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About Lent

by Jonathan Bennett and David Bennett

This article is reprinted from the website, ChurchYear.Net, which was started by brothers Jonathan and David Bennett in 2004, to provide accurate and easy-to-understand information about Christian holidays.

I. Lent Definition and Summary

Lent is a period of fasting leading up to Easter. The season is rooted in the 40-day fast of Jesus in the wilderness. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, and ends right before the evening Mass of Holy Thursday, although Lenten penance continues through Holy Saturday.

II. Basic Facts About Lent

  • Liturgical Color: Violet (Purple) Lent
  • Type of Holiday: Fast
  • Time of Year: Immediately following Ordinary Time after Epiphany; calendar date varies
  • Duration: Liturgically Lent lasts 44 Days, begins on Ash Wednesday and ends before the Paschal Triduum (and includes Sundays). The traditional Lenten fast is observed for 40 days, starting on Ash Wednesday, going through Holy Week, excluding Sundays.
  • Celebrates/Symbolizes: Jesus' wilderness fast; Preparation for Easter
  • Alternate Names: Great Lent
  • Scriptural References: Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13

III. Traditions

Many Christians throughout the world observe Lent. Catholic, Orthodox, and many Protestants benefit from this annual season of sacrifice and simplicity. For non-Christians, the observance of Lent may seem odd, since Christians voluntarily make sacrifices. Christians are simply imitating the practices and teachings of Jesus.

In reality, Lent ends up being different things, depending on the person. For some, it is a period of going on a diet; for others, it is when Catholic co-workers show up to work with ashes on their heads, and fast-food restaurants start selling fish sandwiches. So what exactly is Lent and where did it come from?

In basic terms, Lent is the season before Easter, in the Western Church, lasting liturgically from Ash Wednesday until the Mass of Holy Thursday exclusive (see General Norms for the Liturgical Year and Calendar). The evening of Holy Thursday begins the Paschal Triduum, which lasts from Holy Thursday to Evening Prayer II on Easter Sunday. However, Lenten fasting and penance continue until the end of Holy Week, and all of Holy Week is included in the traditional 40 day Lenten fast, despite Lent ending liturgically on Holy Thursday.

While Sundays are typically excluded from fasting and abstinence restrictions, and are not numbered in the traditional "40 Days" of Lent, they are still part of the Lenten season, as can be seen from their Lenten themes. Thus, the way Lent is observed in the Catholic Church can seem a bit tricky, because the actual modern liturgical season (lasting 44 days, including Sundays) is numbered slightly differently than the traditional 40 day Lenten fast, which excludes Sundays.

The purpose of Lent is to be a season of fasting, self-denial, spiritual growth, conversion, and simplicity. Lent, which comes from the Teutonic (Germanic) word for springtime, can be viewed as a spiritual spring cleaning: a time for taking spiritual inventory and then cleaning out those things which hinder our relationship with Jesus Christ and our service to him.

Thus it is fitting that the season of Lent begin with a symbol of repentance: placing ashes mixed with oil on one's head or forehead. However, we must remember that our Lenten disciplines are supposed to ultimately transform our entire person: body, soul, and spirit, and help us become more like Christ. Eastern Christians call this process theosis, which Saint Athanasius describes as "becoming by grace what God is by nature."

There are a few basic tasks that traditionally have been associated with Lent. Many of these have a long history. These are fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. In addition, reading the scriptures and the Church's writings can help one grow during the season. Let's look at each of these suggestions individually.

The Western Rite of the Catholic Church expects its members age 18 to 59 to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, unless a physical condition prevents it. This means only one full meal is permitted in a fast day. The Fridays of Lent are days of required abstinence, meaning meat, and soups containing meat, are not permitted. Abstinence is required of those age 14 and older. Most Protestant churches that celebrate Lent do not have these official requirements. However, when we "give something up" for Lent, we are embracing a form of fasting, an excellent spiritual discipline. Eastern Christians have a more rigorous fast, abstaining from meat, wine, oil, dairy products, and even fish.

Some people choose to give up sins (gossip, drunkenness, etc) for Lent. In this way, Lent represents a spiritual training time to overcome evil. Pope Saint Leo, for example, emphasized that fasting from wrath is required along with food. Some give up things they have a strong desire for, e.g. sweets, caffeine, etc. There are various things you can give up for Lent here. By giving these up, the person fasting learns to control a particular part of his or her life, which leads to greater self-discipline even when Lent is over. As such in Lent we are able to learn, examine, and get under control our material excesses. Whatever you decide to fast from, remember, as Steven Clark likes to say: "Lent is more than a diet." Lent is about spiritual results, not material ones. So, while losing a few pounds may be a nice side benefit, all fasting should be done for God's glory and spiritual growth.

