For many Lent is observed in the weeks before Easter. The season of Lent is a time of reflection and introspection to prepare for the Easter celebration. In many ways Easter’s Lenten season parallels Christmas’s Advent season.
For western Christians Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, forty-six days before Easter, and ends on Holy Saturday. Orthodox and eastern Christians, however, begin their observance of Lent three days earlier on the seventh Sunday before Easter. No matter when Lent begins people spend the season in prayer, meditation, study, self-examination, and charitable works. Fasting also plays a major part of Lent. That is where we get the phrase “giving it up for Lent.”
Lent may have been observed as early as the fourth century and may have grown from a series of shorter fasts ranging from one to six days long. These short fasts were observed as early as 190 A.D. Unlike today not everyone participated in these fasts. Only people who were preparing to be baptized sometime around Easter fasted. While they fasted they spent time in prayer and religious instruction.
During the Middle Ages Lent observances changed as links to baptism diminished and fasting was transferred to all Christians instead of only baptismal candidates. Two reasons for the diminishing of baptism are the rise in infant baptisms and the large number of new baptisms that were occurring at that time. As more and more Christians observed Lent, Lent became a season of admitting and repenting from sin, expressing sorrow for sin, and accepting the punishment for sin. Confession of sins were made to priests during Shrovetide, the days before Lent, and the punishment, or penance, suffered during Lent.
Today’s observance of Lent for many people emphasizes study, prayer, worship, charitable work, and spiritual renewal instead of conventional forms of penance. For western Christians the first five weeks of Lent focuses on calling Christians to repentance, and the last week focuses on the events that occurred during Passion Week, the last days of Jesus’ life.
Fasting has always played a part in the observance of Lent. Over the years fasting has not been limited to only refraining from eating certain foods. During the Middle Ages fasting meant eating only one meal a day sometime in the late afternoon. No meat, fish, eggs, or dairy products could be consumed with that meal; and meat was strictly forbidden on Sundays.
In the ninth century western Christians started lifting the strict fasting restrictions starting with the restriction against eating fish. In the thirteenth century a light evening meal was permitted. By the fifteenth century the one daily meal was moved closer to noon; and even later restrictions against dairy products were lifted.
Roman Catholics started allowing meat for the main Sunday meal and then for weekday meals, except for Fridays when no meat was allowed. In 1966, Pope Paul VI eliminated fasting during Lent except on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday when eating meat was forbidden. The only guideline given for the meals was that one full meal and two light meals were to be eaten each day.
The Orthodox Church still has the strictest fasting regimen for Lent. From medieval times meat, fish, dairy products, eggs, olive oil, wine, and other alcoholic beverages were not to be eaten during Lent. Now restrictions on consuming fish, wine, and olive oil have been relaxed. Some Orthodox Christians even follow a kind of Eucharistic fast during the week.
Today many Christians give up a bad habit or give up some other activity, many times a meaningless activity, which takes up a lot of their time as a reminder of all that Jesus gave up when He came to Earth to die for the sins of mankind and all that Jesus suffered when He died. This practice takes the place of the traditional penance.
Lent is a period of time before Easter when people are encouraged to study, pray, and reflect on the events that happened in Jesus’ life before His death on the cross. Click here for a selection of readings to aid your study and reflection this Lenten season.
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