As we observe Ash Wednesday…
By Mary Fairchild
Learn What Lent Means to Christians
Lent is the Christian season of spiritual preparation before Easter. In Western churches, it begins on Ash Wednesday. During Lent, many Christians observe a period of fasting, repentance, moderation, self-denial, and spiritual discipline. The purpose of the Lenten season is to set aside time for reflection on Jesus Christ—to consider his suffering and his sacrifice, his life, death, burial, and resurrection.
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.
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, like smoking, watching TV, swearing, or a food or drink, such as sweets, chocolate, or coffee. Some Christians also take on a Lenten discipline, like reading the Bible and spending more time in prayer to draw nearer to God.
Strict observers of Lent 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 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).
In the Bible, the number 40 holds special significance in the measurement of time, and many other important events revolve around it. During the flood, it rained for 40 days and 40 nights (Genesis 7:4, 12, 17; 8:6). Moses fasted on the mountain for 40 days and nights before God gave the Ten Commandments (Exodus 24:18; 34:28; Deuteronomy 9). The spies spent 40 days in the land of Canaan (Numbers 13:25; 14:34). The prophet Elijah traveled for 40 days and nights to reach the mountain of God in Sinai (1 Kings 19:8).
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). Officially named “Day of Ashes,” the exact date changes every year because Easter and its surrounding holidays are movable feasts.
In the Catholic church, adherents attend mass on Ash Wednesday. The priest distributes ashes by lightly rubbing the sign of the cross with ashes onto the worshippers’ foreheads. This tradition is meant to identify the faithful with Jesus Christ. In the Bible, ashes are a symbol of repentance and death. Thus, observing Ash Wednesday at the start of the Lenten season represents one’s repentance from sin as well as Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death to set followers free from sin and death.
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. Ash Wednesday is not observed.
Clean Monday falls seven weeks before Easter Sunday. The term “Clean Monday” refers to 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.
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.