04 March 2014
Signs of spring are here. Birds are beginning to build nests. Flowers are starting to bloom. Soon farmers will be turning the soil and preparing the ground for seed. All around us nature is waking up. Preparation is being made for another growth cycle.
Within this growth cycle of spring, Easter is coming. It finds its way into the spring calendar every year, its date moving like a Mexican jumping bean. Have you ever wondered why? Why don't we have a fixed date for Easter as we do for Christmas?
In the early church, bishops in the East and those in Rome were celebrating the Easter feast on different Sundays. Apparently there was no unanimity on the date of Jesus' resurrection. So when the bishops came together to address some deep theological matters in Nicaea in 325 A.D., they addressed this practical issue of ensuring the same day was chosen to celebrate the Easter feast every year. Since there was no strong consensus on the original date, they felt that Sunday was the most appropriate date to celebrate. Changing to a uniform date did away with any future arguments about the true Easter date.
The new system, determined by the moon's phases, ensured that the Easter feasts would jump around within a small window of dates. Tying the dates to the moon phases ensured that no one could get the dates wrong again. Such dating sounds strange to modern ears, but it made very good sense to people of the fourth century who were tied to the land and the heavens. The council of Nicaea decided that Easter would be celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon that occurred after the spring equinox. Because of the way the lunar calendar cycles, Easter must occur between March 22 and April 25.
...And a little about Lent
The preparation for Easter became known as Lent, which comes from the Old English word "lencten," meaning "lengthen" as the days do as winter gives way to spring.
According to the liturgical calendar, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, seven Wednesdays before Easter. Ash Wednesday is a day when we remember our mortality, our finite nature. Our time on this earth is brief. The Psalmist says, "Men and women don't live very long; like wildflowers they spring up and blossom, But a storm snuffs them out just as quickly, leaving nothing to show they were here" (Psalms 103:15). Lent continues for 40 days (not counting Sundays) moving through six weeks at the beginning of Spring to Holy Week's Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, and concluding the Saturday before Easter.
The 40 days of Lent were being observed by the early church by the 4th century. Easter was the primary celebration of the early church and a period of intense fasting before the celebration of Easter was instituted very shortly after Jesus’ death and resurrection. As time went on, that time of fasting was lengthened. In the early church, Lent became a time of preparation for those who were to be baptized, a time of concentrated study and prayer before their baptism at the Easter Vigil. Those who had become believers during the year were baptized early Easter Sunday morning. As these new members were received into a living community of faith, the entire community was called to preparation. This also became a time when those who had been separated from the Church would prepare to rejoin the community.
The number 40 is connected with many biblical events, but especially with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness preparing for his ministry, overcoming temptations that could have led him to abandon his mission and calling. Christians today use this period for introspection, self-examination and repentance.
At this time of year, preparations are being made all around us for another growth cycle. The Earth is warming and greening. New life is beginning to bud and bloom. Why should it be any different within our spiritual lives? Spiritual growth is more intentional than not. Jesus modeled that spiritual growth involves spiritual disciplines.
Easter is on the calendar and Easter Day will come and go whether we do any planning. However, Easter will not produce much spiritual growth in us without preparation. We may find ourselves stooping down to peer inside the empty tomb on Easter morning without a great deal of excitement or awe, since we've heard the story so many times before, unless we prepare ourselves for that morning and for the words of the angel: "He is not here for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay" (Matthew 28:6).
If a farmer misses the window to plant a crop, he will not have time to reap a harvest. If we waste precious days or precious years, we can't get them back. Lent reminds us to seize the moment. Make the season of Lent an intentional season of growth. Make Lent a spiritual journey toward the cross, and then you'll bend down and be in awe of the empty tomb. Easter will be a day of celebration and not just another day!
Adapted for my purposes (with my biases and research but with borrowed verbiage) from “Explaining Lent to Non-Liturgical Christians” by Michael Helms (please click through to read his much-more-eloquent explanation).
Traditionally, these three spiritual disciplines form the pillars of Lenten practice. All three are meant to unite different aspects of our lives with Christ’s suffering. Many people give up a favorite practice such as eating an indulgent food (i.e. sugar, caffeine, chocolate, etc.) using a debit card, swearing, etc. Others fast for a certain day of the week, or skip a certain meal, or eat a simple dinner. Others adopt a certain prayer focus such as praying for missionaries, a certain country, the persecuted church, etc. All of these things are designed to make us conscious of Christ’s work in the world and in ourselves. As a family, you may wish to think of one practice in each of these areas that would enhance your preparation for Easter.
There are many wonderful Lenten devotional books and readings available. A Bible reading plan that focuses on the Gospels can also be a wonderful way to be reminded of who Jesus is and what He did that led to His crucifixion and Resurrection. A family might choose to read through one of the Gospels in the weeks before Easter or use a children’s devotional to make projects that remind you of the path Jesus took to the cross.
There are also many wonderful choices available when it comes to worshipful music. Lent is an excellent time to introduce kids to music they might not have experienced before like chant, oratory, or classical pieces. The titles listed below are a very, very small sampling of the many resources available. These all have child-relatable elements. I find myself using them again and again. Use your discernment as to whether these fit your family's theological convictions.
