What is Lent?
Lent refers to the practice of the Christian Church that observes a 40 day preparation for Easter marked by fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. The tradition has been adapted and practiced differently between the Western and Eastern Churches.
The Western (Catholic and Protestant) season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Easter Sunday. In the Western tradition they do not count Sunday toward the 40 days. The fast held during Lent in the Catholic Church entails eating only one full meal and two smaller meals (which if combined together would not equal a full normal meal) on Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday (the Friday before Easter Sunday commemorating Jesus’s death on the cross). In addition they may not eat meat on Fridays for the entirety of Lent. Protestants who celebrate Lent typically have various policies and teachings on fasting, but do not impose any regulations or rules for fasting, but rather let each individual decide for themselves how to fast during Lent.
In the Eastern Church (Greek, Russian, and all other Orthodox) Lent begins on Clean Monday and ends on Lazarus Saturday. Lazarus Saturday is the end of the 40 day period of what they call Great Lent and is the day before Palm Sunday (the Sunday before Easter Sunday) and thus 8 days before Easter Sunday. For our Eastern Church family the fast begun at the start of Lent continues on through the 8 days begun with Lazarus Saturday up through Easter Sunday thus giving them a total of 48 days of fasting in preparation of Easter in comparison to the 40 days of fasting in preparation for Easter in the Western Church. The fast held for Great Lent in Eastern Churches is much more rigorous than in either of the Western traditions. The fasting actually begins before Lent properly begins are is tied into the Triodion – the three Sundays leading up to Forgiveness Sunday (the Sunday before Lent begins on Clean Monday). Starting on Meatfare (or Judgment) Sunday (two Sundays before Lent begins) no meat is consumed until the end of Lent. Starting on Cheesefare (or Forgiveness) Sunday (The Sunday before Lent begins) no eggs or dairy products are consumed until the end of Lent. In addition to the above oil and wine are fasted from during Great Lent except for on special days that are exceptions to that rule. For more details and up to date calendar see the link below to the Liturgical calendar from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
This also creates in part the difference of dates for Easter between the Eastern and Western Churches. The Western Church calculates Easter according to the Gregorian calendar while the Eastern Church calculates Easter according to the Julian Calendar. The Eastern Church also will not celebrate Easter before or on Passover in order to preserve the order of events in the Biblical record whereas the Western Church ignores the date of Passover in its calculation of Easter and will celebrate Easter before, on, or after Passover.
Q: Why is it called Lent?
A: The name has nothing to do with the fuzz in your belly button and dryer vent. Lent comes from the old english, “lencten” meaning “spring season.” Based on this designation for Lent we can discern that Christians have traditionally and historically held this to be a season of growth, abundance, and exuberance. The Spring season is held as a parable of the growth that takes places inside a believer’s heart as they hand it over more and more fully to Christ in obedience. The shift from winter to spring is paralleled to the shift from death to life that believers have in Jesus.
Q: Why do Orthodox Christians call the season Great Lent?
A: Orthodox Christians call the season Great Lent because it is the greatest fasting period in the Church. There is no period as extended or prohibitive for fasting as the Lenten season is for the Orthodox. Easter is sometimes called “the feast of feasts” so perhaps calling the season leading up to this feast of feasts Great Lent as opposed to just Lent is intended to reflect that reality.
Q: Why 40 days?
A: Lent is observed for specifically 40 days because this is the amount of time that Jesus fasted and was tempted by the Devil in the wilderness according to the Synoptic Gospels (Matt. 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13). The 40 day (and year) span is also deeply symbolic in Biblical theology: the duration of the Flood (Gen. 7:4, 12, 17; 8:6), Israel ate manna and wandered in the wilderness for 40 years (Ex. 14:33-34; 16:35; 32:13; Deut. 2:7; 8:2, 7; 29:5; Josh. 5:6; Psa. 95:10; Acts 7:36, 42; 13:18, et al), Moses was 40 when the Angel of the LORD appeared to him in the burning bush (Acts 7:30), Moses was on Mount Sinai for 40 days (Ex. 24:18; 34:28; Deut. 9:9, 11, 18, 25; 10:10), Saul reigned 40 years (Acts 13:21), David reigned for 40 years(2 Sam. 5:4; 1 Kgs. 2:11; 1 Chr. 29:27), Solomon reigned for 40 years (1 Kgs. 11:42; 2 Chr. 9:30), Elijah was on Mount Horeb for 40 days (1 Kgs, 19:8), Ezra restored Israel’s scriptures in 40 days (2 Esdr. 1423, 36, 42, 44, 45).
