What is Lent all about, and why is it important for all Christians?

From the earliest days of the Christian Church this was held to be a sacred time for all Christians. Three themes were celebrated:

  • The mystery of Christís death and resurrection

  • The implications of this mystery for those preparing for baptism 

  • The spiritual renewal of faith on the part of those already baptized.

The word "Lent" comes from the Old Saxon word for springtime "lencten". It describes the gradual "lengthening" of the days. In the earliest days of the Church Christians would prepare for the annual Easter feast each Spring by fasting for two days in preparation for what was considered the holiest of times. In the 3rd century this fast was extended to all of Holy Week. By the 4th century Christians had begun to observe a distinct and lengthy "season" of preparation for the celebration of the Resurrection of the Lord.

Initially the extended period of fasting, abstinence and penance was a special time only for those adults preparing for baptism. Gradually it became popular for those already baptized who wished to participate in this tradition of fasting and prayer. This time of preparation gradually became a tradition for all Christians, and by the beginning of the 10th century had become a period of 40 days before Easter, that included prayer, fasting and abstinence for all Christians.

In the 4th century the season of preparation for baptism and Easter was joined by several other penitential practices, besides fasting. This was in preparation for absolution from public sins and crimes. Gradually, church services became more somber during this period of preparation, and over time, traditions developed such as dropping of the joyful acclamations of "Alleluia" and "Glory to God". Some places even had an elaborate "funeral" to "bury" the Alleluia! Weddings were not permitted to be held during Lent.

Fasting for 40 days, of course, is a discipline that is in memory and honor of Jesus' 40 day fast in the desert (Matthew 4:2). It is also in memory of Mosesí 40 days on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:28), Elijahís 40 day fast on his journey to Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:8), and the 40 years the Israelites spent in the desert. Fasting, however, was never done on Sundays Ė which were always considered weekly memorials of the First Sunday, of Jesus' resurrection, in effect being "little Easters".

Ash Wednesday officially begins the 40-day season of Lent. This tradition dates back to the 7th century. Ashes from burned palm leaves, which are saved from the previous years Palm Sunday celebration are placed on the forehead of parishioners. This custom of placing ashes on the heads of people is an ancient penitential practice and can be found mentioned in the Old Testament. It is a sign of sorrow, of penitence and mourning. As early as the 300ís AD it was adopted by local churches. After a laying on of hands and the imposition of ashes on their heads, they were reminded "Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return." (Genesis 3:19)

By the 11th century traditions of Ash Wednesday were adopted by all adult members of the parish and were similar to those performed today. Today when ashes are applied to the forehead the priest will say "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel" (Mark 1:15).

Fasting and Abstinence are still the traditional hallmarks of modern Lenten tradition. They are often linked together, but are two different disciplines. Fasting has to do with the quantity of food eaten on specific days. Usually little or none, or perhaps none before sundown, etc. Abstinence refers to denial to oneself of particular kinds of food or activities, for example meat, or sweets, or abstaining from games, etc.

Denying oneself in either of these fashions has been a popular act of faith and devotion since ancient times and is mentioned frequently in Scripture. Fasting and abstinence can be done for different reasons. It can prepare one for a feast. It promotes self-discipline. It supports oneís prayers. It cleanses oneself of previous abuses and sin. All of these have been traditional reasons people have used these traditions during Lent.

Fasting and abstinence initially began as voluntary practices. Gradually they became more strictly enforced. From the 400ís to the 800ís AD, only one meal a day, usually in the evening was permitted by church law, during Lent. Meat, fish, alcohol, and in some places, even eggs and dairy products were forbidden. Beginning in the 10th century it became customary to eat this meal at noon. By the 14th century custom allowed addition of a light meal in the evening, and the prohibition against fish and dairy products during Lent was lifted. Some common methods of fasting during the Lenten season in past years have included:
  • Eating two very small meatless meals a day (more like "snacks"), along with the one regular main meal per day, for the duration of the Lenten season.
  • Eating only one main meal per day, except on Sunday for the Lenten season.
  • Forgoing all meat completely during the 40 days of Lent
  • Abstaining from meat on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays during Lent
Forms of abstinence might include the private decisions to "give up" desserts, candy, alcohol, television, movies, or between meal snacking. Sometimes the money saved from such abstention is collected by the family and given to the poor. Fasting and abstinence act as a form of penance for oneís sins, and promote personal discipline and self-control. "Giving up" things is also a form of worship, offering these things to God as sacrifices, in the same way that the ancients Hebrews offered their sacrifices on their altars. One might envision it more as standing at the foot of the Cross, holding your offering in your outstretched arms, offering it to the Lord.
Traditionally, Lenten devotions in parish churches have drawn attention to the suffering and death of Jesus. The most common one is known as the Stations of the Cross. During the time of the Crusades (1095 Ė 1270), it became popular for pilgrims to the Holy Land to "walk in the footsteps of Jesus", following his journey through Jerusalem to Calvary. In the next two centuries, after the Moslems recaptured the Holy Land, pilgrimages were too dangerous.

A "substitute pilgrimage", the Stations of the Cross, became popular outdoors across Europe. They represented important events from scripture of Jesusí journey to Calvary. In the mid 1700ís the Stations were allowed inside churches. Eventually they became fixed at 14 stations. In the 1960ís it became popular to add a 15th station, representing the end of the journey, the resurrection.

When we participate in the devotions and traditions of Lent, we participate personally in Christís sacrifice, death and resurrection in a way that allows us to be involved with what He has done for us on many levels, both spiritually and physically, in a very personal and meaningful way. This will not only teach us personal strength, and discipline, but will truly bless us, as the true meaning of Lent fills our heart and strengthens our spirit.

By participating in the ancient traditions of this holy season of the Christian church, we remind ourselves of the price paid for our sins by Christ, and the glorious gift of redemption we received with his resurrection. Through the observances of Lent, we walk with Our Lord on a Spiritual Pilgrimage, walking the road to Calvary with Him, climbing that hill with Him, standing with Him at the foot of the cross, and finally, walking with Him as He triumphs over death, and walks out of the tomb, to redeem us all, forever.