The excesses of the carnival are over, the clean-up completed. And so begins the year’s traditional period of abstinence. Leading up to Christianity’s most holy day, Easter, is the 40-day period called Lent, when pledges are made to give up everything from alcohol and smoking to nail-biting and overeating.
But given the importance of Jesus’s death from the very dawn of Christianity, it’s rather surprising that the practice of recognising this significant period has changed considerably over the past two thousand years – and in some very strange ways.
Lent in the New Testament
Today, Lent is connected with the 40-day fast that Jesus undergoes (Mark 1:13; Matthew 4:1–11; Luke 4:1–13). Mark tells us that Jesus was tempted by Satan, but it is in Matthew and Luke that the details of the temptation are fleshed out. All three accounts say that Jesus went without food for the 40 days.
Christians, like adherents to many other religions, have long fasted. But it was only after Christians began to fast specifically prior to Easter, about 300 years after Jesus’s death, that anyone looked to the Bible to find a source for the practice. Before then, surprisingly, the two hadn’t been connected. So how did it happen?
The holiness of hunger
Fasting – not eating (and sometimes drinking) for an extended period of time – is a practice that goes back long before Jesus. Ancient Jews fasted on certain days throughout the year. Mark 2:18–23 and Matthew 6:16–18, for example, both take for granted that fasting is a normal part of Jewish religious practice. Other Jewish texts from the Greco-Roman period depict fasting as an effective substitute for sacrifice. About a hundred years before Jesus, the Psalms of Solomon 3:8–9 describe fasting as a way to atone for sins and as a habitual practice of the righteous.
In the earliest years of Christianity, Christians seem to have observed the same fast days that Jews observed. Some authors were violently opposed to this cultural and religious intermingling. John Chrysostom (c. 349-407), writing against Christians sharing anything in common with Jews, admonishes Christians who fast on the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur.
Not eating and not drinking could be seen as a means of atonement, as with Yom Kippur, but it could also clear the way for an expected meeting with God. Moses, for example, fasted prior to going up the mountain to meet with God and receive the Ten Commandments in Exodus 34:28. Fasting is also prominent in other texts, closer in date to Jesus’s time, such as 4 Ezra. In this first century text, Ezra prepares to receive revelations from God by abstaining from food and drink for seven days. After his period of fasting, an angel tells him divine secrets.
Jesus’s fast in the desert, then, would have been understood to prepare him to commune with God and to strengthen him against the devil’s temptations. It is little wonder, then, that later Christians began to associate fasting with being close to God. Perhaps the most well-known development of fasting practice that emerges after antiquity is the so-called “holy anorexics” – women, such as Angela of Foligno (1248–1309) and Catherine of Siena (1347–1380), who refused all food but the Eucharist.
The true origins of Lent
Christian texts as early as the second century talk about fasting leading up to Easter, but different Christian groups appear to observe different types and lengths of fasts, and even within a church there were differences of opinion. Irenaeus of Lyons noted the variety:
For the dispute is not only about the day, but also about the actual form of the fast. For some think that they should fast one day, others two, others again more; some for that matter, count their day as consisting of 40 hours day and night.
The earliest reference to a sustained fast of more than two or three days is in the Didascalia, a Syrian Christian document probably from the the third century AD.
Therefore you shall fast in the days of the Pascha from the tenth, which is the second day of the week; and you shall sustain yourselves with bread and salt and water only, at the ninth hour, until the fifth day of the week. But on the Friday and on the Sabbath fast wholly, and taste nothing … For thus did we also fast, when our Lord suffered, for a testimony of the three days …
This text connects a six-day fast with Easter and with Jesus’s suffering, but surprisingly still not with Jesus’s 40-day temptation depicted in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It was Peter I of Alexandria in the fourth century who connected Christian penitential (still not Lenten) fasting to Jesus’s 40-day fast in the wilderness:
It is sufficient, I say, that from the time of their submissive approach, other forty days should be enjoined upon them, to keep them in remembrance of these things; those forty days during which, though our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ had fasted, He was yet, after He had been baptised, tempted of the devil. And when they shall have, during these days, exercised themselves much, and constantly fasted, then let them watch in prayer, meditating upon what was spoken by the Lord to him who tempted Him to fall down and worship him: ‘Get behind me, Satan; for it is written, You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.’
