The Meaning Behind Lent in the United States

LentIt seems that Lent is a mystery to many people. Most people are aware that it is a religious observance that occurs in the spring and involves people having ashes smeared on their forehead, in addition to giving up chocolate or caffeine until Easter. Like most practices rooted in Christianity, the way people observe Lent varies depending on one’s heritage, specific religious tradition, and preferences.

There are still some rules and guidelines to follow for the observance of Lent. Additionally, an increasing number of people, even nonreligious people, are starting to observe the ritual.

What Is Lent?

According to Vox, “Lent is the greatest and most solemn period of fasting on the Christian church’s calendar, leading up to the celebration of Christianity’s greatest feast day: Easter.”

The church calendar is designed to reenact the life of Jesus every year from Christmas (birth) to Easter (Resurrection). During that time, traditional churches focus on stories from the gospels and the events in the life of Jesus.

The word “Lent” comes from the Old English word len(c)ten, this means “spring season.”

How Long Is Lent?

Lent is 46 days long. This is a mirror of the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, fasting, praying, and being tempted by Satan. This was before Jesus began his public ministry. Jesus went to the desert to prepare his soul, heart, mind, and body for his intense ministry. For three years, He healed, preached, and ministered to the souls of the people who followed Him. Then, He was crucified by the Roman Empire and religious leaders.

The concept behind lent is for Christians to mimic the actions Jesus took in the wilderness. Sometimes Lent is referred to as “The Great Fast.” During this period of time, Christians are supposed to give up something of comfort or adopt a spiritual practice the leads to self-examination, repentance from sin, and ultimately, renewal of the soul. This is in anticipation of greater dedication to serving others and God.
Lent is about recognizing and embracing one’s mortality while acknowledging the sinfulness of earthly life. Christians believe that Jesus’ resurrection foreshadows the resurrection of the whole world at the end of days, Lent is a time set aside to turn away from sin, mourn death and brokenness, and anticipate a day when the world will be healed.

If Jesus Fasted for 40 Days, Why Is Lent 46 Days Long?

The fast is interrupted by a Sunday each week. There are six in all.

In traditional Christian teaching, Sundays are feast days, a mini-remembrance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ that occurs each week. Therefore, Christians who observe Lent break their Lenten fast on Sundays to celebrate the feast. How the fast is broken varies depending on the followed tradition.

This mirrors the Jewish teaching that prohibits fasting on the Sabbath, except in years when Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, falls on the Sabbath.

How are the Dates for Lent Calculated?

It depends on the date of Easter.

Easter is a movable holiday; however, it always falls on a Sunday in the spring of the Northern Hemisphere.

More or less, Easter is calculated by “locating the first full moon following March 21 on the Gregorian calendar by Western churches.

Orthodox Christians use a slightly different system and it is purely coincidental when Orthodox Easter and Western Easter fall on the same day, such as in 2017.

In 2020, Western Easter will fall on April 12, and Orthodox Easter is on April 19.

Easter has become a secularized holiday and it is packaged as a commercial product. This is traditionally done with chocolate eggs and stuffed bunnies. The secular Easter is celebrated on the Western Christianity date.

The annual White House Easter Egg Roll is held is traditionally held on Easter Monday, the day after Easter. This tradition began in 1878 when Rutherford B. Hayes issued an order allowing children to roll Easter eggs on the lawn that day.

After Easter is determined, calculating the other days during the Latent period is found by counting backward.

Good Friday is the Friday before Easter, and Maundy Thursday is the day before that. Both these days are traditionally celebrated with church services.

The Sunday one week before Easter Sunday is Palm Sunday. This is to remember Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem the week before his crucifixion and the crowd waved palm branches. The branches that are used in the church celebration are saved to make ashes for next year’s Ash Wednesday.

The first day of Lent is Ash Wednesday and it observed 46 days before Easter.

What Is Ash Wednesday?

On the Western Christian calendar, Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent and it is observed 46 days before Easter. In 2020, Ash Wednesday will be Feb. 26. The palm branches that were blessed on Palm Sunday of the previous year are burned to ashes. This is what the minister applies to the forehead stating, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel,” of “Remember that you are dust, and to dust, you shall turn.”

According to Vox, one can think of Ash Wednesday as an annual reminder that each person’s life will end in death. It is the start of a season to remind observers that through denying themselves the comfort of food or some other thing, humans are limited, and they must depend on God for life. This is a day of humility.

Why Do People Fast During Lent?

Almost everyone knows that Lent is the time to fast from something, whether it is sweets, alcohol, sexual escapades, or social media (just some examples). However, not everyone who participates in Lent fast.

Some chose to add more spiritual practices during the 40 days. Like for example they attend church more regularly, pray more, give to their favorite charities, or even perform community services.

Western Christians typically allow it, observers, to pick what they would like to fast from. Based on what earthly possession distracts them from worshipping or what crutch they use that prevents a person from understanding their own sinfulness.

There are some Catholics that keep a more rigid regiment of the fast. In addition to giving up something, they will also abstain from eating meat on Fridays. This, of course, varies from person to person. There are even some Catholics that give up meat every Friday throughout the year in small observance of Jesus’s death every week. All Catholics are encouraged to stay away from meat on Good Friday which falls on April 10.

Roman Catholics started the tradition of not eating warm-blooded animals on Fridays, to acknowledge and serve penance for Jesus’s death.

Does One Have to Be a Christian to Participate in Lent?

One does not have to be Christian to fast. Muslims have a whole month of Ramadan, where they fast from sunrise to sunset. Jewish people fast during Yom Kippur. Fasting is a huge part of Hinduism, Buddhism, as well as many other religious traditions.

Fasting is about being connecting the body and the mind. A person can often get to distracted with life, social media, and other interrupting items that they lose touch with the emotions, mind, and soul. Therefore, lots of people have decided to fast from something during Lent.

Giving them a break from their everyday stress.

The whole design of Lent is to be uncomfortable with gratefulness overpowering in the end.

By Jeanette Viette and Sheena Robertson


VOX: Why do people fast for Lent?
Express: Lent 2020: What is Lent? Do people fast for Lent? Meaning behind Lent
BBC: Lent

Inline Image Courtesy of Roy’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Feature Image Courtesy of Gerard Stolk’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License

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