Ash Wednesday, in some Christian denominations, begins the forty-day season of fasting and prayer, before Easter. Ash Wednesday begins the most sacred part of the Christian year. These forty days are meant to represent the time Jesus spent in the desert, where he endured continuous temptation by Satan, according to the Bible.
The forty-day season is referred to as Lent. Lent is a preparation period for Christian believers, through prayer, self-denial, penitence, and almsgiving. The final week of Lent is Holy Week, a yearly commemoration of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, which ends with Easter, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Lent comes from the Old English word lencten, which means ‘˜lengthen,’ referring to lengthened daylight hours in the northern hemisphere.
Ash Wednesday begins on the seventh Wednesday before Easter, on which day many Christians will go to church, and receive a mark of ash, on their forehead, to represent penitence and mortality. The six Sundays in Lent are not counted in with the forty days, because they are considered ‘˜mini-Easters,’ which are Christian celebrations of Jesus’ resurrection, his victory over sin and death. Holy Week includes Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, in which Jesus entered Jerusalem with his disciples. On Palm Sunday, worshipers typically enter the church carrying palm leaves, or wearing a cross made of palm.
Maundy Thursday is also part of Holy Week. It is referred to as Holy Thursday, when Christians recall all of the events that occurred on the night Jesus was betrayed. Some churches re-enact the foot-washing ritual during the Maundy Thursday church service. This is the first day of a three-day period called Triduum. This night celebrates the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
Good Friday is another important part of Holy Week. It is the second day of the Triduum, which is the remembrance of Jesus’ death on the cross. During Good Friday church services, the day is usually marked by near or complete silence. There are no keyboards, or any other alter music. The text usually read during the church service is the gospel of John 18:1-19:42. There are also two liturgical services on Good Friday, Tre Ore and The Tenebrae. Tre Ore is Italian for ‘˜three hours.’ This commemorates the last three hours of the Lord’s suffering on the cross. The Tenebrae, also referred to as the Service of Darkness, takes place in the evening. During this service candles are gradually put out, creating a gradual darkness in the church. This darkness is meant to recreate the darkness that covered the land when Jesus died.
The final night of Triduum is called Holy Saturday, known as the Great Vigil. This day is commemorated by four separate, but still connected, worship services. First is the Service of Light, followed by the Service of Readings, followed by the Service of Baptism, and finally the service of Holy Communion.
The number forty occurs very frequently in the Bible, in both the Old Testament, and New Testament. In Genesis 4:12 of the Old Testament, it rained for forty days and forty nights during the Great Flood. In Exodus 24:18, Moses communed on Mt. Sinai for forty days before receiving the Ten Commandments. In Numbers 14:33-34, the people of Israel were forced to wander the wilderness for 40 years. In 1 Kings 19:8-9, Elijah journeyed for 40 days before he had a vision of God at the cave of Horeb.