Q: Why do we fast during Lent?
A: We fast during Lent primarily because Jesus fasted while undergoing temptation in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights (Matt. 4:2; Luke 4:2). Our fast is an imitation of Christ’s since many of us would be unable to fast for 40 straight days from food given practical considerations for our lives and jobs. Also, many have health concerns such as Diabetes that would prohibit them from fasting entirely from food for even several days. And we certainly could not fast for 40 straight days from water without supernatural help. [For more on the particulars and Biblical teaching about Fasting see my blog post about it.]
Q: Why is it called Ash Wednesday?
A: Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent for Western Christians. It is called Ash Wednesday because the Palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday service are burned and the ashes are used by the priest or minister to smear a cross on the forehead of those at the service. Usually during the imposition of the ashes on the observer’s forehead something like the following will be recited: “remember that from dust you came and to dust you shall return.”
Q: Why is it called Clean Monday?
A: Clean Monday is the beginning of Lent for Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholics. It is called clean Monday (also Pure Monday or Ash Monday) because of the inward purity that is being sought during the season through repentance. It also refers – by analogy to the food laws of the Old Testament – to leaving behind the foods not allowed during fasting.
Q: Why is it called Good Friday?
A: Good Friday is the Friday before Easter Sunday when Christians remember the death of Christ on the cross. It is called Good Friday in the sense of “pious” or “holy” Friday. Similar to “good book” in reference to the Bible.
Q: Why is it called Palm Sunday?
A: Palm Sunday is the Sunday before Easter Sunday. It is called Palm Sunday because it is the day when Christians remember the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem which was the beginning of the Passion Week – the week leading up to Good Friday when Christ was crucified. When Christ entered Jerusalem (Matt. 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11a; Luke 19:28-38) palm branches were laid down along his path as the people shout Psalm 118:25a: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Helpful Links & Redings
- See the Revised Common Lectionary page from Vanderbilt University.
- Explanation of Lent according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
- Explanation of Lent according to the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
- Explanation of Lent according to the United Methodist Church.
- The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops liturgical calendar.
- Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America liturgical calendar with a legend explaining the fasting regulations.
- The Lenten Triodion. St-Sergius.org.
- The Lenten Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian. See my post with the prayer and explanation of how to use it.
- Rev. George Mastrantonis, “Great Lent: A Week by Week Meaning.” Goarch.org.
- Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann, “The Liturgical Structure of Lent.” Schemann.org.
- Metropolitan Kalistos Ware, “‘The Rules of Fasting’ From The Lenten Triodion.”
- Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha
- Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent A School of Repentance: Its Meaning for Orthodox Christians
- Rachel Held Evans, “40 Ideas for Lent.”
- International Commission on English in the Liturgy, Liturgy of the Hours (Vol 2): Lenten Season and Easter Season
- Walter Brueggemann, A Way Other Than Our Own: Devotions for Lent
- Jill J. Duffield, Lent in Plain Sight: A Devotion Through Ten Objects
- Henri J. M. Nouwen, Show Me the Way: Daily Lenten Readings
- Ros Clarke, Forty Women: Unseen Women of the Bible from Eden to Easter
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God is On the Cross: Reflections on Lent and Easter
- Ruth Haley Barton, Sheila Wise Rowe, Tish Harrison Warren, Terry M. Wildman, and others, A Just Passion: A Six-Week Lenten Journey
- Anne Cumings, My Body is Good: Embracing Body Positivity and Giving Up Diet Culture for Lent
- Marilyn E. Thornton and Lewis V. Baldwin, Plenty Good Room: A Lenten Bible Study Based on African American Spirituals
- George Hovaness Donigian, A World Worth Saving: Lenten Spiritual Practices for Action
- Kara Eidson, A Time to Grow: Lenten Lessons from the Garden to the Table
- Cheri L. Mills, Lent of Liberation: Confronting the Legacy of American Slavery
- Kate Bowler and Jessica Richie, Good Enough: 40ish Devotions for a Life of Imperfection
- J. Dana Trent, Gifts of the Spiritual Wilderness: A Lenten Devotional
- John Pavlovitz, Rise: An Authentic Lenten Devotional
- Archpriest Steven John Belonick, Pilgrimage to Pascha: A Daily Devotional to Great Lent
- Wendy Speake, The 40-Day Sugar Fast: Where Physical Detox Meets Spiritual Formation