Explaining the Season of Lent

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

Lent is the solemn religious observance in the liturgical calendar denominations that begins on Ash Wednesday for the Catholics and many Protestant churches, or Clean Monday for the Orthodox church.  It covers a period of approximately six weeks before Easter Sunday, consisting of 40 days and 6 Sundays.  According to the Universal Norms for the Liturgical Year and the General Roman Calendar, “Lent is ordered for preparing for the celebration of Easter, since the Lenten liturgy prepares for celebration of the paschal mystery, both catechumens, by the various stages of Christian initiation, and the faithful, who recall their own Baptism and do penance.”  The climax of this is the commemoration of Holy Week, marking the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus (a.s.) as the Christians believe.  This recalls and sometimes re-enacts the events of the New Testament pertaining to this.  It begin with the Friday of Sorrows, building up to the crucifixion on Good Friday, before becoming a joyful celebration on Easter Sunday.

During Lent, unlike the early days of the church, many Christians commit to a sort of ‘fasting’ by giving up certain types of luxuries as a form of penitence.  There are few people who actually fast like the prophets of old.  The more devout commit to a Lenten spiritual discipline, such as reading a daily devotional, to draw themselves near to God.  The Catholics observe the Stations of the Cross, a devotional commemoration and re-enactment of Jesus Christ carrying the Cross to Calvary, the scourging, the falls and finally, the crucifixion.  Roman Catholic churches remove flowers from their altars.  Crucifixes, religious statues, and many other religious symbols are veiled in violet fabrics, the colour of the season.  The more devout also mark the season with the traditional abstention from the consumption of meat.  Some Protestant churches also follow this.

The English word ‘Lent’ is a shortened form of Old English ‘Lenten’, which meant ‘spring’.  Its cognates in the Germanic languages still mean the same today.  The Catholic Encyclopaedia states that the Teutonic word ‘Lent’, which we employ to denote the forty days’ fast preceding Easter, originally meant only ‘spring’.  It was used from the Anglo-Saxon period to translate the more significant Latin term, ‘Quadragesima’, meaning the ‘forty days’, or literally, the ‘fortieth day’.  This, in turn, was derived from the Greek name for Lent, ‘tessarakoste’ which also meant ‘fortieth’.  This Greek word was created from the analogy of Pentecost, Pentekoste.   Pentekoste, meaning ‘fiftieth day’, was the Jewish harvest festival and as celebrated 50 days after Passover.  It is now known as Shavu’ot.  This Pentekoste is different from the Pentecost of the Christian, which is the season of Easter Sunday and the 49 days that follow.

The different Christian denominations calculate the forty days of Lent differently.  In the Western Church, the prevailing calculation has the season of Lent from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday.  This calculation makes Lent last 46 days, with the 6 Sundays included.  This is because Sundays are considered feats days and there is not fasting.  The fast is for the other 40 days.  The Roman Rite defines Lent, as a liturgical season, as follows: “The forty days of Lent run from Ash Wednesday up to but excluding the Mass of the Lord’s Supper exclusive.”  That is a total of 44 liturgical days since the Mass of the Lord’s Supper is the evening of Holy Thursday and is already part of the Good Friday liturgical day, the first of the three days of the Paschal Triduum.  On the other hand, since the first two days of the Paschal Triduum, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, are part of the penitential period that begins on Ash Wednesday, but that does not include the intervening Sundays, the total number of penitential days included in Lent, as a season of penance, is exactly forty.  This is a technical definition.

The Ambrosian Rite, an alternative Catholic rite has Lent beginning on the Sunday that follows Ash Wednesday and ends as in the Roman Rite, thus being of 40 days, counting the Sundays but not Holy Thursday.  The fast begins on Monday, the first weekday in Lent, and ends as in the Roman Rite.  The special Ash Wednesday fast is transferred to the first Friday of the Ambrosian Lent.  Until this rite was revised by Charles Borromeo, the liturgy of the First Sunday of Lent was festive, celebrated in white vestments with chanting of the Gloria in Excelsis and Hallelujah.  This is in line with the recommendation in the Gospel:

Matthew 6:16
16 “Again, when you fast, do not shew it by gloomy looks, as the hypocrites do.  They make their faces unsightly, so that men can see they are fasting; believe me, they have their reward already.”

