In Western Christianity, Lent is the period (or season) from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday (forty days). In Eastern Christianity, the period before Easter is known as Great Lent to distinguish it from the Winter Lent, or Advent (known in Greek as the "Great Fast" and the "Nativity Fast", respectively). This article discusses Lent as understood and practiced in Western Christianity, except where noted.
Easter always falls on a Sunday between March 22 and April 25, roughly corresponding to the Northern Hemisphere's early spring. Ash Wednesday, which can fall anywhere between February 4 and March 10, occurs forty-six days before Easter, but Lent is nevertheless considered forty days long, because Sundays in this period are not counted among the days of Lent. The traditional reason for this is that fasting was considered inappropriate on Sunday, the day commemorating the Resurrection of Jesus.
Formerly Lent was referred to by the Latin term quadragesima, or the "fortieth day" before Easter. This nomenclature is preserved in Romance and Celtic languages (for example, Spanish cuaresma, Portuguese quaresma, French carême, Italian quaresima, Irish Carghas, and Welsh C(a)rawys). The name "Lent" comes from the Germanic root for spring (specifically Old English lencten). Initially the word simply meant spring, but later became associated with the fast. The name change occurred in the late Middle Ages as Catholic sermons were spoken in vernacular instead of Latin. As such, use of this term to describe this period is unique to English.
Easter celebrates the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, while Lent is a time of preparation for Holy Week (or the Passion Week for Catholics worshiping in the new rite of the Mass). Holy Week recalls the events preceding and during the crucifixion, which occurred in Jerusalem in the Roman province Judea, circa AD 29.
Origin of Lent
The forty day period is symbolic of the forty days spent by Moses and Elijah in the wilderness; during the days of Noah God made it rain for forty days and forty nights (they were in the ark for much longer); the Jews wandered forty years traveling to the Promised Land. Jonah in his prophecy of judgment gave the city of Nineveh forty days' grace in which to repent. Jesus retreated into the wilderness and fasted for forty days of temptation to prepare for his ministry.
The Lenten period of forty days owes its origin to the Latin word quadragesima, originally signifying forty hours. This referred to forty hours of complete fasting which preceded the Easter celebration in the early Church. The main ceremony was the baptizing of the initiates on Easter Eve, and the fast was a preparation to receive this sacrament. Later, the period from Good Friday until Easter Day was extended to six days, to correspond with the six weeks of training, necessary to instruct the converts who were to be baptized. English word lent came from ancient Anglosaxon name of March - lenct (since the main part of lent before Easter usually was in March).
A strict schedule was adhered to in the teaching of the converts. In Jerusalem near the end of the fourth century, classes were held throughout seven weeks of Lent for three hours each day. With the acceptance of Christianity as the state religion of Rome in the 4th century, its character was endangered by the great influx of new members. To combat the hazard, the Lenten fast and practices of self renunciation were required of all Christians. The less zealous of the converts were thus brought more securely into the Christian fold.
Customs during the time of Lent
There are traditionally forty days in Lent which are marked by fasting, both from foods and festivities, and by other acts of penance. The three traditional practices to be taken up with renewed vigor during Lent are prayer (justice towards God), fasting (justice towards self), and almsgiving (justice towards neighbor). Today, some people give up something they enjoy, and often give the time or money spent doing that thing to charitable purposes or organizations. Lent is a season of sorrowful reflection that is punctuated by breaks in the fast on Sundays (the day of the resurrection); thus, Sundays are not counted in the forty days of Lent. In the Roman Catholic Church, and many other liturgical Christian denominations, Maundy Thursday (also called Holy Thursday, especially by Roman Catholics), Good Friday, and Holy Saturday form the Easter Triduum. Because Lent is a season of grief that necessarily ends with a great celebration of Easter, it is known in Eastern Orthodox circles as the season of "Bright Sadness".
The Lent semi-fast may have originated for practical reasons: in old times food stored away in the previous autumn was running out, or had to be used up before it went bad in store, and little or no new food crop was expected soon: compare the period in spring which British gardeners call the "hungry gap".
In the Roman Catholic Mass as well as the Lutheran Divine Service and Anglican Eucharist, the Gloria in Excelsis Deo is not sung during the Lenten season, disappearing on Ash Wednesday and not returning until the moment of the Resurrection during the Easter Vigil. Likewise, the Alleluia is not sung during the Lenten season; it is replaced before the Gospel reading by a Lenten acclamation. (On major feast days, the Gloria in Excelsis Deo is recited, but this in no way diminishes the penitential character of the season; it simply reflects the joyful character of the Mass of the day in question. It is also used on Holy Thursday.) Traditionally, the Alleluia was omitted at Mass beginning at Septuagesima, but since the Second Vatican Council, it has become customary to retain it until Ash Wednesday, although many traditionalists continue to practice the former custom.
