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What is Lent and why is it celebrated?

Familiar with Lent but not really sure what it’s all about?
Read on to discover what Lent means, how long it lasts, why it’s celebrated and whether this time of reflection could have anything to offer you today ...

What is Lent?

Maybe you’re used to giving something up for Lent (or intending to, at least), but you're not really sure of the meaning behind it? Or what Lent even is?

So, what exactly is Lent? Why is it celebrated by so many people around the globe? And could it have anything to offer you today?

Lent is a time of reflection and anticipation ahead of one of the most important days in the Christian calendar: Easter Sunday.

Over this period, Christians prepare themselves for Holy Week, a time that marks the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, whose life and teachings are the foundation of Christianity.

What does Lent mean?

The word ‘Lent’ is taken from an old English word to mean 'lengthen'. And the reason why is because it spans a six-and-a-half week period, which leads nicely on to the next question ...

When does Lent start and end?

Kicking off on what’s known as Ash Wednesday, Lent starts 46 days before Easter Sunday – the date of which moves each year within the season of spring. (You can discover why with Easter Reborn: From the Rites of Spring to the Rising of Jesus)

But when does Lent end? Well, this is a slightly more complex question. Traditionally, Lent ends the day before Easter Sunday, on what’s referred to as Holy Saturday. 

But, as you’ll discover throughout this piece, Lent has grown and developed over the years. It means different things to different people, and is marked in various ways across the Christian Church. 

We see this reflected in the dates of Lent. Today, for example, the Roman Catholic Church marks the end of Lent on the Thursday before Easter, on the day referred to as ‘Maundy Thursday’, which is inspired by ancient biblical writings on Jesus’ meal with friends shortly before his arrest. 

How long is lent?

The length of Lent is often linked to biblical accounts of Jesus’ time in the wilderness, covered in three books in the New Testament: Matthew 4, Mark 1, and Luke 4

According to these accounts, Jesus spent 40 days in the desert without food before he began to travel, sharing lessons and teachings as a Jewish preacher.

Although the length of Lent is traditionally associated with Jesus’ time in the wilderness, this isn’t the only time we see the number 40 cropping up in the Bible. 

It also features several times throughout Old Testament writings, including when the early Israelite people wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, following their escape from enslavement in Egypt (an event covered in Exodus).

Hang on a minute ... is Lent really 40 days? 

So, Lent’s inspired by stories of Jesus’ 40 days spent in the wilderness. But the number of days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday isn’t 40; it’s 46. So, what exactly is going on here?

It's time for a (very short) history lesson.

In 325 CE, a group of Christian bishops met to discuss and standardise common Christian practices. At the time, they set the length of Lent to 40 days.

Fast forward to the sixth century, and a Pope named St. Gregory removed the practice of fasting on Sundays, so Lent now begins on Ash Wednesday to take this into account.

So, if you’ve heard rumours that Sunday’s a ‘cheat day’ for Lent, now you know why.

So, what do Christians do for Lent?

For those who celebrate Lent within the Christian Church, fasting has traditionally been a common choice, mirroring the way that Jesus fasted in the desert, according to biblical writings. 

However, not everyone marks Lent by giving up certain types of food. Some take a break from social media, for example, or focus on taking things up instead – like volunteering or spending more time in prayer. 

Overall, Lent is a personal time of reflection, so it’s celebrated in unique and personal ways.

If Lent’s a religious thing, what did Jesus do during Lent?

You might be surprised to learn that Lent isn’t in the Bible – well, at least not the actual word, anyway. And it’s the same for ‘Easter’. 

But why is this the case? As Lent is a Christian tradition, it formed after New Testament writings on the life of Jesus had started to circulate.

Plus, biblical texts say that Jesus grew up as part of a Jewish family, so he actively took part in Jewish traditions. In the Easter story, for example, we get a reference to Jesus celebrating Pesach (known as ‘Passover’ in English).

So, although Jesus didn’t practice Lent, his time spent in the wilderness inspired the season marked today.

Could Lent offer anything to you today?

Do you ever celebrate Lent? Maybe you have in the past but haven’t in a while. Or perhaps you’ve never tried, but you’re interested in seeing if this time of reflection could add something to your life?

Although Lent originated as a religious practice, it’s come to mean different things to different people. It's marked by people of different religious beliefs and none, and celebrated in creative ways – with some giving things up, and others taking up something new.

Perhaps you’ve been thinking about a part of your life where you’d like to see change, and you think this could be a good opportunity to trial this new approach. What impact might this time of reflection have on the things that matter to you?

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