What is Lent?
Lent is a liturgical season of the year during which many Christians prepare themselves for Easter by an increased focus on spiritual practices. It is always six weeks long, beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending on the Thursday before Easter. Since Easter is a moveable feast day—fixed in relation to the full moon following the northern hemisphere's vernal equinox—the beginning of Lent also moves. The word lent simply refers to Spring. The beginning of Spring almost always occurs during Lent.
The 40 days of Lent are patterned after the time Jesus spent in the wilderness at the outset of his ministry. This story is told in three of the gospels: Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, and Luke 4:1-13. For Jesus, this was a time of intense prayer and fasting, facing great temptation and resisting the devil with the help of scripture and the Holy Spirit. The gospel writers saw this experience as preparatory to Jesus' three years of ministry.
During Lent, this spiritual intensity is interwoven with daily life, and Christians seek to emulate Jesus' focus on God through incorporating disciplines and practices that strengthen faith and love and that embody a spirit of penance. Many churches plan special events during Lent—Bible or topical studies, prayer and worship gatherings, service opportunities—to facilitate this common goal. It is a time to reflect on the habits, possessions, and desires that have come between the soul and God, and to find new ways to let them go so that God can be more fully loved.
How did Lent develop?
Early in the history of the church, Christians practiced a pre-Easter fast as a time of mourning over the death of Christ. By the beginning of the 4th century, this daylong fast had been extended to replicate Jesus' 40-day fast. Since the Easter Vigil—the night before Easter morning—was also a time of baptism, the season of Lent became a time of instruction as the catechumens (converts to the Christian faith) prepared for baptism. Baptized Christians who had committed egregious sins and had been barred from the community by the bishop could also seek restoration through repentance during these weeks before Easter.
Who observes Lent?
Lent, like Advent and Epiphany, is a season associated with liturgical practices. That is, it developed within the Catholic and Orthodox communities as part of their cycle of feasts and sacred remembrances. These denominations, and those Protestant ones that retained the Catholic approach to the church year (e.g., Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists), continue the practices of Lent. Many other Protestant churches—particularly some of those that followed the Reformed branch of Protestantism, which developed out of the teachings of Zwingli and Calvin in the later 16th century, and the more radical Anabaptist movement—abandoned the liturgical rhythms of the Roman Catholic Church and therefore have not traditionally observed Lent.
What are some Lenten traditions?
Fasting. Probably the most common element of Lenten practice is fasting. Different traditions dictate different methods of fasting. The Lenten fast is a highly organized and arduous discipline in Eastern Orthodox churches, involving a complete abstention from oil, wine, meat, fish, dairy, and eggs throughout Lent. On certain days, there is a complete fast, usually from midnight to midnight. Many Orthodox believers also choose to keep the television and radio off, to abstain from sex, and to turn off all music during Lent.
Kathleen Mulhern is Executive Editor of Patheos. She teaches in the areas of Church History and Spiritual Formation at Denver Seminary and blogs at Dry Bones.