Indeed, the likely reason why fasting later became associated with the run-up to Easter is that people started holding baptisms at Easter. The three-week long preparation for becoming a Christian through baptism included fasting, and as baptism became more strongly associated with Easter in the fourth century AD, it is possible that fasting in the lead-up became more generalised to include people who were already Christians. Until Christians decided on a standard way to calculate the date of Easter, under the Emperor Constantine, a specific Lenten fast was far from universal.
The changing traditions associated with Lent can be seen also in Pope Francis’s recent announcement that women would be included in the foot washing service performed to commemorate Jesus’s washing of his disciples’ feet (John 13:1–20).
Either way, it is clear that many of the feast and fast days of Christianity predate the religion, but also have been transformed over time by its adherents. And it serves as a reminder that nothing remains the same – even religion.
Lent is a mystery to a lot of people. Many folks are generally aware that it’s a religious observance that happens every spring and somehow involves people getting ashes smeared on their forehead and/or giving up chocolate or booze or Facebook until Easter. But like most practices rooted in Christianity, the way people observe Lent, or whether they observe it at all, varies wildly depending on their heritage, specific religious tradition, and preferences.
Still, there are some rules and guidelines that mark the observance of Lent for Christians who observe the season. And, increasingly, even nonreligious people are picking up the ritual. Here’s an overview.
What is Lent?
Lent is the greatest and most solemn period of fasting on the Christian church’s calendar, leading up to the celebration of Christianity’s greatest feast day: Easter.
The easiest way to understand the church calendar is as a sort of live immersive theater, designed to reenact the life of Jesus every year from Christmas (birth) to Easter (resurrection). During that time, readings in traditional churches revisit stories from the gospels that focus on those events in Jesus’s life. (Following Easter is a 50-day “Easter Season” culminating in Pentecost, and then a season called either the Pentecost season or “Ordinary Time,” which lasts until Advent begins around the end of November.)
As Advent is the season of anticipation leading up to the great feast day of Christmas, Lent is the season that precedes the greatest feast day: Easter, which marks the day when Christians celebrate Jesus’s resurrection and triumph over death.
In English, Lent got its name from the Old English word len(c)ten, which means “spring season.”
How long is Lent, and why?
Lent technicallylasts for 46 days.
The period is a mirror of the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, fasting, praying, and being tempted by Satan before he started his public ministry. Jesus had gone to the desert to prepare his soul for an intense three-year period of healing people, preaching, and ministering, at the end of which he was crucified by the Roman Empire and religious leaders.
The concept behind Lent is that each year, Christians will mimic Jesus’s actions in the wilderness. Lent is sometimes called the “Great Fast.” It’s a period of time in which Christians are meant to give up some comfort or adopt some spiritual practice that leads to self-examination, repentance from sin, and, ultimately, renewal of the soul, all in anticipation of greater dedication to serving others and God in the coming year.
Advent, the period leading up to Christmas, is also sometimes observed as a fast. But in that case, the period is meant to foster a feeling of anticipation before celebrating the birth of Jesus.
Lent, by contrast, is more about recognizing and embracing one’s mortality, and acknowledging the sinfulness that marks earthly life. Since Christians believe that Jesus’s resurrection foreshadows the resurrection and renewal of the whole world at the end of days, Lent is a time to turn away from sin, mourn death and brokenness, and anticipate a day when the broken world will be healed.
If Jesus fasted for 40 days, why is Lent 46 days long?
Because each week, the fast is interrupted by a Sunday — six in all.
In traditional Christian teaching, each Sunday is itself a feast day, a mini-remembrance of Jesus’s resurrection that happens every week. So, Christians who observe Lent are told to break their Lenten fast on Sunday and celebrate the feast. The manner in which they break that fast varies, depending on the tradition.
(This mirrors the Jewish teaching that prohibits fasting on Sabbath, except in years when Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, falls on the Sabbath.)
How are the dates for Lent calculated?
It’s complicated, and it depends on the date of Easter.
In contrast to Christmas, which in Western Christianity (most Protestants and Roman Catholics) is always celebrated on December 25, Easter is a moveable holiday that drifts around the calendar. However, it always falls on a Sunday in the Northern Hemisphere’s spring.
