What is Lent?
Lent is the 40 day period leading up to Easter in the Christian calendar. It begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday. Lent is a time of preparation for Easter through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. The rules and practices of Lent vary across different Christian denominations, but the core purpose remains the same.
When does Lent start and end?
Lent always starts on Ash Wednesday, which is 46 days before Easter Sunday. Ash Wednesday can fall between February 4th and March 10th, depending on the date of Easter that year.
Lent lasts for 40 days, not including Sundays. Sundays are considered “mini-Easters” and are not counted as part of the 40 days of Lent. The 40 days are a symbolic reflection of Jesus’ 40 days spent fasting in the wilderness before beginning his public ministry.
Lent ends on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday. Holy Saturday commemorates the day Jesus lay in the tomb after his crucifixion.
So in summary:
– Lent starts on Ash Wednesday, 46 days before Easter Sunday
– It lasts for 40 days, excluding Sundays
– Lent ends on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter
What are the fasting rules during Lent?
Fasting is one of the three pillars of Lenten observance, along with prayer and almsgiving. Here are some common Catholic fasting rules during Lent:
– Fasting is required on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. This involves eating only one full meal and two smaller meals that together do not exceed the full meal.
– Catholics ages 18-59 are required to fast on these two days. Older adults and those with medical conditions are exempt.
– On all other Lenten weekdays, there is no mandatory fasting, but voluntary fasting from meat, or other types of fasting, are encouraged.
– Abstaining from meat is required on all Fridays during Lent for Catholics ages 14 and older. This includes all species of land animals and birds.
– Eating fish and other seafood is permitted on Lenten Fridays. Dairy products and eggs may also be consumed.
Other Christian denominations have varying fasting guidelines for Lent. Some fast the entire 40 days, while others pick certain days for fasting. Many give up a particular food or habit.
What are the prayer expectations during Lent?
Along with fasting, prayer is an important Lenten practice. Some common Catholic prayer expectations include:
– Attending Mass and receiving the Eucharist more frequently, even daily if possible.
– Praying the Stations of the Cross on Fridays. This prayer commemorates Jesus’ suffering and death.
– Spending time reading Scripture or devotional texts. Many Catholics give up other activities to make more time for prayer.
– Focusing prayer on repentance and renewed commitment to following Christ.
– Praying for the grace to overcome personal weaknesses and vices.
– Addition of other prayers like the rosary or novenas.
Other Christians also emphasize prayer during Lent, especially prayers of penitence and renewal. Many churches hold extra prayer services and liturgies. Developing a new habit of daily prayer is a common Lenten goal.
What almsgiving is expected during Lent?
The third pillar of Lent is almsgiving, which means donating money and resources to those in need. Some Lenten almsgiving guidelines include:
– Donating funds to church and charity organizations that assist the poor and vulnerable. Many churches host special Lenten collections.
– Volunteering time to help organizations that provide food, shelter, and other services.
– Donating items to food banks, shelters, pregnancy centers, and similar groups. Cleaning out extra belongings to share.
– Participating in charitable acts like preparing meals for the sick or visiting the elderly and imprisoned.
– Focusing on living generously, not just during Lent but as a Christian lifestyle.
– Reflecting on our blessings and confronting ways we overindulge. Living more modestly and spending less on ourselves.
Along with monetary forms of almsgiving, sharing our personal talents and time are important during Lent. Reaching out to help meet the needs of others in the community fulfills the Lenten call to care for our neighbors.
What are some common Lenten sacrifices?
In addition to the required fasting from meat on Lenten Fridays, many Catholics make personal sacrifices during Lent. Here are some of the most common Lenten sacrifices:
– Giving up sweets and desserts
– Abstaining from alcohol
– Eliminating snacks between meals
– Reducing television, social media, or other screen time
– Quitting smoking or tobacco use
– Abstaining from parties and other social events
– Avoiding sexual intimacy or pornography
The goal of these sacrifices is to create more time and space for prayer, spiritual growth, and self-discipline. They help believers identify with the suffering of Christ and grow closer to God.
Many Protestants also choose Lenten sacrifices but frame them as temporary “fasts” to spur spiritual growth. Some sacrifices adopted by all Christians include limiting luxuries, donating the savings, and focusing on Scripture.
Are Sundays exempt from Lenten sacrifices?
Yes, most Christians treat Sundays during Lent as “feast” days when normal habits can resume.
Catholics do not have to fast or give up their Lenten sacrifices on Sundays. They can return to meat and indulgences they have given up for Lent.
The exemption for Sundays reminds believers of the resurrection and coming triumph of Easter. Each Sunday offers a weekly celebration of Christ’s victory over death. Some refer to them as “mini-Easters.”
However, not everyone adopts this Sunday exemption. Eastern Orthodox Christians, for example, maintain their strict Lenten fast even on Sundays. Others use it as a chance to limit indulgences even further in preparation for Easter.