Lent is a perfect time to develop or strengthen a discipline of regular prayer. The Liturgy of the Hours, an ancient practice of praying throughout the day, is a good place to start. A good goal for Lent would be to read Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer everyday. If you already do that, perhaps you could add Noontime or Night Prayer (also called Compline). Contemplative prayer, based around the idea of silence or listening for God, is also well suited to Lent. There are also many excellent form prayers that reflect the penitential mood of Lent. The Litany of the Precious Blood, The Great Litany (Anglican Use Version), and The Decalogue are very appropriate for the season.

We can also find many excellent prayers for Lent from the Scriptures. The Seven Penitential Psalms are excellent for prayer, as is the apocryphal Prayer of Manasseh. Praying The Rosary throughout Lent can be rewarding too. Many excellent poems (including "Hymn to God the Father" by John Donne) and Lenten Canticles emphasize Lenten themes. Theology and liturgy should always be prayer, so a good discipline for Lent would be to make an effort to attend worship services whenever possible. Daily mass would be very rewarding.

Almsgiving (Charity):
While Lent is about giving something up (i.e. fasting), it is also about putting something positive in its place. The best way to remove vice is to cultivate virtue. Lent has been a traditional time of helping the poor and doing acts of charity and mercy. While as Christians this is a year round calling, Lent is a good time to examine ways to get involved and to make resolutions to actually do them.

Giving alms can be done in more ways than just giving out money to people on the street. It can be done by helping your family, friends, and neighbors out of tight situations or being more generous to hired help. However, one of the best ways to give alms is by volunteering for a charity. There are many lay religious orders, which devote much of their time to charity. Lent is a perfect time to discern a call to these or any other ministry. Some good charity organizations include Society of St. Vincent DePaul (Catholic), Catholic Relief Services, Habitat for Humanity (Ecumenical), The Hunger Site (Ecumenical), and Samaritan's Purse (Ecumenical).

Scripture Reading:
When facing temptation in the desert, Jesus relied on Scripture to counter the wiles of the devil. It is a formidable weapon for us as well. Biblical illiteracy among Christians of all types is rampant and, quite honestly, shameful. Lent is an excellent time to remedy this problem. One way to read Scripture is to use the lectionary of the Liturgy of the Hours. This will get you through most of the Bible in two years. The Bible is even online! Reading the Church Fathers can also be helpful to spiritual growth.

IV. History

Lent probably originated with the pre-Easter baptismal rituals of catechumens, although the number of days set aside for fasting varied according to region. Saint Irenaeus (AD 180) testifies to the variety of durations of pre-Easter fasts in the second century. Tertullian (AD 200) suggests that Catholics fasted two days prior to Easter, but that the Montanists (a heretical sect that Tertullian later joined) fasted longer. However, the number forty, hallowed by the fasts of Moses, Elijah, and especially Jesus, probably influenced the later fixed time of 40 days.

The Canons of Nicaea (AD 325) were the first to mention 40 days of fasting. Initially the forty day Lenten fast began on a Monday, and was intended only for those who were preparing to enter the Church at Easter. Lent still begins on a Monday in many Eastern Churches. Eventually the West began Lent on Ash Wednesday, and soon the whole Church, and not just catechumens, observed the Lenten fast. The East has no equivalent to Ash Wednesday.

The earliest fasts of Lent tended to be very strict, allowing one meal a day, and even then meats, eggs, and other indulgences were forbidden. The Eastern Churches follow this today. Now, in the Western Church, only Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are enjoined as strict fast days, but Fridays are set aside for abstinence from meat.

Sundays are not a part of the Lenten fast, because Sunday is always a feast of the resurrection. However, the Sundays of Lent are still a part of the Lenten liturgical season in the Western Church, and the worship services tend to be more simple and austere than normal. They lack the Gloria, and the joyous "alleluias" of the Easter season. The Western liturgical color of Lent is violet, symbolizing royalty and penitence. Solemnities like Saint Joseph and the Annunciation, take precedence over Lenten observances in the Church calendar. These days, when they fall on Fridays, do away with Lenten abstinence requirements. However, at least in the current Western Church, Lent nearly always trumps the observances of minor feast days. Too many festivals take away from the simple and penitential spirit of the Lenten season. Certain devotions and liturgies have developed during the Lenten season, including (in the West), the Stations of the Cross.

