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|This is the time before Easter. It lasts
for 40 days and begins on Ash Wednesday. It finishes with Maundy Thursday,
Good Friday, Holy Saturday and then Easter Sunday which is the biggest
festival of the Christian Calendar.
Across the world people celebrate the last day before the start of Lent in wild and raucous gatherings. Shrove Tuesday doesn't sound too raucous but say "Mardi Gras" (The Spanish version) and you think of parades, carnivals and riotous times.
Traditionally people denied themselves a variety of things during Lent and so this day was the last chance for a while to enjoy the delights of what you were about to give up. In the UK this would include eggs, flour and sugar which were turned into pancakes. So many people refer to it as pancake day.
Lent is a time of sober reflection and it does give people the opportunity to try a different way of living for a while. People may give up meat and embrace vegetarianism for 6 weeks. They may give up something they are addicted to or crave such as sweet things or cigarettes.
Whatever they do, for a while they can see what it is like to live without something they find important. Many people decide not to give up something but to live in a more positive way. Acknowledging others, perhaps, or doing something positive that they do not normally do.
Prayer and reflection are important aspects of Lent. Spending time looking at our lives and enjoying the knowledge that whatever we have done, we can be redeemed. Nothing is unforgivable.
Just before the end of Lent we have the lowest point in the church's calendar. Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Maundy Thursday is the day of the Last Supper. The last meal that Jesus shared with his friends. The meal where he foretold that he would be betrayed by one of his closest allies.
The same night Judas Iscariot led in the soldiers to arrest Jesus and so began what is called the Passion of Christ.
Taken before the local religious leaders, who despised him, he was asked to answer charges made against him. The verdict was already decided - guilty - but they didn't have the power to punish him to the extent they wanted to so they handed him over to the Romans, the occupying power, to take matters further.
Pontius Pilate, the local Roman leader, was initially bemused by the request to have him put to death and had a conversation with Jesus. Finding nothing to punish him for he thought about setting him free.
The angry crowd didn't agree and Jesus was scourged. In those times serious whipping was a common punishment. Jesus was sentenced to 39 lashes. This was the most serious whipping you could be given without being whipped to death*.
So, Jesus was whipped almost to death, and then given back.
The religious leaders were incensed. They wanted the death penalty carried out and continued to lobby Pilate to force him to have Jesus executed. Eventually Pilate gave in and handed him over to the guard responsible for such duties while symbolically washing his hands.
The method commonly used by the Romans was crucifixion. Death by hanging on a cross - a slow painful death which suited people who liked public spectacle and were not afraid of watching other people suffer.
It was the custom for men to carry their own crosses to the place of crucifixion and Jesus was to be no exception. He was burdened with the cross and was set the task of climbing up the hill of Golgotha. A monumental task for anyone but for someone who had been whipped for such a long time it turned out to be beyond him and a man called Simon from a place called Cyrene was called upon to lend a hand.
Once at the top of the hill Jesus was not to be crucified on his own. This was to be no special event. He was to be crucified with a couple of criminals who had also been sentenced to death.
If you are squeamish click here to skip the description of the crucifixion.
Attaching the condemned men to the cross was done with nails hammered through the wrists and ankles. This would be done while the cross was lying on the ground and then the cross would be lifted up and dropped into the hole.
Once in place the condemned man would have a dreadful time changing their weight from the agony in their wrists to the agony in their lower legs. Hanging from their wrists gave a brief respite to the massive pain in their legs but put too much pressure on their chests and they could not breathe.
The human spirit trying to survive would push up at the legs and the round of torture would go on and on until exhausted they would suffocate. It was common for this to go on for many, many hours.
Jesus had been tried and sentenced to death in the run up to Passover (Pesach) a huge religious festival which had to be respected. There was a worry that the deaths may not happen in time and there was discussion among the people gathered there about breaking the men's legs so that they would not be able to push up and so their death would be hastened.
When they looked at Jesus they could see that he was already dead, but a soldier pierced him with a spear to make sure.
The rush was then on to get the body down and buried as sunset was approaching and everything would have to be done before the sun went down to show respect for the important holy day.
A tomb was provided by a rich man (Joseph of Arimathea) and the body laid in it with the promise that people would come back and carry out the necessary preparation of the body after Passover. Guards were set by the Romans to ensure the body was not stolen.
Taking the Friday of the crucifixion as the first day the second day was Passover - when nothing could be done - the third day, the Sunday was the first opportunity to return to the tomb. The women went to properly lay out the body and when they got there the tomb was empty.
There then followed the most amazing series of events with Jesus rejoining his friends, in person for a while showing that he had risen from the dead.
That Sunday is now marked as the most significant date in the Christian Calendar and is remembered each year as Easter.
* 40 is a very important number in the Bible. Some scholars say that it is a way of saying "an awful lot of".