Historically Speaking: What Is Lent?
“So what did you give up for Lent?”
Whether you’re Catholic, Christian, Muslim, or Jewish, there’s a good chance that you don’t really know what Lent is all about. Now that you’re in college, you’re surrounded by plenty of peers from different walks of life, possibly for the first time ever. You’re learning that Ramadan requires Muslims to fast from sunup to sundown, that during Shabbat, Jewish people can’t use electricity, and that Catholics aren’t supposed to eat meat on Fridays during Lent. Since it is currently Lent, below is a fast and simple explanation of Lent, from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday.
Ash Wednesday: This is the first day of Lent, and it comes the day after Mardi Gras. (The 40-day period of penance and abstention is obviously preceded by a day called “Fat Tuesday.”) This takes place 46 days before Easter, according to the liturgical calendar, which normally falls in late February or early March. Catholics are expected to fast for the majority of the day, consuming only one meal. Most Catholics also go to an evening mass, where they receive a blessing from the priest, who marks them with a cross, drawn in ash on their forehead.
Lent: Lent, especially in the Catholic denomination, signifies the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert, which can be found in the New Testament (Gospel). There are 46 total days during this period of time, but 6 are Sundays, and are traditionally excluded from the fast.
Traditionally, devotees might try to reaffirm their relationship with their faith by giving more to the church, praying more, or reading scriptures more regularly. These selfless, faith-driven acts were referred to as prayer, penance, almsgiving, and repentance. Many churches perform what’s called The Stations of the Cross on Fridays, where the faithful congregate around story carvings and read the story of Jesus’s struggle and crucifixion.
The main thing we learn about Lent nowadays is that Christians and Catholics give something up. While it used to be meat, it’s changed a lot in the last 10-20 years. Now, it is often looked at as a way to lose weight, and people commonly give up soda, chocolate, bread, cheese, or meat. Occasionally, some commit to one act of charity a day, or some other selfless or abstemious goal. Almost all give up meat on Fridays.
Palm Sunday: Palm Sunday occurs on the Sunday right before Easter and kicks off Holy Week. This is a feast day, which commemorates Jesus’s successful arrival in the city of Jerusalem. Sermons are often given outside. Many churches distribute palm leaves to represent the branches or palm leaves that were placed at Jesus’s feet upon his arrival. We’re talking the Roman equivalent of a red carpet here. Nowadays, most kids and churchgoers tie these Palm leaves into crosses.
Holy Thursday: This is a holy day, also referred to as Maundy Thursday, which is the last Thursday of Lent, and also the day of The Last Supper. (Jesus’s last supper before his crucifixion.) It is the fifth day of Holy Week, and different sects celebrate in various ways. A few common themes include the washing of the feet, the procession of the Blessed Sacrament, the ringing of bells, and the blessing of the holy oils.
Good Friday: This is the day of Jesus’s crucifixion. For Catholics, this is another day of fasting, with only one meal allowed. The Passion service or the Stations of the Cross often happen on this day. It’s kind of a big deal, like Ash Wednesday, but not nearly as important as Easter.
Holy Saturday: Holy Saturday simply commemorates the day that Jesus’s body laid in the tomb. This is important because it is meant to show that Jesus was actually dead, which gives further faith of his resurrection.
Easter: Though you might not know this, Easter is actually the most important day in the Christian calendar. While Christmas gets a lot of credit, it’s really Easter that Christians and Catholics consider the most important holiday. This day commemorates when Jesus rose from the dead, proving to his believers that he was their savior.
Nowadays, most Christians still celebrate Easter by going to a long church service in their Sunday Best, and this also ushers in the new life of Spring. You’ll see a lot of pastel colors, fancy hats, and cute little kids in fancy clothes. Most Americans, Christian or otherwise, celebrate by decorating eggs, eating chocolate, and welcoming the Easter Bunny.
Photo credit: harry07