As with many other holiday observances in Christianity, the history of Easter date-setting is rather long and complicated, stretching back millennia and interacting with various calendars used by people in the ancient world.
But since roughly the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, when church leaders set rules, precedents, and guidelines for many aspects of Christian worship, Easter has been more or less calculated by locating the first full moon following March 21 on the Gregorian calendar. And that’s how the date is calculated by Western churches today. Orthodox Christians use a slightly different system — which means that when Orthodox Easter (sometimes called Pascha) lands on the same day as Western Easter, as it did in 2017, it’s coincidental.
In 2017, both holidays were celebrated on April 16. This year, Western Easter is on April 1, and Orthodox Easter is on April 8.
As with Christmas, the Christian holiday of Easter has been adopted in the mainstream as a secularized holiday and packaged as a commercial product — traditionally with chocolate eggs and stuffed rabbits. That secularized version of the holiday is celebrated on the Western Christianity date for Easter.
(The annual White House Easter Egg Roll is held on that date, a tradition dating back to 1878, when Rutherford B. Hayes issued an order allowing children to roll Easter eggs on the lawn that day. Intriguingly, current White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer donned the Easter Bunny costume for the event during George W. Bush’s years in the White House.)
Once the date for Easter is fixed, all you have to do to calculate the other days of observance that fall during the Lenten period — including Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday — is count backward. Good Friday is the Friday before Easter, and Maundy Thursday is the day before that. Both those days are traditionally marked with special church services.
The Sunday one week before Easter Sunday is called Palm Sunday, in remembrance of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem a week before his crucifixion, as the crowd waved palm branches. Branches used in the church celebration are saved to be used to make ashes for the next year’s Ash Wednesday observance.
Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, falls 46 days before Easter. The day preceding it is sometimes celebrated as Shrove Tuesday, Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, depending on who you’re talking to.
What is Ash Wednesday?
Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent on the Western Christian calendar, falling 46 days before Easter. Last year, Ash Wednesday fell on March 1. In 2018, it fell on February 14.
In observance of the day, the palm branches that were blessed on the Palm Sunday of the previous year are burned to create ashes and used to mark foreheads at church services. Traditionally, the minister applying the ashes says "Repent, and believe in the Gospel" or "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
The latter phrase originates in Genesis 3:19, when God casts Adam and Eve out of paradise after theydisobey him and tells them they must labor for their food from now until their deaths. It is echoed throughout the Bible, and refers to the idea that man was created from the dust of the ground, and the body turns back into dust by disintegration after death.
You can think of Ash Wednesday as the Christian spin on memento mori, a yearly reminder that our lives will one day end in death. It’s the start of a season meant to remind observers, in a visceral way — through denying themselves the comfort of food or some other thing — that humans are limited, and must depend on God for their very life. It is a day for humility.
In 1930, following his conversion to Christianity, T.S. Eliot published a famous poem called “Ash Wednesday,” which includes these lines that illustrate the attitude that the observance of Ash Wednesday is meant to evoke:
And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us
Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.
Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.
(The last two lines of the poem are from the “Hail Mary” prayer, forms of which are prayed by Catholics, Anglicans, and some Lutherans and other Protestant denominations.)
In some parts of the world, the day before Ash Wednesday is celebrated as Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday, and can involve anything from pancakes and self-examination to wild partying (sometimes to mark the end of Carnival). It’s a last hurrah before the season of penitence begins.
Why do people fast during Lent?
Most people know Lent as a time to fast from something — chocolate, alcohol, sex, and social media are all popular choices in the US.
Not everyone fasts during Lent — many evangelical churches haven’t traditionally observed the church calendar, though the practice has grown more popular in America in the past few years. LifeWay Research, which studies subjects of interest to churchgoers and pastors, found that in 2017, 61 percent of Catholics planned to fast during Lent, while 28 percent of evangelicals intended to fast. (In 2014, the same study found that only 16 percent of evangelicals planned to fast during Lent.)
Some people who observe Lent don’t fast at all, electing instead to add a spiritual practice during the 40 days, such as regular church attendance, prayer, giving to charity, or performing community service.
