What Is Lent and How Is It Observed?

On the Christian calendar, Lent is the 40-day period from Ash Wednesday to Easter. When it was first observed in the fourth century, its focus was on self-examination and self-denial in preparation for Easter, and Christians used fasting (abstaining from eating food) in the early years as a visible demonstration of this process.

Over the centuries, Catholics have relaxed some of the strict fasting rules. Today, only Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and all Fridays during Lent are considered fasting days. On these days, Catholics over the age of 14 are to refrain from eating meat. (Historically, this practice was meant to help unify people who could afford meat with poor people who couldn’t.) In addition, on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, those between the ages of 18 and 59 are to eat only one full meal and two smaller meals and aren’t to eat between meals.

Orthodox Christians are far more rigorous in their observance of fasting during Lent, believing that regular fasting is a crucially important discipline for one’s spiritual growth. Meat, dairy products, and eggs (which historically were considered more luxury foods than ordinary breads) aren’t allowed, with some additional restrictions on certain days. They can only eat fish (which was historically considered less of a luxury than red meat) on the feasts of the Annunciation and Palm Sunday.

In addition to refraining from eating, Lent is often a time when Christians give up something pleasurable (furthering the focus on self-denial), be it chocolate, meat or — shudder the thought! — coffee.

Some Protestant denominations (such as Anglican and Episcopalian) observe Lent, but many Protestant churches attach less significance to the Lenten season than to the individual holy days leading up to Easter.

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