Ascension of the Lord (Ascension of Jesus): Christians observe ancient feast

Stained-glass, Ascension of Jesus

A stained-glass image of the Ascension of Jesus. Photo by Lawrence OP, courtesy of Flickr

THURSDAY, MAY 26: As Pentecost approaches, the Christian church observes a pivotal feast central to the faith since its earliest days: the Feast of the Ascension, known also as Ascension Day. On this date—or, as some Roman Catholic churches will hold services on the Sunday following, along with some regional Ecclesiastical provinces—Christians commemorate the bodily ascension of Jesus into Heaven. Each year, the Feast of the Ascension takes place on the 40th day after Easter. Though no documents give testament to the feast’s existence prior to the 5th century, St. Augustine referred to it as a universal observance of Apostolic origin.

Did you know? In Roman Catholicism, the Ascension of the Lord is ranked as a solemnity and is a Holy Day of Obligation; in the Anglican Communion, Ascension Day is a Principal Feast.

MOUNT OF OLIVES & THE ASCENSION

On the 40th day after Jesus’s Resurrection, it’s believed that he gathered with his disciples on the Mount of Olives and blessed them there. Jesus asked them to wait for the fulfillment of the promise of the Holy Spirit, to be witnesses and to “make disciples of all nations.” Jesus then ascended into Heaven, when, according to the story as recounted in Acts: Jesus was lifted up in a cloud.

The feast’s Latin term, ascensio, indicates the belief that Christ was raised up by his own powers. Traditionally, beans and fruits were blessed on this feast day, and the Paschal candle’s flame is quenched. In some churches, the Christ figure was lifted through an opening in the roof on the Feast of the Ascension.

Activities: It is customary to eat a type of bird on this day, to represent Christ’s “flight” to Heaven. As Jesus ascended from the Mount of Olives, it is also common—in hilly or mountainous areas—to picnic on a hilltop.

Note: In the Eastern Orthodox Christian church, the Feast of the Ascension of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ takes place on June 2, in accordance with 40 days after Pascha (Easter).

Easter, Pascha: Christians worldwide revel in the Resurrection

Resurrection three crucifixes

Photo by geralt, courtesy of Pixabay

SUNDAY, APRIL 17 and SUNDAY, APRIL 24: Raise the lights, ring the church bells and joyously sing “Alleluia”—it’s Easter! (For Eastern Orthodox Christians, who will celebrate this event on April 24 this year, the holiday is known as Pascha.) Christians the world over shout in exultation on Easter Sunday, as the faithful celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Western Christians across the globe revel in the Resurrection of Jesus today, rejoicing in the promise of new life. Following the solemn 40-day reflections of Lent and the Easter Triduum—Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday—Christians awaken to a new day. Donning their finest clothing in pastel hues, more than 1 billion men, women and children head to church for the festive Easter service, which often showcases shining brass instruments and rows of blossoming Easter lilies.

Did you know? The week beginning on Easter Sunday is known as Easter Week, or the Octave of Easter.

The New Testament tells Christians that the Resurrection of Christ is the core of their faith, and on this grand day, crowds flow into and out of churches, bells are rung in praise and adherents joyously profess their faith.

Stone rolled away from tomb, Easter

Photo by BRBurton23, courtesy of Pixabay

A TOMB AND A HOLY MESSENGER

Gospel accounts say that early on the Sunday morning following Jesus’ crucifixion, Mary Magdalene (and, though accounts vary, other women as well) traveled to the tomb of Jesus to anoint his body. Upon reaching the tomb, an earthquake shook the ground; the stone was moved from the tomb, and a holy messenger announced that Jesus had risen from the dead. Though no specific moment of Resurrection is recorded, Mary Magdalene’s encounter has, since the 2nd century, been celebrated as Easter. The Resurrection is described as having occurred c. 30 CE.

For Christians today, meals most often involve white-and-gold settings, fresh lilies on the table and, in many homes, a sacred Paschal Candle. A traditional Easter menu also would typically feature lamb—a symbol of Christ, the Paschal Lamb. However, Easter hams now far outpace cuts of lamb.

In France and Belgium, the bells that “went to Rome on Maundy Thursday” return home for the evening Easter Vigil, only to bring Easter eggs to boys and girls—or so, the story has it.

