What is Lent?
Many Christians throughout the world observe Lent. Catholic, Orthodox, and many Protestants benefit from this annual season of
sacrifice and simplicity….
In basic terms, Lent is the season before Easter…In many Protestant churches, the liturgical season of Lent continues through Holy Saturday, although in current Catholic discipline, Lent ends liturgically before Holy Thursday. While Sundays are typically excluded from fasting and abstinence restrictions, and are not numbered in the traditional “40 Days” of Lent, they are still part of the Lenten season, as can be seen from their Lenten themes. …The way Lent is observed in the Catholic Church can seem a bit tricky, because the actual modern liturgical season (lasting 44 days, including Sundays) is numbered slightly differently than the traditional 40 day Lenten fast, which excludes Sundays.
The purpose of Lent is to be a season of fasting, self-denial, spiritual growth, conversion, and simplicity. Lent, which comes from the Teutonic (Germanic) word for springtime, can be viewed as a spiritual spring cleaning: a time for taking spiritual inventory and then cleaning out those things which hinder our relationship with Jesus Christ and our service to him. Thus it is fitting that the season of Lent begin with a symbol of repentance: placing ashes mixed with oil on one’s head or forehead. However, we must remember that our Lenten disciplines are supposed to ultimately transform our entire person: body, soul, and spirit, and help us become more like Christ. Eastern Christians call this process theosis, which St. Athanasius describes as “becoming by grace what God is by nature.”
There are a few basic tasks that traditionally have been associated with Lent. Many of these have a long history. These are fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. In addition, reading the Scriptures and the Church’s Writings can help one grow during the season…
Fasting: The Western Rite of the Catholic Church expects its members age 18 to 59 to fast on Ash Wednesday [3.1.2017] and Good Friday [4.14.2017], unless a physical condition prevents it. This means only one full meal is permitted in a fast day. The Fridays of Lent are days of required abstinence, meaning meat, and soups or gravies made of meat, are not permitted. Abstinence is required of those age 14 and older…Most Protestant churches that celebrate Lent do not have these official requirements. However, when we “give something up” for Lent, we are embracing a form of fasting, an excellent spiritual discipline. Eastern Christians have a more rigorous fast, abstaining from meat, wine, oil, dairy products, and even fish…Some people choose to give up sins (gossip, drunkenness, etc) for Lent. In this way, Lent represents a spiritual training time to overcome evil. Pope St. Leo, for example, emphasized that fasting from wrath is required along with food. Some give up things they have a strong desire for, e.g. sweets, caffeine, etc….By giving these up, the person fasting learns to control a particular part of his or her life, which leads to greater self-discipline even when Lent is over. As such in Lent we are able to learn, examine, and get under control our material excesses. Whatever you decide to fast from, remember, as Steven Clark likes to say: “Lent is more than a diet.” Lent is about spiritual results, not material ones. So, while losing a few pounds may be a nice side benefit, all fasting should be done for God’s glory and spiritual growth.
Prayer: Lent is a perfect time to develop or strengthen a discipline of regular prayer. The Liturgy of the Hours, an ancient practice of praying throughout the day, is a good place to start….Contemplative prayer, based around the idea of silence or listening for God, is also well suited to Lent. There are also many excellent form prayers that reflect the penitential mood of Lent….We can also find many excellent prayers for Lent from the Scriptures. The Seven Penitential Psalms are excellent for prayer, as is the apocryphal Prayer of Manasseh….
Almsgiving (Charity): While Lent is about giving something up (i.e. fasting), it is also about putting something positive in its place. The best way to remove vice is to cultivate virtue. Lent has been a traditional time of helping the poor and doing acts of charity and mercy. While as Christians this is a year round calling, Lent is a good time to examine ways to get involved and to make resolutions to actually do them. Giving alms can be done in more ways than just giving out money to people on the street. It can be done by helping your family, friends, and neighbors out of tight situations or being more generous to hired help. However, one of the best ways to give alms is by volunteering for a charity….
Scripture Reading: When facing temptation in the desert, Jesus relied on Scripture to counter the wiles of the devil. It is a formidable weapon for us as well…