All About Lent and the Lenten Season
Lent Definition and Summary
Lent is a period of fasting and penance leading to Easter. It is rooted in the 40-day fast of Jesus in the wilderness. Catholic Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends right before the evening Masses of Holy Thursday, although Lenten penance continues through Holy Saturday. See our table of movable feasts for the dates of Lent in various years.
Prayers: Lent Prayers
Basic Facts About Lent
Liturgical Color(s): Violet (Purple)
Type of Holiday: Fast
Duration: Liturgically Lent lasts 44 Days, beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending 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
Many Christians throughout the world observe Lent. Catholic, Orthodox, and many Protestants benefit from this annual season of sacrifice and simplicity. Even some non-Christians observe it as a period of improvement and reflection.
People tend to view Lent in a variety of ways. For some, it is a period of going on a diet; for others, it is when Catholic coworkers show up to work with ashes on their heads and fast-food restaurants start selling fish sandwiches. So what is Lent and where did it come from?
In basic terms, Lent is the Church season before Easter, which lasts liturgically from Ash Wednesday until the start of Mass of Holy Thursday. The evening of Holy Thursday begins the the Easter Triduum, which lasts from Holy Thursday to the Evening Prayer of Easter Day. 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.
We should note that in many Protestant churches, the season of Lent continues through Holy Saturday, although in current Catholic discipline, Lent ends liturgically before Holy Thursday. While Sundays are usually 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. So, the way Lent is observed in the Catholic Church can seem confusing, 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 cleaning out those things that hinder our relationship with Jesus Christ.
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.
Fasting: The Western Rite of the Catholic Church expects its members aged 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 or gravies made of meat, are not permitted. Abstinence is required of those age 14 and older. Most Protestant churches do not have these official requirements. "Giving something up" for Lent is 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. Check out Great Lent Fasting Guidelines for more information on Eastern Lent information, including fasting guidelines.
Some people choose to give up sins (gossip, drunkenness, etc) for Lent. In this way, Lent represents a spiritual training time to overcome evil. 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. We have listed some suggestions for things to give up for Lent. 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, 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.
Prayer: 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 pray Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer everyday. 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 and The Great Litany (Anglican-Use Version) are very appropriate for the season. You 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): The best way to remove vice is to cultivate virtue. Lent has been a traditional time of helping the poor. While as Christians this is a year-round calling, Lent is a good time to examine ways to get involved – and resolve 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 that 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 de Paul (Catholic), Catholic Relief Services, (Catholic), Development and Peace (Catholic), 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. Lent is an excellent time to dive into the Bible. One way to read Scripture is to read the daily Mass readings, even if you are not able to attend daily Mass. Reading the writings of the Church Fathers can also be helpful to spiritual growth.
Lent probably originated with the pre-Easter baptismal rituals of catechumens, although the number of days set aside for fasting varied according to region. 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 40, 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 40-day Lenten fast began on a Monday, and it 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 the Solemnity of 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.
Worship And Prayer Resources
Traditions and Symbols
Symbols: Crucifix and cross, ashes, fish, lamp and oil, two scourges, the color violet
Frequently Asked Questions
1. I am penitential every day. Why do you only do it for 40 days out of the year? We also believe it's important to be penitential every day, if by that you mean confessing our sins and making amends to God and those humans whom we have offended. However, if you mean that Christianity is always about fasting and self-denial, then we would respectfully disagree. Christianity is also a religion of feasting. The resurrection of our Lord and His triumph over death should fill us with great joy. However, Christianity also has a penitential and somber side. Our Lord was crucified before He was raised – so we also don't believe in feasting all the time either. There are proper times for each, which is the beauty of the Church year.
2. Why only work on spiritual discipline 40 days a year? Spiritual discipline and growth in Jesus are not limited to 40 days of the year and should occur every day. Likewise, things done during Lent should always be done with the purpose of integrating them into our entire Christian life. Here the spring cleaning analogy works well. Lent is a time of extra-intense spiritual house cleaning, where the focus on prayer, fasting, and almsgiving becomes the most important and supersedes all else. Although many claim to do this kind of self-evaluation frequently, I'd say it's a safe bet that traditions without Lent rarely come close to devoting even 40 days to it.
6. Why doesn't my church observe Lent? For some reason many churches, even though they celebrate Christmas and Easter, ignore Lent entirely. Why? Well, some Christians believe that Lent places too much emphasis on sin, guilt, and wrongdoing, and they would prefer to do away with what they consider to be such outdated talk. Churches that have been influenced by the Radical Reformation, including Baptists, Pentecostals, and so-called "Non-Denominational" churches, have never observed Lent, probably because it is a "tradition" of the Church, not explicitly commanded in the Bible. However, the idea of Lent, emulating our Lord's 40 days in the wilderness, is certainly a Bible-based tradition. Another possible reason (which is tied to the first two reasons) is that Lent is difficult, and it requires that we examine material and spiritual excesses in our lives. It is contrary to our culture's idea that everything (including one's faith) must be happy, easy, and have mass popular appeal. Of course, such ideas are secular modern and postmodern ideals, not based on the Bible, Jesus, or Christian history. The reality is that Jesus' life was full of poverty, simplicity, and sacrifice, ideals we strive for our entire lives, but focus on during Lent.
7. 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 two smaller, simple meals in addition to a full meal if the two additional small meals do not add up to a second full meal. Snacking is not allowed. Drinking coffee, tea, juices, etc, between meals is permitted on fast days.
Abstinence requires abstaining from meat, and soups and gravies made from meat, for the entire day. Meat is defined as the "flesh meat of warm-blooded animals." This is the reason 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 to 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. Note that some Western bishop conferences may have more strict/less strict fast and abstinence requirements, so it is wise to check with your local parish for local fast and abstinence expectations. Also, 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.
8. What if a solemnity (such as the Annunciation or Saint Joseph) falls on a Friday? Do we have to abstain from meat? In the most recent version of the Code of Canon Law, Canon 1251 specifically states that if a solemnity falls on a Friday, Catholics are not bound to abstain from meat. However, Canon 1253 states that conferences of bishops can determine exact Lenten observances for local Catholics, so it is always best to check with your local priest if you have questions related to abstinence and fasting.
9. What are the names of the three days before Ash Wednesday? These three days, the Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday 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, Shrove Tuesday (see #5 above), Pancake Day (see #5 above), and Mardi Gras (see #4 above).