1. What is Lent?
Lent is a special time dedicated to self-examination and conversion as Christians prepare to celebrate Easter, the high point of the Christian calendar. To appreciate Lent as a distinct period of the year, one has to remember that Christians have historically celebrated their faith by dividing the year into different liturgical seasons. Based on the central mysteries of the Christian faith and the life of Christ, these seasons allow believers to enter into the events of salvation history and mature in their faith—both individually and collectively as members of the church.
Lent is celebrated approximately 40 days, recalling special times of preparation in the Bible. For example, before receiving the 10 Commandments, Moses fasted for “40 days and 40 nights” (Exodus 34:28). Jesus also fasted for “40 days and 40 nights” in preparation for his ministry (Matt. 4:2). Like Moses and Jesus, we prepare ourselves. Lent invites us to examine our lives, deepen our faith, and foster our spiritual journeys through prayer, fasting, and other disciplines.
2. When did Lent begin?
Easter, the celebration of Christ’s resurrection, was established early on. In his letter to the pope, second-century Christian Irenaeus of Lyons refers to different practices in regards to celebrating Easter. Apparently, different regions of the church observed it on different days. Irenaeus also mentions that all these traditions included a period of fasting in preparation for the great feast. These fasting practices also varied, but ultimately, a time of fasting preceded Easter throughout the Christian world.
By the fourth century, Lent as a period of forty days became firmly established. From Jerusalem to Alexandria to Rome, Christians everywhere fasted—often to extreme measures—before the great Easter celebration. This intense preparation for Easter was paralleled by the preparation undertaken by converts to Christianity. Within 100 years of the death of the last Apostle, it was common practice for new converts to undergo a period of instruction, prayer, and fasting before their baptism on Easter. Similarly, in the 2nd century, those Christians seeking reconciliation with the church would be readmitted on Easter after a period of penance. This was an early expression of the sacrament of reconciliation (or confession).
3. What are some Lenten practices?
Other than fasting, two others are prayer and almsgiving. These three practices have roots in the Old Testament and are encouraged by Jesus. According to Jesus, one must pray, fast, and give to the poor in a truly humble way. If one does these things simply for show, then that person is a hypocrite (see Matthew 6). The fifth-century Pope Leo says that this threefold practice
brings all other virtues into action: it attains to God’s image and likeness and unites us inseparably with the Holy Spirit. Because in prayer faith remains steadfast, in fastings life remains innocent, in almsgiving the mind remains kind.”
– Pope Leo the Great
Fasting often involves abstaining from certain foods. Nowadays, Western Catholics refrain from eating meat on the Fridays of Lent while many Eastern Christians abstain from fish, dairy, eggs, wine, and oil as well. Naturally, prayer is central to Lent as it invites us into deeper relationship with God. Christians may set aside more time for private prayer and participate in special devotions such as the Stations of the Cross. The week leading up to Easter, Holy Week, includes unique services referencing the events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion, such as the Last Supper. In a way, almsgiving combines fasting and prayer. It involves sacrificing something on our part for the sake of another. According to Christ, whatever we do for “least of these,” we do for him (Matt. 25:40).
4. What’s the point of fasting?
Most Christians value prayer and almsgiving. But when it comes to fasting, many are not as eager. Some may consider it an unnecessary burden imposed by the church. Or maybe many of us have simply lost touch with our Christian ancestors and their traditions. Whatever the reason, fasting and other forms of self-denial ought to be rediscovered as means of deepening our faith and growing in holiness.