Western Christianity typically allows observers to pick whatever they want to fast from (as opposed to stricter fasts observed by other denominations and religions), based on a person’s understanding of what earthly comforts distract them from worship or are crutches that prevent them from fully understanding their own sinfulness. Protestants in particular tend to avoid specific church-mandated practices when it comes to fasts (we can probably thank Martin Luther for that), so practices vary widely.
Some Catholics keep a more rigid version of the fast. The most notable and well-known practice is abstaining from meat on Fridays, sometimes in addition to giving up something else for Lent. The observance of this varies widely by parish and from individual to individual — some Catholics fast from meat every Friday throughout the year, in a mini-observance of Jesus’s death every week.
But even less strict Catholics may fast from meat on Fridays during Lent, and all Catholics are encouraged to skip meat on Good Friday. (Fish is permitted, for reasons that are fascinating and somewhat arcane, which is why those who went to Catholic school often grew up eating fish at lunch on Friday. It basically has to do with the ancient world’s conception of fish, as well as some other practical reasons — though eating fish took a political turn at the time of Henry VIII.) Prayer and almsgiving (giving extra money to the poor) are also emphasized during Catholic Lent observance.
Orthodox Christianity is far more strict about the fast. In fact, strict Orthodox observers fast from meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, olive oil, and alcohol every Wednesday and Friday. During Lent, a fairly complicated fast is observed: Every weekday, Orthodox Christians abstain from all of those products.
Additionally, during the first week, worshippers may fast entirely from Monday morning through Wednesday evening, and then observe the strict fast the rest of the week and throughout the Lenten period. Wine and oil are added on weekends in the second through sixth weeks. And Orthodox worshippers may fast from Thursday night through Saturday night before Easter. (Observance can vary from individual to individual.)
Interestingly, Lenten practices are why we have Easter eggs — the faithful would abstain from eggs and dairy during Lent, but in the days before refrigeration, the dairy then would spoil. Eggs, however, keep fresh much longer and would still be good when it was time to break the fast.
Do you have to be Christian to fast during Lent?
No. But your purpose for fasting will probably differ, depending on your motivation to join the fast.
Christianity is hardly the only religion in which fasting is part of the yearly observance. Muslims observe a month of sunrise-to-sunset fasting during Ramadan, and Jewish observers may also mark high holidays with fasts, particularly Yom Kippur. Fasting is a big part of Hinduism, Buddhism, and many other religious traditions.
Why fasting? For most religious people, their faith and practice is about more than mental assent to a list of beliefs — it’s about the whole human experience, which includes the body. Fasting reconnects the body to the emotions, mind, and soul, often by interrupting our autopilot mode and recognizing the ways we self-medicate that might be destructive to our souls.
That’s probably why even some nonreligious people have picked up on Lent. Writing at Talking Points Memo in 2015, writer Monica Potts explained why she observes Lent, even though she’s no longer religious:
If everyone celebrates Lent the way they celebrate Christmas, it could just seem like another way Christianity is taking over. But I think nonbelievers reclaiming the best parts of religious traditions does the opposite, and reestablishes American morals outside of organized religion.
I still give up sweets for Lent every year, and sometimes alcohol or meat. I don’t always make it all the way through, but I don’t go around breaking Lent willy-nilly. I take it seriously. Partly, it’s a way to try to jumpstart post-winter weight loss. But there’s something more to it for me, a sense of connection with my own past and with others in my present. I look forward to it as much as I do the sun melting the snow. And when Easter Sunday comes April 5, the chocolate bunny I buy will taste better than it ought to.
This sentiment is echoed by everyone from atheists to lifestyle bloggers, who find the observance of Lent — without the religious aspects — helpful for developing self-control and hitting the reset button, in a manner similar to the observance of New Year’s resolutions. (That it falls so close to the New Year is part of the appeal: It’s a convenient time to pick up those broken resolutions again.)
That said: For Christians in particular, Lent isn’t meant to be a time for self-improvement (though that may be a byproduct). In fact, the idea of using Lent to improve yourself — even your spiritual life — is considered the opposite of Lent’s purpose.
Lent is specifically designed to dismantle the egotistical ideas we sometimes have about ourselves, to identify the places in our lives where we’ve grown arrogant or complacent, to remember that we are going to die someday, and to repent and renew our dependence on God. Lent is meant to be uncomfortable. And it’s meant to end in gratefulness.