Lent (in Latin Quadragesima) is a solemn religious observance in the liturgical calendar that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends approximately six weeks later, before Easter Sunday. The purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer through prayer, doing penance, repentance of sins, almsgiving, atonement, and self-denial. This event is observed in the Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Methodist, and Roman Catholic Churches. Some Anabaptist and evangelical churches also observe the Lenten season. Its institutional purpose is heightened in the annual commemoration of Holy Week, marking the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which recalls the tradition and events of the New Testament beginning on Palm Sunday, further climaxing on Jesus’ crucifixion on Good Friday, which ultimately culminates in the joyful celebration on Easter Sunday of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In Lent, many Christians commit to fasting or giving up certain types of luxuries as a form of penance. Many Christians also add a Lenten spiritual discipline, such as reading a daily devotional or praying through a Lenten calendar, to draw themselves near to GOD. Throughout Christendom, some adherents mark the season with the traditional abstention from the consumption of meat, most notably among Roman Catholics.
Lent is traditionally described as lasting for forty days, in commemoration of the forty days Jesus spent fasting in the desert, according to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.
The English word Lent is a shortened form of the Old English word len(c)ten, meaning “spring season”, as its Dutch language cognate lente (Old Dutch lentin) still does today. A dated term in German, lenz (Old High German lenzo), is also related. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘the shorter form (Old Germanic type *laŋgito– , *laŋgiton-) seems to be a derivative of *laŋgo– long … and may possibly have reference to the lengthening of the days as characterizing the season of spring’. The origin of the –en element is less clear: it may simply be a suffix, or lencten may originally have been a compound of *laŋgo– ‘long’ and an otherwise little attested word *-tino, meaning ‘day’.
In languages spoken where Christianity was earlier established, such as Greek and Latin, the term signifies the period dating from the 40th day before Easter. In modern, Greek the term is Σαρακοστή, derived from the earlier Τεσσαρακοστή, meaning “fortieth”. The corresponding word in Latin, quadragesima (“fortieth”), is the origin of the term used in Latin-derived languages and in some others: for example, Croatian korizma, French carême, Irish carghas, Italian quaresima, Portuguese quaresma, Albanian kreshma, Romanian păresimi, Spanish cuaresma, Basque garizuma and Welsh c(a)rawys.
In other languages, the name used refers to the activity associated with the season. Thus it is called “fasting period” in Czech (postní doba), German (Fastenzeit), and Norwegian (fasten/fastetid), and it is called “great fast” in Polish (wielki post) and Russian (великий пост – veliki post).
Various Christian denominations calculate the 40 days of Lent differently.
In the Roman Rite, the definition of Lent varies according to different documents. While the official document on the Lenten season, Paschales Solemnitatis, says that “the first Sunday of Lent marks the beginning of the annual Lenten observance”, the Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the Calendar says, “The forty days of Lent run from Ash Wednesday up to but excluding the Mass of the Lord’s Supper exclusive.” The first source represents a period of 40 days and the second a period of 44 days, because both sources agree that the end of Lent comes the evening of Holy Thursday, before the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. Though some sources try to reconcile this with the phrase “forty days” by excluding Sundays and extending Lent through Holy Saturday no official documents support this interpretation.
In the Ambrosian Rite, Lent begins on the Sunday that follows what is celebrated as Ash Wednesday in the rest of the Latin Catholic Church, and ends as in the Roman Rite, thus being of 40 days, counting the Sundays but not Holy Thursday. The day for beginning the Lenten fast is the following Monday, the first weekday in Lent. The special Ash Wednesday fast is transferred to the first Friday of the Ambrosian Lent. Until this rite was revised by Saint Charles Borromeo the liturgy of the First Sunday of Lent was festive, celebrated in white vestments with chanting of the Gloria in Excelsis and Alleluia, in line with the recommendation in Matthew 6:16, “When you fast, do not look gloomy”.
The number 40 has many Biblical references:
- Moses spent 40 days on Mount Sinai with GOD (Exodus 24:18)
- Elijah spent 40 days and nights walking to Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:8)
- GOD sent 40 days and nights of rain in the great flood of Noah (Genesis 7:4)
- the Hebrew people wandered 40 years in the desert while traveling to the Promised Land (Numbers 14:33)
- Jonah’s prophecy of judgment gave 40 days to the city of Nineveh in which to repent or be destroyed (Jonah 3:4).
- Jesus retreated into the wilderness, where He fasted for 40 days, and was tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1–2, Mark 1:12–13, Luke 4:1–2). He overcame all three of Satan’s temptations by citing scripture to the devil, at which point the devil left him, angels ministered to Jesus, and He began His ministry. Jesus further said that His disciples should fast “when the bridegroom shall be taken from them” (Matthew 9:15), a reference to his Passion.
- Since, presumably, the Apostles fasted as they mourned the death of Jesus, Christians have traditionally fasted during the annual commemoration of his burial.
- It is the traditional belief that Jesus laid for 40 hours in the tomb, which led to the 40 hours of total fasting that preceded the Easter celebration in the early Church (the biblical reference to ‘three days in the tomb’ is understood by them as spanning three days, from Friday afternoon to early Sunday morning, rather than three 24-hour periods of time). Some Christian denominations, such as The Way International and Logos Apostolic Church of GOD, as well as Anglican scholar E. W. Bullinger in The Companion Bible, believe Christ was in the grave for a total of 72 hours, reflecting the type of Jonah in the belly of the whale.
