What is Lent?
In the Christian religion, Lent (also called the "Lenten Season") is a 40-day period of fasting and repentance in preparation for Easter, the Christian holiday that celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Although there are differences in practice and expression of recognizing Lent, all major Christian denominations observe the season.
The last day before Lent is called Mardi Gras, which today is associated mostly with partying, yet originally it had important spiritual significance (follow link for more information). The first day of Lent is called Ash Wednesday, which many remember for the practice of observers getting a cross marked on their forehead with ash (follow link for more information).
Lent has been observed since apostolic times as a period of reflection and penitence for those who would undergo baptism on Easter, and a time for all sinners to repent.
The History of Lent
Lent was originally observed for six weeks excluding Sundays (36 days), but this was eventually extended to 40 days in order to parallel Christ's temptation in the wilderness. In the Western Churches, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday (six and a half weeks before Easter).
In the early history of the church, strict fasting was observed throughout this period. One meal was allowed per day, in the evening, and meat, fish, eggs, and butter were forbidden. Strict observance of fasting was discontinued among Roman Catholics during World War II, and today is rarely observed throughout the Lenten Season.
However, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are still fast days for the Catholic Church, and the emphasis on Lent as a period of penitence remains. Many Christians, especially Catholics, choose to give up a single indulgence (like chocolate, french fries or cola) for the 40-day period as a sign of repentance and an exercise in self-control.
Eastern Churches continue to observe a strict fast during "Great Lent," which begins on the Monday of the seventh week before Easter and ends on the Friday preceding Good Friday. As in the early church, meat, fish, eggs, and butter are forbidden, as are wine, oil, and dairy products.
- - "Lent." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. (Oxford UP, 1997), p. 114.
- "Lent." The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. I (1907). 10 Jan. 2005.
- "Ash Wednesday." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service. 2004.
- Rev. George Mastrantonis, "The Great Lent: A Week by Week Meaning." Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.