What do you know about Lent and what difference will it make to your Christian life in 2021? This year Lent begins on Ash Wednesday 17 February. In the same way that Advent is a time for us to prepare our hearts for Christmas, Lent is our time of preparation for Easter.
Lent is one of the oldest observations on the Christian calendar. Like all Christian holy days and holidays, it has changed over the years, but its purpose has always been the same: self-examination and penitence, demonstrated by self-denial, in preparation for Easter. Early church father Irenaus of Lyons (c.130-c.200) wrote of such a season in the earliest days of the church, but back then it lasted only two or three days, not the 40 observed today.
In 325, the Council of Nicea discussed a 40-day Lenten season of fasting; it’s unclear whether its original intent was just for new Christians preparing for Baptism, but it soon encompassed the whole Church.
How exactly the churches counted those 40 days varied depending on location. In the Eastern Church, people only fasted on weekdays. The Western Church’s Lent was one week shorter, but included Saturdays. However in both areas the observance was both strict and serious. Only one meal was taken a day, near the evening. There was to be no meat, fish, or animal products eaten.
Until the 600s, Lent began on Quadragesima – the first Sunday of Lent (the term Quadragesima is derived from the Latin word for “fortieth”, as there are exactly forty days from Quadragesima Sunday until Good Friday), but Gregory the Great (c.540-604) moved it to a Wednesday, now called Ash Wednesday, to secure the exact number of 40 days in Lent not counting Sundays, which were feast days. Gregory, who is regarded as the father of the medieval papacy, is also credited with the ceremony that gives the day its name. As Christians came to the church for forgiveness, Gregory marked their foreheads with ashes reminding them of the biblical symbol of repentance (sackcloth and ashes) and mortality: “You are dust, and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19).
By the 800s, some Lenten practices were already becoming more relaxed. First, Christians were allowed to eat after 3pm. By the 1400s, it was noon. Eventually, various foods (like fish) were allowed, and in 1966 the Roman Catholic Church decided fast days should be restricted to Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Shrove Tuesday or ‘Pancake Day’ is the day before Ash Wednesday, which marks the start of the Christian Lent season leading up to Easter. The name Shrove Tuesday comes from the word “shriven”, meaning to confess your sins and receive forgiveness. Forgiveness of sins is at the heart of the Easter story and many Christians choose to use Lent as a time to think about their own behaviour and to recommit themselves to God. Some people choose to give up things during the period of Lent, such as unhealthy foods or treats, or dedicate part of Lent to fasting. Another name for this day is Mardi Gras (French for “Fat Tuesday”). During Lent many Christians fast, and the name Fat Tuesday refers to the last day of eating richer foods before the leaner days of Lent begin. Shrove Tuesday was seen as the last opportunity to use up eggs, milk and sugar before embarking on the Lenten fast, and pancakes were regarded as the perfect way to use up these ingredients.
This year in its “LiveLent: God’s Story, Our Story” Lent campaign the Church of England is encouraging all Christians to think about their calling, how to share their faith and reflect on the difference that Christ makes in their lives. How will you spend your time during Lent?