There are traditionally 40 days in Lent; these are marked by fasting, both from foods and festivities, and by other acts of penance. The three traditional practices to be taken up with renewed vigour during Lent are prayer (justice towards GOD), fasting (justice towards self), and almsgiving (justice towards neighbours).
However, in modern times, observers give up partaking in vices and often invest the time or money saved in charitable purposes or organizations.
Omission of Gloria and Alleluia
The Gloria in excelsis DEO, which is usually said or sung on Sundays at Mass of the Roman Rite and Anglican rite, is omitted on the Sundays of Lent, but continues in use on solemnities and feasts and on special celebrations of a more solemn kind. Some mass compositions were written especially for Lent, such as Michael Haydn’s Missa tempore Quadragesimae, without Gloria, in D minor, and for modest forces, only choir and organ. The Gloria is used on Holy Thursday, to the accompaniment of bells, which then fall silent until the Gloria in excelsis of the Easter Vigil.
The Roman Rite associates the Alleluia with joy and omits it entirely throughout Lent, not only at Mass but also in the Liturgy of the Hours as well as outside the liturgy. Before 1970, the omission began with Septuagesima. The word “Alleluia” at the beginning and end of the Acclamation Before the Gospel at Mass is replaced by another phrase. Before 1970, the whole Acclamation was omitted and was replaced by a Tract. Again, before 1970, the word “Alleluia” normally added to the Gloria PATRI at the beginning of each Hour of the Liturgy of the Hours was replaced by the phrase Laus Tibi, DOMINE, Rex aeternae gloriae (Praise to You, O LORD, King of eternal glory). Now it is simply omitted.
Veiling of religious images
In certain pious Catholic countries, before the Second Vatican Council, religious objects were veiled for the entire 40 days of Lent. Though perhaps uncommon in the United States of America, this pious practice is consistently observed in Goa, India, Malta, Peru, the Philippines (the latter only for the entire duration of Holy Week, with the exception of processional images), and in the Spanish cities: Barcelona, Málaga, and Seville. In Ireland, before Vatican II, when impoverished rural Catholic convents and parishes could not afford purple fabrics, they resorted to either removing the statues altogether or, if too heavy or bothersome, turned the statues to face the wall. As is popular custom, the 14 Stations of the Cross plaques on the walls are not veiled.
Crucifixes made before the time of Saint Francis of Assisi did not have a corpus (body of Christ) and therefore were adorned with jewels and gemstones, which was referred to as Crux Gemmatae. To keep the faithful from adoring the crucifixes elaborated with ornamentation, veiling it in royal purple fabrics came into place. The violet colour later evolved as a color of penance and mourning.
Further liturgical changes in modernity reduced such observances to the last week of Passiontide. In parishes that could afford only small quantities of violet fabrics, only the heads of the statues were veiled. If no violet fabrics could be afforded at all, then the religious statues and images were turned around facing the wall. Flowers were always removed as a sign of solemn mourning.
In pre-1970 forms of the Roman Rite, the last two weeks of Lent are known as Passiontide, a period beginning on the Fifth Sunday in Lent, which in the 1962 edition of the Roman Missal is called the First Sunday in Passiontide and in earlier editions Passion Sunday. All statues (and in England paintings as well) in the church were traditionally veiled in violet. This was seen as in keeping with the Gospel of that Sunday (John 8, 46–59), in which Jesus “hid himself” from the people.
The carnival celebrations which in many cultures traditionally precede Lent are seen as a last opportunity for excess before Lent begins. Some of the most famous are the Carnival of Barranquilla, the Carnival of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, the Carnival of Venice, Cologne Carnival, the New Orleans Mardi Gras, the Rio de Janeiro carnival, and the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival.
The day immediately preceding Lent is called Mardi Gras (“Fat Tuesday”), Pancake Tuesday, or Shrove Tuesday.
Originally, in Lebanon and Syria, the last Thursday preceding Lent was called “Khamis el zakara”. For Catholics, it was meant to be a day of remembrance of the dead ones. However, zakara (which means “remembrance”, in Arabic) was gradually replaced by sakara (meaning “getting drunk” in Arabic), and so the occasion came to be known as Khamis el sakara, wherein celebrants indulge themselves with alcoholic beverages.
In the Anglican, Lutheran, Old Catholic, Roman Catholic, and many other churches, the Easter Triduum is a three-day event that begins Maundy Thursday evening, with the entrance hymn of the Mass of the Lord Jesus’s Supper. After this celebration, the consecrated Hosts are taken solemnly from the altar to a place of reposition, where the faithful are invited to meditate in the presence of the consecrated Hosts.This is the Church’s response to Jesus’ question to the disciples sleeping in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Could you not watch with me one hour?” On the next day, the liturgical commemoration of the Passion of Jesus Christ is celebrated at 3 pm, unless a later time is chosen due to work schedules.
This service consists of readings from the Scriptures, especially John the Evangelist’s account of the Passion of Jesus, followed by prayers, veneration of the cross of Jesus, and a communion service at which 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 Gloria in Excelsis DEO is sung, water is blessed, baptism and confirmation of adults may take place, 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, depending on denomination and local custom, 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.