What is Lent?
Lent is a season of soul-searching and repentance…a season for reflection and taking stock.
Lent originated in the very earliest days of the Church as a preparatory time for Easter, when the faithful rededicated themselves and when converts were instructed in the faith and prepared for baptism. By observing the forty days of Lent, the individual Christian imitates Jesus’ withdrawal into the wilderness for forty days. All churches that have a continuous history extending before AD 1500 observe Lent. The ancient church that wrote, collected, canonized, and propagated the New Testament also observed Lent, believing it to be a commandment from the apostles.
The Western Church
Because Sunday is the day of the Resurrection, the Western church skips Sundays in its calculation of the length of Lent. Therefore, in the Western Church, Lent always begins on Ash Wednesday, the seventh Wednesday before Easter.
In many countries, the last day before Lent (called Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, Carnival, or Fasching) has become a last fling before the solemnity of Lent. For centuries, it was customary to fast by abstaining from meat during Lent, which is why some people call the festival Carnival, which is Latin for “farewell to meat.”
The Eastern Church
The Eastern Church does not skip over Sundays when calculating the length of the Great Lent. Therefore, the Great Lent always begins on Clean Monday, the seventh Monday before Easter, and ends on the Friday before Palm Sunday—using of course the eastern date for Easter. The Lenten fast is relaxed on the weekends in honor of the Sabbath (Saturday) and the Resurrection (Sunday). The Great Lent is followed by Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday, which are feast days, then the Lenten fast resumes on Monday of Holy Week. In the Eastern Church, Holy Week is a separate season from the Great Lent.
But The Word “Lent” Isn’t In The Bible!
The word “Bible” isn’t in the Bible, either…so what we’re really asking is the origin of the name.
Originally, “Lent” was nothing more than the English name of the season between winter and summer, the season when the snow melts and the flowers bloom. German and Dutch have the same word, but with slightly different spelling. In German, “Lenz” is the poetic word for “spring.” In Dutch, the word “lente” never changed its meaning; it is still the name of the season between winter and summer, and it is still used with that meaning in everyday life.
The church observance took place during the season of lent. In England, “Lent” came to mean the observance rather than the season, leaving the season without a name. Instead of saying stupid things like “Lent happens during lent,” English-speaking people invented the word “spring.” Today, instead of calling the seasons winter, lent, and summer, we call them winter, spring, and summer. We use “Lent” instead of “spring” when we refer to the church season.
The purpose of the liturgical calendar is to relive the major events in Jesus’ life in real time, which is why Lent is forty days long. If Jesus were born on 25 December, then His conception—thus also His incarnation—would have been nine months earlier, on about 25 March. That is when the angel Gabriel would have announced Jesus’ birth to Mary. Thus 25 March is known in the historic church as The Annunciation.
(By the way, roughly speaking, the western Church consists of Protestants, Catholics, and Anglicans. The eastern Church consists of the Eastern Orthodox churches, the Oriental Orthodox churches, and the eastern-rite churches affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church.)
Lent always begins on Ash Wednesday.