Learn About Lent and How the Lenten Season Is Observed

What is the meaning of the Lenten season in Christianity?

What Is Lent?
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Lent is the Christian season of preparation before Easter. The Lenten season is a time when many Christians observe a period of fasting, repentance, moderation, self-denial and spiritual discipline. The purpose is to set aside time for reflection on Jesus Christ—his suffering and his sacrifice, his life, death, burial, and resurrection.

Key Takeaways: What Is Lent?

  • Lent is a period of preparation before Easter traditionally observed by Catholics and a number of Protestant denominations.
  • The season of Lent lasts 40 days (Sundays are not counted).
  • Lent begins on Ash Wednesday in Western Churches and on Clean Monday in Eastern Churches.
  • The Lenten fast involves repentance, moderation, self-denial, and other spiritual disciplines. Observers typically give up a food or a habit and participate in some form of fasting.
  • The purpose of Lent is to set aside time for reflecting on Jesus Christ's suffering and sacrifice.

During the six weeks of self-examination and reflection, Christians who observe Lent typically make a commitment to fast, or to give up something—a habit, such as smoking, watching TV, swearing, or a food or drink, such as sweets, chocolate, or coffee. Some Christians also take on a Lenten discipline, such as reading the Bible and spending more time in prayer to draw nearer to God.

Strict observers do not eat meat on Fridays, often opting for fish instead. The goal of these spiritual disciplines is to strengthen the faith of the observer and develop a closer relationship with God.

The Significance of 40 Days

The significance of the 40-day period of Lent is based on two episodes of spiritual testing in the Bible: the 40 years of wilderness wanderings by the Israelites after the exodus from Egypt (Numbers 33:38 and Deuteronomy 1:3) and the Temptation of Jesus after he spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13).

Lent in Western Christianity

In Western Christianity, Ash Wednesday marks the first day, or the start of the season of Lent, which begins 40 days prior to Easter (Technically 46, as Sundays are not included in the count). The exact date changes every year because Easter and its surrounding holidays are movable feasts.

Lent in Eastern Christianity

In Eastern Orthodoxy, the spiritual preparations begin with Great Lent, a 40-day period of self-examination and fasting (including Sundays), which starts on Clean Monday and culminates on Lazarus Saturday.

Clean Monday falls seven weeks before Easter Sunday. The term "Clean Monday" refers to a cleansing from sinful attitudes through the Lenten fast. Lazarus Saturday occurs eight days before Easter Sunday and signifies the end of Great Lent.

Do All Christian Observe Lent?

Not all Christian churches observe Lent. Lent is mostly observed by the Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian and Anglican denominations, and also by Roman Catholics. Eastern Orthodox churches observe Lent or Great Lent, during the 6 weeks or 40 days preceding Palm Sunday with fasting continuing during the Holy Week of Orthodox Easter. Lent for Eastern Orthodox churches begins on Monday (called Clean Monday) and Ash Wednesday is not observed.

The Bible does not mention the custom of Lent, however, the practice of repentance and mourning in ashes is found in 2 Samuel 13:19; Esther 4:1; Job 2:8; Daniel 9:3; and Matthew 11:21.

The account of Jesus' death on the cross, or crucifixion, his burial, and his resurrection, or raising from the dead, can be found in the following passages of Scripture: Matthew 27:27-28:8; Mark 15:16-16:19; Luke 23:26-24:35; and John 19:16-20:30.

History of Lent

Early Christians felt the importance of Easter called for special preparations. The first mention of a 40-day period of fasting in preparation for Easter is found in the Canons of Nicaea (AD 325). It is thought that the tradition may have grown from the early church practice of baptismal candidates undergoing a 40-day period of fasting in preparation for their baptism at Easter. Eventually, the season evolved into a period of spiritual devotion for the whole church. During the initial centuries, the Lenten fast was very strict but relaxed over time.

What Is Shrove Tuesday?

Many churches that observe Lent, celebrate Shrove Tuesday. Traditionally, pancakes are eaten on Shrove Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday) to use up rich foods like eggs and dairy in anticipation of the 40-day fasting season of Lent. Shrove Tuesday is also called Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras, which is French for Fat Tuesday.