Easter, as for all Christians, was the most important ceremony in the Anglo-Saxon liturgical year. For monastic communities abstinence and penitential repentance began on Septuagesima, the ninth Sunday before Easter with the omission of the Alleluia and the Gloria in Excelsis Deo from the order of service. Dietary restrictions began with the giving up of lard from the same day. Foods made with eggs and milk were to be given up from Quinquagesima, and all meat from Ash Wednesday.
Ash Wednesday as the first day of Lent was the occasion for two important penitential rites. A general Ashing would be carried out in which blessed ashes were placed on the heads of the congregation. In monastic communities the abbot would bless ashes after None had been sung and put them on the heads of all persons present. The assembled monks would then proceed barefoot to another church where they would sing the saint’s antiphon, recite the Lord’s prayer and the psalm, “To thee have a I lifted up my eyes,” before returning to the mother church for Mass. This procession was carried out on Wednesdays and Fridays up to Maunday Thursday.
Ash Wednesday was also the occasion on which those who had committed grave public sins were expelled from the Church and required to perform penance during Lent. For church canons this involved public expulsion from the church and an act of public penance whereby the expelled canon was required to prostrate himself at the door of the church at the beginning of the service, allowing all to step over his body on entering. After all had entered the penitent could rise and stand at the door of the church until the service was over. Lay persons guilty of capital crimes were also barred from entering the church, from accepting the kiss of peace, and taking part in communion. Meat, wine, and copulation with their wife was banned and they were not permitted to bathe, shave, cut their nails, or sleep under coverings. They were also to wear a hairshirt and go unarmed and barefoot.
Within the church the relics and crosses were concealed and a veil placed between the people and the Sanctum Sanctorum. From Ash Wednesday monastic communities were advised by Ælfric of Eynsham to prostrate themselves on the floor of the church at the conclusion of each liturgical hour and recite two psalms, the Kyrie eleison, ‘Our Father’, the preces pro peccatis, and a collect. This was to take place at Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sect, None, Vespers, and Compline. Brothers were also forbidden to shave on any other day than mid-Lent Saturday.
On Maunday Thursday those who had been expelled from the church and who had met the requirements of their penance were reaccepted into the fold by the bishop and absolved of their sin. The mid eleventh century Canterbury Benedictional describes a ceremony in which the penitent and the bishop prostrated themselves before the altar and sang the seven penitential psalms and other chants. Following an order of prayers the bishop would rise and offer prayers for the penitent, chant litanies and speak five orations. The penitent would be raised by the bishop and turned towards the altar before the bishop delivered a short benediction and admonition requiring the penitent to, “abandon at once slackness in the present life and in the future … pray constantly, give alms in as far as he is able, live the fast, stand for vigils with holy orations, with purity in body as well as spirit, and above all have love.”
Twenty-four candles would be lit and extinguished one by one at each antiphon and responsory to represent the departure of the sun as the light of Christ during the swigdagan, the ‘Silent Days’. After Chapter monks would remove their shoes and wash the church floor. The priest would wash the altars. After Sext a mass for the poor would be held and the feet of the men would be washed and kissed. After water had been poured over their hands the poor would receive food from the abbot. After Vespers the altars would be stripped to commemorate the stripping of Christ’s garments.
On Langa Frige-daeg (Good Friday)no Mass was celebrated in commemoration of the day on which Christ was crucified. The Passion was celebrated after which communion was taken by the congregation. On Easter Saturday the Paschal candle would be lit at None and the font would be blessed. At Nocturns on Easter Day the Great Easter Vigil would begin. Infants and adult catechumenate’s would be baptized and Mass would be celebrated to mark the first official celebration of the resurrection of Christ.
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