The period of Lent observed in the Eastern Catholic Churches is the same as the Orthodox churches.  These churches follow the Rite of Constantinople.  The forty days of Lent and of fasting, which include Sundays, begin not on Ash Wednesday, but on Clean Monday.  Lent then ends on the fortieth day from that date, which is the Friday before Palm Sunday.  The days of Lazarus Saturday, Palm Sunday and Holy Week are considered a distinct period of fasting.

The determination of the date of Easter in the East is not based on the Gregorian calculations.  In most years this results in a difference of some weeks, which can be as many as five.  Among the Oriental Orthodox, there are various local traditions regarding Lent.  The Coptic, Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Churches observe eight weeks of Lent.  With both Saturdays and Sunday mornings exempt, it still has forty days of fasting.  Fast generally implies one meal a day to be taken either in the evening or after 1445h, and there is a total abstention from meat, fats, eggs and dairy products.  They are replaced with cereals, vegetables and other type of food devoid of fats.  Smoking nullifies of the fast, which runs for a total of 56 days.  Joyous Saturday and the week preceding it are counted separately from the forty-day fast in accordance with the Apostolic Constitutions.  All this giving the period an extra eight days.

Forty is a significant number in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  It is mentioned several times in the Bible in relation to the prophets.  Moses (a.s.) spent 40 days on Mount Sinai, in the Divine Presence:

Exodus 24:18
18 So Moses climbed higher up the mountain, into the heart of the cloud; for forty days and forty nights the mountain was his home.

Elijah (a.s.) spent forty days and nights walking to Mount Horeb:

1 Kings 19:8
8 So he rose up, and ate and drank; strengthened by that food he went on for forty days and forty nights, until he reached God’s own mountain, Horeb.

Noah (a.s.) spent forty days and nights in the ark during the flood:

Genesis 7:4
4 “In seven days from this, I Mean to Send down rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights, and blot out this whole world of living things, My own creatures, from the face of the earth.”

The Children of Israel wandered forty years in the desert while travelling to the Promised Land:

Numbers 14:33
33 “…and until the desert has swallowed them up, these sons of yours shall wander to and fro in it for forty years, doing penance for your unfaithfulness.”

Jonah (a.s.) gave Nineveh in his prophecy of judgment, forty days in which to repent or be destroyed:

Jonah 3:4
4 And when he had advanced into it as far as one day’s journey would carry him, he began crying out, “In forty days, Nineveh will be overthrown.”

In the same manner, Jesus (a.s.) retreated into the wilderness, where He fasted for forty days, and was tempted by the Devil.

Matthew 4:1–11
1 And now Jesus was led by the Spirit away into the wilderness, to be tempted there by the devil.  2 Forty days and forty nights he spent fasting, and at the end of them, was hungry.  3 Then the Tempter approached, and said to him, “If thou art the Son of God, bid these stones turn into loaves of bread.”  4 He answered, “It is Written, ‘Man cannot live by bread only; there is life for him in all the words which proceed from the mouth of God.’”  5 Next, the Devil took him into the Holy City, and there set him down on the pinnacle of the Temple, 6 saying to him, “If thou art the Son of God, cast thyself down to earth; for it is Written, ‘He has Given charge to his angels concerning thee, and they will hold thee up with their hands, lest thou shouldst chance to trip on a stone.’”  7 Jesus said to him, “But it is further Written, ‘Thou shalt not put the Lord thy God to the proof.’”  8 Once more, the Devil took him to the top of an exceedingly high mountain, from which he shewed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them, 9 and said, “I will give thee all these if thou wilt fall down and worship me.”  10 Then Jesus said to him, “Away with thee, Satan; it is Written, ‘Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and serve none but him.’”  11 Then the Devil left him alone; and thereupon angels came and ministered to him.

Mark 1:12–13
12 Thereupon, the Spirit sent him out into the desert: 13 and in the desert he spent forty days and forty nights, tempted by the Devil; there he lodged with the beasts, and there the angels ministered to him.

