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Thu, May 23

Column: Celebrate the year's holiest time

The three holiest days in the Christian calendar are Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter. They mark the end of Lent, a time of prayer, penance, fasting, and finally the joy of the resurrection. The Last Supper of Christ and his disciples has inspired great works of art - especially Leonardo da Vinci's 16th century "Last Supper" and the glorious stained glass window of Chartres cathedral in France.

Passover, which covers this entire week, is the most popular Jewish holiday. Family and friends gather mostly in homes to celebrate a ritual meal (seder) that marks the Israelites' exodus from Egypt and deliverance from bondage to freedom. An increasing number of Christian churches, citing the Jewish roots of Christianity, now offer versions of Passover.

Ramadan is the holiest month of the Islamic calendar and one of the five Pillars of Islam. Muslims will spend this August fasting from dawn to sunset. They will also be engaged in almsgiving, prayer, and reading the Quran. The fasting is figuratively believed to burn away all sins. The first verses of the Quran are said to have been revealed to Muhammad at this time.

Holy Thursday commemorates the Last Supper of Christ with his 12 apostles. This was four days after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Maundy Thursday is sometimes used to describe the day, especially in England. Maundy is derived from Latin meaning commandment. Popes have reinstated Jesus' washing the feet of his disciples and now many Christian bishops follow this example.

Holy Thursday celebrates the three pillars of Christianity - the sacrament of Holy Communion, the priesthood and the Mass or Protestant service. At the Last Supper, Christ told his disciples that, when they took bread and wine, to do so in remembrance of Him. He was bestowing the priesthood on his apostles. Every ordained priest offers, by Christ's authority and command, the sacrifice of His death with the words "Do this in remembrance of me." Christ instituted the Mass with the same words. Tradition holds that Jesus also expressed the need for baptism (cleansing with water).

The Holy Thursday Christian service in Prescott and elsewhere is meant as a witness to the church's esteem for Jesus' body in the consecrated host and wine. It will be "entombed" as a sacred vessel until the Resurrection. Church members will continue with an adoration vigil before the Blessed Sacrament throughout the nights. This is in the tradition of the apostles who remained with Christ during his agony on the Mount of Olives. He was later betrayed by Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Lent, in its time of reflection and penance, represents the 40 days that Christ spent alone in the wilderness before beginning his ministry. Christians believe he turned away various temptations of the devil.

Easter is the most festive day of the Christian year. The expressions "Glory in the Highest" and "Alleluia" return to religious services. Organ music and hymns are often backed by trumpets, trombones, guitars and other musical instruments. There is usually more standing among worshippers, instead of kneeling, at these services as a symbol of the Resurrection. Sanctuaries are often decorated with banners and flowers, especially white lilies. White is the liturgical color of holiness.

The paschal candle is often lit in many Christian houses of worship. It is a large white candle and an ancient symbol of the risen Christ. These candles are inscribed with a cross, the current year and the Greek letters alpha and omega - the beginning and end - signifying the presence of God with mankind forever. Oftentimes, grains of incense, symbolizing the five wounds of Jesus, are pressed into the center of the candle. It may shine continuously throughout the Great 50 Days until extinguished on Jesus' Ascension Day.

In Prescott and other cities, Easter would not be complete without traditional Easter egg hunts and candy bunnies. The two were originally pagan symbols in ancient Egypt and later Europe as signs of fertility and new life. All of this has been summed up in St. John's gospel when Jesus said: "Love one another, as I have loved you." Happy Easter!

J.J. Casserly is a longtime newsman and author

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