, however, had a penitential character as a time of preparation for the Crucifixion and the joy of the Resurrection. During this period, Anglicans fast, as a means of suppressing the flesh and exalting the spirit, as a means, too, of sharpening the spiritual awareness and mental contemplation of the approaching great sacrifice of Christ for mankind. It is a period of increased prayer and self-examination so that we may bring ourselves closer to God and become more obedient to His will for us. It is one of those several periods appointed by the Church (Advent is another) to help intensify our religious belief, to remind us how far we may have fallen away, and to recall us to God.
A good Lent leads to a good Easter and the satisfaction of a deepening spiritual awareness and dedication developed through Lent allows us to open ourselves fully to the glorious joy of the Resurrection.
It may be added that during Lent, the liturgical color is violet (commonly called purple) and weddings and festive merrymaking are to be avoided.