7 FAQs on Lent

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. Lent is celebrated approximately 40 days, recalling special times of preparation in the Bible. For example, Jesus fasted for “40 days and 40 nights” in preparation for his ministry (Matt. 4:2). 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, and different regions of the church observed it on different days. But according to 2nd-century bishop Irenaeus of Lyons, these different traditions all included a period of fasting in preparation for the great feast. By the 4th century, Lent as a period of forty days became firmly established. This intense preparation for Easter was paralleled by the preparation undertaken by converts to the Christian faith. It was common practice for new converts to undergo a period of instruction, prayer, and fasting before their baptism on Easter. Also, Christians seeking reconciliation with the church would be readmitted on Easter after a period of penance. In fact, this was an early expression of the sacrament of confession.

3. How do you do Lent?

Other than fasting, two other practices 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.  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?

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” (Gal. 5:16). 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 for the sake of 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”
-Romans 12:10-11

A first-century document known as the Didache highlights some distinct aspects of Christian practice, including fasting. It recommends fasting on Wednesday and Friday, which have remained days of penance ever since. The idea of Friday fasting 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. but 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 has been a consistent 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. It may even seem out of touch in a culture where 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. But Lent encourages us to choose a path best suited to our own needs. Still, it’s important to recognize the reasons for no meat, so that we aren’t just following church rules for the sake of following church rules.

6. OK but why do I have to fast?

While individuals decide how they want to “do” Lent, the church still requires some minimum participation. Most Western Catholics, 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–the Body of Christ. Jesus did not leave every Christian to himself.

Additionally, Jesus gave his ministers the authority to “bind and loose,” which in part refers to making disciplinary rules for the church (Matt. 18:18). This is essentially what happened after the council of Jerusalem, when the church’s leaders decided that Gentile Christians ought to abstain from certain foods (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 Orthodox Church and other ancient traditions as well. From the 16th century on, different Protestant denominations maintained different Catholic practices, while getting rid of others. While some groups like Anglicans, Lutherans, and Methodists observe Lent, others, like Baptists, usually do not. Christmas and Easter were also once thought to be “too Catholic”—and were even dispensed with by some groups in history. Interestingly, it seems like Lent is making a comeback.

[1] Other rites of the Catholic Church have their own disciplines. A rite refers to a tradition of celebrating the liturgy that developed in reference to its own culture and practices. By far the most common in the West is the Latin or Roman rite, but there are various other Eastern rites as well (Maronite, Chaldean, Armenian, Coptic, Byzantine, and so on). Similarly, Orthodox churches have their own liturgical practices (often similar to their Eastern Catholic counterparts).
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