The Bible encourages acts of penance or self-denial as expressions of conversion (2 Kings 21:27-29). Additionally, scripture urges us to curtail “desires of the flesh,” for the so-called works of the flesh lead to “corruption” and even exclusion from heaven (Gal. 5:16; 6:8; 5:21). We are to instead “sow to the Spirit” by developing a disciplined spiritual life (Gal. 6:8). Through acts of self denial, we “make no provision for the flesh” and are instead able to “put on the Lord Jesus” (Rom. 13:14). Scripture states that even God disciplines us so “that we may share in his holiness”:
Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it”
As already suggested, early Christians immediately emphasized fasting. A first-century document known as the Didache highlights some distinct aspects of Christian practice, including moral teachings, baptism, the Sunday Eucharist, …and fasting. It recommends fasting on Wednesday and Friday. So here we have a document that was probably written before the entire New Testament was complete—and already Christians consider fasting to be an important part of their shared faith life. The idea of setting aside Friday as a day of penance comes very early, then.
Fasting has been a saint-making activity throughout the centuries. From the third century desert fathers who withdrew from society and practiced asceticism, to the rise of monastic communities in the West, to poverty-embracing figures like Francis of Assisi, some of the most influential Christians have been the ones to take seriously the call to spiritual discipline.
Perhaps the #1 reason to fast is simply to follow the example of Jesus, who not only taught about fasting but practiced it himself.
5. What’s the deal with no meat?
Abstaining from meat in particular has been the dominant form of fasting throughout the church’s history. Historically, meat has been associated with feasting. This may not be as obvious today, as meat is as accessible as driving to the nearest McDonald’s. But in the past, celebrations were sure to have the best and most expensive meats. Again, this may seem out of touch in a culture where food is plentiful, vegetarianism is valued, and no-meat dishes can be just as exquisite. But the key to the no-meat practice is the spirit of simple eating and self-sacrifice.
Meatless fasting is a discipline—something that can change—and in fact has varied throughout the years. In various times and places, Christians not only abstained from meat but all animal products. To this day, Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholics still maintain such strict customs, fasting every day of Lent.
Arguably, abstaining from other foods (like sweets, or alcohol, or big meals altogether) and activities (say social media, going to the gym, watching television, etc.) may be more appropriate today, especially in American culture. In fact, Lent encourages us to choose a path best suited to our own needs. But it’s important to recognize the reasons for the no-meat practice, so that we aren’t just blindly following church rules for the sake of following church rules.
6. OK but why do I have to fast?
Some may still wonder why they have to fast, even if they acknowledge the benefits of the practice. While individuals voluntarily decide how they want to “do” Lent, the church still requires some minimum participation. The faithful in the Latin rite of the Catholic Church, for example, are supposed to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and abstain from meat on those days as well as the rest of the Fridays of Lent.1 The reason the church can make such decisions is precisely because the church is a community of believers. Jesus did not leave every Christian to himself. We are part of the Body of Christ, and we journey together as a body. The entire liturgical life of the church is based on the reality that worship is a corporate phenomenon as much as a private one.
Additionally, Jesus gave his ministers the authority to “bind and loose,” which were ancient Jewish terms referring to the creation (or abolition) of rules for the community (Matt. 16:18-19; 18:18). The church is the family of God, and church’s pastors have been entrusted with the ability to make disciplinary rules for the family. This is essentially what happened after the council of Jerusalem, when the church’s leaders decided that Gentile Christians ought to abstain from food that had been “sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled” (Acts 15:29). Even though such decisions aren’t equal to the Word of God, we are to “submit” to the church’s pastors, since they “[keep] watch over [our] souls” (Heb. 13:17).
7. Why don’t some Christians observe Lent?
Lent was already well-established prior to major splits in the church, so it has been maintained not only in the Catholic Church but the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and other ancient communions as well. During the sixteenth century, other major rifts occurred in the form of Protestantism. Different Protestant denominations maintained different Catholic practices, while getting rid of others. While many Protestant groups (like Anglicans, Lutherans, and Methodists) have traditionally observed Lent, others, like Baptists, have not. Some groups considered Lent—and other parts of the liturgical year—to be too Catholic for their taste.
Christmas and Easter were also once thought to be “too Catholic”—and were even outlawed by various groups in history. But now they are basically universal Christian holidays. Interestingly, it seems like Lent is also making a comeback.