The season of Lent is a time of reflection and soul searching. It has been a time of preparation for Easter since the earliest days of the church and a preparation for Holy Baptism. Lent is observed as 40 days beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending on Mauney Thursday. All churches with a history before 1500 AD observe Lent. The ancient churches that propagated the New Testament believed observing was a commandment of the apostles.
In the Western Church, Sunday is a day of the Resurrection, therefore we skip Sundays in the calculation of the length of Lent. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, the seventh Wednesday before Easter. The last day before Lent has become the “last fling” before the solitude of Lent. This day may be called Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, Carnival or Fasching. By custom, we fast during Lent by abstaining from eating meat during Lent. This is why some refer to the festival Carnival which is Latin for Farewell to Meat.
Eastern churches do not skip Sundays in calculating the length of Lent or as they refer to it as Great Lent. Great Lent begins on Clean Monday, the seventh Monday before Easter and ends the Friday before Palm Sunday and uses the eastern date of Easter. The Lenten fast is relaxed on weekends in honor of Saturday and Sunday. Great Lent is followed by Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday. These are feast days and then the fast resumes on Monday of Holy Week. Holy Week is a separate season from Great Lent in the Eastern Church.
Why 40 days? There are 40 days in lent, which represent a time of fasting from both foods and festivities. There are three practices during Lent – Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving. Some people will give up something they like or money for Lent and donate the time or money to charity. It is a time of reflection with a break in the fast on Sundays. For the Roman Catholic Church, other liturgical Christian churches, Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday form the Easter Triduum. Lent is a season of penitence that ends with a celebration of Easter. In the Eastern Orthodox circles, Lent is known as Bright Sadness. In former times, food was stored in the autumn and was running out or would spoil if not used up. Few or no new crops were due. This may be the origin of the semi-fast. For the Roman Catholic Mass, the Lutheran Divine Service and Anglican Eucharist, the Gloria in Excelsis Deo and the Alleluia are not sung during the Lenten season.
The Liturgical calendar relives major events in Jesus’ life in real time, which is why Lent is 40 days. Assuming Jesus was born on December 25th, his conception, his incarnation, would have been nine months earlier or about March 25th. That would have been when the angel Gabriel would have announced to Mary the birth of Jesus.
The forty day period is symbolic of many things:
- Moses & Elijah spent forty days in the wilderness
- Noah had rain for forty days and forty nights
- The Jews wondered forty years to the promised land
- Jonah gave the city of Nineveh forty days to repent
- Jesus fasted forty days in the wilderness with temptation.
Holy Days of Lent
- Ash Wednesday – the first day of Lent in Western Christianity
- Clean Monday – Or Ash Monday the first day in Eastern Orthodox Christianity
- Laetare Sunday – The halfway point from Ash Wednesday to Easter
- Passion Sunday – The Sunday following Laetare Sunday, The Passion of our Lord
- Palm Sunday – Marks the beginning of Holy Week. The crowds paved the way for Jesus with palm braches as he rode into the city.
- Holy Week – The last week of Lent before Easter
- Spy Wednesday – The Wednesday of Holy Week is the day Judas spied on Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane
- Maundy Thursday – Thursday of Holy Week when Christians commemorate the Last Supper
- Good Friday – The day of Christ’s crucifixion
- Holy Saturday – Depending on denominations, the Easter Vigil begins at sundown on Holy Saturday or at sunrise on Easter morning.