So in summary, for Catholics and most other denominations, Lenten sacrifices and fasting are exempt on Sundays. But traditions vary across churches.
Who is exempt from fasting and other Lenten sacrifices?
While all baptized Catholics are called to increase spiritual disciplines during Lent, some groups are exempt from fasting and other obligations:
– Children below age 14 are not required to fast on Lenten weekdays
– Older adults over age 59 are also exempt from fasting
– Sick people and anyone with a medical condition that precludes fasting
– Pregnant or nursing mothers have different fasting guidelines
– Travelers and others unable to keep the Lenten fast
– People with strenuous jobs requiring extra nutrition
– Catholics can consult their priest if unsure about fasting
Additionally, factors like mental health disorders or eating disorders may need to be weighed against fasting. Consulting a priest or doctor is advisable if health concerns conflict with fasting.
The season of Lent is meant for spiritual growth, not legalistic observation of rules. So those who require exemptions are encouraged to find other prayerful ways to draw closer to God during these 40 days.
What liturgical colors are used during Lent?
The colors used in church vestments and liturgical decor help convey themes for the Church calendar. Here are the colors of Lent:
– Violet is the main color used during Lent. Violet represents penance and humility.
– On the third, fourth, and fifth Sundays of Lent, rose-colored vestments are permitted. Rose signifies joy amid the penitential season.
– On Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday, rose vestments are customary. Laetare means “rejoice” in Latin.
– Some churches use unbleached linen instead of violet as an additional sign of humility.
– Red vestments and decorations return on Palm Sunday near the end of Lent.
So violet is predominantly featured in worship spaces for most of Lent, with shades of rose and unbleached linen also occasionally permitted. These colors mirror the mood of spiritual preparation.
Why do Catholics place ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday?
The ashes come from palm branches blessed the previous year on Palm Sunday, then burned to create the ashes. The priest or minister marks believers on the forehead saying either:
“Repent and believe in the gospel” or
“Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return.”
This ash cross reminds Catholics to repent during Lent and recall their mortality. Ashes formerly symbolized mourning and penance.
The Bible also references ashes as a sign of humility, grief, and repentance. Wearing ashes tells others we are entering a season of preparation and renewed faith.
The cross shape represents the belief that through Jesus’ death and resurrection, death no longer has power over us. Catholics begin Lent with the ash cross as an outward sign of the inner transformations sought.
What are some other Lenten symbols and traditions?
Along with ashes and color rituals, Catholics and other denominations incorporate other symbols into their Lenten observance:
– Crucifixes – Emphasizing Christ’s sacrifice through displaying crosses and crucifixes
– Veiling – Covering crosses, statues, and other sacred art from the 5th Sunday of Lent until Easter to simplify worship spaces and heighten anticipation (most common in Orthodox and Catholic churches)
– Stations of the Cross – Displaying plaques or images that re-enact Christ’s Passion and death, often as part of a Lenten devotion
– Holy Week traditions – Special rituals like Palm Sunday processions, washing of feet on Holy Thursday, veneration of the cross on Good Friday
– Fasting and abstinence – Not eating meat on Lenten Fridays, fasting before Easter, giving up favorite foods or luxuries
– Easter eggs – Symbolizing new life, eggs are often colored, decorated, and given as gifts to celebrate Christ’s resurrection
– Fish – Consuming fish and seafood instead of meat on Lenten Fridays
These visible symbols help believers enter into the meaning and purpose of Lent.
How should Lenten sacrifices, fasting, and prayer be approached?
The US Catholic Bishops offer excellent advice on embracing the Lenten journey:
“Approach Lent as a time of spiritual growth and Christian maturity, not as an endurance test. Make small, achievable goals for self-denial. Focus mainly on inner transformation rather than outward practices. Approach fasting as a form of self-discipline to aid prayer and spiritual life, not for weight loss. Use Lent to expand time spent helping those in need, not just giving material goods. Don’t take on excessive penances that prevent living the Christian life. Consult a priest or doctor if you have concerns about fasting for health reasons. Balance Lenten commitments with ordinary responsibilities. Don’t view Lenten practices as an accomplishment leading to pride.”
In other words, Lent should spark inner renewal that transforms how we live daily, rather than becoming a seasonal ritual we observe legalistically. The disciplines of Lent only hold value if they help believers become more loving, peaceful, forgiving, generous, and kind.
Lent offers believers an annual opportunity to reflect on their spiritual well-being, repent of sins and weaknesses, renew their commitment to Christ, and prepare their hearts to celebrate Easter joyfully. The 40 day journey has core practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving that have developed throughout Church history. But the externals hold little meaning unless they help transform attitudes, values, and actions that shape our daily living. Approaching Lent with humility, honesty about our need for growth, and resolve to align our lives more closely with Christ provides the mindset to let these 40 days revitalize our faith.