Worship, Prayer and Devotionals
Lent and Easter Wisdom from Thomas Merton (this is one of an entire series of "Wisdom" from some wonderful authors
You may wish to create your own space for contemplation or observation. A purple cloth on a table, a chair
with a Bible and a journal… these things communicate that there is something different about this time, something special. You may want to decorate differently than you do the rest of the year. Adding pictures or books in a special basket for little ones to enjoy incorporates them into the space. This space doesn’t have to be complicated. Rocks, wood, a nail, a small cross…thing that children can touch and hold makes a difference in their understanding of the Jesus story!
Just as an Advent wreath helps to count the days or weeks to Christmas in a very visible, tactile, sense-engaging way, so do candles in some form help to create anticipation during Lent. A weekly countdown should include 6 candles. A daily countdown would need 40 (if Sundays are not included). A Lenten cross can be made from wood, or can simply be a poster board cross, onto which candles in votive holders are set. Simple wreaths are also available at many Christian bookstores or online (try Catholic bookstores). An Advent to Lent spiral is an especially beautiful way to remember the days.
A repentance box is a very visible reminder of God’s pardon for us. Mistakes, errors and sins are written on slips of paper and put in the box. On Good Friday, the pieces of paper can be nailed to the cross. Or, another option is to write the word “FORGIVEN” on each slip of paper and throw them away or burn the pieces. Or, a parent may wish to empty the box so it can be presented on Easter morning.
A bowl with flour in it is a tactile way to remember that “we are dust, and to dust we shall return”. Playing in the dust is a great way to redirect an older child (or adult) by asking them to draw something representing their sins in the dust and then erase it. Another great take on this can be found at this link.
A beautiful way to recognize new life is to cut some branches from a flowering bush such as forsythia or a cherry tree, place in water and allow the branches to open in time. These, inevitably, will open before Easter. If you want to control the bloom, you may wish to use barren branches and then replace them with flowering branches at Easter.
Similar to a Jesse Tree at Advent, a Jesus tree is a lovely way to contemplate Jesus’ way to the cross by using scripture and art to tell the story. You can make your own versions, but an excellent free (and gorgeous) version is available at Holy Experience from Ann Voskamp
The week leading to the Crucifixion and Resurrection is among the most ancient of Christian celebrations. Observing this week can bring the love, sacrifice, pain and exhilaration of Easter into sharp focus.
The week begins on Palm Sunday, a week before Easter, when the church remembers Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem amidst waving palms and shouts of “Hosanna!” This is an excellent day to act out the Easter story. A young child will not soon forget taking a turn on a Daddy-donkey or waving homemade palms of construction paper. I love this idea to use peg people and blocks to act out the story and we will be using it weekly throughout Lent this year. Older kids might like to make crosses of palms. A great family activity is to spend some time thinking about how you will observe the coming week.
From the Latin “maundatum” or “mandate,” Maundy Thursday is celebrated as the day Jesus met with the disciples in the Upper Room for the passover together. The “mandate” comes from his command that his disciples “Love one another as I have loved you”. Different ways to mark this day include reading the account from John and celebrating communion as a family; or, perhaps, reading the account in Luke and Matthew that include Jesus washing His disciples’ feet and a family footwashing followed by a discussion on servant leadership. Another idea is to have a Seder meal celebrating the Passover as Jesus did. There are many, many resources on observing a family Seder meal available on the internet. Start here for some great ideas.
Jesus was crucified before the Jewish celebration of the Sabbath, so we recognize this day on the Friday before Easter. It is a solemn day and many Christians choose to fast on Good Friday. One of the most meaningful ways to remember the crucifixion is to construct a cross and allow all members of the family to nail it together. If you create a repentance box, it can be incorporated into this activity, too.
Another very beautiful and meaningful way to observe Good Friday is with a Tenebrae Service. “Tenebrae” is the Latin for “darkness” and this service is often referred to as “the service of shadows”. Generally, the crucifixion account from Matthew is read as candles are extinguished one by one. The service ends in darkness.
In many churches, the cross that is in front of the church during Lent and even the altar, is draped in black at this service. A family might consider adding black to their worship space or creating a “crown of thorns” from a wreath.
Many families have very specific Easter celebration traditions, but you may want to incorporate a renewed focus on
the Resurrection into your morning. A table that was barren on Friday and Saturday set with flowers and bright colors on Easter communicates the joy of the day. Resurrection rolls (rolls baked with marshmallows inside) are a nice breakfast treat. You may want to practice the ancient greeting, “Christ is Risen!” followed by the response, “He is risen, indeed!” Or, blasting the Hallelujah chorus as the kids come downstairs might appeal to you. If you made a cross, you may want to put fresh flowers and a white cloth on it. Whatever, you do, do it for Him! Remember, His resurrection changes everything!
For more great information church year activities check out my Kairos board on Pinterest. There's lots there on observing "God's time" with your family.