What is Lent?

Beginning on Wednesday, February 14th Christians will begin 40 days of Lent but What is Lent? Lent is one of the oldest observations celebrated by Christians but it has changed over the years but its purpose has remained the same; self-examination, fasting, and prayer all in preparation for Easter. The word Lent itself is derived from the Anglo-Saxon words lencten, meaning “Spring,” and lenctentid, which literally means not only “Springtide” but also was the word for “March,” the month in which the majority of Lent falls. Lent was not always 40-day, in the beginning, it only lasted two or three days. Lent was more regulated with the legalization of Christianity in A.D. 313. Most Christians regard Jesus’ time in the wilderness as the key event for the duration of Lent. Christians replicate Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and withdrawal into the desert for 40 days. In 325, the Council of Nicea discussed a 40-day Lenten season of fasting, but it’s unclear whether its original intent was just for new Christians preparing for Baptism, but it soon encompassed the whole Church. Until the 600s, Lent began on Quadragesima (Fortieth) Sunday, but Gregory the Great (c.540-604) moved it to a Wednesday, now called Ash Wednesday, to secure the exact number of 40 days in Lent—not counting Sundays, which were feast days. Western churches start Lent on the 7th Wednesday before Easter Day (called Ash Wednesday). Eastern churches start Lent on the Monday of the 7th week before Easter and end it on the Friday 9 days before Easter. Eastern churches call this period the ‘Great Lent’.  The last week of Lent is known as Holy Week.

Why Purple: 

Purple is used for two reasons: firstly because it is associated with mourning and so anticipates the pain and suffering of the crucifixion, and secondly, because purple is the color associated with royalty, and celebrates Christ’s resurrection and sovereignty.

Ash Wednesday: 

This primarily Catholic holiday is the first day of Lent and always falls forty-six days before Easter. Ash Wednesday has a non-Christian origin and was accepted into the beliefs of the Catholic Church at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Even after the Council of Nicaea the beginning start date of Lent was still questioned. Pope Gregory instituted the tradition of marking parishioners foreheads with ashes in the shape of a cross.

The mark of ashes: 

Pope Gregory used the marking of the ashes with the cross is a reminder of the mark of the cross made at baptism. The phrase often used when the ashes are administered reminds Christians of the doctrine of original sin. The minister or priest marks each worshipper on the forehead and says remember you are dust and unto dust, you shall return, or a similar phrase based on God’s sentence on Adam in Genesis 3:19.


Shrove Tuesday is the day before Lent starts: the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. It’s a day of penitence, to clean the soul, and a day of celebration as the last chance to feast before Lent begins. Shrove Tuesday is a day of celebration as well as penitence because it’s the last day before Lent. Along with receiving ashes and attending service, confessing was noted as well. This tradition is very old. Over 1000 years ago a monk wrote in the Anglo-Saxon Ecclesiastical Institutes:

In the week immediately before Lent everyone shall go to his confessor and confess his deeds and the confessor shall so shrive him.

Anglo-Saxon Ecclesiastical Institute

During Lent then and now there have always been certain foods Christians would not eat: meat, eggs, fish and milky foods. Though later it was changed to no meat on Fridays. So that no food was wasted, families would have a feast on the shriving Tuesday and eat up all the foods that wouldn’t last the forty days of Lent without going off. The need to eat up the fats gave rise to the French name Mardi Gras(‘fat Tuesday’). Pancakes became associated with Shrove Tuesday as they were a dish that could use up all the eggs, fats and milk in the house with just the addition of flour. The present fasting and abstinence laws are very simple: On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, the faithful fast (having only one full meal a day and smaller snacks to keep up one’s strength) and abstain from meat; on the other Fridays of Lent, the faithful abstain from meat.

Sacrifice and Giving: 

Along with fasting Christians are encouraged to “give up” something for Lent. Each week leading up to Lent, my family would discuss what each of us was “giving up” — sacrifice. Today I do the same with my family. Moreover, an emphasis must be placed on performing spiritual works, like attending the Stations of the Cross, attending Mass, making a weekly holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament, taking time for personal prayer and spiritual reading and most especially making a good confession and receiving sacramental absolution.

Lent In Today’s World:

Just like the beginning of Lent, today we use the 40-days leading up to Easter as a time to prepare ourselves for the liturgy of the word on Jesus’ death and resurrection. No matter the history timeline one thing has always remained the same…prayer, fasting, penance and preparing ourselves for salvation.