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Definition: Lent from Philip's Encyclopedia

Period in the Christian year that precedes Easter. In the Western Churches it begins on Ash Wednesday and lasts 40 days (excluding Sundays); in the Eastern Church it lasts 80 days (excluding Saturdays and Sundays). Lent is a time of fasting, abstinence and penitence in preparation for the remembrance of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.

Summary Article: Lent
from Religions of the World: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Beliefs and Practices

For six weeks preceding Easter, Christians have customarily undergone a time of penitential prayer, fasting, and almsgiving to prepare for the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday. This season of Lent originally was also a time of preparation for baptismal candidates and those separated from the church who were rejoining the community.

In Latin, this season of the Christian year was called Quadragesima, referring to 40 days. With the shift to the vernacular in the Middle Ages, the word “Lent” replaced the Latin term. Lent originates from the Teutonic root for “long” and refers to spring, the time of the year when days lengthen.

Pope Benedict XVI spreads ashes on the head of an unidentified prelate during the celebration of Ash Wednesday mass at the Basilica of Santa Sabina, in Rome, February 17, 2010. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a solemn period of 40 days of prayer and self-denial leading up to Easter. (AP/Wide World Photos)

Originating in the fourth century of the church, Lent spans 40 weekdays, reminiscent of the 40 days of temptation Jesus spent in the wilderness preparing for his ministry. In the Western church tradition, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday, the last day of Holy Week before Easter Sunday. Since Sundays celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, the six Sundays that occur during Lent are not reckoned part of the 40 days of Lent, and are referred to as the Sundays “in” Lent. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the 40 days are calculated differently: the fast begins on Clean Monday, Sundays are included in the count, and it ends on the Friday before Palm Sunday.

Ash Wednesday, the seventh Wednesday before Easter Sunday, begins Lent. The name refers to the ancient practice of drawing a cross of ashes in oil on worshippers’ foreheads to demonstrate humility before God and mourning for death caused by sin.

There are other holy days within the season of Lent: Clean Monday, the first day of Lent in Eastern Orthodox Christianity; the fifth Sunday of Lent, which begins Passiontide; Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week; Spy Wednesday, recognizing the day Judas betrayed Jesus; Maundy Thursday, in commemoration of the Last Supper; and Good Friday, commemorating Christ’s crucifixion and burial.

Throughout Lent, observers fast, though not necessarily every day. Historically, there has been great divergence regarding the nature of the fast. However, traditionally days of fasting include taking one meal a day, in the evening. Often fasters will abstain from meat and wine and the common law of the Roman Catholic Church is to avoid meat, milk, cheese, and eggs. During Holy Week, or at least on Good Friday, it is common to restrict the diet to dry food, bread, salt, and vegetables. Consequently, the custom arose of giving eggs for Easter to break the fast, thus leading to the concept of Easter eggs.

During Lent, the color purple or violet dominates the sanctuary to denote the pain and suffering of Jesus and the world under sin. As well, purple is also the color of royalty, befitting Jesus as the King. Some churches use gray for Ash Wednesday or for special days of fasting and prayer. Commonly, church traditions change the sanctuary colors to red for Maundy Thursday. Good Friday and Holy Saturday may utilize black to symbolize the powers of sin and death overcome by the death of Jesus.

See also:

Easter; Eastern Orthodoxy; Holy Week; Roman Catholic Church.

  • Adam, Adolf. The Liturgical Year: Its History and Its Meaning after the Reform of the Liturgy. New York: Pueblo, 1981.
  • Regan, Patrick. “The Three Days and the Forty Days.” Worship 54 (1980): 2-18.
  • Senn, Frank. Christian Liturgy: Catholic and Evangelical. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1997.
  • Stevenson, Kenneth. Jerusalem Revisited: The Liturgical Meaning of Holy Week. Washington, DC: Pastoral Press, 1988.
  • Stookey, Laurence Hull. Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church. Nashville: Abingdon, 1996.
  • Talley, Thomas J. The Origins of the Liturgical Year. 2nd ed. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991.
  • Thurston, Herbert. “Lent.” In The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910.
  • Quast, Kevin
    Copyright 2010 by ABC-CLIO, LLC

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