In the 40 days leading up to Easter, many Christians celebrate Lent, which is the annual Christian holiday that precedes Easter. Derived from the Anglo Saxon word "lencten," meaning "spring," Lent is a special period of reflection, fasting, and prayer, where Christians are encouraged to recall the sacraments of baptism and penance in preparation for Easter Sunday.
According to Benjamin Gibson, a published author who teaches Sunday school with a focus on sacrament preparation, Lent is 40 days of mini sacrifices to prepare for a time of mourning to acknowledge the day that Jesus died. In other words, Christians choose to make a sacrifice of their own to honor that Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice for them. The 40 days represents the amount of time Jesus spent in the desert, fasting and preparing for his ministry. “On Fridays [during] Lent, Roman Catholics skip meat. That is call abstinence. That is why fish Fridays are popular,” he explains. Luxuries like dessert or alcohol are commonly given up for Lent, or Christians may perform acts of kindness through volunteer work throughout the Lenten season.
Here's everything you need to know about the 2023 Lenten season, as well as the history behind why Christians observe Lent in the first place.
How is Lent determined?
Each year, the Lenten season is determined by the liturgical observance of Easter Sunday, which is a moving Christian holiday. The date can't be fixed, since Easter always occurs on the first Sunday after the Paschal full moon, which is the first full moon on or after the spring equinox.
From there, Western and Eastern churches differ a bit. In Western Christian churches, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday (the 7th Wednesday before Easter) and ends on Holy Saturday (the day before Easter). Eastern churches begin Lent on the Monday of the 7th week before Easter and end on the Friday nine days preceding Easter.
When does Lent start in 2023?
This year, Easter falls on Sunday, April 9, 2023. For Western churches, that means Lent will begin on Wednesday, February 22, 2023 a.k.a. Ash Wednesday. On that day, priests gather ashes from the previous year's Palm Sunday and rub them on congregants' foreheads while citing Genesis 3:19: "...For you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
When does Lent end?
For Western churches, Lent ends on Thursday, April 6, 2023, with an evening Easter Vigil mass on Holy Saturday. However, the last week of Lent is celebrated a bit differently with Holy Week, kicking off with Palm Sunday on Sunday, April 2, 2023. Holy Week also includes Holy Wednesday (which acknowledges Judas’ plan to deceive Jesus), Maundy Thursday (which commemorates Jesus's last supper), and Good Friday (which is when Christians recall the crucification of their savior). The final day of Holy Week, of course, is Easter, when believers acknowledge that Jesus rose from his tomb.
How long is Lent?
Lent spans for 40 days, from Ash Wednesday through Holy Saturday, which always occurs the day before Easter Sunday. However, since the holiday doesn't include Sundays, Lent is technically 46 days long.
What is the history of Lent?
Since the earliest origins of the Church, there's evidence of a period of a Lenten preparation before Easter, according to Catholic Education Resource Center. It all began after Jesus' baptism in the Jordan River, which Matthew 3:13-17 says marked his messianic mission, and he headed to the desert for 40 days. 40 days is a significant number in Jewish-Christian traditions, representing the duration of the Great Flood in the Bible scripture Genesis, Moses's time spent in the wilderness before receiving the Ten Commandments, and the days Hebrews spent in the desert before reaching the Promised Land.
During Jesus' 40-day fasting period in the desert, Christians believe he overcame temptations from Satan and a series of tests, which gave him the power to carry out his mission of preaching, healing, and saving humanity from sin once he returned. There's also historical evidence that "our forefathers" — also known as Jesus' apostles — fasted for 40 days, 24 hours a day, before Easter. In fact, a letter written to Pope St. Victor I from St. Irenaeus in 203 A.D. mentioned the act of fasting for "40 hours" or "40 days, seven hours a day."
It was not until 325 C.E. that Lent was formalized during the First Council of Nicaea. Strict fasting laws allowed for one meal a day, so long as no meat, wine, oil, or dairy products were involved. However, aside from on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, the strict fasting laws of Roman Catholics were renounced during World War II.
How is Lent observed today?
Gibson, who has studied the catechism of the Catholic Church and lived it for decades, reminds that those sacrificing during lent are Catholics ages 18 to 59, while Catholics at age 14 can start skipping meat on Fridays.
Today, Christians around the world still take the 40 days preceding Easter to fast and prepare for the celebration of Jesus' resurrection on Easter Sunday. However, how people fast often differs based on what branch of Christianity they follow. Eastern Orthodox Christians tend to be stricter with their practices, as they continue to avoid wine, oil, and dairy products during the entire Lenten period (as well as during other fasting periods). For Western Christians, only Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are full fast days, although some give up meat every Friday.
As for what you should pick to sacrifice during lent, it’s truly up to you. Consider things that are very specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely, says Gibson.
Besides fasting, some Christians give up luxuries or perform an act of good each day during Lent. Some things they may avoid include:
Ordering take-out food
Some positive habits they may practice include:
Reading 10 pages of a book every night
Going to church every Sunday
Walking to work instead of driving
Volunteering once a week
Saying three prayers a day
Sometimes it helps to have an accountability partner, Gibson adds. But if you falter, Gibson says, “Go to confession if you restart your bad habit. If it happens again, relax. Tomorrow is a new day.”
When is Lent 2024?
Next year, Lent will begin on Valentine's Day, February 14, and end on March 28.
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