In Western Christianity, Lent is the period preceding the Christian holy day of Easter. Eastern Christianity calls this period Great Lent, to distinguish it from the Winter Lent or Advent that precedes Christmas. The remainder of this article will discuss Lent as it is understood and practiced in Western Christianity, except when as noted.
It covers, approximately, the forty days preceding Maundy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter Sunday. The dating of Easter, which determines that of Lent, is discussed elsewhere. Roughly speaking, Lent starts near the end of Winter in the northern hemisphere and ends near the beginning of Spring.
The Germanic origin of the word Lent originally merely signified the spring renewal. It specifically signified the lengthening of days as reflected in the Saxon term for March: Lenctenmonat. It has substituted since Anglo-Saxon times for the more significant Latin term quadragesima or the "fortieth day" before Easter, which is preserved in the Romance languages' terms for the Lenten season. Lent is also preserved in the common Dutch word for the spring season, which is called Lente.
Whereas Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus after his death on the Cross, Lent is concerned with preparation for Holy Week (also known as Passion Week), which recalls the events leading up to and including Jesus' crucifixion by Rome. This took place around the year 29 of the Common Era in Roman occupied Jerusalem of Palestine.
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There are traditionally forty days in Lent which are marked by fasting, both from foods and festivities, and by other acts of penance. Nowadays it is common for people to give up something they enjoy doing a lot, and often to 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). Sundays are not counted in the forty days of Lent. (Alternatively, the Sundays, which are indeed called Sundays of Lent in the Liturgy, can be counted to forty days if one begins counting on the First Sunday of Lent and counts up to and including Maundy Thursday, three days before Easter. 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 forms the Easter Triduum, rather than being part of Lent. Ash Wednesday and the three days following it would not be part of Lent proper, constituting a "Lenten Prelude" instead. 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".
In the Roman Catholic Mass, 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.
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 Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras.
Fasting and abstinence
Fasting during Lent was in ancient times more severe than it is today. Meat, fish, eggs and milk products were strictly forbidden, and only one meal was taken each day. Today, in the West, the practice is considerably relaxed, though in the Eastern church, abstinence from the above mentioned food products is still commonly practiced. Lenten practices (as well as other liturgical practices) are more common in Protestant circles than they once were.
Current Fasting practice in the Catholic Church binds persons over the age of seventeen and younger than sixty. On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, 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 twelve. On days of abstinence, the Catholic must not eat meat or poultry. According to Canon Law, all Fridays of the year and Ash Wednesday are days of abstinence, though in most countries, the strict requirement of abstinence has been limited by the Bishops to the Fridays of Lent and Ash Wednesday. On other abstinence days, the faithful are invited to perform some other act of penance.
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).
There are several holy days within the season of Lent. Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. The central symbol of that day is the ash with which Catholics mark foreheads of the people. Ash is a traditional symbol of mourning, appearing throughout the Biblical writings and representing the dust from which God created humanity and the dust to which humanity is destined to return. The fourth Sunday within Lent is sometimes referred to as Laetare Sunday, particularly by Roman Catholics, and the Sunday following was originally known as Passion Sunday, though today the latter term is officially applied to the sixth and last Sunday of Lent, or Palm Sunday, the day that Jesus entered Jerusalem as the "King of the Jews". His entry was marked by celebrations among his followers and many of the residents of Jerusalem, though it represented a major threat to the religious leaders and to Rome. Yet, Jesus' method of entry was symbolic for the purpose of his coming. Entering not on a war horse, but on a donkey (a symbol of peace), he foreshadowed that he would not accomplish his mission through violence, but through sacrifice. Maundy Thursday is the Thursday of the "Last Supper" shared by Jesus with his disciples, during which he gave a "Mandatum Novuum" or "New Commandment" (whence, 'Maundy Thursday') that the disciples "love one another" as Jesus loved them. Good Friday is the day that Jesus was crucified. He died on this day and was buried.
Palm Sunday also begins Holy Week, or the week of Jesus' suffering. The week (and the season of Lent) ends with Easter Sunday and the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus.
- Catholic Encyclopedia, 1908: Lent. Historical development.