In most countries with a substantial Christian population, Easter is a public holiday.

SECULAR EASTER: CANDIES & EGGS

Eggs for Easter

Photo by Marco Verch Professional Photographer, courtesy of Flickr

Easter in America may be characterized as much by the Easter Bunny and pastel-hued candies as it is by Christian joy in Christ’s Resurrection. Egg hunts, treat-filled baskets and festive brunches mark Easter for many American families.

EGGS: The springtime egg has symbolized the season’s new life since before the life of Jesus, drawing back to ancient civilizations. Nonetheless, the egg holds a place of prominence in many secular Easter traditions. Children around the globe search for hidden eggs, and decorating eggs can range from simple to elaborate—as much as the artist allows. International chocolatiers mold sweet concoctions in the shape of delicate eggs, with the most exquisite replications selling for hundreds of dollars.

RECIPES & RESOURCES

Looking for a great recipe or ideas to spruce up your Easter table?

Find delicious recipes, from appetizers to brunch to dessert, at Food Network and AllRecipes.

Give eggs extra style, or try an Easter craft, with ideas from HGTV and Martha Stewart.

Kid-friendly Easter coloring pages, cards, games and more are at the UK’s Activity Village.

EASTER MONDAY NEWS: In the United States, the day following Easter Sunday—known as Easter Monday—has been host to the White House’s traditional Easter Egg Roll for more than 140 years; however, due to the pandemic, the event was cancelled in 2020 and 2021. According to reports, President Biden’s administration will bring back the tradition once again, on Easter Monday in 2022. (Fox News has the story.)

Easter Triduum: Christians observe Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday

Easter Triduum

Photo by Bradiporap, courtesy of Flickr

THURSDAY, APRIL 14; FRIDAY, APRIL 15; and SATURDAY, APRIL 16: Western Christians across the globe entered Holy Week on Palm Sunday, and begin the Easter Triduum—recounting the final days of Jesus’s life and Passion—on Thursday, with Holy (Maundy) Thursday.

Washing foot, Maundy Thursday

Washing feet on Maundy Thursday at Westminster Cathedral. Photo by Catholic Church England and Wales, courtesy of Flickr

MAUNDY OR HOLY THURSDAY

According to Christian tradition, the Last Supper that Jesus held on the night before his death was the establishment of the Eucharist—the foundation of the Christian sacrament shared by more than 2 billion Christians around the world. Even though specific liturgical customs do vary between the branches of this worldwide faith, the basic sacred tradition stems from the Gospel verses describing Jesus’s last meal with his followers. The New Testament also describes Jesus washing the feet of his followers on this night, so foot washing also widely practiced on Maundy or Holy Thursday.

As Jesus and his disciples left their upper room, they traveled out of the Old City of Jerusalem and to the Garden of Gethsemane. Before sunrise, Jesus would be betrayed and the events of Good Friday would begin.

Did you know? Most scholars believe that the term maundy derives from the Latin ‘to command,’ referring to Jesus’ command to the disciples that they love one another, announced when he washed their feet.

Each Maundy Thursday in the Catholic church, a daytime Chrism Mass takes place and a new stock of holy oil is blessed. Following the evening liturgy, the holy water is removed from all stoups—and all hangings and vestments are changed to black (or another Lenten color). Bells will remain silent until Saturday evening’s Easter Vigil.

GOOD FRIDAY:
PASSION PLAYS, STATIONS OF THE CROSS

The day laden with darkness and lamentation has arrived, as Christians recall the somber events of Good Friday—Jesus’s death on a Roman cross. Between two criminals sentenced to death by Roman authorities, Jesus hung on a crucifix for six excruciating hours. During the last three hours, Gospels account that darkness fell over the land; at approximately 3 p.m., Jesus gave up his spirit and died. Such dramatic natural events occurred that the centurion on guard at the site of the crucifixion announced, “Truly this was God’s Son!”

Close-up of Jesus on wooden cross

Photo by Didgeman, courtesy of Pixabay

In the Catholic Church, Good Friday is a strict fast day: only one full meal or two small meals is permitted, and the faithful abstain from meat and joyful activities. Many gather at church to pray the Stations of the Cross, painfully recalling each step on Jesus’ path to the crucifixion site. Some devotees attend a prayer service known as the Three Hours’ Agony, and it’s not uncommon for Passion plays and processions to reenact the day’s events. In Rome, the Pope or Vatican representatives will lead meditations on the Stations of the Cross while a crucifix is carried to the Colosseum. Good Friday is a public or government holiday in many countries of the world, and the stock market is closed.

