Planning for Lent and Easter

The liturgical season of Lent begins with the solemn observance of Ash Wednesday and continues for six weeks, culminating with the church's joyous celebration of Easter. Also, during the period of Holy Week, which begins with Passion/Palm Sunday, churches around the world have special worship services on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and on Saturday--the Great Vigil of Easter.

The word Lent is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word for springtime, which is a literal translation of the lengthening of the days. In the early church, the Lenten period was used as a time for preparing new converts for Baptism on Easter Sunday. Today it is a time for preparation, reflection, growth, and change. The forty-day period of Lent was established in the middle of the fourth century.

(Sundays are not included in the count, since Sundays are considered "little Easters," all of which celebrate the resurrection.)

The liturgical color for Lent is purple, a solemn color, a color for royalty and repentance. The liturgical color for Easter Sunday and the Sundays between Easter and Pentecost is white, signifying purity. White is the liturgical color also for Christmastide and All Saints' Day (November 1).

Shrove Tuesday, the eve of Lent, has become a time for celebrating. Also known as Fat Tuesday, it is a traditional day to serve pancakes and eat all the foods that will be forbidden during the fasting of Lent. "Shrove" is derived from the Latin word for "shriven" or "confessing of sins." The Mardi Gras (French for "Fat Tuesday") celebrations in Mobile, Alabama, and New Orleans include parades and parties, while the German celebration Fasnact (eve of fasting) includes eating special donuts.

Ash Wednesday is the official beginning of the Lenten season. It is a day of prayer and public confession of sins. In some churches the sign of the cross is made with ashes on the foreheads of believers. The early Israelites took the ashes from burnt offerings, mixed them with water, and sprinkled them over unclean persons (sinners) and their belongings (Numbers 19:17-18). In the third century, the church began the custom of burning the branches used on Palm Sunday; saving the ashes and marking sinners, such as robbers and murderers with these ashes. Out of sympathy, family and friends of these 'marked' persons began using the ashes also.

Palm or Passion Sunday is a day of change from the joyful celebration of Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem to the solemn knowledge of what lies ahead for him in the coming week. The custom of waving olive twigs in the procession began in the fourth century. It was not until about 400 years later that palm branches were first used, and they continue to be used today.

Maundy Thursday (from the Latin word "mandatum" or "commandment") focuses on the Lord's Supper and the new commandment to love one another.

Good Friday was probably first called God's Friday. On this day we remember Christ's suffering and death on the cross.

Easter and the seven weeks following is the oldest, celebrated liturgical season of the church year. The season of Easter ends with the Day of Pentecost, fifty days after Easter.

Suggested Activities for Lent

The following activities are some suggestions for all church (AC), families (F), adult (A), youth (Y), and children's (C) groups to use during the season of Lent. Key(s) follow each title for easier selection for a designated group.

Bulletin Board or Newsletter Devotions (AC)

Suggestion 1: If your pastor is preaching a sermon series during Lent, use the church bulletin board and newsletter to emphasize the subject.

Suggestion 2: Use the newsletter and/or bulletin board to do a series of devotionals for Lent, changing them weekly. (The "I am. . ." statements of Jesus in the Gospel of John or similar topics make effective bulletin boards.)

Suggestion 3: Invite members of the congregation to write personal articles of what Lent means to them and publish these in the church newsletter.

Suggestion 4: Have a bulletin board display of children's artwork on the symbols of Lent. Change displays weekly to include all contributions.

Suggestion 5: Develop a "Lenten Calendar" similar to an Advent Calendar with suggested verses to read during Lent and publish it weekly in your church newsletter or bulletin.

Shrove Tuesday (AC & Y)

Celebrate the beginning of Lent with a pancake supper and related games. This is a good fund-raising activity for summer youth mission trips.

Scripture Chain (F)

On purple strips of paper, print a Bible verse to be used every day in Lent. Each day during Lent, read one verse, memorize it, if possible, and add the paper strip to the chain. This could be an all-church activity if the suggested references were printed in the church bulletin each week, or in the church newsletter.

Symbols (AD, Y, C, & F)

The seasons of Lent and Easter are excellent times for making and learning about the many rich symbols of the Christian faith. Information about symbols representing Jesus, God, the Holy Spirit, the disciples, the cross, and the church are widely available. Encourage the Christian Education Committee to make available pictures and information about the various symbols and suggest that children draw and cut them out. One good way to make symbols is to cut them out of white felt and back them with tagboard. You may want to consider making a bulletin board of symbols during Lent and ask members of the church to contribute the symbols they make.

