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.
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.
Easter; Eastern Orthodoxy; Holy Week; Roman Catholic Church.
Related Credo Articles
Self-denial during a period of intense religious devotion has been a long-standing tradition in both the Eastern and Western churches. In the early
The Christian period of fasting and penance preceding Easter. Beginning on Ash Wednesday , the Lenten fast covers 40 days, in emulation of...
n 1 Christianity the period of forty weekdays lasting from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday, observed as a time of penance and fasting commemorating