V. Some Lenten Q and A

What are the Western Catholic Lenten fasting and abstinence guidelines?
The minimum the Catholic Church expects is fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and abstinence on the Fridays of Lent. Fasting means eating only one full meatless meal on that day. However, one may still eat a breakfast and even a lunch in addition to a full meal if the two additional small meals do not add up to a second full meal. Snacking between meals is not allowed. Drinking coffee, tea, juices, etc, between meals is permitted on fast days. Abstinence requires abstaining from meat, and soups and gravies containing meat, for the entire day.

Meat is defined as the "flesh meat of warm-blooded animals." This is the reason why Catholics often eat fish on Fridays, but anything meatless works. The requirements are slightly different for those of certain ages. Fasting is only required of those from ages 18-59, and abstinence is required of all people 14 and older, although parents are expected to teach their children the reasons behind their fasting, etc. Those with health conditions are excluded. Eastern Catholic Rites have different fasting guidelines. These are simply the minimum expectations. Additional forms of self-denial, within reason, can also be spiritually beneficial.

What if a solemnity (such as the Annunciation or Saint Joseph) falls on a Friday? Must we abstain from meat?
In the most recent version of Latin Canon Law, Canon 1251 specifically states that if a solemnity falls on a Friday, Catholics are not bound to abstain from meat.

What are the names of the three days before Ash Wednesday?
These three days, beginning with the Sunday before Ash Wednesday are collectively known as "Shrovetide."

The Sunday before Ash Wednesday has been called Hall Sunday, meaning hallowed or holy Sunday, and Carling Sunday from the European custom of eating parched peas fried in butter (carlings) on this day.

The Monday before Ash Wednesday has been called Hall Monday, Callop Monday, named for a food eaten that day, and Blue Monday, named because on this Monday the penitence of Lent is approaching, thus causing some to have feelings of depression, symbolized by the color blue. However, others have called the day Merry Monday, because for some, it is a day to party before Lent.

Tuesday has been called:

  • Hall Night is an archaic title from the word "hallowed," meaning "holy."
  • Shrove Tuesday gets its name from an old-fashioned word "shriving," which means confession and absolution.
  • Pancake Day comes from a custom of eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday as a way to get rid of oil, eggs, and butter, which were forbidden during the Lenten fast.
  • Mardi Gras, French for "Fat Tuesday" was a way of getting one last party in before Lent began.

What is Laetare Sunday?
Laetare Sunday is the 4th Sunday of Lent, and the name Laetare Sunday is taken from the words of the introit, Laetare Jerusalem, "rejoice with Jerusalem."

There is a more joyful tone at this halfway point in the Lenten season. The vestments are often rose-colored (pink).

Laetare Sunday is also called Mothering Sunday, named because a person would visit his "mother church," another name for the church he grew up in, on this day. This day also became connected with visiting one's biological mother on Laetare Sunday.

Various customs developed on this Sunday, including the baking of "mother cakes." These cakes are also called "simnel cakes," and sometimes the fourth Sunday of Lent is called Simnel Sunday.

The Sunday also goes by Refection Sunday, or Refreshment Sunday, named because of the Scripture reading of Joseph feeding his brothers. Finally, the fourth Sunday of Lent is called Rose Sunday because of the papal blessing of the golden rose, a floral spray blessed by the pope and given to a notable person or institution.

Content updated 15 February 2017

Jonathan Bennett is a writer, speaker, and a mental health counselor. He graduated with a B.A. in History, and a Master of Theological Studies. He earned a Post-Master's Certificate in Religious Education in 2008. He has been inducted into numerous honor societies, including Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Alpha Theta (history), Eta Sigma Phi (Greek and Latin classics), and Theta Phi (theology). He studied History from all periods, Greek, Latin, Philosophy, Liturgy, and the Bible. He is a member-manager of online businesses and information sources, and writes for a variety of websites

David Bennett was a Catholic High School teacher for ten years, and is a writer and speaker. He graduated with a B.A. in Psychology, and a Master of Theological Studies, and received a Post-Master's Certificate in Religious Education in 2009. He has been inducted into numerous honor societies, including Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Alpha Theta (history), Eta Sigma Phi (Greek and Latin classics), Psi Chi (Psychology), and Theta Phi (theology). He studied Psychology, classical Greek, Latin, Philosophy, History, Liturgy, and Biblical Criticism. He also operates other websites, and is a member-manager of multiple online businesses and informational outlets

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