Luke 4:1–13
1 Jesus returned from the Jordan full of the Holy Spirit, and by the Spirit he was led on into the wilderness, 2 where he remained forty days, tempted by the Devil.  During those days, he ate nothing, and when they were over, he was hungry.  3 Then the Devil said to him, “If thou art the Son of God, bid this stone turn into a loaf of bread.”  4 Jesus answered him, “It is Written, ‘Man cannot live by bread only; there is life for him in all the words that come from God.’”  5 And the Devil led him up on to a high mountain, and shewed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time; 6 “I will give thee command,” the Devil said to him, “over all these, and the glory that belongs to them; they have been made over to me, and I may give them to whomsoever I please; 7 come then, all shall be thine, if thou wilt fall down before me and worship.”  8 Jesus answered him, “It is Written, ‘Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God; to him only shalt thou do service.’”  9 And he led him to Jerusalem, and there set him down on the pinnacle of the Temple; “If thou art the Son of God,” he said to him, “cast thyself down from this to the earth; 10 for it is Written, ‘He shall Give His angels charge concerning thee, to keep thee safe, 11 and they will hold thee up with their hands, lest thou shouldst chance to trip on a stone.’”  12 And Jesus answered him, “We are told, ‘Thou shalt not put the Lord thy God to the proof.’”  13 So the Devil, when he had finished tempting him every way, left him in peace until the time should come.

Jesus (a.s.) also ordered his disciples to fast:

Matthew 9:15
15 To them Jesus said, “Can you expect the men of the bridegroom’s company to go mourning, while the bridegroom is still with them?  No, the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them; then they will fast.”

This was an explicit reference to his Passion.  Since the Apostles fasted as they mourned the passing of Jesus (a.s.), Christians have traditionally fasted this period.  It is the traditional belief that Jesus (a.s.) lay for forty hours in the tomb.  This is the reason for the forty hours of total fast that preceded the Easter celebration in the early Church.  The biblical reference to the three days in the tomb is understood to span three days, from Friday afternoon, after ‘aswr, to early Sunday morning, shuruq, rather than three periods of 24 hours.

The traditional forty days of fasting in Lent are marked by fasting from both foods and from festivities, and include other acts of penance.  The three traditional practices to be undertaken with renewed vigour during Lent are prayer, which is justice towards God; fasting, which is justice towards the self; and almsgiving, which is justice towards one’s neighbours.  Very few modern Christians actual fast in this current age.  It has largely been abandoned for the cursory restraint from some perceived or actual vice or indulgence.  This is a far cry from the early Church.  Fasting during Lent was far more severe in those times as compared to today.  Socrates of Constantinople, an early Church historian reported that in some places, all animal products were strictly forbidden, while others permitted fish, still others permitted fish and fowl, there were those prohibited fruit and eggs, and the most severe adherents ate only bread.  In some places, the observant abstained from food for a whole day or until the mid-afternoon or evening.  Today Western Catholics are asked limit themselves to only one main meal per day.  They are permitted two light meals, known as collations, which are not the equivalent of another full meal, sufficient to sustain strength, but not sufficient to satisfy hunger.

In the early Middle Ages, meat, eggs and dairy products were forbidden during the fast.  Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, was in favour of this traditional practice which was observed both in the Church of the East and of the West.  He argued that “they afford greater pleasure as food, and greater nourishment to the human body, so that from their consumption, there results a greater surplus available for seminal matter, which when abundant becomes a great incentive to lust.”  Interestingly, Thomas Aquinas permitted the consumption of candy during Lent, because, in his opinion, sugared spices were digestive aids on par with medicine rather than food.  In Spain and Portugal, the papal bull of the Holy Crusade, which was renewed periodically after 1492, allowed the consumption of dairy products and eggs during Lent in exchange for a contribution to the cause of the crusade.

Whilst the practice is considerably relaxed in the Western churches, both Catholic and Protestant, in the Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy and Eastern Catholicism, abstinence from all animal products including fish, eggs, fowl and milk sourced from animal is still commonly practiced.  Essentially, only vegetarian meals are consumed for the duration of Lent, all 45 days according to the Byzantine Rite.  In contrast, the Western Catholic Church, no longer makes it an obligation to fast all the weekdays of Lent, the 40 days, except for Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.  In the tradition of this part of the Catholic Church, abstinence from eating some form of food, generally meat, but not fish or dairy products, is distinguished from fasting.  Fasting involves having one proper meal with up to two collations during the day.  In principle, abstinence is to be observed on Ash Wednesday and on every Friday of the year that is not a solemnity, a liturgical feast day of the highest rank.  Canon law does allow the local episcopal conferences latitude in determining the severity of the fast and abstention.