By tradition dating to 1361 CE, currant-filled, glazed hot cross buns are eaten for breakfast on Good Friday morning. The glaze forms a cross on the bun, signifying the day’s focus. (You can find a wonderful hot cross bun recipe in Lynne Meredith Golodner’s book The Flavors of Faith: Holy Breads.)

HOLY SATURDAY:
DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL

Terms and traditions for this Saturday vary widely across Christianity. For millions of American Protestants, this Saturday is simply a good occasion to clean the house and prepare treats for Easter dinner. Very little is said about this day in the vast majority of mainline Protestant and evangelical churches. However, Holy Saturday liturgies are ancient traditions in the Catholic church, Orthodox churches and others around the world.

In Eastern tradition, one of the most beautiful and unusual of icons is used in Saturday liturgies, called the Epitaphios. This icon is made of fabric and represents a kind of burial shroud, showing Jesus’s body being prepared for burial. On “Great and Holy Saturday,” the Epitaphios is carried in a procession around the church.

THE EASTER VIGIL—In the evening on Holy Saturday, the Easter Vigil begins. A service that begins in darkness is illuminated, in Christian tradition, with the Light of Christ—the Paschal candle. After prayers, chants and biblical readings, “Gloria” is sung for the first time since Maundy Thursday. The church is flooded with light; statues covered during Passiontide are unveiled, and the joy of the Resurrection begins. The Paschal candle, the largest and most exquisite candle in the church, is lit each day throughout the Paschal season.

Note: Eastern Orthodox Christians following the Julian calendar will observe Holy Week one week after the Western Christian Holy Week in 2022, with the Eastern Pascha (Easter) falling on April 24.

Palm Sunday: Christians begin Holy Week with processions and palms

Palm branches, crowd

Palm branches on Palm Sunday, in the Philippines. Photo by Lawrence OP, courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, APRIL 10: With Easter on the horizon and the Passion of Jesus at hand, Western Christians begin preparations for the pivotal week to come on Palm Sunday, commemorating Jesus’s ceremonial entry into Jerusalem. Holy Week commences with Palm Sunday, and according to all four canonical Gospels, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. In joyful exultation, the crowds that had gathered in Jerusalem laid down clothing and small branches in his path.

EASTERN CHRISTIANS will mark Palm Sunday one week later, on April 17, in 2022.

THE PALM BRANCH: A MULTI-FACETED SYMBOL

Thousands of years ago, palm branches symbolized integrity and triumph. The palm-branch symbol sometimes showed up on coins and decorated important buildings and temples. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and many Protestant congregations, palm fronds are blessed and distributed on Palm Sunday. Though local species of branches may be substituted where palm fronds are unavailable—for example, box, yew, willow and olive branches are also used, among others—the branch most widely distributed is the palm. In some parishes, a procession also occurs on this Sunday. The blessed palms, regarded as sacred objects in the Catholic Church, are often kept behind household crucifixes or holy pictures and, tradition says, these fronds could be burned at next year’s Ash Wednesday services.

PALM BRAIDING

Every year our readers ask for tips on palm braiding, so here are this year’s best tips:

Watch tutorials on palm braiding, or use step-by-step instructions, with help from YouTube, Catholic Inspired and Fish Eaters.

In countries where palm fronds are widely available, such as Spain and Mexico, the weaving of intricate designs and figures is common practice on Palm Sunday. In Latvia, pussy willows are blessed and, traditionally, used to swat children awake on the morning of Palm Sunday. In Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria, Palm Sunday is an occasion for family and is extremely popular, complete with palm weaving, processions and a splashing of holy water. In the Philippines, Jesus’ entry in Jerusalem is reenacted.

St. Patrick’s Day: Wear green, embrace Irish culture and honor a fourth-century saint

St. Patrick, stained glass

St. Patrick. Photo by James Walsh, courtesy of Flickr

THURSDAY, MARCH 17: As pandemic restrictions continue to lift and more cities return to the parades and festivals that often signify St. Patrick’s Day, revelers around the world remember the legendary Saint Patrick of Ireland—while embracing the Irish culture through food, music, costuming and more.

