Sometimes the strangest things pop into your head. And occasionally they are about things you have taken for granted for your entire life. When I was a kid I was raised as a Roman Catholic, going to Mass every Sunday until I was in my early twenties. Just from the readings I could argue that I had covered most of the New Testament and a fair bit of the Old Testament. Since schools in Newfoundland were denominational at the time, I had also had a solid grounding in Church History and doctrine (I had more fun with the history). Finally, I was a bit interested in other faiths, including Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Baha’i, etc. So I thought I could answer most common questions about the basics of Christianity in general and the Roman Catholic Church in particular. Thus goes hubris.
This afternoon I was thinking a little about the history and meaning of Good Friday. Then I wondered why it was called “Good“; I may have been told as a child but I couldn’t recall it. Then I thought about Easter, and wondered where that name came from. After all, if you want the word East involved in a Christian religious day, something related to Christmas and the star in the East would make more sense. Then I tried to come up with other strange names associated with the religious days of the Lenten season but came up empty.
“Hold on! Where does the word Lent come from?”
Here is the result of my googling ( a favourite pastime) on the subject.
- Easter: In English and German it seems to come from Eostre, an Anglo Saxon goddess of fertility, according to the Venerable Bede. Her holiday was in Eostremonuth ( April). In other languages the etymology links back to the Hebrew Passover.
- Lent: Before the Middle ages, English Christians used the Latin term quadragesima (40th). During the Middle Ages they changed it to Lent, which comes from the English and German word for spring. So this one is more obvious to me. So the next question is how spring replaced lencten (ye Olde English). Spring is also Old English, and refers to a spring of water, or a wellspring, so I guess the relation to the season was due to the thaw as the weather warmed up and the ice melted. Then when lencten became associated with the religious observance, they used spring for the season?
- Good Friday: English and Dutch are among the few languages that refer to this day as good. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia the rationale or etymology is not clear. It could be from God’s Friday or the germanic Gute Freitag. In many languages the holiday is named Holy Friday. Since the English speaking world was Catholic when the name was finalised, the source also had to be Catholic. Finally, one source argued that it was Good because Jesus died for our sins on that day, but this sounds like a explanation after the fact. Anyway, the simplest of these three words has the most obscure etymology.
The main Lenten holy days observed are:
- Ash Wednesday: 40 days before Palm Sunday. The ash represents the eastern tradition of repentance before God.
- Palm Sunday: the beginning of Holy Week. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a colt people put cloaks and small branches of trees on his path. The Palm leaves during services or Masses on that day commemorate this.
Finally, the holidays during Holy Week include Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. The origins of their names and of the Lenten holidays is obvious, except for the three mentioned above.
I’ll leave the Easter Bunny for a more prolific writer (excuse the triple pun).