Though originally of pre-Christian content, the traditional carnival celebrations that precede Lent in many cultures have become associated with the season of fasting if only because they are a last opportunity for excess before Lent begins. The most famous of pre-Lenten carnivals in the West is Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras (trans. Fat Tuesday).
Fasting and abstinence during Lent
Fasting during Lent was more severe in ancient times than it is today. Socrates Scholasticus reports that in some places, all animal products were strictly forbidden, while others will permit fish, others permit fish and birds, others prohibit fruit and eggs, and still others eat only bread. In some places, believers abstained from food for an entire day, others took only one meal each day, while others abstained from all food until 3 o'clock. In most places, however, the practice was to abstain from eating until the evening and then a small meal without meat or alcohol was eaten.
During the early Middle Ages, meat, eggs and dairy products were generally proscribed. However, dispensations for dairy products were given, frequently for a donation, from which several churches are popularly believed to have been built, including the Butter Tower of the Rouen Cathedral.
Giraldus Cambrensis in his Iteneray of Archbishop Baldwin through Wales reports that "in Germany and the arctic regions", "great and religious persons," classified the tail of beavers as "fish" because of its resemblance to fish (lack of hair, smoothness, taste, color, and water habitat) and its abundance.
Today, in the West, the practice is considerably relaxed, though in the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Catholic Oriental Churches abstinence from the above-mentioned food products is still commonly practiced, meaning only vegetarian meals are consumed during this time in many Eastern countries. Lenten practices (as well as other liturgical practices) are more common in Protestant circles than they once were.
Current fasting practice in the Roman Catholic Church binds persons over the age of majority and younger than fifty-nine (Canon 1251). Pursuant to Canon 1253, days of fasting and abstinence are set by the national Episcopal conference. On days of fasting, one eats only one full meal, but may eat two smaller meals as necessary to keep up strength. The two small meals together must sum to less than the one full meal. Parallel to the fasting laws are the laws of abstinence. These bind those over the age of eighteen. On days of abstinence, the Catholic must not eat meat or poultry. According to Canon law, all Fridays of the year, Ash Wednesday and several other days are days of abstinence, though in most countries, the strict requirement of abstinence have been limited by the bishops (in accordance with Canon 1253) to the Fridays of Lent and Ash Wednesday. On other abstinence days, the faithful are invited to perform some other act of penance.
If St. Patrick's Day falls on a Friday, the prohibition against meat may be lifted for (or ignored by) North American Catholics of Irish origin who wish to enjoy the traditional meal of corned beef and cabbage.
Fasting during Lent is a way for the Christian to identify with Jesus in his suffering which, according to the record in the New Testament Biblical writings known as the Gospels, he underwent for the sake of humans in order to make propitiation for their failure to keep the laws instituted by God in the Pentateuch. This sacrifice is referred to by Christians variously as a substitutionary death, a redemptive death, and a death that satisfied the perfect justice of God, who actually provided the means for the satisfaction by sending Jesus, said in the Bible to be God's own son, to die in place of humanity. It is this distinction that fulfills the Hebrews' hope for a messiah (Christ, in Greek) who would save the troubled nation, according to the New Testament writings. Many modern Protestants consider the observation of Lent to be a choice, rather than an obligation. Catholics and Protestants may decide to give up a favorite food (e.g. chocolate) or activity (e.g. going to the movies) for Lent, or they may instead decide to take on a Lenten discipline such as devotions, volunteering for charity work, and so forth.
Holy Days during Lent
There are several holy days within the season of Lent. Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent in western Christianity; Clean Monday (Ash Monday) is the first day in Eastern Orthodox Christianity. The fourth Sunday within Lent, which marks the halfway point between Ash Wednesday and Easter, is sometimes referred to as Laetare Sunday, particularly by Roman Catholics. The Sunday following is also known as Passion Sunday for traditional Catholics, though the latter term is also applied to the sixth and last Sunday of Lent, or Palm Sunday.
Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week, the final week of Lent immediately preceding Easter. Wednesday of Holy Week is known as Spy Wednesday to commemorate the days that Judas spied on Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane before betraying him. Thursday is known as Maundy Thursday, and is a day Christians commemorate the "Last Supper" shared by Jesus with his disciples. Good Friday follows the next day, in which Christians remember Christ's crucifixion and burial.
Holy Week and the season of Lent, depending on denomination and local custom, end with Easter Vigil at sundown on Holy Saturday or on the morning of Easter Sunday.
In the Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions, the altar linens and priest's garments are violet during the season of Lent. However, during the holy days the linens often change.
Taken from Wikipedia Lent