Revelers in New Orleans reportedly celebrated Mardi Gras this year as never before, including the news that the New Orleans Emergency Medical Services had their busiest day in their history. There were more than a million participants, including large numbers of young people determined to spend their college Spring break and their parents’ money at that city’s famous pre-Lenten festivities. Nonetheless, following a long custom, establishments closed their doors and police moved crowds out of the streets at midnight, the exact moment Ash Wednesday and the holy season of Lent begins.
The beginning of Lent reminds us that we are quite dependent on the physical movement of the moon for determining the date of Easter. In the earliest decades of the church, Christians celebrated the Eucharist every Sunday, even before one of those Sundays was to be designated as Easter Sunday. The earliest mention of an Easter liturgy is found in a document from Asia Minor, most likely from the first half of the second century. By the second half of that century, there is evidence that Pope Soter (166-175) established a yearly Easter feast in Rome. One of the reasons for establishing a yearly feast was to respond to the yearly Jewish Passover, and thus the Easter feast, like the Passover, was celebrated in the Spring.
Determining the date of Easter was filled with complications and controversy. Many believed Easter should be celebrated on a Sunday, for Jesus rose from the dead on a Sunday. Christians in Asia Minor, following a different kind of yearly calendar, believed that Easter did not have to always fall on a Sunday. A lot of the confusion follows from the gospels’ differing accounts of when the Passover was celebrated in the year Jesus died. Matthew, Mark and Luke’s gospels take it for granted that Jesus celebrated the Last Supper on the same day that the Jews were celebrating Passover. In John’s gospel, however, the Last Supper is assumed to have been celebrated the day before the Jewish Passover. Today most Christians celebrate Easter on a Sunday, calculated since the fourth century as the first Sunday after the first full moon after the first day of Spring. Some Christians still follow the other way of calculating, meaning that Easter may of may not fall on a Sunday. Not only the date for the beginning of Lent, but other major feasts, such as the Ascension and Pentecost, are determined by the date of Easter.
Lent, the period of forty days leading up to Easter, began as a period of final preparation for those who would be baptized at the Easter Vigil. Over sixteen centuries, this period of preparation evolved in different ways in different places, but this time was always seen as an opportunity for everyone to pray and support the baptismal candidates (catechumens), as a time for considering one’s ongoing conversion and need for reconciliation, and as an opportunity for renewal, a period of grace, and a time for sharing more fully in the mystery of the dying and rising of Jesus. For this reason the Church rightly prays in its first Lenten preface of the liturgy, “…by your gracious gift, each year your faithful await the sacred paschal feasts with the joy of minds made pure, so that, more eagerly intent on prayer and on the works of charity… they may be led to the fulness of grace that you bestow on your sons and daughters.”