Jesus taught us clearly that there is no resurrection without the Cross, and Lent is the Church’s great spiritual journey as she, the Bride of Christ, joins her Divine spouse in His great suffering on our behalf. Basically, you don’t get the joy of Easter without the self-sacrifice of Lent; the disciples of Jesus follow in his footsteps . . . including the bloody ones. Here’s a rundown of everything major you need to know about the Lenten season, the 40+ days of penance to prepare our hearts Easter, the greatest of all Christian feasts.
February 14th is the traditional day of celebration for lovers. It’s the proper occasion for writing love letters and sending tokens of love to those who have captured your heart. This custom began in Europe during the High Middle Ages, the pinnacle of the age of courtly love, and is captured in immemorial English literature as the mid-Feburary day when birds (and lovers) first begin to pair.
To celebrate Epiphany, the manifestation of Jesus as the Son of God and the Light of the World, there exists an ancient custom of the faithful having their homes and buildings blessed with Epiphany water, and the entryways chalked with a ‘holy formula’: The current New Year along with the initials C, M, B, which are the initials of the Magi as well as the initials of the invocation Christus Mansionem Benedicat (Christ bless this house). This marks their homes and buildings, and all that belongs to them, under the dominion of the newborn Christ the King.
The end of the octave is the end of the Christmas feast proper, after which begins the longer Christmas season that extends either to the Baptism of the Lord for the Ordinary Form of the Mass (usually the Sunday after Epiphany) or the Purification of Mary for the Extraordinary Form of the Mass (February 2 – Candlemas). However this understanding of a proper Christmas ‘feast’ in some Eastern traditions is also associated with the 12 Days of Christmas which culminates on Epiphany. Confusing? You bet. Unfortunately the confusion is not cleared by going deeper into Church history.
There are many beautiful and ancient traditions that come to us from the East in the form of special blessings that the Church performs on Epiphany: the blessing of water, chalk, and homes.
We can’t imagine a Nativity scene without those three royal travelers wearing jeweled crowns and rich robes, holding out their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh for the newborn King of the Jews, while Mary and Joseph look on in wonder. This is the biblical event we celebrate each Christmas season on January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany.
There is a reason why Christmas is called a season. It does not last for a single day. After Easter, it is the most important liturgical feast in the Church calendar. Why? Because Christmas is what made Easter possible. Without Our Lord’s incarnation and birth, our redemption would not have been brought to completion, and there would be no hope for us in our fallen state.
So first, we celebrate the octave of Christmas. This means that there are eight official solemn days of rejoicing. In the language of the Church, the word “solemn” does not mean what our common use of the word defines it as. It doesn’t mean being grim, serious, or morose.
According to a simple definition: “In the Catholic Church year, a solemnity is the highest ranking holy day possible in the Church calendar…” These are days that are emphasized by particular joy, lavishness, pomp, and glory.
Nativity scenes have been a popular Advent and Christmas decoration for centuries. And, did you know, it originated with a Catholic saint? St. Francis of Assisi had a special devotion to the Child Jesus, and he is credited with creating the first nativity scene on Christmas Eve of the year 1223. He recreated the scene of Christ’s birth in a special ritual and Mass he held inside of a cave, inviting both his fellow friars and the townspeople to join in the celebration.
Christmas is hardly imaginable without the beloved Christmas tree. Did you know this tradition began with a single heroic act of a Benedictine monk turned missionary bishop? Listen to the story here.
As I began to incorporate these traditions into the Advent season, I found that our home became a a humble place to show our preparation for coming of Jesus at Christmas. I was immediately struck by the Jesse Tree because of the teaching moments involved. Starting with Creation, the Jesse Tree follows the story of salvation history and is based on the verses in Isaiah and Matthew that speak of Jesse, the father of King David.