The Easter Cycle
The Easter cycle comprises two periods: Lent and Easter. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, the day after a popular Catholic festival known as the Mardi Gras (French for “fat Tuesday”), a day of carnivals and celebrations.
In contrast, Ash Wednesday is a somber day. One popular custom is for parishioners to mark their foreheads with a thumbprint of ash from burned palms, reminding them of their sins.
After Ash Wednesday, Lent continues for a 40-day period of fasting, abstinence, and prayer; the last day of Lent is the Thursday before Easter.
The Catholic Church used to shroud statues and other icons as a way of showing mourning during the whole somber season of Lent and to hide the glory of the triumphant Christ. Today, this practice is generally limited to the fifth Sunday of Lent.
The greatest of all Catholic feasts takes place during Holy Week, the center of the Church year. Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday, the day of Jesus' arrival in Jerusalem, when he rode in on a donkey and was welcomed by people waving palm branches. Despite the joy of this reception, the purpose of this day is to remember the suffering Jesus was about to endure.
In the following week, Holy Thursday, the last day of Lent, celebrates the Last Supper; it is followed by Good Friday, the anniversary of Jesus' crucifixion. On Saturday, churches hold a special Mass, and during the night Catholics hold the Easter Vigil, which anticipates Jesus' Resurrection on the following day — the glorious day of Easter Sunday.
Each liturgical season has its own symbolic color: violet for Advent, white for the Christmas season, green for Epiphany, violet (again) for Lent, white and gold for Easter, and red for Pentecost. These colors appear in the vestments of the clergy and in church decorations.
Fifty days after Easter Sunday, the Church celebrates Pentecost, the day when the Holy Spirit descended to the disciples — often considered the birthday of the Church. Originally, the Feast of Ascension of Christ was also celebrated during Pentecost. By the late fourth century, its date had been moved back 10 days, and it is now celebrated 40 days after Easter. Pentecost completes the Easter cycle, and another period of ordinary time follows until the next Advent.