Ukrainian Easter Eggs (A & Y)

This is a great Lent/Easter workshop activity for use with adults and youth. If the activity is part of a church night event, plan alternative activities for younger children because of the hazardous materials used in making these eggs. True Ukrainian egg dyes are toxic. Lighted candles are also used in the process. Use a well-ventilated room for the work and provide several eggs per person. Raw eggs break easily, and it often takes two or three tries before success. Make sure you have a booklet that explains the symbols used, if you want to be authentic. For supplies (stylus, wax, dyes) and instructions, see Learn PysankyYevshan, or Ukrainian Gift Shop. You will need one stylus per person; wax to share and six to eight colors of dye (yellow, pink, orange, blue, green, red, dark red, dark purple, dark blue and/or black). Each packet of dye will color approximately 12 to 18 eggs before losing its strength. Once mixed, dyes can be stored in glass jars with tight-fitting lids. Once decorated and cured, Ukrainian eggs will last indefinitely.

Fish Prayers (C)

Let children cut out a large fish outline on colored paper and then write a prayer on the fish. Tack a fish net to a wall or bulletin board and let children put their "fish prayers" in the net.

Catacombs (Y)

After the Good Friday evening service, darken the church and lead youth groups on a candlelight walk (flashlight candles for safety, please) into the darkest recesses of the church, while maintaining total silence. If your group is large, you may want to divide into several groups and use different pathways to reach a predetermined meeting area. When all have gathered again, turn off all but one flashlight and have a worship service. The idea is to help youth experience the danger and secrecy of an early Christian church gathering. The worship time can be known as a Service of Shadows (Tenebrae) with readings from the Gospels that relate the shadows of betrayal, inner agony, loneliness, desertion, accusation, mockery, and the death of Jesus.

Home Devotions (F & C)

Select one evening each week for "Family Night" during Lent. Your activities can include preparing special food for the evening meal (Easter foods from around the world is a great option), the singing of hymns, Bible reading, a story, discussion, prayer, and a related activity. This would be a good time to invite persons who live alone and couples without children at home to join with other families to have an extended church family.

Devotional Guide (AC, A, Y, C, & F)

Invite members of the congregation (or targeted group) to write reflections on a Scripture verse or story, or write a poem or a prayer related to the Lent/Easter season. Print these in booklet form and distribute them to the appropriate groups to use as daily or weekly devotions during Lent. This could be a yearlong activity, so start planning this year for next Lent and Easter season.

Statement of Faith (Y)

If your congregation plans training so that persons make public professions of faith during Lent/Easter, have each person write his or her own Statement of Faith. Statements can be printed in booklet form and distributed to the consistory as part of the examination of those making profession of faith, printed in the newsletters, and shared orally during a worship service.

Preparing for Worship (C)

If your church has a nursery for younger children, hold special classes for kindergarten or rising kindergarten students about the meaning of worship and how your particular church worships each Sunday. Prepare certificates for the children, print their names in the bulletin and church newsletter, and welcome them during a worship service as full participating members of the worshiping congregation.

Computer Software Application (A, Y, & C)

There are some excellent software programs that can be used for study groups or individuals during Lent/Easter. Some of the software comes with study guides, but for the majority, you will need to develop your own guides. If you are a regular, computer-friendly church in your educational ministries, check out the Sunday School Software catalog (call 800-678-1948) for the latest and most effective software to use during Lent.

"NET" (AC, Y, C, & F)

If your church is on the "net," develop special web pages for each category of users for the "seeking surfers" to use during Lent/Easter. Be careful not to break any copyright laws by putting copyrighted materials on the Web, which can be downloaded or printed, without obtaining prior permission from the author or publisher.

Scavenger Hunt (C)

Using symbols of Holy Week (torn curtain, dice, sponge and vinegar, bowl and towel, wooden cross, alabaster vase, nails, 30 silver coins, thorn cross, palm branches, chalice, grapes, wine bottle, loaf of unsliced bread, donkey, rock, praying hands, rooster), have a Bible scavenger hunt where children either find the Bible reference for the object or, if given the Bible reference, draw a picture of the symbol.

Flower Cross (C)

Make a cross about four feet high with a stand to hold it upright. Cover the front of the cross with wire mesh. On Easter Sunday have the children bring fresh-cut flowers to place on the cross. Secure these to the cross by placing the stems in the mesh. Have extra flowers on hand to fill in any gaps in the cross. Leave the cross outside the sanctuary door for the week after Easter.

This article was written by Carolyn Templeton

Using This Article

1. Make copies of the article for the pastor, members of the Christian Education Committee, and church school leaders. Encourage them to read it and use ideas they find helpful in preparing for Lent and Easter.

2. Use the ideas in the article to make bulletin boards, solicit articles for the church newsletter, and for including suggested daily Bible readings in the worship bulletin each week.

3. Plan one or two church night events during Lent and Easter to learn about these seasons of the liturgical year through worship, making symbols, and other activities.

4. Begin this year by preparing a daily devotional booklet for members of the congregation to use during Lent and Easter in the coming year.

This article is adapted and reprinted from Alert, February 1999. Vol. 28, No. 4, pages 6-8. Carolyn Templeton is a retired Christian Educator in the Presbyterian Church (USA).