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What is Lent?

Lent is a significant season in the year for Christians - a time of solemnity and self-reflection.

Read time: 3 minutes, 33 seconds

Lent is a significant season in the year for Christians – a time of solemnity and self-reflection where they confess their failings and resolve to live a more godly life based on the teachings of Jesus Christ. It lasts for just over six weeks leading up to Easter.

Traditionally it was a time of fasting from certain foods such as eggs, meat, fish and fats. Nowadays people might give up a luxury food – such as chocolate. They may also give up an activity such as using social media or drinking alcohol. It is called Lent in English because it is the time of the year when days are lengthening in the northern hemisphere. Like Easter, Lent falls on different dates each year. Christians in different church traditions around the world celebrate slightly different periods of Lent. Some church buildings are made to look more plain during Lent with flowers and other decorations removed.

Lent is a significant season in the year for Christians – a time of solemnity and self-reflection

In most churches, the first day of Lent is Ash Wednesday. Many Christians go to church that day to seek forgiveness from God for what they have done wrong. In some churches, the priest will take some ash and use it to mark a cross sign on the forehead of each person. It is a symbol of their remorse. The ash is traditionally made from burning palm crosses which were distributed on Palm Sunday the year before (see below). During Lent, many Christians use special studies to guide their times of personal prayer and reflection.

Christianity What is Lent?

The idea of fasting around the time of Easter goes back to the days of the early Church 2,000 years ago. For some years after the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Christians fasted from all food and drink between Good Friday and Easter Sunday – marking the time period between his death and the discovery that his tomb was empty. Lent, as we now know it, has its origins about 900 years after Jesus. There was international agreement that there should be a season of prayer and seeking forgiveness lasting 40 days – plus Sundays – leading up to Easter Sunday. The significance of the time period was that immediately before he began his years of travelling and teaching, Jesus spent 40 days in the desert reflecting on the future of his life.

Traditionally the day before Lent begins is a time for feasting and celebration. All the luxury foods that won’t be eaten during Lent are consumed. Given that those foods include eggs, milk and fat – ingredients for pancake batter – it is clear why it became traditional to make pancakes! In the UK, the day is known as Shrove Tuesday – the word ‘shrove’ is derived from ‘shrive’ meaning to forgive. In many parts of the world, the day is known as Mardi Gras (‘fat Tuesday’ in French) and is marked with a carnival.

The fourth Sunday during Lent is Mothering Sunday. In England in the 16th century it was an occasion to appreciate the motherly nature of the Church. More recently it has become a time to honour all mothers.

In the UK, the day is known as Shrove Tuesday – the word ‘shrove’ is derived from ‘shrive’ meaning to forgive.

The last week of Lent is Holy Week, which commemorates the final days before Jesus’ execution on a cross. It begins with Palm Sunday which marks the day Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. It was a day of triumph when crowds of followers and supporters waved palm branches and laid them on the ground in front of him. In many churches, Christians are given small palm crosses to remember the day. These are the crosses that are burnt the following year to provide ashes for Ash Wednesday.

Later in Holy Week, as Lent draws to an end, some Christians mark significant days in the Christian year: Holy Wednesday, when one of Jesus’s followers, Judas, agreed to betray him; Maundy Thursday, when Jesus ate his last meal with his followers and was then arrested; and Good Friday, when Jesus was put on trial and executed. Lent ends with Easter Sunday – the day Christians celebrate Jesus rising from the dead.