WHO WAS THE REAL ST. PATRICK?

The legendary patron saint of Ireland began life c. 385 CE, in Roman Britain. With a wealthy family whose patron was a deacon, the young man who would become known as St. Patrick led a comfortable life until his teenage years, when he was kidnapped and taken as a slave to Gaelic Ireland. During his six years in Ireland, Patrick gained a deeper Christian faith. When he dreamed that God told him to flee to the coast, Patrick did so—and traveled home to become a priest. Following ordination, however, another dream prompted Patrick to do what no one expected: to return to Ireland.

As a Christian in Ireland, Patrick worked to convert the pagan Irish. With a three-leaved shamrock in hand to explain the Holy Trinity to the pagans, St. Patrick converted many. St. Patrick died on March 17, 461 at Downpatrick.

Surprisingly, the most widely known saint from Ireland was never formally canonized by the Catholic Church. Since no formal canonization process existed in the Church’s first millennium, St. Patrick was deemed a saint only by popular acclaim and local approval.

PATRICK’S ‘BREASTPLATE’

St. Pat’s Day may be a secular bash in many communities, but it also has deep religious roots that matter to millions. The purest forms of religious expression, each year, occur—naturally—in Ireland. One of the most popular posts in the decade-long history of ReadTheSpirit is a collection of three versions of the famous prayer known as The Breastplate:

Versions 1 and 2: Here is St. Patrick’s Breastplate in English prose and in 19th Century lines of a hymn.
Version 3:
We also have St. Patrick’s Breastplate in Gaelic.

You probably remember some of the most famous lines from St. Patrick, such as:
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s host to save me

And also:
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me.

But, there is so much more to this classic prayer!

corned beef for St. Patrick's Day

Corned beef for St. Patrick’s Day. Photo by Larry Hoffman, courtesy of Flickr

A CHRISTIAN FEAST DAY—AND AN EPIC FESTIVAL

St. Patrick’s Day was made an official Christian feast day by the early 17th century, observed by the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Lutherans and members of the Church of Ireland. Today, countries the world over offer citizens and tourists Irish-themed foods, drinks and culture on March 17. Dances, processions, performances and more illustrate the vibrancy of Irish history—all set against the very Irish color of green.

In 1996, the Republic of Ireland began the St. Patrick’s Festival to highlight everything Irish to other world citizens; today, the festival lasts five days, attracts more than 1 million visitors and requires 18 months of planning. (Check out the St. Patrick’s Festival website for more.)

RECIPES, CRAFT IDEAS & MORE

Got dreams of hearty Irish stews, hot Reuben sandwiches and cold drinks? Get into the Irish spirit with these recipe ideas (and some crafts, too):

  • A plethora of easy-to-follow recipes, from brisket to soda bread, is at AllRecipes.
  • Kids can get into the spirit of the Irish with craft ideas from Parenting.com.

Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras): Christians mark ‘Fat Tuesday’ with tantalizing traditions

Stack of pancakes on plate with raspberries

In the United Kingdom, pancakes have been a part of Shrove Tuesday for so long that the day has all but been renamed “Pancake Day.” Photo courtesy of fshoq! blog.

TUESDAY, MARCH 1: Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Carnivale, Pancake Day—all describe the massive celebration that takes place one day before the start of the Christian season of Lent, this year celebrated on March 1. So empty those cupboards and refrigerators and dine on in sweet paczkis, delicate crepes, spongy pancakes and even a King Cake, before beginning the fast that begins the Western Christian Lenten season.

Woman holding stack of three paczki donuts, Fat Tuesay

Paczkis are a popular treat on Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday. Photo by Kurman Communications, Inc., courtesy of Flickr

SHROVE TUESDAY, CARNE LEVARE & PANCAKES

For centuries, Christians have gathered their supply of sugar, butter, eggs and other rich foods on Fat Tuesday, cooking up an array of tempting treats and clearing the home of these foods in anticipation of Lenten fasting. In England, pancakes are topped with fruits and creams, cooking herbs and other savory flavors; in Poland and Lithuania, fried donuts and paczkis are more common. Swedes and Finns cook up semla pastries, and in the United States—well, any number of these treats can be seen on Fat Tuesday.

