Like most homes, computers, and pieces of technology, the church operates off a calendar. It helps us know where we are in the seasons in the life of the church. Many times, it is represented by a circle, showing various colors to depict special seasons and feasts. But it is not a static circle. Because Easter is a moveable feast (the Sunday after the full moon that occurs on or after the Spring equinox on March 21, the full moon may happen between March 22 and April 18, inclusive.) it cannot be earlier than march 23 or later than April 25. To find the date of Easter Day in any particular year, go to the Book of Common Prayer, page 880 for instructions.
Tradition holds that many congregations offer a Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Pancakes are eaten as they are made out of the main foods available, sugar, fat, flour and eggs, whose consumption was traditionally restricted during the ritual fasting associated with Lent.
This means our time of preparation for the Feast of Easter, called Lent, also moves.
Lent is a forty (40) day preparation of one's self, beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending on Easter Sunday. If you were to count the days between Ash Wednesday and Easter, you would see there are more than forty days. Sundays are not counted in Lent as they are considered feast days.
Ash Wednesday derives its name from the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of adherents as a sign of mourning and repentance to God. As the ashes are imposed on one's forehead, the priest says the following words, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
The ashes used are typically gathered after the palms from the previous year's Palm Sunday are burned. Once they are burned, they are blessed and sometimes mixed with Holy Water or oil.
Ashes were used in ancient times, according to the Bible, to express mourning. Dusting oneself with ashes was the penitent's way of expressing sorrow for sins and faults. An ancient example of one expressing one's penitence is found in Job 42:3-6. Job says to God: "I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. The other eye wandereth of its own accord. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes." (vv. 5-6, KJV) The prophet Jeremiah, for example, calls for repentance this way: "O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes" (Jer 6:26).The prophet Daniel pleaded for God this way: "I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes" (Daniel 9:3). Just prior to the New Testament period, the rebels fighting for Jewish independence, the Maccabees, prepared for battle using ashes: "That day they fasted and wore sackcloth; they sprinkled ashes on their heads and tore their clothes" (1 Maccabees 3:47; see also 4:39).
Lent is a season of penance, reflection, and fasting prior to Easter. The early church used this time to train new believers in the faith, preparing them for baptism at the Great Vigil of Easter. The church today still recognizes the Great Vigil of Easter as an appropriate time for baptism.
During Lent, we renew our commitment to Christ and resolve to take on the difficult task of living as Christians in this world.
The color for the season of Lent is purple, for royalty and penitence, or rough linen, the color of sackcloth.
Many individuals use Lent as a time to give up something that may be seen as a stumbling block in their lives. Other may take on something, like special devotional booklets, or outreach service projects.
The liturgy for Ash Wednesday is found in the Book of Common Prayer, beginning on page 264. Near the beginning of the service, the priest invites us to "the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating and on God's holy Word." page 265.
One will notice that the word Alleluia is removed from our responses during Lent. Some congregations "bury" the alleluia as a symbol of the season and it is "resurrected" during the Easter Vigil on Easter morning service.
Special Web pages for Lent:
Lenten Resources - Episcopal Relief and Development
Bugs and Butterflies, Lillies, Lent, and Easter Traditions
Holy Saturday and Easter Eve
Sundays of Easter