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Whether you’re new to Lent, have observed it for years, or are just curious about it, you probably have some unanswered questions about its meaning and the different ways Christians observe it. Below we’ll answer several frequently asked questions about Lent that will help illuminate this important season of reflection on the life of Jesus and our devotion to him.
What Is the Meaning of Lent?
Lent is a 40-day period of devotion and preparation for Easter. It technically covers 46 days, but Sundays are considered feast days not included in the count. The number 40 reflects the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness prior to his public ministry (Mark 1:12-13). All three major branches of Christianity—Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox—observe Lent, though many Protestant denominations do not.
Lent is a time for repentance, reflection, and spiritual rededication in light of Jesus’ sacrificial death for our salvation, and for many Christians this involves fasting, refraining from things or activities that one enjoys, and/or devoting time to spiritual activities like studying Scripture, praying, giving to charity, or reading devotional works. We’ll say more about this below.
When Does Lent Begin and End?
For both Catholics and Protestants, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. Church services held on this day typically involve placing ashes on the foreheads of participants, often in the shape of a cross, or sprinkling ashes on their heads. In Scripture, ashes are associated with repentance (e.g., Jeremiah 6:26), and clergy will sometimes quote Mark 1:15 while applying the ashes: “Repent and believe the good news.” This also marks the first day of fasting or giving something up (this varies by person and tradition). Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate Great Lent, which begins on Clean Monday—a day similar to Ash Wednesday in that it focuses on turning away from sin.
For Catholics, Lent formally ends on Maundy Thursday evening, the Thursday that immediately precedes Good Friday, although fasting lasts until the Saturday before Easter (Holy Saturday). Maundy Thursday commemorates the original Lord’s Supper, the Passover Meal that Jesus shared with his disciples (Matthew 26:17-30). The word maundy comes from the Latin word meaning command, which refers to the command Jesus gave his disciples while they were gathered for the meal: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34). Protestants also observe Lent until the evening of Holy Saturday. For Eastern Orthodox, observance doesn’t conclude until Easter Sunday morning.
What Do People Give up for Lent?
The tradition of fasting during Lent comes from the practice of the early church in which only one meal a day was eaten, and meat (including fish and eggs, along with dairy) was forbidden. In the centuries that followed, the number of fasting days was shortened and restrictions on what foods could be eaten were relaxed (though abstinence from meat and dairy is still widely practiced in Eastern Orthodox churches).
Fasting is not a widespread practice in our culture but has deep roots in Judaism and early Christianity. It’s natural for people today to wonder why Christians fast at all. As the notable pastor and author Andrew Murray explained, “Fasting helps to express, to deepen, and confirm the resolution that we are ready to sacrifice anything, to sacrifice ourselves to attain what we seek for the kingdom of God.” 1 Similarly, pastor and author Jeffrey E. Miller writes, “Fasting reveals our physical needs and reminds us of our spiritual needs. When we give up something we depend on, we remember our dependence on God.” 2
Today, one finds a multitude of different approaches toward Lenten fasting, often reflecting the practices of particular church traditions. Many Christians only fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, which often involves eating a single meal without meat. Catholics in the US frequently abstain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent but have the option of eating fish.
Other Christians choose a favored food or drink item to abstain from during the full 40 days of Lent, such as sweets, wine, or coffee. In other instances, Christians strive to break bad habits during this period (gossiping, complaining, watching too much television, etc.). In addition to giving something up for the purpose of self-denial, many believers also seek to cultivate new spiritual attitudes and practices. This approach is reflected in the following advice from an Episcopal bishop, and we commend it to you as you observe the season:
Fast from criticism, and feast on praise.
Fast from self-pity, and feast on joy.
Fast from ill-temper, and feast on peace.
Fast from resentment, and feast on contentment.
Fast from jealousy, and feast on love.
Fast from pride, and feast on humility.
Fast from selfishness, and feast on service.
Fast from fear, and feast on faith. 3
1. Quoted in Adrian Rogers, “Prayer and Fasting,” in Adrian Rogers Sermon Archive (Signal Hill, CA: Rogers Family Trust, 2017), Joel 2:12–15.
2. Jeffrey E. Miller, Study, Apply, Share: Luke, ed. Elliot Ritzema (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012), Lk 5:33–35.
3. Arthur Lichtenberger, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, USA, The Day Is at Hand, “Lenten Rule,” (New York: The Seabury Press, 1964), 27, quoted in G. Curtis Jones, 1000 Illustrations for Preaching and Teaching (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1986), 107.
BIO: Christopher Reese (MDiv, ThM) (@clreese) is a freelance writer and editor-in-chief of The Worldview Bulletin. He is a general editor of the Dictionary of Christianity and Science (Zondervan, 2017) and Three Views on Christianity and Science (Zondervan, 2021). His articles have appeared in Christianity Today and he writes and edits for Christian ministries and publishers.
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