In Roman Catholicism, the Lenten penitential season ends after the Easter Vigil Mass.  Orthodox Christians break their fast after the Paschal Vigil, a service which starts about an hour before midnight on Holy Saturday.  This includes the Paschal celebration of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.  At the end of the service, the priest blesses eggs, cheese, flesh meats and other items that the faithful have been abstaining from for the duration of Great Lent.

There are several holy days within the season of Lent.  Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent for Roman Catholics and most mainline Reformed and Protestant traditions.  In the Ambrosian Rite and the Mozarabic Rite, there is no Ash Wednesday.  Lent begins on the first Sunday and the fast begins on the first Monday.  The fourth Sunday in Lent, the halfway point between Ash Wednesday and Easter, is Laetare Sunday in Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, and many other Christians because of the traditional Entrance Antiphon of the Mass.  ‘Laetare’ is Latin for ‘rejoice’.  The fourth Lenten Sunday, is Mothering Sunday, which has become known as Mother's Day in the United Kingdom and an occasion for honouring mothers’ of children.  It has its origin in a sixteenth-century celebration of the Mother Church.  The fifth Sunday in Lent, is as known as Passion Sunday.  This term is also applied to Palm Sunday.  Passion Sunday marks the beginning of Passiontide, the last fortnight of Lent.  The sixth Sunday in Lent, is Palm Sunday, and marks the beginning of Holy Week, which is the final week of Lent immediately preceding Easter.

The Wednesday of Holy Week, Holy Wednesday, is also sometimes known as Spy Wednesday, and commemorates the day on which Judas Iscariot spied on Jesus (a.s.) in the garden of Gethsemane, before the betrayal.  That Thursday is known as Maundy Thursday, or Holy Thursday.  It is the day Christians commemorate the Last Supper.  The English word ‘Maundy’ is derived through Middle English and Old French from ‘mandé’, which is taken from the Latin ‘mandatum’, the first word of the phrase, ‘Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos’, from the Gospel according to John. 

John 13:34
34 “I have a new commandment to give you, that you are to love one another; that your love for one another is to be like the love I have borne you.”

Jesus (a.s.) explained to the Apostles the significance of his action of washing their feet with this.  The phrase is used as the antiphon sung in the Roman Rite during the Mandatum of the washing of the feet.  The washing of the feet may be held during Mass or at another time as a separate event, during which a priest or higher, representing Jesus Christ (a.s.) ceremonially washes the feet of others, 12 persons chosen as a cross-section of the community.

The next day is Good Friday, where Christians remember the crucifixion and burial of Jesus (a.s.).  In the Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran tradition, the Easter Triduum is a three-day event that begins with the entrance hymn of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper.  After this Maundy Thursday evening celebration, the consecrated hosts are taken from the altar solemnly to a place of reposition where the faithful are invited to worship the ‘Body of Christ’.  On the next day the liturgical commemoration of the Passion of Jesus Christ is celebrated at 1500h or later.

This service consists of readings from the Scriptures.  Traditionally, it is the account of the Passion of Jesus (a.s.) from the Gospel according to John.  This is followed by prayers, veneration of the cross, and communion where the hosts consecrated at the evening Mass of the day before are distributed.  The Easter Vigil during the night between Holy Saturday afternoon and Easter Sunday morning starts with the blessing of a fire and a special candle and with readings from Scripture associated with baptism, then the singing of Gloria in Excelsis Deo.  Water is blessed, baptism and confirmation may take place, and the people are invited to renew the promises of their own baptism, and finally Mass is celebrated in the usual way from the Preparation of the Gifts onwards.

Holy Week and the season of Lent, end with Easter Vigil at sundown on Holy Saturday or on the morning of Easter Sunday.  It is custom for some churches to hold sunrise services which include open air celebrations in some places.  In the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and many Anglican churches, the priest's vestments are violet during the season of Lent.  On the fourth Sunday in Lent, pink vestments may be worn in lieu of violet.  On holy days, the colour proper to the day is worn.


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