In the Christian tradition, the liturgical season of Lent plays a very important role in preparing an individual for the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world. A forty-day of fasting, repentance, self denial and prayers in preparation for Easter, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and is observed through to the Holy Thursday Mass, the night Jesus was arrested and condemned to death. The Holy Thursday Mass is regarded as the day Jesus instituted the Sacrament of the Eucharist.
Observed in commemoration of Jesus’ fasting in the desert for forty days where he was tempted by Satan before he began his mission, Lent is observed mainly by the western Christians such as the Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans and Methodists. However, other Christian denominations such as the Baptist and Mennonite are eventually beginning to observe it too.
The history of Lent probably dates back to the second century wherein Saint Irenaeus, Bishop of
Lugdunum in Gaul, Rome, is said to have testified on the variety of durations of pre-Easter fasts observed by the Christians then (Catholics). Later around 200 AD, Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus (Tertullian), one of the first Christian authors said Catholics fasted for two days prior to Easter. He however said the Montanists, one of the early sect/movement of Christians, fasted longer. Some historians say the number forty was made ‘Sacred’ by the fasts of Moses, Elijah and Jesus and later influenced the Christian’s forty days fast.
However, the Canons of Nicaea (AD 325) were the first to mention 40 days of fasting.
Lent through the Years
In the early days, fasts during Lent tended to be very strict allowing one meal a day. Meats or non-vegetarian meals, eggs and other indulgences were forbidden. However, with the advent of time, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday were enjoined as strict fast days, especially in the Western Church with Fridays set aside for abstinence from meat; the Eastern Churches still follows the strict fast of one meal a day.
Interestingly, through the Lent from Ash Wednesday to Holy Thursday, Sundays are not counted or considered a part of the Lenten fast; Sundays are always observed as a feast of the Resurrection by most of the Churches. However, in the Western Church Sundays are considered a part of the Lenten season with a simpler and sober Church service. Most of the Church decorations and set ups are in purple colour to commemorate the sacrifice Jesus made for mankind.
Lent, being a liturgical season of fast, abstinence, self denial and prayer, all forms of self indulgences is prohibited by the Church. Most often, Churches don’t host any personal festivities like marriages on this occasion. And while no strict fast is imposed on Fridays, some Churches do set aside Fridays for strict fast.
Way of the Cross
The Ways of the Cross, depicting the 14 important moments in the life of Jesus starting from his condemnation to death till his burial in the tomb, form an important part of the Lenten season. The 14 stations comprise Christ’s meeting his mother Mary, his three falls, Simon of Cyrene helping to carry his cross, Veronica wiping his bloody face, nailing him to the cross and his death to name a few.
The Catholic Church is one church that observes the way of the Cross every Friday throughout the Lent season in remembrance of the suffering Jesus had. Though the Anglicans and Lutherans too observe it, it is in a lesser form.
Significance of Lent
Lent is a very ‘spiritually’ important period for Christians around the world as it reminds them of Jesus’ forty days of fasting and suffering in the desert where he was tempted by Satan on three occasions. It also reminds Christians of the suffering and pain Jesus had to bear in order to give them everlasting life. Through the various penances and observations during the Lenten season, Christians become spiritually and even physically ready for Good Friday and the eventual celebration of Easter Sunday, the resurrection of Jesus.
It is a season of reminding oneself that we are dust and to dust we shall return, as Christians are reminded every Ash Wednesday.