Did you know? In the UK and Ireland, the week prior to Ash Wednesday is known as “Shrovetide,” ending on Shrove Tuesday and always involving pancakes. Shrove Tuesday is derived from the word shrive, which means, “to confess.”

Originally, Fat Tuesday (or, in French, Mardi Gras) was known as “Shrove Tuesday,” which derived from shrive, meaning, “to confess.” Tradition has it that Christians not only clear indulgence from their systems in a physical way on Fat Tuesday, but also clear themselves on a spiritual level, too. Confession has long been common on the day before Ash Wednesday, so that Lent may begin with a “clear plate.”

Bread & faith: Find an array of bread-based recipes, along with stories of the deep connection between baking together and and sharing various faith traditions, in the book Flavors of Faith: Holy Breads.

The popular Carnival associated with Mardi Gras, primarily celebrated in Portuguese-, Spanish- and Italian-speaking countries, derives from carne levare, meaning “to take away flesh/meat.” Street processions abound in Brazil and Venice for Carnival.

PANCAKE RACES! In the United Kingdom, pancakes have been a part of Shrove Tuesday for so long that the day has all but been renamed “Pancake Day.” One of the longest-running pancake races has been held annually since 1445, in Olney at Buckinghamshire. One legend goes that a housewife was once so busy making pancakes that she lost track of time, and when she heard the church bells ringing, she ran out of the house still carrying her frying pan. (Despite a hiatus for the COVID pandemic, the world-famous race in Olney will resume this year, in 2022! Find more information here.)

Gluten-free? Find a roundup of gluten-free pancake recipes, along with making everything from blintzes to Swedish pancakes, at Gluten Free on a Shoestring.

FROM GUMBO AND JAMBALAYA TO SEMLA BUNS: INTERNATIONAL RECIPES

An array of recipes from around the world can bring all of the day’s tastes to your table!

Meatfare Sunday, Cheesefare Sunday: Orthodox Christians prepare for Great Lent

Meat dish on plate with vegetables

Photo by ahrimon19, courtesy of Pixabay

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 27 and SUNDAY, MARCH 6: Lent is quickly approaching for the world’s 2 billion Christians, and on February 27, Eastern Orthodox churches take the first steps toward their traditional Lenten fast with Meatfare Sunday (also referred to as the Sunday of the Last Judgment). After Meatfare Sunday, no meat may be consumed until Pascha (Easter).

One week later, Cheesefare Sunday will mark the discontinuation of partaking in dairy products until Pascha. For Orthodox Christians, Great Lent begins the day following Cheesefare Sunday, on Clean Monday—this year, March 7.

MEATFARE SUNDAY (THE LAST JUDGMENT )

On Meatfare Sunday, or the Sunday of the Last Judgment, emphasis is placed on the Second Coming and Last Judgment—a time when Christ (in the Gospel of Matthew) refers to coming in glory with the angels to judge the living and the dead. While the opportunity exists, the faithful are encouraged to repent. The parable of the Last Judgment points out that Christ will judge on love: How well one has shared God’s love, and how deeply one has cared for others.

Looking to cook up a delicious meat dish today?  Find recipes at Allrecipes, Southern Living and Food Network.

Bowl of yogurt with raspberries

Photo courtesy of Pxhere

CHEESEFARE SUNDAY (AND FORGIVENESS)

Great Lent commences for Eastern Christians on the day following Cheesefare Sunday, on Clean Monday—but the faithful already are cleaning their slates today, by asking forgiveness and preparing to eliminate dairy from their diets until Pascha. (Dairy is permitted on Cheesefare Sunday, but not from the day following.) In the Orthodox church, this year, March 1 is Forgiveness Sunday (also known as Cheesefare Sunday).

On the search for dairy recipes? Find recipes from Eating Well, Food Network and Dairy Goodness, a recipe collection from the Dairy Farmers of Canada.

Throughout Great Lent and until Pascha (Easter), Eastern Christians will fast from meat and dairy products and only consume oil and wine on occasion.

Starting on the evening of Forgiveness Sunday, the Vespers of Forgiveness will signal the first liturgy of Great Lent; the service will end when attendees ask forgiveness from both fellow congregation members and the priest. If you have Orthodox friends and colleagues, this is a moving liturgy to attend, as the process of forgiveness often is deeply personal for the faithful.