If I had a bottle of single malt scotch for every time over the past 43 years that I’ve been asked the question, “Father, when does Lent end?” I could open a bar! Now, folks, I’m not as naive as to think people are just interested in the more subtler aspects of liturgical history and practice. I suspect, lurking in this question is an ulterior motive! Be that as it may, I hope that the following response to that yearly question might prove helpful.
The 40 days of Lent are a spiritual preparation for the central feast of the Christian calendar, Easter. Liturgical theology views the Easter celebration from a three-fold perspective in what is called the Sacred Paschal or Easter Triduum. The Easter Triduum begins with the celebration of the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper and concludes with the celebration of Evening Prayer, or Vespers, on Easter Sunday. The Easter Triduum, then, consists of the liturgical celebrations of the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, the Celebration of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday and culminating in the Great Easter Vigil, that is extended into the Easter morning Masses. These liturgical celebrations are viewed as three parts of a single liturgical ‘mystery,’ that we understand as the remembrance of the Lord’s dying and rising – the very essence of our Christian faith.
An often-missed liturgical cue that reflects the integrated harmony of these three celebrations, can be seen in how they begin and end. The Holy Thursday Mass begins in the normal fashion with the Sign of the Cross and liturgical Greeting of the assembly. However, at its conclusion, there is no ‘Dismissal’ of the assembly. Rather, the liturgy concludes with the solemn procession with whatever Eucharistic bread that remains from the Mass, to the place of reposition so that it might be distributed at the Good Friday liturgy. The Good Friday liturgy, the only day in the Liturgical calendar in which Mass is not celebrated, is actually an ancient liturgy whose origins go back to the liturgy celebrated in Jerusalem around the 4th century. In pre-conciliar times, it would sometimes be referred to as the “Mass of the Pre-sanctified.” This liturgy does not begin with the Sign of the Cross or Greeting but simply with the Opening Prayer or Collect. Neither is there a dismissal given at its conclusion. Following the Concluding Prayer, the rubric merely states that “all depart in silence.” The instructions for the beginning of the Great Easter Vigil are fascinating. Prior to the 3rd edition of the Roman Missal, that was published in 2010, there was no mention of a Sign of the Cross or Greeting of the People at the beginning of the Blessing of the Easter Fire. In the revision of the Missal, however, reference is made to the Sign of the Cross and Greeting, but only in the instructional rubric – as if it were an afterthought – with the primary focus on the Instruction, which forms the solemn beginning of The Easter Vigil. It is only at the end of this symbolically rich liturgy, that we hear the elaborate Dismissal that incorporates a triple Alleluia!
Consequently, these three solemn and unique liturgies are three dimensions of a single celebration, extended in time, to remember in a timeless fashion, the dying and rising of the Lord.
So, when does Lent end? Lent ends when Easter begins. And, Easter begins with the Solemn celebration of the Paschal Triduum, at the beginning of the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Super on Holy Thursday.
A note to followers of this Blog, because of the richness in themes during Holy Week and the Paschal Triduum, I will be posting each day beginning on Wednesday of Holy Week and continuing through Easter Sunday.