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Ceremonial flames are lit, ashes imposed on the foreheads of the faithful and solemn prayers are recited. The high ceremonies and formalities of Lent commemorate the life, and death, of Jesus Christ and marks one the holiest seasons in the Christian calendar.
For nearly two months, beginning around mid-February, there are various church services unique to this season. There are gatherings in honor of The Last Supper and Jesus’s crucifixion, as well as joyous, colorful services on Easter Sunday which celebrate his resurrection. But what does all this religious pomp and circumstance represent? What does Lent mean to Christians and, honestly, how does the Easter Bunny fit into all this, if at all?
Lent is often stereotyped as 40 days of self-denial where people give up something as a sign of faith, the long stretch of discipline ending on Easter Sunday with its chocolate eggs and pastel colored everything.
Peter Eaton was the Dean of St. John’s Cathedral in Denver, an Episcopal church in Capitol Hill, for 13 years. He was recently ordained as the Bishop of Southeast Florida in May, 2015. He said that Lent is a time of deep reflection for the church and a period of preparation for those being welcomed into the congregation.
“We give up things so we can focus more on our spiritual lives. It’s an important season, both for those who are preparing for their baptism still and those who are already Christian people,” Eaton said.
Lent is traditionally the time of year when new members of the church formally join the congregation, either through a receival ceremony, baptism or confirmation. Steven Tillinghast was one of these people. He was received into St. John’s Cathedral during the Easter Vigil service on Saturday, April 4, 2015. Tillinghast was raised Christian, but drifted away from organized religion as he got older. After many years of living in a spiritual drought, he found himself on a path with no clear direction and felt a bad ending was imminent.
“The charm and the certainty of not believing in anything, suddenly started becoming not very charming at all. I realized that if I didn’t really find a positive force, something really, really bad was going to happen.”
Tillinghast said that with a “weakened discipline of introspection,” he needed something divine that could tie it all together for him. He saw a modern, forward thinking denomination in the Episcopal church, he supported their stance on gender equality and acceptance of homosexuality, and he felt he had found his church.
“It has a sense of social justice. It’s all the things I’m looking for progressively,” he said.
Tillinghast joined more than 4,000 people who call St. John’s Cathedral their spiritual home, which was originally established in Denver in 1860. The current building, at the intersection of Washington Street and 14th Avenue, first opened its doors in 1911.
To some, Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) is what made Bourbon Street famous and it is just a wild party down in old New Orleans, but in fact it is a celebration connected directly to Lent. It is the day Christians indulge one last time before Lent begins the following day on Ash Wednesday, initiating 40 days of personal restraint and sacrifice.
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent. The service takes its name from the ashes imposed on the foreheads of worshippers as a sign of mortality and devotion to Christ. While the ashes are applied, the priests say, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
“It’s a rite that is meant to remind us that we need to approach our religious lives with a certain amount of humility. It’s a very moving, spare liturgy in the course of the Christian year,” Eaton said.
Eaton said Lent then proceeds for weeks without any extraordinary happenings at the church, but their evocative, candle lit Wednesday evening Compline and Benediction service carries on. The Compline aspect is marked by meditation, incense and ominously beautiful chanting, while the Benediction part includes the singing of ancient hymns. This is a combination of two types of worship, both of which date back many centuries.
The homestretch of Lent begins with Palm Sunday, the first day of Holy Week, when Christians remembers Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem after fasting for 40 days in the desert. Palm fronds were laid on the ground by his followers as he entered the city, the gesture coming to define the day. This signifies the beginning of Jesus’s final days and a highly sacred time in the Christian faith.
“The point of Holy Week is to turn the church into a little Jerusalem,” Eaton said, “where we relive, with Jesus, the last week of his life.”
Monday and Tuesday of Holy Week are quiet days of devotion and ongoing preparations. Wednesday brings on the Tenebrae service, which is defined by a gradual extinguishing of candles on the altar until only one is left, representing the Lord, leaving the church is utter darkness but symbolizing God’s presence.
Maundy Thursday commemorates the day of the Last Supper, where Jesus gathered his 12 disciples for one final meal. Jesus knew his fate of crucifixion was inescapable. One of his disciples, Judas, lead a group of Roman soldiers to Jesus, who was wanted by the authorities as a blasphemist and false prophet. The bread and wine served this night is represented in the sacraments of communion.
Several days in Lent get their names from obvious sources, but the moniker “Good Friday” seems very odd, considering it marks the day of Jesus’s crucifixion and mortal death. This service is bleak and sombre with a heavy atmosphere of melancholy. A huge wooden cross is carried into the cathedral and stood near the altar where the entire congregation, one by one, comes up to venerate the cross by kneeling down and touching or kissing it.
On the following day, The Easter Vigil begins at sundown. Everyone is given a small candle and gathers outside of the church for the lighting of a ceremonial flame.
“Fire is the symbol of life and resurrection, and so we begin the service of resurrection with lighting a new fire,” Eaton said.
The large, ornate Paschal Candle is lit from this ceremonial flame and carried into the church where everyone then lights their candle from it and the entire church is bathed in candlelight. This is the oldest Easter celebration of the Church, and is closely associated with the baptism and admission of new Christians.
Tillinghast was one of a two dozen people who were received into the church on this night. He said that when his time came to join the small group of priests and the Episcopal Bishop of Colorado in front of the church for the brief ceremony, a calmness came over him.
Deep shadows and flickering candlelight lit his way to the altar. Tillinghast knelt in front of the Bishop, the clergy encircled him and placed their hands on his shoulders as he bowed his head. The Bishop began the invocation. Prayers and blessings were softly spoken, and Tillinghast said that it was a revelatory moment.
“It was the most comforting thing in the world. All time seemed to stop. It was the most comforting, reassuring experience that I’ve had.”
This emotional experience left Tillinghast feeling reassured that his long journey from “cold atheism” to an active member of the Episcopal faith was the right path for him.
“I knew I was doing the right thing. I knew this was a turning point,” he said.
In a big change of mood and ambiance, Easter Sunday follows this service the next morning. Bright colors, flowers, boisterous choirs and exuberant children fill the church. Today celebrates Jesus’s resurrection and ascension into Heaven. Dean Eaton said that this service is a relatively modern invention in the church’s long history, but a fun and popular service nonetheless which marks the end of Lenten journey.
Eaton said that Holy Week is an important time in the Christian year for engaging with the church’s members on a more personal level.
“We believe very strongly that the liturgies, particularly in Holy Week and Easter, are rites and rituals that speak deeply to the human longing,” Eaton continues, “I think that there is something deep in the heart of every person that longs for a relationship with God.”
The Episcopal Church is seen as a progressive Christian denomination. It openly accepts the LGBT community into its congregation, its clergy may be married and it has elevated women to some of the highest positions in its leadership. Eaton says that this openness should not be seen as unique, but rather as true Christian traits.
“Our community is varied and we like that. At the heart of it we can say, ‘We support the dignity of every human’ and allow that dignity to flourish.”
The journey of Lent includes many formalities, with symbolic gestures and impactful services defining this holy season, but Eaton says the church continues to have a single calling.
“Christianity really only has one core purpose and that is to bridge the gap between human beings and God.”